In this year of remembrance we look back at Abbie Hoffman, who died 25 years ago and has been overlooked among all the other celebrations
These past several months have seen the Western remembrance of passionate things past, 25 years ago – the Tank Man and Tiananmen Square uprising, the goofy breach of the Berlin Wall, and the heady promise of the Velvet Revolution, among others.
These mostly symbolic historical gestures have in common the leit motif of human passion, the yearning for better days ahead, and the latent threat to authority that is people power. Alas, the excitement of their commemoration lasted about as long as the new digital news cycle. The party balloons have all gone flaccid for events that, after all, ended badly.
Indeed, in 1991, shortly after the Soviets threw in the towel, when US Ambassador to the UN Jeane Kirkpatrick declared to the Assembly, “We won!” she spoke truth of power, for the gold rush Eastward was on. Consequently, it was no surprise when, in 2003, Madeleine Albright out-quipped Kirkpatrick with “We think it’s worth it,” in reference to perhaps a million Iraqi children who died as a result of making Saddam Hussein’s economy scream through sanctions, including denying paediatric medicines.
But all of that was topped, as impossible as that may seem, by the smirklesome George W. Bush’s aircraft carrier headline – “Mission Accomplished” – which now seems less a comment about the outcome of the Iraq invasion, as much as it was an announcement that the PNAC push of empire was now on in earnest. Just Syria, Iran, China and Russia to go, and then it’s Game Over.
By the way, which one’s Pink? Sad stuff, for sure.
But there’s another 25th anniversary commemoration that I’ve been caught up on, which starts out sadly, with an apparent suicide, but builds with a flicker of hope that becomes in the dark a torch of inspiration and mirth. I’m talking about Abbie Hoffman, founder of the Youth International Party (the Yippies), who went underground for the last time on April 18, 1989. Memories of his prose and pranks always brings a smile to my face and sometimes tears of laughter to my eyes.
Abbie Hoffman represents everything that is missing from the fragmented progressive movements of today – a quality summed up in one word: levity.
In an era rife with colorful characters, Hoffman was the clown prince of political activists.
He had a genius for infuriating the elites from Left to Right of the spectrum, and yet he remained a popular hero. Many saw in him the wonderful gift of spontaneity, love of life, humanity and giddy wisdom, while just as many saw sexism, opportunism and unchecked egotism. But most everyone agreed that he had gumption.
He wrote the survivalist tract, Steal This Book, which thousands proceeded to do, and followed with Steal This Urine Test, a subversive manual on defeating the phony drug war started by the phony Nixon, which continues to this day.
The truism is that one should never judge a book by its cover, but Hoffman’s Revolution for the Hell of It really did sum up his antic, anarchist philosophy. He had smoked enough Truth spliffs to understand, like Heraclitus, that the river’s ever new, and he borrowed from Antonin Artaud’s techniques regarding spectacle.
“One should always be able to yell `theatre’ in a crowded fire,” he’d said, and treated the ‘Burn, Baby Burn’ era as a large scale production of the Theatre of the Absurd.
According to Steal This Dream, a marvellous oral biography written by Larry Sloman, in the early ’60s, Hoffman had attended Brandeis University, outside of Boston, and had the good fortune to study under the philosopher Herbert Marcuse, who even then was describing an imminent technological nightmare, and Hoffman also took courses with the great founder of humanistic psychology, Abraham Maslow.
A friend of Maslow, Timothy Leary, the popularizer of LSD and a psychology professor at Harvard at the time, said that “Abe was a deeply depressed person … who never had a peak experience.” Meanwhile, Hoffman started dating Maslow’s daughter, Ellen, and they had multiple peak experiences together, but in the end he didn’t fit into her hierarchy of needs.
In August 1967, Hoffman led a group of Yippies on an assault of Wall Street. From the gallery of the Stock Exchange, the group rained fake and real dollars down on the traders and watched as they scrambled like snorkel porkers in the treasure trough to feed their appetites for symbols. (The Exchange closed the gallery to the public after this and installed bullet-proof glass.) Of course, the Fed has been throwing down currency chum ever since.
In October that year, according to Sloman’s account, Hoffman led a march on the Pentagon and was confronted by the 82nd Airborne Division. Undaunted, Hoffman told military representatives that he intended to levitate the Pentagon, which was, according to Daniel Ellsberg, leaker of the Pentagon Papers, who was with Hoffman, “a great idea because removing deference from any of these institutions is very important, and … Abbie understood [that] instinctively.”
A hilarious negotiation with Pentagon officials ensued, in which Hoffman was talked down from raising the Pentagon 22 feet to 3 feet. “It was unbelievable,” said friend Sal Giametta (who currently owns a restaurant in Prague), “This is our military, right? I swear to you, Ab came down from twenty-two feet to three feet, the military agreed …and they sealed it with a handshake.”
Then in the summer of ’68, as the US was reeling from the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, Hoffman led protesters outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. He nominated a pig for president.
He and seven others were arrested for inciting the rioting that took place and on trial became known as the Chicago 8 – later amended to the Chicago 7 after Black Panther Bobby Seale refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the trial and was bound and gagged after continuously shouting down the proceedings. Hoffman was at his antic best, generally creating comical chaos in the courtroom — dressing in a judge’s robe, or as a soldier, or getting sworn in while flipping the bird. Eventually, he and the others got off the rap and were set free.
Not long after the summer of violence, Hoffman went underground to avoid trial on criminal drug charges, which he maintained was a set-up. He became ‘Barry Freed’ and, despite the risk of arrest, continued to be an activist, coordinating an effort to preserve the St. Lawrence River environment. When he re-emerged in 1980 to serve a brief negotiated (with the Carter administration) jail sentence, the US was entering an era to be presided over by Reagan and the “Me” generation.
Then, toward the end of his life, he was involved in two final major assaults on the Establishment. First, in November 1986, he, Amy Carter, and several other protesters were arrested on the campus of the UMass-Amherst for trying to prevent the CIA from recruiting. T
he school’s policy allows only law-abiding companies to recruit, and during the trial the protesters convinced a jury that the CIA support of the Contras in Nicaragua was illegal, and successfully argued that their misdemeanor was to prevent a much graver CIA criminal action.
Then just a few months before he died, a Hoffman co-authored “An Election Held Hostage,” which became the first significant public allegation that Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan’s campaign had just before the election contacted the Iranian terrorists holding US hostages and convinced them to hold on to them until after the election. It was a potentially treasonous act that became known as the October Surprise.
Abbie was taking drugs to treat depression in the end. Was it genetic or had it come as the result of long term exposure to the defilement of the new counter-counter-culture? Obviously, it’s rather pointless to nostalgitate on the virtues of an unredeemable era. But when I look at our times, so hooked on bitter irony, which has no real high and only modest constructive value, while threatening to twist one into ‘the ugliest man’, the social outcast encountered by Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, the gravity is profound.
If this world must stupidly and inevitably disintegrate at the controlling hands of the psychopaths, systems architects and electrical engineers – to hell with it! Better to go out with Yorick’s impish skullduggery and belly laugh than gaze into Hamlet’s existential abyss.