Mister, We Could Use a Man Like Abbie Hoffman Again

I abhor violence. So did Abbie. This is theatre. He is wearing a costume. He is holding a prop.

What a stroke of genius it was casting Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman (1936-1989) in Aaron Sorkin’s Netflix movie The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020). The recreation of Hoffman’s (and Jerry Rubin’s) Marx Brothers-like court disruptions were the best thing about the movie, as was the question it raised. Do such antics help or harm the cause they purport to be drawing attention to? It’s a timely question now as activisim has been amping up in recent years to a degree not seen since Hoffman’s time — and in response to many similar issues. I think the fact that the question raises a discussion is its own justification.

Hoffman’s been a hero of mine since I was a teenager. I loved knowing he was a local boy (Worcester, Massachusetts, not far from where I’m from), and the mixture of clown and sixties radicalism was of undeniable appeal. Later I wrote a one act play about him (presented at Metropolitan Playhouse circa 2004), and drew heavily from books like Marty Jezer’s Abbie Hoffman: American Rebel and Hoffman’s own Soon to Be a Major Motion Picture, later retitled The Autobiography of Abbie Hoffman .

Those who love to employ “libertarian” as a dirty word, I’d advise you to look into libertarian socialism, for that was what Abbie espoused, and it’s certainly one of the intellectual strains that drew me into the libertarian movement years ago (a movement I drifted back out of). It is a belief in achieving equality in society and liberation from corporate tyranny and other oppressive forces WITHOUT the coercive instrument of the state. It has much in common with anarchism, and Hoffman came to it as a student of the Marxist professor Herbert Marcuse at Brandeis (though his major was psychology). He then did did graduate work at Berkley circa 1966 where he came into contact with the street theatre activism of the Diggers and the San Francisco Mime Troupe. Though Hoffman had always been a hellion, these activists gave him the tools to channel his frustrations through clownish pranks. His first stunt to garner widespread attention involved flinging dollar bills from the observation balcony of the New York Stock Exchange in 1967, producing the spectacle of a bunch of money-grubbers literally fighting each other to lay their hands on cash. In late 1967 he and Paul Krassner founded the Yippies (Youth International Party), which quickly became known for such stunts as running a literal pig for President, and for “levitating” the Pentagon. Yes, psychedelic drugs were involved. His presence at the riots at the Democratic National Convention in 1968, led to his prosection as one of the “Chicago 7”, although his charge, “incitement to riot” was overturned on appeal.

In 1969, Hoffman was physically kicked off the stage at Woodstock by Pete Townsend (who screamed “Fuck off my fucking stage!”) when he tried to call attention to John Sinclair’s incarceration during The Who’s set. Hoffman had an even more powerful advocate in the rock and roll community, however, in the form of Beatle John Lennon, whose own clownish peace advocacy antics (bagism, bedism) had much in common with Hoffman’s and culminated with the album Some Time in New York City (1972), on which one of the songs was “John Sinclair”.

Meantime, Hoffman had gained more notoriety with the release of his 1971 literary effort Steal This Book. (Naturally, people did). Next came Vote! A Record, A Dialogue, A Manifesto, co-written with Jerry Rubin and Ed Sanders of the Fugs (who also wrote a great book about the Manson Family, which I mentioned here). This book came out in 1972, two years after the 26th Amendment lowered the U.S. voting age to 18. Indeed, things would be much better if more young people took advantage of their right to vote.

Just as Vietnam was winding down and Watergate was heating up, Hoffman was taken off his beloved media stage by a probable frame-up. He was arrested for peddling cocaine in 1973 and went into hiding in 1974. He lived under an alias for several years, though he released a book during this period called To America With Love: Letters From the Underground (1976), cowritten with his wife Anita. He emerged in 1980, served a little time and published his autobiography.

The ’80s were spent fighting Reaganism, mostly from podiums on the college campus lecture circuit. Now in his 40s he was more like an avuncular figure, an old Jewish radical of the very same sort he had admired as a college student. In 1987 he published Steal This Urine Test: Fighting Drug Hysteria in America (funny how anti-goverment right wingers are just fine with MAJOR intrusions like mandatory drug testing by employers). What the public didn’t know for all those years was that Hoffman had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Ah, and wouldn’t periodic manic phases explain MUCH about his behavior over the decades? Unfortunately, the illness also swings in the direction of depression, and at one such moment he took his own life with a massive overdose of barbiturates in 1989.

Why am I writing about this guy, you may wonder? Barnumesque pranks, clown, vaudeville, theatre, tv cameras? If you don’t see it, you’re probably the kind of person who could benefit from a little disruption.

To learn about vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and on classic comedy please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.