This past week we commemorated the hot August nights of the Cold War era.
Fifty years ago this month Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and an army of Yippies held their “Festival of Life” outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Replete with folk songs, protest marches, and the nomination of the oinker Pigasus as an alternative candidate for the presidency, the radical – and democratic — festival was designed to be a provocative demonstration against the carnage of Vietnam and the politics that supported it. Millions of television viewers, still reeling from the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy just months earlier, watched with renewed revulsion as cops moved into action, gassing and beating gesticulating protesters and benumbed bystanders alike.
In a park not far from the mayhem, Hoffman and Rubin spirited a large rally, complete with fiery speeches and Dylan tunes. In an era rife with colourful characters, Hoffman was the Dennis Rodman of political activists. He revealed the myriad ways of ‘how to live out on the street’ in his book, Steal This Book, which his tie-dyed acolytes proceeded to do – stealing thousands of editions of the street-survivalist playbook and turning them into petty thieves at the same time (maybe the cleverest marketing stunt of all-time). His credo was summed up with “Revolution for the hell of it.” He had a genius for infuriating the elites from Left to Right of the political spectrum, and yet he remained a popular hero.
In 1967, he helped 50,000 protesters in an attempted telekinetic exorcism of the Pentagon. Earlier, he, Rubin and others had climbed the Stock Exchange balcony and literally brought brokers to their hands and knees by raining dollar bills on them. “One should always be able to yell `theatre’ in a crowded fire,” he’d said, and treated the era as a large-scale production of the Theatre of the Absurd.
Halfway around the world, another revolutionary production was taking place — the “Prague Spring”. The Czechoslovakians were by 1968 ready to return to the democratic republicanism they had briefly enjoyed post-World War I. Though they lacked a Hoffman, they owned a deep legacy of subversion; and, in 1968, had a formidable cast of reformers including Milos Forman, Jiri Menzel, Milan Kundera and Vaclav Havel. Together they fomented change and the Communist Party head Alexander Dubcek, seemed happy enough to oversee it. The proposed press freedom and limited political participation seemed innocuous, but the Soviets thought otherwise, and sent occupation troops into Prague that August. The Iron Curtain would remain down until the Velvet Revolution of 1989.
The events of August 1968 in Chicago and Prague have always presented some strange ironies and parallels. While Left-leaning protesters raged against the military-industrial complex and its oligarchic web of money-greed in the US, in Prague, Right-leaning protesters (in relative terms), such as Havel, fought for a more open humanistic society. America, capitalist to the core, had kept the Red threat at bay by laying down socialist safety nets such as the Social Security Act and the Welfare State, funded by a redirection of wealth from the pockets of the middle class. Meanwhile, the Soviets had slaked the thirst for democratic reforms by offering thimblefuls that tasted like freedom, but which were never “the real thing.” Not that it would matter.
Not long after the summer of violence, Hoffman, Rubin, and other protesters were arrested for conspiracy to commit rioting and tried as the Chicago 8 in a farcical courtroom drama that saw Black Panther Bobby Seale bound and gagged (later tried separately), with Abbie taunting presiding Judge Hoffman by dressing up in various costumes, and generally turning the proceedings into a Marx Brothers romp. After their eventual acquittal, Hoffman went underground to avoid imprisonment on criminal drug charges. When he re-emerged in 1980 to serve a brief negotiated jail sentence by way of a sympathetic Carter Administration, the US was entering a Reagan era presided over by the so-called “Me” generation. Abbie showed he still had a working protest finger in 1986 when he and Amy Carter (and others) defended their arrests following disruptions of CIA recruitment efforts on a college campus, successfully arguing in court with a ‘Necessity Defense’ that their minor criminality had the far greater public benefit of shedding light on the criminal activities CIA in Central America.
In 1985, he had a radio debate with his estranged friend Rubin, by then a stock broker. They mostly traded tired barbs and banalities, but also discussed the future of political activism in America. Rubin reasoned that change could only come by working from within the system, while Hoffman scoffed at Rubin’s “cop-out” and maintained justice and equality would always have to be wrested forcibly from power elites.
When Hoffman committed suicide in 1989, he missed out on the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the hopeful celebrations, but he was also spared the years that followed, which have brought “casino capitalism” to the world. And when Rubin, in a minor act of yuppie defiance, was killed jaywalking in 1994, he missed out on Bill Clinton’s recent trip to China. With Rubinesque logic, the Babyboomer president explained to the world that working “with China” to establish a stable middle class of consumers would be the most efficient way of bringing about humanistic changes. Around the world the mainstream media applauded the beginnings of ‘globalization’, while tired activists shook their heads.
In central Europe, the dilemma of how to best effect social change remains. Despite – and arguably because of their sophistication and intellectual antagonism – nations such as the Czech Republic remain in a muddle of political ambivalence seeming unsure of what to do. But the Czech Republic is not alone with the dilemma. As governments everywhere cut health, education and welfare costs and make their nations safe for foreign investors, popular dissatisfaction with the human quality of our lives continues to grow, along with the gap between haves and have-nots. What’s missing is visionary leadership and the spirit of levity. “Democracy is not something you believe in, but something you do,” Hoffman once said. “If you stop doing it, democracy crumbles.” Enter populism and the growth of authoritarianism, the Surveillance State and the end of privacy, climate change exacerbated by population growth, Trump, fake news, fake everything.
One wonders if Hoffman saw it all as worth it in the end, as he made his way underground for the last time.
John Kendall Hawkins is a writer who currently resides in Australia.