How some media-savvy leftists inadvertently helped the right, and vice versa
August 27, 2008
Viewing the trial as a theatrical experience, I had great respect for
the judge. He was witty, filled with his own sense of drama, and
committed to his role with a furious passion....The part did not call
for a Solomon because the law stank. It called for a yippie judge who
could play in a real-life political version of "The Flintstones."
Julie was our man, and together we made it happen.Chicago Eight
defendant Abbie Hoffman on Judge Julius Hoffman, in Soon to Be a
Major Motion Picture, 1980
Forty years ago this week, the Democratic Party gathered in Chicago
to choose a presidential nominee. Protesterssome violent, most
notgathered there too, to denounce the Vietnam War. By the end of
the four-day convention, the city's cops had gone berserk on national
television, assaulting demonstrators, reporters, and random
bystanders while the network cameras rolled. The police, wrote Mike
Royko of the Chicago Sun-Times, "beat people beyond the point of
subduing them. They chased them down and left them bleeding." Inside
the convention hall, Sen. Abraham Ribicoff of Connecticut accused the
mayor of unleashing "Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago."
According to a report to the National Commission on the Causes and
Prevention of Violence, the week was an extended police riot.
According to a federal grand jury, it was a leftist conspiracy. Eight
activists were charged with inciting the chaos; the accused included
Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, the most public faces of a loose
coalition of radicalized hippies called the yippies. The yippies had
called for a Festival of Life in the streets and parks of Chicagoan
alternative, they said, to the Democrats' Festival of Death. They
brought a puckish sort of guerilla theater to the city, nominating a
hog called Pigasus for president and threatening to add LSD to the
city water supply. (The authorities actually stationed National
Guardsmen by the reservoir, just in case the pranksters were
serious.) Hoffman and Rubin weren't the only important yipsters, but
they were the ringleaders of the gang. After the riots, when the news
of the indictments came down, some other notable yippiessatirist
Paul Krassner, disc jockey Bob Fass, Fugs founder Ed Sandersformed a
conga line on Hoffman's roof and sang, "We're not indicted! We're not
After a three-ring trial, the defendants were eventually acquitted on
all charges, though some of them had to appeal the initial verdict
before they were completely cleared. The convention and its aftermath
had been a victory for the yippies.
It was a victory for their enemies, too. The central story of Chicago
wasn't just that cameras captured bloody police violence every
evening. It was that the great American TV-viewing public
overwhelmingly told pollsters afterwards that they sided with the
cops. "That was our shortsightedness," says Krassner. "When we
started chanting, 'The whole world is watching, the whole world is
watching,' we didn't go to the next step, which was, And how are they
gonna feel about it?"
The Polarization Artists
In Nixonland, his insightful study of the period, the historian Rick
Perlstein points out that Nixon "welcomed conflict that served him
politically. A briefing paper came to the president's desk in the
middle of March instructing him to expect increased violence on
college campuses that spring. 'Good!' he wrote across the face."
Jerry Rubin welcomed the polarization as much as Nixon did. "We
yippies must reprint [George] Wallace speeches, get him TV time and
open up offices for him all over the country," he wrote in his 1970
book Do it! "He's the best Marxist rabble-rouser in Amerika today.
He's our best organizer." And: "To build their myth they exaggerate
our myththey create a Yippie Menace. The menace helps create the reality."
Then there's this remarkable passage:
The right wing is the left wing's best ally.
Who was the first person to call the battles at San Francisco State
College "a guerilla warVietnam at home"?
(I can now reveal a secret. The last time I voted in an election, I
cast my free Amerikan vote for the only movie star in the race,
I doubt it's literally accurate that Rubin voted Reagan for governor,
but there's a poetic truth lurking behind the sarcasm. The party of
anarchy thrived on repression. The party of law and order thrived on disorder.
Krassner never cared for that sort of thinkingas a stand-up comic,
he says, he was "always willing to sacrifice a target" when an unjust
leader left officebut he understands it, and occasionally he felt
flashes of it himself. I mentioned the memo that made Nixon scrawl
Good! He replied with a memory of his own:
When Cronkite came on and reported the Kent State shootings, he said,
'Something has happened that many Americans were afraid would
happen,' something like that. It was a moment of horror, but I
remember saying to myself, 'Good.' I wasn't glad it happened, I had
terrible sympathy for the people who were killed and their families
and fellow students. But a month or a couple of weeks before that, in
some southern college, some black students got killed. And I thought,
Now white people will see that it's their own that are getting it.
