what Mr. Survival of the Fittest Charles Darwin would be thinking as the
surreality show "Survivor" moves from the realm of television into the
arena of TV legend. CBS has cashed in already, and all l6 of the
"survivors" of this staged sitcom-cum-adventure show that has
titillated TV viewers all summer are making deals for commercials, endorsements
and TV careers. Attention, world TV viewers: This money-maker will soon be
restaged and localized by TV companies in your countries. Instant celebrity is,
as we know, bankable. "Survivor" has been a media bonanza all around.
A board game, reruns and more reunion shows are already in the works.
I am thinking of another survivor game this week after seeing a new flick,
"Steal This Movie," based on the life and times of Abbie Hoffman, a
media star of the 60s. Abbie’s "cast" back then consisted of a few
thousand hippies and yippies trying to survive the rigors of a Chicago Park
surrounded by a few thousand of that city’s "finest"–police
determined to use their clubs to drive them out of town. Abbie had his own
alliances and tribal councils, but in 1968, the power of the police,
"pigs" the protesters called them, overwhelmed those who thought the
Bill of Rights applied to them. Mayor Daley forced them off his island. In one
of the great revealing slips of the age, he actually said, "The police are
not here to combat disorder. The police are here to preserve disorder."
Now, we have Abbie making a comeback of sorts on the silver screen in a film
that has disappointed most of his old friends and political running mates.
Perhaps that’s a reflection of the difficulties of recreating the spirit, chaos
and consciousness of the ’60s. Ellen Willis ruminates about this in the New York
Times: "The greatest obstacle to representing the 60s in more than
cartoonish fashion is that it was thoroughly mythologized even as it was
happening. Two kinds of voices dominate the present conversation about the ’60s:
those who condemn the utopianism of the time as a totalitarian delusion, and
those who sentimentally endow it with a moral purity unknown to today’s era of
rampant materialism and cynicism about politics. What’s missing from both
accounts is the ’60s as emotional experience: the desire to live intensely, the
hope that people could have more than Freud’s ordinary unhappiness. For my
generation, the pursuit of happiness was not a slogan."
A new generation is not always living their dreams and fantasies but
experiencing them vicariously through TV vehicles like "Survivor."
Abbie and his cohorts tried to change reality; the Tagi Tribe is out to win a
million, not build a movement.They picked a schemer as their role model. Abbie
the dreamer was one of mine.
Although the movie’s target is the government’s vicious COINTELPRO program aimed
at dividing and demoralizing the Movement, it may end up accomplishing what the
FBI never could–making Abbie and his Chicago 7 colleagues seem unsympathetic.
One of Abbie’s fellow yipsters, in a flyer intended for distribution at
screenings, focused on points the film didn’t make: "When Abbie published
‘Steal This Book’ under the name FREE, he was sending a countercultural message
to American youth–to challenge an unjust system, to act as a citizen, not a
consumer. He was about revolution, ‘boxing’ with THE MAN, not box-office
revenues." (Ironic, isn"t it, that Napster–probably the most popular
site on the Internet–could be called "Steal This Music"…)
Abbie probably would have seen the humor in "Steal This Movie," a
cartoonish characterization, a "disappointingly square" and
"clumsy attempt," in the words of the "Hollywood Reporter."
He would have laughed at the hypocrisy, as he often did. But we Abbie loyalists
see it less as a joke and more as an example of how reality can be twisted, how
our heroes and struggles can be reduced to commercial formulas, and what
Hollywood’s own top trade calls "manipulative film making."
