An interesting review of my book Abbie Hoffman: American Rebel from the July/August issue of AGENDA, Ann Arbor's Alternative Newsmonthly. The reviewer, Phillis Engelbert, got Abbie right and shows that he is still relevant. --Marty Jezer
"A Celebration of Real American Patriotism"
Book review by Phillis Engelbert
Abbie Hoffman: American Rebel by Marty Jezer
New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1992.
"A Celebration of Real American Patriotism"
Book review by Phillis Engelbert
Abbie Hoffman: American Rebel
by Marty Jezer
New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1992.
Love him or hate him, it's hard to deny that Abbie Hoffman was one of the most
colorful and influential characters in American history. A self-styled political
celebrity, crafted (in his own words) "out of left-wing literature, sperm, licorice
and a little chicken fat," Abbie helped shake the country out of its 1950s'
complacency, spread the countercultural movement, and end the Vietnam War. Part
comedian, part revolutionary, part community organizer, and part outlaw, he forced
his way onto front pages and television screens, and into the American psyche. From
his early days of organizing hippies into an anti-Vietnam-war political force to his
later incarnation as an environmentalist and mentor to student activists, Abbie
employed a theatrical flair that titillated the imagination and empowered people to
stand up and demand the impossible.
Author Marty Jezer, in Abbie Hoffman: American Rebel, gives a thorough treatment not
only of Abbie Hoffman's life, but of the personalities and ideas that influenced
Abbie's development. Jezer also carefully describes the changing political and
social realities of the nation from the 1950s through the 1980s. A left-wing,
pacifist author and reporter, Jezer was acquainted with Abbie in New York City's
East Village in the late 1960s at a time when Abbie was organizing the Yippies
(which Abbie alternately defined as Youth International Party or Yiddish Hippies)
into a countercultural force aiming to "blow the minds" of "straight America."
The book's readability is largely owed to its exciting subject matter, including
descriptions of the following episodes from Abbie's activist career: protesting HUAC
hearings in Berkeley, tossing money off the balcony of the New York Stock Exchange,
marching against the Vietnam War, "levitating" and "exorcising" the Pentagon,
protesting the 1968 Democratic Party convention in Chicago, turning the conspiracy
trial of the Chicago Eight into a courtroom circus, organizing to save the St.
Lawrence River while on the lam, and putting the CIA on trial for its crimes around
the world. Jezer also helps us understand how Abbie's manic-depression affected his
public persona and ultimately led to his undoing.
Jezer, however, acts as more than a storyteller in Abbie Hoffman: American Rebel-he
offers a thoughtful analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of Abbie's strategies
and tactics over the course of three decades. His assessments help the reader
understand how the decisions made by Abbie and his associates either propelled or
hindered the peace movement. Taking Jezer's analysis one step farther, it's possible
to apply the lessons of Abbie's successes and failures to the building and
sustaining of an effective movement for social change today. Contained in this book
is a recipe for a movement that is positive, hopeful, fun, energetic, inclusive,
unifying, and effective.
I highly recommend Abbie Hoffman: American Rebel to activists and organizers
everywhere. Read it not once, but twice, lest you miss a nugget of wisdom.
Self-actualization (what makes activists tick)
One of Abbie's first and lasting influences was Abraham Maslow, a professor of
psychology at Brandeis University (Abbie began his undergraduate career there in
1955). In Maslow's class, Abbie came to the remarkable realization that his own
rebellious nature was not necessarily a sign of psychological disorder-as his
highschool teachers and relatives in McCarthy-era Worcester, Massachusetts, had
stressed-but instead was a healthy form of self-expression. Maslow explained that
rebelliousness becomes a psychological necessity when the status quo represses
individual freedoms. That was certainly the case during the reactionary 1950s, when
American society exalted the false needs of status, wealth, and power, and
de-emphasized the real needs of friendship, community, and creativity.
Maslow described a hierarchy of human needs, beginning with food, drink, and
shelter. Once these needs were met, a person would strive for love and self-esteem.
