>This story from The Chronicle of Higher Education
>(http://chronicle.com) was forwarded to you from: email@example.com
> From the issue dated August 18, 2000
> Abbie's Road
> By PETER BRAUNSTEIN
> Abbie Hoffman, the self-proclaimed "Yippie" and political
> activist, always claimed to lead a cinematic life, to the
> point of entitling his 1980 autobiography Soon to Be a Major
> Motion Picture. Still, it took another 20 years for filmmakers
> to tell the Abbie Hoffman story: This month, Lions Gate Films
> will release Steal This Movie!, starring Vincent D'Onofrio as
> Abbie Hoffman and Janeane Garofalo as Anita, his
> long-suffering wife and coconspirator.
> Correctly assuming that today's younger viewers derive their
> knowledge of the 60's largely from the Austin Powers movies
> and the NBC miniseries The 60's, director (and coproducer)
> Robert Greenwald's biopic is both didactic and subtly
> polemical. Abbie's 60's-era protest activities are confined to
> his greatest hits: dropping money on the floor of the New York
> Stock Exchange, "levitating" the Pentagon during an antiwar
> demonstration, sustaining a hippie enclave in New York's East
> Village, and taunting authorities at the Chicago Seven
> conspiracy trial, in which he was a defendant. His lunatic
> persona is played down, however -- indeed, D'Onofrio's
> 60's-era Abbie is decidedly mellow and even-tempered, like an
> Abbie on Zoloft before there was Zoloft.
> At the same time, cognizant of the fact that audiences have
> been Gumped by two straight decades of 60's-bashing
> revisionism from politicians, the media, and even former
> activists, the film reclaims the radical virtues of the era.
> From his civil-rights activism to opposing the Vietnam War,
> Abbie is positioned on the righteous side of the 60's moral
> divide. Significantly, the film's narrative ends not with
> Abbie's suicide in 1989, but with a rousing speech of 60's
> reclamation he made some months earlier (at which time he
> asserted, "We were young, we were reckless, arrogant, silly,
> headstrong -- and we were right"). Steal This Movie! neither
> deifies Abbie, like Oliver Stone's The Doors did Jim Morrison,
> nor demonizes him, like Forrest Gump did the Abbie act-alike,
> but showcases, of all things, Abbie the lover. As if
> addressing itself to the burgeoning student movements of
> today, the film implicitly makes the claim that being a
> radical in the 60's was, if nothing else, really sexy.
> Yet for all Abbie's pretensions to be living a movie, his life
> conforms less to the requirements of the average big-screen
> biopic than it does to the template established by VH1 in its
> Behind the Music rock biographies. For those unfamiliar with
> the popular series, Behind the Music chronicles the life of
> rock stars via a four-act formula that has become somewhat
> canonical. Part one details the music star's childhood and
> climb to fame; part two surveys the dizzying heights of
> celebrity; part three dwells on the aftermath of active
> celebrity and the rocker's inevitable descent into drug abuse,
> self-loathing, and cultural oblivion; and each episode
> concludes with an often-strained requiem, in which the fallen
> star (if he's not dead) undergoes some form of personal
> Perhaps because Abbie was the political equivalent of a rock
> star, the VH1 formula seems eerily applicable to his life, for
> one reason in particular: Abbie is both a hero and victim of
> the 60's. Indeed, what contemporary audiences may find most
> compelling about Abbie Hoffman is not what he did during the
> 60's, but rather his inability to live in a post-60's world.
> One of the more famous incidents at Woodstock occurred when
> Abbie Hoffman ran onstage while the Who was performing, and
> attempted to make an announcement about the imprisonment of
> John Sinclair, a fellow radical. The Who's lead guitarist Pete
> Townshend clearly hated the interruption, and proceeded to
> smash Abbie with his guitar and drive him from the stage.
> That incident subsequently has been freighted with much
> symbolic value, and deservedly so. In one sense, it represents
> how the political counterculture that Abbie typified was
> bludgeoned by the commodified counterculture, represented by
> groups like the Who.