The View From Under 30
For another generation’s view, I sent a stolen copy of "Steal This
Movie" to my 23-year-old daughter Sarah, now working in Hollywood, who had
met Abbie and written a high-school term paper about him. Here’s part of her
"When I heard that someone was making a movie out of his life, I was
excited. I looked forward to seeing my hero on screen rather than the pathetic
compromised men usually heroicized in American film. The cast looked great, the
title, also great. Unfortunately the film is not. When I screened a copy of
‘Steal This Movie’ I realize that what was stolen was Abbie. What was lost was
Abbie. What was missing was Abbie. For those unfamiliar with Abbie’s amazing
life, the film is incomprehensible. For those who are familiar, it is a waste of
time. Without insight or explanation, this film is all surface. But not even a
complete surface, just various extreme close-ups of small areas, so that no
whole is visible. No meaning discerned. No conclusions reached. The ’60s become
a camping trip, Abbie a "crazy" scout leader. ‘Steal This Movie’ has
stolen Abbie, stolen his life, his experiences and most of all, most sadly of
all, his life’s meaning. His meaning to me, his meaning to his friends, his
family and his meaning to the world."
I guess she didn’t like it either!
Delving Into Meaning
Sarah speaks of meaning, an idea that is often missing in much commercial media.
If true, that means viewers, readers and listeners like us have to find it in
our lives and work. Abbie himself meant a lot to the people who learned from him
and loved him. He was often called a media manipulator (Ellen Willis uses the
more accurate term "media artist" in her Times essay) but when I asked
him about that, he’d laugh. "How many networks do I own? I wish I
At the same time, he had a genius for understanding the zeitgeist of the minute
and getting it into the media. Whether it was getting arrested for wearing an
American flag shirt (did you notice how many flags were worn at both political
conventions this year?) or staging political theater, he understood the power of
media and the importance of getting his political views a bigger megaphone.
Ironically, back in 1977, when I met and interviewed him when he was still
underground, he was working on a book called " Soon To Be a Major Motion
Picture." My interview, reprinted in a new e-book collection called
"News Dissector," closes with thoughts of someone who, in the end,
couldn’t survive a manic depressive condition, but whose spirit survives
"There’s a money-back guarantee on this book," Abbie said. "If
people are not completely satisfied, they’re to see me personally and I’ll give
them their twelve bucks back. Now you remember I promised never to tell a lie?
You know what happens when I tell a lie? My nose gets bigger. Okay, I’ll read
you the ending of the book. It’s a serious book. I’m aiming for a Pulitzer.
"There is absolutely no greater high than challenging the power structure
as a nobody, giving it your all, and winning. I think I’ve learned the lesson
twice now, in two different lives. The essence of successful revolution, be it
for an individual, a community of individuals, or a nation, depends on accepting
that challenge. Revolution is not something fixed in ideology, nor is it
something fashioned to a particular decade. It is a perpetual process imbedded
in the human spirit. When all today’s isms have become yesterday’s ancient
philosophies, there’ll still be reactionaries, there’ll still be
revolutionaries. No amount of rationalization can avoid the moment of choice
each of us brings to our situation here on the planet.
"I still believe in the fundamental injustice of the profit system, and do
not accept the proposition there will be rich and poor for all eternity.
"So, this is the end then. Well, I’ve had some good times. I’ve had some
bad. I took some lumps, I scored some points. Halfway through life at
forty-three, I still say, go for broke. No government, no FBI, no judge, no
jailer is ever going to make me say uncle. Now, as then, let the game continue.
Bet my stake on Freedom’s call. I’ll play these cards with no regrets. Signed,
Abbie Hoffman, Underground, U.S.A., Autumn of the seventies.
"That’s it. That’s it. I’ve got to go."
Me too. But not without lamenting that the contrived fun and games of
"Survivor" is what captures the national imagination these days, not
the example and ideas of an Abbie Hoffman. At the Chicago Comspiracy Trial, he
was asked on the stand where he lived. His response: "Woodstock Nation, a
country that lives in the imagination of a generation." Its hope: peace and
love, and to transform a dead culture and a country at war. What will this
generation say: an island off Borneo where the credo is "outwit, outplay,
outlast?" Its fantasy: win a million bucks and a Pontiac and drive a off
into the sunset.
Danny Schechter is the Executive Editor of MediaChannel and the author of
"Falun Gong’s Challenge to China" (Akashic Books).