By John Kendall Hawkins
I had intentions of watching Quentin Tarantino’s new film, Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, and then writing a review, keened up, like most of his aficionados, with the anticipation it might be his last film, and eager to see how QT handled the Sixties, with limited retrospection, given that he was only six years old at the time of the events depicted. But I was disappointed by his “take” on the era, and I don’t quite know why. Afterall, he hadn’t even been born when the events of Inglorious Basterds were set, and that turned out just fine — the edgy Hester Prynne engravings and the gorgeous, ravenous flame-licking fires. I never had so much fun watching Evil perish. We all did. But this was different.
I could say it was the ending, how I was tired of a certain trademark same-same (I’ll leave it at that), but that’s not it. It wasn’t the dialogue, or that Charlie Manson only made a strumming cameo, or that there were no signature pocket watch scenes. The acting was fine; I liked the story; and the frisson of the zeitgeist was well-achieved. But I started to get bummed out at the Dumpster scene, how Tarantino handled it — a throw-away scene gratuitously inserted like the black cat in Zero Dark Thirty. There was a whole counterculture Tarantino left behind in that Dumpster. And I started to worry about what he might do to the beloved Star Trek movie he’s rumored to be directing next.
The Dumpster scene reminded me of Abbie Hoffman and Steal This Book, his handbook that lists the myriad freebies available if you need (or want) to survive on the street — “free” food, housing, and transportation are featured, as well as handy tips for living the revolution-for-the-hell-of-it lifestyle. Nostalgia kicked in. The rambunctious war years, of course, but also the Chicago 8 that became the Chicago 7 after a gagged and bound Bobby Seale (he was Black, you see) was taken away for a separate (but equal) trial. Another fun, connect-the-dots fact that came up was the coincidence of Abbie having the same name as Albert Hofman, inventor of LSD, and Julius Hoffman, his trial judge. It came together quite cosmically, if you were tripping.
Everybody knows now that it was an era of Free-Lovin.’ And great music, too, with Jimi and Janis (RIP) for starters, and no need for Madonna’s ironical virginity or Cyley Mirus’ leather-tight twerks. We suspected we had the Deep State on the run, with our love, but our criminal naivete was then just a misdemeanor. We were sure we could break free of our psychic bonds and and and self-actualize. Communes filled with Marxist banter, primal screams (Imagine that), and an environment of Infinite Love that made you feel like you were, together, taking back the night from Das Kapital.
Then bad acid, man, began hitting the freedom streets I recall, and a hard, hard rain began to fall, and I mean fall. I seem to remember race riots, Jane Fonda in a tank top, someone crying out ‘You don’t need to be a Weatherman to blow yourself up.’ And Abbie’s DNC riots seemed to get Dick Nixon elected. And the war went on and on. And the Yippies had a falling out with The Man and with each other. The Beatles called it quits, Dylan was in hiding. Bummer days.
And conspiracy rumors were already orbiting that Stanley Kubrick had been hired by the US government to stage the whole moon-landing (which I watched live at a Catholic kumbaya summer camp, drinking ‘bug juice’ and eating cookies, in a kind of junior transubstantiation). And every Lefty agreed that Woodstock was a disaster (and still is) — if for no other reason than that Jimi’s rendition of the Star Spangled Banner, an otherwise horrible song, wasn’t made the song’s national exclusive version.
Next thing we knew we were in the Seventies, Kent State, Patty Hearst. Watergate, and we were beginning to ask ourselves if our precious, exceptional Democracy was in danger. After Nixon dicked out of town, a mood shift developed; Carter came in, people wanted peace — even the Middle-easters — and few people wanted to continue the struggles requisite of a healthy democracy. They wanted love, but not a free love; it now had the tinge of sadness and weary resignation and military build-up. Halliburton got busy with Marshall plans of the future. Never boring, always surprising. People began to get mowed down by gun violence Left and Right, and even when Senators got mowed down, they were afraid of getting eaten alive by the gun lobby and ran from the issue.