> For many activists like Abbie, the period between 1968 and
> 1971 was a blistering comedown from their 60's high, as
> possibilities for a radical renovation of society vanished
> amidst Nixonian realpolitik and countercultural mainstreaming.
> At the tail end of the twin assassinations in 1968 of Martin
> Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy; the election of Richard M.
> Nixon; the ensuing stepped-up repression of dissent; and the
> invasion of Cambodia in 1969, antiwar protest seemed
> increasingly rote and ineffectual. At the same time, a
> triumvirate of iconic deaths -- of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix,
> and Jim Morrison -- pockmarked the countercultural dreamscape.
> Richard Goldstein, a Village Voice reporter and antiwar
> activist who followed Abbie to the Democratic National
> Convention in 1968, attests to the pervasive gloom and
> despondency that overtook many 60's radicals at decade's end,
> and made the 70's seem like a bad hangover. "Especially after
> Nixon's election, I think a lot of movement people ended up
> feeling depressed and burned by what happened," recalls
> Goldstein, who says he went into self-imposed retreat during
> the period 1969-1971. "I think the problem with Abbie was that
> his psychic burdens brought him further down than most people,
> and he found fewer consolations in the ordinary parts of life.
> Other people like Jerry Rubin were more easily able to
> transfer their '60s-era energies into personal ambition."
> Jonah Raskin, in his evocative biography of Abbie Hoffman, For
> the Hell of It, calls Abbie's post-60's existence "the longest
> good-bye" because, as Raskin writes, "the last fifteen years
> of his life seem like an extended farewell to the world." In
> fact, Abbie's post-60's career was, like that of Napoleon,
> capped by two distinct phases of exile. Abbie's underground
> phase, which began after his arrest on charges of selling
> cocaine in 1973, was both a withdrawal from the culture and a
> poignant (and ultimately unsuccessful) attempt to prolong the
> radical mythology of the 60's into the next decade.
> Steal This Movie! accurately represents both the
> self-preservation and the self-destruction inherent in Abbie's
> underground myth -- his need to think that his 60's radicalism
> made him the F.B.I.'s Public Enemy No. 1. This was Abbie on
> Elba, exiled but still nurturing hopes of a renewed shot at
> fame and cultural significance, still trying to impose his
> script on a world that was passing him by. After evading
> arrest for many years, Abbie surrendered to authorities in
> 1980 and, most of the charges dropped, served a light sentence
> in a cushy Manhattan work-release program. He could have had
> the last laugh, but the truth is that he found very little to
> laugh about in the Reagan 80's.
> In 1980, Abbie was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a form of
> manic-depression, and began taking antidepressants. Apart from
> his actual condition, what Abbie must have found equally hard
> to bear was watching other people, in search of new
> explanations for his radical behavior, retroactively project
> his disorder onto his 60's career. As one might imagine,
> biochemically based psychohistories sometimes clarify,
> sometimes obscure, but they rarely paint a pretty picture of
> the historical subject. Recasting Abbie as a manic-depressive
> radical not only calls into question any authentic motivations
> he may have had for his 60's revolt, but inadvertently, and
> ironically, sustains the conservative inclination to think
> that all 60's radicals were simply insane.
> In one particularly strained reading of Abbie's past, Dr.
> Oscar Janiger (the first to discover Abbie's bipolar disorder)
> pinpointed Abbie's protest activity at the 1968 Democratic
> National Convention in Chicago as the first "overexcited"
> phase in Abbie's ensuing manic-depressive cycle. During the
> near-insurrectionary showdown between police and
> demonstrators, Janiger argued, Abbie's "out of control"
> behavior had "deteriorated into fragmented, irrational and at
> times delusional proportions entirely inappropriate and
> without obvious direction."