Now maybe they'll get more involved.
That sort of strategizing doesn't always work out as planned. "The
right wing believes so intensely in their own bullshit," Rubin wrote,
"that they are too stupid to deceive and govern effectively. Unlike
the liberals, they don't know how to divide-and-conquer." It turned
out that Nixon and Reagan were adept at dividing and conquering after
all. In politics, it's a mistake to assume you're the only one who
understands how the media work.
Forty years ago, the yippies seemed unusual because they fused the
political radicalism of the New Left with the long-haired,
grass-smoking lifestyle of the counterculture. Today that combination
is so familiar that many people don't even realize that the
protesters and the hippies initially distrusted each other. What
seems most curious about the yippies today is the way they mixed hard
left politics with a deep appreciation for pop culture. Abbie Hoffman
announced that he wanted to combine the styles of Andy Warhol and
Fidel Castro. Jerry Rubin dedicated Do it! not just to his girlfriend
but to "Dope, Color TV, and Violent Revolution." Even when praising a
form of mass culture that had earned some grudging respect from the
late-'60s leftrock 'n' rollRubin's list of musicians who "gave us
the life/beat and set us free" included not just raucous originals
like Jerry Lee Lewis and Bo Diddley but Fabian and Frankie Avalon,
commercial confections that most lefty rock intellectuals disdained
as insufficiently authentic. In one chapter, Rubin complained that if
"the white ideological left" took over, "Rock dancing would be taboo,
and miniskirts, Hollywood movies and comic books would be illegal."
All this from a self-proclaimed communist whose heroes included
Castro, Chairman Mao, and Ho Chi Minh.
It's not that the yippies swallowed pop culture uncritically.
(Hoffman kept a sign attached to the bottom of his TV that said
"bullshit.") It's that they saw the mass media's dream-world as
another terrain to fight in. Krassner remembers the yippie circle
analyzing virtually everything on the tube, even "watching shows like
The Smothers Brothers and comparing that with Laugh-In, that Laugh-In
was using easy reference jokes about controversial issues, whereas
the comedy in The Smothers Brothers really represented how they felt."
Seven years after Chicago, Jerry Rubin turned up on the second
episode of Saturday Night Live, pitching a product called Up Against
the Wallpaper. Hoffman attacked the sketch as "a major sellout....He
was a caricature of Jerry Rubin making fun of the '60s, but he was
not pushing a point, an alternative." If you're plotting Rubin's
political trajectory, you can mark 1975 as the year he moved to the
right of Tommy Smothers.
To fully comprehend the yippies, you have to look at what they did in
the '70s and '80s as much as the '60s. Hoffman got arrested on
cocaine charges and subsequently spent six years underground. Rubin
plunged into the New Age movement and sampled a series of
self-improvement techniques. In his 1976 book Growing (Up) At 37,
Rubin wrote about his experiences with everything from primal scream
therapy to est; in one bizarre section, the man who once preached the
life-changing virtues of LSD now waxed poetic about carrot juice.
Meanwhile, out on the lam, Hoffman wrote this in a letter to his wife:
Drugs have no intrinsic value. All communist countries have correctly
outlawed them. There are loads of other exhilarating ways to get
high. Communist governments have a cultural revolution to achieve
that is national in scope. Our task in the U.S. is to build
countercultural institutions that make the raising of children
breeding grounds for revolution and rebellion against the wishes of
the dominant, decadent culture.
His real views revealed at last? A temporary affectation by a man
whose underground life had unleashed an identity crisis? Or maybe
just a spasm of guilt in the wake of the coke bust? Who knows for
sure? When he surfaced in the '80s, Hoffman crusaded against Reagan's
drug war, and his passion for the issue certainly seemed sincere then.
By that time, Rubin had come up from the broader cultural
underground, getting a job on Wall Street and later arranging
networking parties for young professionals at the Palladium. I saw
him debate Hoffman in the mid-'80s, when he and his sparring partner
toured together as the Yippie vs. Yuppie show. Hoffman was high on
the Sandinistas; Rubin preferred Gary Hart. The majority of the
audience seemed to think Rubin was a right-wing sellout. Most of the
rest thought Hoffman was a dinosaur who hadn't changed with the times.
