Surviving "Survivor" While Thinking Of Abbie
By Danny Schechter
Wonder what Mr. Survival of the Fittest, Charles Darwin, would be thinking
as the surreality show "Survivor" moves from the realm of television into
the arena of TV legend. CBS has cashed in already, and all l6 of the
"survivors" of this staged sitcom-cum-adventure show that has titillated TV
viewers all summer are making deals for commercials, endorsements and TV
careers. Attention, world TV viewers: This money-maker will soon be
restaged and localized by TV companies in your countries. Instant celebrity
is, as we know, bankable. "Survivor" has been a media bonanza all around.
A board game, reruns and more reunion shows are already in the works.
I am thinking of another survivor game this week after seeing a new flick:
"Steal This Movie," based on the life and times of Abbie Hoffman, a media
star of the '60s. Abbie's "cast" back then consisted of a few thousand
hippies and yippies trying to survive the rigors of a Chicago Park
surrounded by a few thousand of that city's "finest" police determined to
use their clubs to drive them out of town. Abbie had his own alliances and
tribal councils, but in 1968 the power of the police
"pigs" the protesters called them overwhelmed those who thought the Bill
of Rights applied to them. Mayor Daley forced them off his island. In one
of the great revealing slips of the age, he actually said: "The police are
not here to combat disorder. The police are here to preserve disorder."
Now we have Abbie making a comeback of sorts, on the silver screen in a
film that has disappointed most of his old friends and political running
mates. Perhaps that's a reflection of the difficulties of recreating the
spirit, chaos and consciousness of the '60s. Ellen Willis ruminates about
this in the New York Times: "The greatest obstacle to representing the '60s
in more than cartoonish fashion is that it was thoroughly mythologized even
as it was happening. Two kinds of voices dominate the present conversation
about the '60s: those who condemn the utopianism of the time as a
totalitarian delusion, and those who sentimentally endow it with a moral
purity unknown to today's era of rampant materialism and cynicism about
politics. What's missing from both accounts is the '60s as emotional
experience: the desire to live intensely, the hope that people could have
more than Freud's ordinary unhappiness. For my generation, the pursuit of
happiness was not a slogan."
A new generation is not always living their dreams and fantasies but
experiencing them vicariously through TV vehicles like "Survivor." Abbie
and his cohorts tried to change reality; the Tagi Tribe is out to win a
million, not build a movement.They picked a schemer as their role model.
Abbie the dreamer was one of mine.
Although the movie's target is the government's vicious COINTELPRO program,
which aimed at dividing and demoralizing the Movement, it may end up
accomplishing what the FBI never could: making Abbie and his Chicago 7
colleagues seem unsympathetic.
In a flyer intended for distribution at screenings, one of Abbie's fellow
yipsters focused on points the film didn't make: "When Abbie published
'Steal This Book" under the name 'FREE,' he was sending a countercultural
message to American youth to challenge an unjust system, to act as a
citizen, not a consumer. He was about revolution, boxing with THE MAN, not
box-office revenues." (Ironic, isn't it, that Napster probably the most
popular site on the Internet could be called "Steal This Music"?)
Abbie probably would have seen the humor in "Steal This Movie," a
cartoonish characterization, a "disappointingly square" and "clumsy
attempt," in the words of the "Hollywood Reporter." He would have laughed
at the hypocrisy, as he often did. But we Abbie loyalists see it less as a
joke and more as an example of how reality can be twisted, how our heroes
and struggles can be reduced to commercial formulas what Hollywood's own
top trade calls "manipulative filmmaking."