> But since that diagnosis could equally well have applied to
> Mayor Richard M. Daley, the Chicago police, other
> demonstrators, and the politicians nominating Hubert Humphrey,
> one wonders how many manic-depressives were running around
> Chicago during that convention. Abbie may have been "manic" in
> Chicago in 1968, but so was everyone else -- hence expressions
> like "the national mood."
> Apart from depression, the Abbie of the 1980's struggled with
> a more rarified psychocultural disorder, not susceptible to
> antidepressant therapy, which could be called "post-60's
> syndrome." The 60's long over, Abbie tried to hunker down in a
> disheartening cultural climate. While touring college campuses
> in the 80's, he faced the renewed apathy of the young, many of
> whom flocked to see the loud-mouthed 60's icon with the same
> kind of gleeful nostalgia one would find at a Monkees reunion
> concert. Abbie realized that he may not have been influencing
> the next generation so much as entertaining them. ("I'm a
> Chinese meal to these students," he told a journalist in 1984.
> "An hour after my talk they're back watching Dallas and
> playing video games.")
> The 80's was also the decade of 60's backlash, as the decade
> found itself demonized by neoconservatives as a kind of
> cultural Chernobyl. Even former 60's activists like Todd
> Gitlin and Paul Berman contributed to the 60's-bashing trend,
> adding to an impressive body of ex-radical-self-flagellation
> literature, in which former activists pointed out all the
> mistakes they made back in the days. Meanwhile, in films like
> The Big Chill, ex-activists lamented the fact that they sold
> out, while the phrase "hippie-to-yuppie" became shorthand for
> tracing a generational destiny.
> The 80's were, in short, Abbie's St. Helena, his ultimate
> residence of exile. An icon in a hostile age, he occasionally
> tried to make light of this situation. "I've been accused of
> getting Nixon elected, the rise of conservatism, the spread of
> AIDS and crack terrorists holding Manhattan hostage," he told
> Newsweek in 1989. "Now all of this is true, but it's only a
> part of my work." Off-seasons for revolutionaries are never
> easy -- think Trotsky axed by Stalin's hit men while in
> Mexican exile -- but for Abbie, the fragmentation of his
> cultural identity exacerbated his already embattled psyche.
> Ultimately, Abbie couldn't get beyond the fact that the 60's
> were over. "It was fun to have that sense of engagement when
> you jumped on the earth and the earth jumped back -- that
> sense that you were a part of history. Can it happen again?"
> he asked shortly before his death. "No way. It's never going
> to happen again." For many years, Abbie had been postponing
> suicide like an enervating but inevitable deadline, one he
> finally met in April 1989 by swallowing 150 capsules of
> Abbie had always been a big fan of the psychologist Abraham
> Maslow, and was especially mindful of Maslow's theories of
> "peak experiences." According to Maslow, a transcendent
> experience can remove emotional blocks and carry individuals
> to new heights of self-actualization. The problem is that peak
> experiences can work the other way as well. Abbie's peak
> experience of the 60's gave him the vigor, determination, and
> inventiveness he demonstrated in his radical heyday; then it
> turned into a reflecting pool he longed to drown in.
> Like a lost love that can never be replaced, Abbie mourned the
> 60's, unfavorably compared everything else to that decade, and
> never moved past it. "People like Abbie ultimately weren't
> adaptable," says the Voice's Goldstein in an interview. "He
> was both a creature of the 60's as well as someone with an
> implacable mental condition. Still, he was always more than
> the sum of his symptoms."
> Indeed, it may simply be a coincidence that Abbie took his
> life within a month of the torch being passed from Reagan to
> Bush, but it makes for an interesting juxtaposition. Abbie may
> have been manic-depressive, but then so was the left-liberal
> experience in America post-1968. The tragic timeliness of
> Abbie's death serves as an eerie reminder that mood is not
> simply a function of serotonin levels, but of culture as well.
> Peter Braunstein is a writer in New York City. He is coediting
> (with Michael William Doyle) an anthology entitled Imagine
> Nation: The American Counterculture of the 1960s and '70s, to
> be published by Routledge in the fall of 2001.
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