Surviving “Survivor” While Thinking Of Abbie

Danny Schechter


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).

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