Recalling Heroism; The Legacy of Tom Hayden

There are a lot of overused words in the mainstream media, and by virtue of that overuse, they lose their meaning.  “Hero” is one of those words.  In recent months, the word “hero” has been attached to a long list of people.  Chris Kyle (not a hero), Caitlin Jenner (not a hero), Michael Brown (not a hero), LeBron James (not a hero)…what’s the point?  We have attached the word hero to so many non-heroes, that is unlikely we can ever rescue this word and restore its profound meaning.


But I’m going to try.

A few weeks ago I was sent on a frantic internet search for the fate of Tom Hayden who I had read may have suffered a stroke.  While he might blush at the suggestion, Hayden defines heroism, and I was afraid that he might be silenced by health issues after all other attempts to silence him had failed. Unlike people who toss around the word “hero” without paying particular attention to the damage they are doing, I reserve its use for those who truly have put themselves at risk for the greater good.

Hayden is such a man.  The mainstream media and the tabloids (as if there is actually any difference between these two institutions any more) will remember Hayden as “Mrs. Jane Fonda” because he was married to her for about fifteen years in the 1970’s and 80’s.  Legitimate observers of American society will note Hayden’s contributions to almost every significant social improvement since the early 1960’s.  Hayden is one of those guys who end up on the right side of every argument because he is always arguing for we, the people.

Before I go much further, I need to note that Hayden apparently survived his stroke, so despite the tone of that last paragraph, I am not writing his obituary.  And that is a good thing for our country.

Hayden has been at the forefront of many important moments in our country’s history and his involvement in forming the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) gives us the best glimpse at his rationale for being there.  The SDS was vilified by those whose political and economic interests were inextricably linked to a Cold War vision of mankind.  There was good.  There was evil.  Everyone had to choose a side.

The paranoia and fear that drove our country into a decades-long struggle against democracy, both here and abroad, could not allow an intellectual reason to advocate for the people to flourish.  Hayden and the others involved in forming the SDS wrote the Port Huron Statement that provided just such an intellectual backing for protecting our freedoms.  But the authors of Port Huron also knew that sitting on college campuses and screaming about injustice was not nearly enough.

From the preamble of the first draft, we get these important principles:

We seek to be public, responsible, and influential – not house in garrets, lunatic, and ineffectual; to be visionary yet ever developing concrete programs – not empty or deluded in our goals and sterile in inaction; to be idealistic and hopeful – not deadened by failures or chained by a myopic view of human possibilities; to be both passionate and reflective – not timid and intellectually paralytic;  to vivify American politics with controversy – not to emasculate our principles before the icons of unity and bipartisanship; to stimulate and give honor to the full movement of human imagination – not to induce sectarian rigidity or encourage stereotyped rhetoric.

And for all the brilliance of this statement, backed by the actions of those who chose to put these ideals into motion, our government responded with harassment, arrest, beatings, jail, and more.   Hayden’s role in registering African-American voters over the objections of the white establishment earned him a beating and a jailing in Mississippi.  His important voice against the Vietnam War earned him a beating and a jailing in Chicago.  He was a hapless victim of the worst of American justice during the Chicago Seven debacle.   He ultimately is one of the few members of that era who has stuck to the principles of the Port Huron Statement long after his colleagues either sold out or faded away.

He is a passionate environmentalist and a siren for justice.  He suffered that stroke during a book tour promoting his work on Cuba.  For over fifty years he has dedicated himself to the ideals of society that serves all of us, not just those fortunate enough to be born on third base.  He is a true American hero and remains passionate in his work toward a free and just society…no matter what the personal cost.

I would like to be more like Hayden…I’d like all of us to be.  But it isn’t easy.  Heroism never is.  Like all the loose change that a person might find by just taking the time to look in the couch cushions, many of Hayden’s ideas occupy the creases and folds of my too-often furrowed brow.  Those ideas are the things I might have done if I had just had a little more courage.

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