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.
Edition 1WED 26 AUG 1998, Page 013
Heady days of activism at least gave us all hope
By JOHN HAWKINS, KRYGSMAN
Today we recall the hot August nights of the Cold War era
THIRTY years ago today 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 a pig as an alternative candidate for the presidency, the radical 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 an era rife with colourful characters, Hoffman was the Dennis Rodman of political activists. He had a
genius for infuriating the elites from Left to Right of the political spectrum, and yet he remained a popular hero. In 1967, he led 50,000 protesters in an attempted telekinetic exorcism of the Pentagon. Later, he, Rubin and others climbed the Stock Exchange balcony and literally brought brokers 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 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 long after the summer of violence, Hoffman went underground to avoid imprisonment on criminal drug charges. When he reemerged in 1980 to serve a brief negotiated jail sentence, the US was entering a Reagan era presided over by the “Me” generation. In 1985, he had a radio debate with his former friend Rubin, by then a stock broker.
They mostly traded tired barbs and banalities but also discussed the future of political activism. Rubin reasoned 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 recent 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, while tired activists shook their heads.
In central Europe, the dilemma of how to best effect social change remains. Despite -and 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 and Havel, now its President, are 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.” One wonders if he saw it as worth it in the end, as he made his way underground for the last time.
John Hawkins is a US educator living in Australia
Library Heading: DEMOCRACY
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