We are a long way from the heady days of muckraking journalism — sure-sounding pilots Alexander Cockburn (Beat the Devil), Sy Hersh (still at it) , Hunter S (Gonzo has left the building)., Jack Anderson (enemy of the state), etc, navigating the always-muddy, ever-changing river — and have settled into a stenographic, profit-driven MSM that fails to inform us properly, resulting in an often-laughable media today that Donald Trump sadly and sometimes-rightly refers to as “fake news.” The hypothesized media influence of the Russians in the 2016 presidential perhaps made ‘plausible’ by the Fourth Estate’s dereliction of duty in the World’s Premiere Democracy™.
It’s easy to be discouraged today, given the state of the Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches, moving rightward and surely fascist — or far worse. Another round of Trump from 20/20 should bring us the epiphanal vision we need. It’s easy to feel with Leonard Cohen, “It’s over, it ain’t going / Any further.” In the post-post-modern near future, with a new Cold War coming ironically as the Ice caps melt, it’s easy to feel our species has gone too far, catastrophic victims of a pandemic leached into our collective consciousness — just in time for the AI revolution.
Well, maybe what Lebowski told Lebowski was true: the Bums lost, the revolution for-the-hell-of-it is over. Time, as Bobby Dylan says, to Ring Them Bells for all of us who are Left. Head for the hall of the Big Sleep, exhausted, like Edward G. near the end of Soylent Green, time to exit to Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. Oddly and inconveniently thinking of something Timothy Leary once said in Steal This Dream of Abraham Maslow: “[He] was a very influential transitional person between medical psychiatry and humanist inner-potential, do-it-yourself psychiatry. The paradox was, as everybody knows, that Abe himself was a very depressed person. Abe told me once he never had a peak experience.” Ain’t that a kick in the head. Time to let it go once last time, guided by the better angels of my nature. You almost had to drop acid to be there. And not there.
John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia. He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times. His blog: https://tantricdispositionmatrix.net/.
Some fifty years ago Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and an army of Yippies held their “Festival of Life” outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Replete with folk songs, protest marches, and the nomination of the oinker Pigasus as an alternative candidate for the presidency, the radical – and democratic — festival was designed to be a provocative demonstration against the carnage of Vietnam and the politics that supported it. Millions of television viewers, still reeling from the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy just months earlier, watched with renewed revulsion as cops moved into action, gassing and beating gesticulating protesters and benumbed bystanders alike.
In a park not far from the mayhem, Hoffman and Rubin spirited a large rally, complete with fiery speeches and Dylan tunes. In an era rife with colourful characters, Hoffman was the Dennis Rodman of political activists. He revealed the myriad ways of ‘how to live out on the street’ in his book, Steal This Book, which his tie-dyed acolytes proceeded to do – stealing thousands of editions of the street-survivalist playbook and turning them into petty thieves at the same time (maybe the cleverest marketing stunt of all-time). His credo was summed up with “Revolution for the hell of it.” He had a genius for infuriating the elites from Left to Right of the political spectrum, and yet he remained a popular hero.
He seemed most effective going up against the Military-Industrial Complex. In 1967, he helped lead 50,000 protesters in an attempted telekinetic exorcism of the Pentagon. According to an account in Larry Sloman’s often-hilarious oral biography of Abbie Hoffman, Steal This Dream, the Yippee actually negotiated the height of the proposed levitation with military representatives. As Sal Gianetta, a pal of Abbie’s remembers: “That meeting was two and a half hours or so and probably 20 percent of that meeting was devoted to this fucking serious talk about levitating the Pentagon. This is our military, right? I swear to you, Ab came down from twenty-two feet to three feet, the military agreed to three feet and they sealed it with a handshake. That’s how Ab was, he could capture you in that fucking bizarreness. Oh, it was joyful!”
Earlier in the year, he, Rubin and others had climbed the Stock Exchange balcony and literally brought brokers literally to their hands and knees by raining dollar bills on them. “One should always be able to yell `theatre’ in a crowded fire,” he’d once said, and treated the era as a large-scale production of the Theatre of the Absurd.
