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From: Marty Jezer (
Date: Fri Aug 02 2002 - 20:46:52 EDT

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    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.
    345 pages.

    "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.
    345 pages.

    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 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
    demons 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
    take action.

    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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