The next need on the ladder was self-actualization-which Maslow defined as "man's
desire for self-fulfillment...to become everything that one is capable of becoming."
One way of fulfilling the need for self-actualization, and thus experiencing beauty,
truth, and meaningfulness, was through altruism-or giving unselfishly. Maslow
characterized self-actualized individuals as being "brotherly, cooperative,
peaceful, courageous, and just."
Abbie looked up to Maslow as a hero and made self-actualization his personal goal.
Abbie expressed his self-actualization desires in a letter to a friend, written in
the mid 1960s, as follows: "I need the movement. I need it as much as I need the
oxygen to breathe. I want to be with people who want to change things, really change
Maslovian theory also formed the basis for Abbie's beliefs and practices regarding
the roots of social action. Abbie strongly advocated that activists be motivated by
hope, love, and imagination-not guilt. He stressed that one needn't suffer in order
to demonstrate one's commitment to a cause. "I believe that when one actualizes his
inner potential," Abbie wrote, "he is rewarded. He feels better, he enjoys life, he
is, in every sense of the word, FREE."
Capturing the flag
Abbie Hoffman was a student of the American Revolution and a connoisseur of American
culture. He likened himself to the original American revolutionaries, especially Tom
Paine and Samuel Adams-underground printers of leaflets rallying the colonists to
rebel against the British authorities. He consistently cast himself and his missions
in patriotic imagery. Abbie "understood that patriotic feelings could be used to
create the common ground he saw as essential for a successful political fight,"
writes Jezer. "Patriotism is not necessarily a right-wing or divisive force in the
United States, and [Abbie] believed that jingoistic flag-wavers could be challenged
and beaten at their own patriotic game."
Abbie's embrace of Americana was authentic, as evidenced in the following passage
from his autobiography, Soon to be a Major Motion Picture: "Cornfields. Town
meetings. Niagara Falls. Hot dogs. Parades. Red Sox double headers. America was
built by people who wanted to change things. It was founded on strong principles. I
saw myself as a Son of Liberty, riding through the night, sounding the alarm."
An example of Abbie's use of patriotic imagery came in 1968, when he was summoned to
appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). Abbie dressed
for the hearing in an American flag shirt. His plan, Jezer states, was "to wrap
himself in the flag and create a visual portrait of antiwar protesters as patriots."
The police arrested Abbie on the steps of the courthouse, ripped his shirt, and
charged him with desecrating the flag. At his flag-desecration trial, Abbie
explained that Revolutionary War patriots also wrapped themselves in the flag and
"expressed his belief that he and those who had protested in Chicago were closer to
the tradition of the founding fathers than the members of the House committee."
Abbie was convicted of the charge but it was overturned on appeal.
Perhaps Abbie's most creative and effective use of patriotic symbols came in 1983,
when he served as an advisor to a Bucks County, Pennsylvania, citizens group called
Del-AWARE. That organization was trying to stop the construction of a pumping
station that would divert millions of gallons of water per day from the Delaware
River, for use as coolant at a proposed nuclear power plant. Del-AWARE members
occupied the pump construction site days before the building was to begin and dubbed
the area Valley Forge II (George Washington and his men had crossed the Delaware
River nearby). They displayed thirteen-star American flags and "Don't tread on me"
banners, and labeled one large tree the "liberty tree." The protesters demanded that
a referendum be held on the pump construction, arguing that the Revolutionary War
had been fought so that people would have a say in decisions that affected their
Three years later, while on trial for trespassing during a CIA protest at University
of Massachusetts-Amherst, Abbie explained his sense of patriotic duty to the jury:
"I grew up with the idea that democracy is not something you believe in, or a place
you hang your hat, but it's something you do. You participate. If you stop doing it,
democracy crumbles and falls apart."
