The Real Abbie HoffmanBreaking News
tags: film, 1960s, antiwar movement, Protest, radical history, Abbie Hoffman, Chicago 7, Aaron Sorkin
At the end of his autobiography, Soon to be a Major Motion Picture, 60s radical activist Abbie Hoffman includes a sarcastic epilogue retracting everything he has ever believed. At the time he wrote the book, Hoffman was living underground, on the run from the law on drug charges, and he offered to give the following “confession” in exchange for readmission into respectable society:
You know, I’m really sorry and I wanna come home. I love the flag, blue for truth. White for right. Red for blood our boys shed in war. I love my mother. I was wrong to tell kids to kill their parents… Spoiled, selfish brats made the sixties. Forgive me, Mother. I love Jesus, the smooth arch of his back, his long blond curls. Jesus died for all of us, even us Jews. Thank you, Lord. … I love Israel as protector of Western civilization. Most of my thinking was the result of brainwashing by KGB agents… I hate drugs. They are bad for you. Marijuana has a terrible effect on the brain. It makes you forget everything you learned in school… I only used it to lure young virgins into bed. I’m very ashamed of this. Cocaine is murderous. It makes you sex crazy and gets uneducated people all worked up. Friends are kidding themselves when they say it’s nonaddictive. The nose knows, and the nose says no… Once I burned money at the stock exchange. This was way out of line. People work hard to make money. Even stockbrokers work hard. No one works hard in Bangladesh—that’s why they are starving today and we are not. … Communism is evil incarnate. You can see it in Karl Marx’s beady eyes, long nose, and the sneering smile behind his beard….Our artists are all perverts except, of course, for the late Norman Rockwell. …Our system of democracy is the best in the world… Now can I come back?
Part of Hoffman’s life is now indeed a major motion picture, Netflix’s The Trial of the Chicago 7, written and directed by The West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin. Sorkin is an unfortunate choice to bring Abbie Hoffman to the screen, since Sorkin’s basic worldview is one Hoffman completely rejected. The West Wing is known for showing a faith in good liberal technocrats to govern wisely, yet Hoffman was a “burn down the system” anarchistic radical. Sure enough, Sorkin’s Hoffman is almost the Jesus-loving patriot of the actual Hoffman’s biting satire.
The story of the Chicago 7 is one that needs to be remembered, so we can be glad that Netflix chose to bring it to the screen. After the 1968 Democratic convention, at which antiwar protesters clashed with Chicago police and were savagely beaten, shocking the country, the Nixon administration brought charges against a number of the event organizers. Nixon’s justice department wanted to teach the New Left a lesson in order to demonstrate it was serious about “restoring law and order,” and the charges against the defendants were flimsy. The trial itself was a farce, thanks in part to a biased judge who saw conviction as a foregone conclusion. But the defendants, instead of accepting their fate, decided to use the media attention being paid to the trial to publicize the cause of the antiwar movement, and called an array of celebrity witnesses (Dick Gregory, Allen Ginsberg, Jesse Jackson, Judy Collins, Norman Mailer, Arlo Guthrie, and even former attorney general Ramsey Clark) to “put the government on trial” and turn a political persecution into a media event that would keep the left’s message on the national agenda. Ultimately, while most of the defendants were convicted of conspiracy to riot, the convictions were overturned on appeal and the government dropped the case. The Chicago 7 trial’s historical significance is (1) as an example of the American government trying to criminalize dissent and intimidate the political left through selective prosecution and (2) as an example of how defendants can successfully fight back through turning a trial into a media spectacle and winning in the “court of public opinion.”
Abbie Hoffman, the most charismatic and media-savvy defendant, was one of the most colorful figures of the ‘60s left. Coming from a serious activist background as part of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Hoffman’s Youth International Party (Yippies) engaged in attention-grabbing stunts to publicize left causes. Infamously, Hoffman sneaked into the New York Stock Exchange and dumped dollar bills onto the trading floor, sending brokers scrambling for cash. In a giant antiwar march, he led a group trying to perform an “exorcism” of the Pentagon and send it off into space. At Woodstock, Hoffman scuffled with Pete Townshend of The Who when Hoffman stormed the stage to give a political speech. Hoffman’s Steal This Book gives advice on how to shoplift, deal drugs, and live free through all manner of scams.
Yet while The Trial of the Chicago 7 is sympathetic to Hoffman, it also softens him in a way that ultimately amounts to historical fabrication. In the climax of Sorkin’s film, Hoffman takes to the stand and defends the protesters actions by invoking Lincoln and Jesus, and gives a tribute to democracy that could have come from The West Wing. “I think our institutions of democracy are a wonderful thing that right now are populated by some terrible people,” he tells the court. In the film, Hoffman is a relatively benign spokesman for the basic right of dissent.
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