[sixties-l] Fwd: Abbie's Road

From: radman (resist@best.com)
Date: Mon Aug 28 2000 - 07:02:31 CUT

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    >This story from The Chronicle of Higher Education
    >(http://chronicle.com) was forwarded to you from: conser@earthlink.net
    > From the issue dated August 18, 2000
    > Abbie's Road
    > 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
    > rehabilitation.
    > 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
    > phenobarbital.
    > 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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