The medium is the message
Another strand running through Jezer's book is Abbie's mastery of using the mass
media to get out the movement's message. The challenges that Abbie and his
compatriots faced with the media during the Vietnam War were much the same as those
faced by peace activists today. "In the mainstream media," writes Jezer, "the
[Vietnam] war was patriotic; victory was, as the administration promised, just
around the corner; and the antiwar movement was irresponsible, unpatriotic, and of
no political consequence....a marginal irritant that was undercutting the American
resolve." General William Westmoreland, commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam,
actually accused the peace movement of giving the enemy a political advantage. He
told a receptive audience of newspaper publishers that American troops "are
dismayed, and so am I, by recent unpatriotic acts here at home."
Abbie believed that rather than attacking the press, his time was better spent
learning to use it. He devoured the works of futurist Marshall McLuhan to garner
ideas about attaining positive media coverage. "Lacking the money to buy time for
television ads," writes Jezer, "[Abbie] learned how to transform political protest
into political theater and to cram powerful, attention-getting visual messages into
the brief news bytes that the media allot protest stories."
Seeing that straight political messages were avoided or distorted by the media,
Abbie infused his politics with popular culture and imagination. Among his
attention-getting devices were guerrilla theater, music, bells, colorful props, and
flowers. During the 1967 march against the Vietnam War in Washington, D.C., Abbie
created a media sideshow: a symbolic levitation and exorcism of the Pentagon
featuring thousands of protesters banging on bells and cymbals and chanting "out
Of all the unorthodox tactics and qualities associated with Abbie, humor was his
trademark. For instance, Abbie would stalk dignitaries at official functions; once
in front of the cameras he would throw his arms around them and greet them. Other
stunts including running a pig for president, claiming his heritage as long-lost son
of judge Julius Hoffman (in the Chicago Eight trial), and doing tricks with a
psychedelic yo-yo during public speaking gigs. While he was on the run from
cocaine-sale charges, Abbie threw a public birthday party for himself that featured
an Abbie Hoffman look-alike contest.
Self-criticism and ability to change
Another of Abbie's strengths was his ability to critique himself and the movement,
learn from his mistakes, and change the game plan when necessary. For instance, at
the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Abbie and other Yippie leaders
employed confrontational tactics and disavowed the electoral system. "To many
people," writes Jezer, "what happened in Chicago was not a confrontation between
hawks and doves but a confrontation between those who upheld America's familiar,
workaday values and an unruly army of young and irresponsible rebels who had no
respect for those values. While opposition to the war was continuing to grow within
the broader American public, opposition to the antiwar movement was even more
pronounced.... Having anointed the young as a revolutionary vanguard, [Abbie] no
longer cared about communicating with ordinary Americans."
Just four years later, responding to criticism from fellow activists, as well as to
changing times and political realities, Abbie and other Yippie leaders endorsed
George McGovern for president and urged people to vote. In the 1980s, Abbie again
broadened his perspective and started viewing everyone-even Republicans and war
veterans-as potential allies. He learned to use culture not as a wedge between the
generations and people of various political stripes, but as "a social glue that
brought people together." His new vision of a better society offered something for
everybody. According to Jezer, Abbie realized that "accepting people in the way that
they saw themselves was the key to successful community organizing."
Abbie summarized the evolution of his political thinking before a student audience
at Rutgers University in the mid-1980s as follows: "In the sixties we were so fed up
we wanted to destroy everything. But you have to save America, not destroy it."
Lessons for the movement
>From his early days in the civil rights movement to his waning hours of instructing
young organizers while battling an ever-debilitating depression, Abbie inspired
people to overcome their fears and to believe that they could make a difference. He
instilled in them the excitement of creating a new society and motivated them to
In the book's conclusion, Jezer lists some of the many lessons that today's peace
and justice activists can learn from Abbie Hoffman: "Pick your goal and move toward
it; don't pick fights on issues you cannot win; keep your eye on the
prize....Celebrate your victories, learn from your defeats. Do the unexpected, keep
the authorities guessing, maintain a sense of humor, and keep an open mind. There's
no conflict between working inside and outside the system; keep a foot in
both....Politics should be fun, but people are also moved by moral persuasion."
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