Halfway around the world, another revolutionary production was taking place — the “Prague Spring”. The Czechoslovakians were by 1968 ready to return to the democratic republicanism they had briefly enjoyed post-World War I. Though they lacked a Hoffman, they owned a deep legacy of subversion; and, in 1968, had a formidable cast of reformers including Milos Forman, Jiri Menzel, Milan Kundera and Vaclav Havel. Together they fomented change and the Communist Party head Alexander Dubcek, seemed happy enough to oversee it. The proposed press freedom and limited political participation seemed innocuous, but the Soviets thought otherwise, and sent occupation troops into Prague that August. The Iron Curtain would remain down until the Velvet Revolution of 1989.
The events of August 1968 in Chicago and Prague have always presented some strange ironies and parallels. While Left-leaning protesters raged against the military-industrial complex and its oligarchic web of money-greed in the US, in Prague, Right-leaning protesters (in relative terms), such as Havel, fought for a more open humanistic society. America, capitalist to the core, had kept the Red threat at bay by laying down socialist safety nets such as the Social Security Act and the Welfare State, funded by a redirection of wealth from the pockets of the middle class. Meanwhile, the Soviets had slaked the thirst for democratic reforms by offering thimblefuls that tasted like freedom, but which were never “the real thing.” Not that it would matter.
Not long after the summer of violence, Hoffman, Rubin, and other protesters were arrested for conspiracy to commit rioting and tried as the Chicago 8 in a farcical courtroom drama that saw Black Panther Bobby Seale bound and gagged (later tried separately), with Abbie taunting presiding Judge Hoffman by dressing up in various costumes, and generally turning the proceedings into a Marx Brothers romp. After their eventual acquittal, Hoffman went underground to avoid imprisonment on criminal drug charges. When he re-emerged in 1980 to serve a brief negotiated jail sentence by way of a sympathetic Carter Administration, the US was entering a Reagan era presided over by the so-called “Me” generation.
Abbie showed he still had a working protest finger in 1986 when he and Amy Carter (and others) defended their arrests following disruptions of CIA recruitment efforts on a college campus in Massachusetts, successfully arguing in court with a ‘Necessity Defense’ that their minor criminality had the far greater public benefit of shedding light on the criminal activities CIA in Central America.
In 1985, he had a radio debate with his estranged friend Rubin, by then a stock broker. They mostly traded tired barbs and banalities, but also discussed the future of political activism in America. Rubin reasoned that change could only come by working from within the system, while Hoffman scoffed at Rubin’s “cop-out” and maintained justice and equality would always have to be wrested forcibly from power elites.
When Hoffman committed suicide in 1989, he missed out on the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the hopeful celebrations, but he was also spared the years that followed, which have brought “casino capitalism” to the world. And when Rubin, in a minor act of yuppie defiance, was killed jaywalking in 1994, he missed out on Bill Clinton’s trip to China. With Rubinesque logic, the Babyboomer president explained to the world that working “with China” to establish a stable middle class of consumers would be the most efficient way of bringing about humanistic changes. Around the world the mainstream media applauded the beginnings of ‘globalization’, while tired activists shook their heads.
In central Europe, the dilemma of how to best effect social change remains. Despite – and arguably because of their sophistication and intellectual antagonism – nations such as the Czech Republic remain in a muddle of political ambivalence seeming unsure of what to do. But the Czech Republic is not alone with the dilemma. As governments everywhere cut health, education and welfare costs and make their nations safe for foreign investors, popular dissatisfaction with the human quality of our lives continues to grow, along with the gap between haves and have-nots.
What’s missing is visionary leadership and the spirit of levity. “Democracy is not something you believe in, but something you do,” Hoffman once said. “If you stop doing it, democracy crumbles.” Enter populism and the growth of authoritarianism, the Surveillance State and the end of privacy, climate change exacerbated by population growth, Trump, fake news, fake Resistance, fake everything.
One wonders if Hoffman saw it all as worth it in the end, as he made his way underground for the last time.