Neither view was entirely accurate. Rubin insisted that his new self
wasn't so distant from his old self, declaring in 1982 that his
networking salons came "out of my 1960s organizing experience." He
added, "I really don't think that I've become the person or symbol
that I preached against in the '60s. I'm not a warmonger or munitions
seller or corporate pig." Hoffman, in his own way, was intensely
aware of the differences between the decades. In the last book he
published before his death, 1987's Steal This Urine Test, he
described a 1983 environmental fight in which "our protest song (as
it should be in all environmental battles) was 'America the
Beautiful.'...[I]t was very hard to sing it during the sixties as we
were being shot, clubbed, jailed, and illegally wiretapped by the
government. Especially hard while the mob sang all the patriotic
songs. Today it seems appropriate." When Hoffman committed suicide in
1989, the Fifth Estate, an anarchist newspaper in Detroit, complained
in an otherwise warm obit that his rhetoric had grown suspiciously
patriotic in the last decade of his life.
This is what happens when the counterculture spills out of the '60s
and sloshes all over society. It takes new forms, from Rubin's New
Age capitalism to Hoffman's all-American socialism. I doubt the
yuppie networkers at Rubin's Manhattan salonsyoung professionals
hunting for business partners, bedmates, coke connectionsthought of
themselves as children of the '60s. But they were, just as surely as
Hoffman's Springsteenian patriots were creatures of the Reagan era.
Yippies and CREEPs
The official yippie organization, the Youth International Party, kept
chugging away in the '70s and afterwards, putting out a paper filled
with conspiracy theories and paeans to pot. More recently, its
surviving members have opened an archive and performance space in
Greenwich Village, dubbed the Yippie Museum and Cafe. Jerry Rubin's
favorite uncle was a vaudeville star; now the movement he helped to
start has its very own vaudeville venue.
And that, in a roundabout way, leads us to one more parallel between
the yippies and the Nixonites. Both were masters of the media-savvy
In 1967, for example, Hoffman called a press conference to announce
the invention of LACE, a drug that made people have sex. Three
couples in his apartment demonstrated the imaginary chemical's
alleged effects for the onlooking press corps, who went on to report
that the protesters were planning to spray their new weapon at cops
and National Guardsmen at a demonstration outside the Pentagon. "The
function of this was to manipulate the media," says Krassner. "We
said we were going to spray them at the Pentagon. Of course this made
the local papers, the newsmagazines, and the wire servicesand a lot
of people became aware of a demonstration that they hadn't heard of
before." The possibility of seeing some cops and hippies getting it
on, or perhaps getting sprayed themselves, surely swelled the crowds as well.
There are obvious differences between such antics and the dirty
tricks deployed by Nixon's Committee to Re-Elect the President, but
there are structural similarities as well, a common interest in
cracking open the media and playing with the narratives being
projected. In 1972, when Pete McCloskey challenged Nixon in the
Republican primaries, a young conservative named Roger Stone made a
donation to the insurgent's campaign in the name of the Young
Socialist Alliance. (The original plan was to use the Gay Liberation
Front, but Stone felt that would be an affront to his masculinity.)
According to the Senate Watergate Report, Stone and his confederate
Herbert Porter then "drafted an anonymous letter to the Manchester
Union Leader and enclosed a photocopy of the receipt."
I called up Stone and asked him about the yippies. "Classic street
theater," he replied, with a hint of professional admiration. "The
voters or the consumers are getting too much information. You have to
cut through that by being provocative. It's what the yippies figured out."
What does that have to do with the Yippie Cafe? Just that Stone, who
shares the cafe proprietors' distaste for New York's draconian drug
laws, showed up there last month. He brought along a bunch of College
Republicans with short haircuts and ill-fitting suits, and he
performed a stand-up comedy act cum political rant. Some of the
spectators laughed, some heckled, some clapped, some stared.
"I did OK," says Stone. "They said, 'Who are these short-haired guys
with you?' I said, 'This is the national committee of the Hitler
Youth.'" When Abraham Ribicoff invoked the Nazis in Chicago, all hell
broke loose on the convention floor. Forty years later, Stone was
greeted with laughter and beer.
Jesse Walker is reason's managing editor.