The View From Under 30
For another generation's view, I sent a stolen copy of "Steal This Movie"
to my 23-year-old daughter Sarah, now working in Hollywood, who met Abbie
and wrote a high-school term paper about him. Here's part of her take:
"When I heard that someone was making a movie out of his life, I was
excited. I looked forward to seeing my hero on screen rather than the
pathetic, compromised men usually heroicized in American film. The cast
looked great, the title, also great. Unfortunately the film is not. When I
screened a copy of "Steal This Movie'" I realized that what was stolen was
Abbie. What was lost was Abbie. What was missing was Abbie. For those
unfamiliar with Abbie's amazing life, the film is incomprehensible. For
those who are familiar, it is a waste of time. Without insight or
explanation, this film is all surface. But not even a complete surface,
just various extreme close-ups of small areas, so that no whole is visible.
No meaning discerned. No conclusions reached. The '60s become a camping
trip, Abbie a "crazy" scout leader. "Steal This Movie" has stolen Abbie,
stolen his life, his experiences and most of all, most sadly of all, his
life's meaning. His meaning to me, his meaning to his friends, his family
and his meaning to the world."
I guess she didn't like it either!
Delving Into Meaning
Sarah speaks of meaning, an idea that is missing in much commercial media.
If true, that means viewers, readers and listeners like us have to find it
in our lives and work. Abbie himself meant a lot to the people who learned
from him and loved him. He was often called a media manipulator (Ellen
Willis uses the more accurate term "media artist" in her Times essay), but
when I asked him about that, he'd laugh. "How many networks do I own? I
wish I did."
At the same time, he had a genius for understanding the zeitgeist of the
minute and getting it into the media. Whether it was getting arrested for
wearing an American flag shirt (Did you notice how many flags were worn at
both political conventions this year?) or staging political theater, he
understood the power of media and the importance of getting a bigger
megaphone for his political views.
Ironically, back in 1977 when I met and interviewed him, when he was still
underground, he was working on a book called "Soon To Be a Major Motion
Picture." My interview, reprinted in a new e-book collection called "News
Dissector," closes with thoughts of someone who, in the end, couldn't
survive a manic depressive condition, but whose spirit survives nonetheless:
"There's a money-back guarantee on this book," Abbie said. "If people are
not completely satisfied, they're to see me personally, and I'll give them
their twelve bucks back. Now you remember I promised never to tell a
lie? You know what happens when I tell a lie? My nose gets bigger. Okay,
I'll read you the ending of the book. It's a serious book. I'm aiming for a
"There is absolutely no greater high than challenging the power structure
as a nobody, giving it your all, and winning. I think I've learned the
lesson twice now, in two different lives. The essence of successful
revolution, be it for an individual, a community of individuals, or a
nation, depends on accepting that challenge. Revolution is not something
fixed in ideology, nor is it something fashioned to a particular decade. It
is a perpetual process imbedded in the human spirit. When all today's
'isms' have become yesterday's ancient philosophies, there'll still be
reactionaries, there'll still be revolutionaries. No amount of
rationalization can avoid the moment of choice each of us brings to our
situation here on the planet.
"I still believe in the fundamental injustice of the profit system and do
not accept the proposition there will be rich and poor for all eternity.
"So, this is the end then. Well, I've had some good times. I've had some
bad. I took some lumps, I scored some points. Halfway through life at
forty-three, I still say, go for broke. No government, no FBI, no judge, no
jailer is ever going to make me say uncle. Now, as then, let the game
continue. Bet my stake on Freedom's call. I'll play these cards with no
regrets. Signed, Abbie Hoffman, Underground, U.S.A., Autumn of the seventies.
"That's it. That's it. I've got to go."
Me too. But not without lamenting that the contrived fun and games of
"Survivor" is what captures the national imagination these days, not the
example and ideas of an Abbie Hoffman. At the Chicago Conspiracy Trial, he
was asked on the stand where he lived. His response:
"Woodstock Nation, a country that lives in the imagination of a
generation." Its hope: peace and love, and to transform a dead culture and
a country at war. How will this generation answer the question? An island
off Borneo, where the credo is "outwit, outplay, outlast?" Its fantasy: win
a million bucks and a Pontiac and drive off into the sunset?
- Danny Schechter (email@example.com) is the executive editor of
MediaChannel, and the author of "Falun Gong's Challenge to China" (Akashic
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