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Arts and Culture

Abbie Hoffman Was Here

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Posted on Jul 22, 2011
Mr. Fish

By Mr. Fish

Abbie Hoffman, the wild-haired personification of both the noun and adjective form of the word “riot” in the 1960s, nostalgically revered by the current liberal Democratic wing of the Establishment Party as the Tourette’s of the Anti-Establishmentarian Movement and the joy-buzzing co-confounder of the Yippies, his significance neutered by his infamy, his legacy no more useful to contemporary radical politics than the miniskirt or the lava lamp, famously said, “You measure democracy by the freedom it gives its dissidents, not the freedom it gives its assimilated conformists.” This was in 1989, when Hoffman was just 52, the same year that he killed himself, making everyone wonder if freedom wasn’t really just another word for nothing left to lose. His body was found in a converted turkey coop near New Hope, Pa., where I found myself a week ago, seated behind a small lopsided table on the sidewalk outside of Farley’s Bookshop, trying to sell my new book of cartoons and essays about how we’re all doomed to tourists and retirees in white linen shorts, crisp running shoes and “God Bless America!” T-shirts.

Roasting beneath the spectacular rage of the mid-July sun while the delicious scent of Abbie Hoffman’s martyred ghost swirled around my starvation for attention like a home-cooked meal, I started to imagine that if only my book loaded with chocolate chips and cut into bite-sized pieces and I were wearing an apron I might gain some acknowledgement from the public.

A week earlier I was at the Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn, drinking red wine from a plastic tumbler and standing before a microphone while the immense rain-soaked windows behind me fogged and perspired, the body heat and carbon dioxide from the overflow crowd overpowering the air conditioning like Bolshevism. The event had been organized by my publisher, Akashic Books, and featured short readings and presentations by a handful of the house’s writers and felt not unlike what I imagined poetry readings at the Six Gallery in San Francisco must’ve been like in the 1950s, more like an Irish wake for the written word than a subdued Lutheran funeral. Following closely behind a short presentation by Adam Mansbach, author of “Go the F**k to Sleep,” this year’s “Chicken Soup for the Soul,” I couldn’t resist saying to the audience, in mock disgust, “Before I begin, let me just say that I’ve spent my entire artistic career saying ‘fuck’ to the most despicable politicians and the most ruthless warmongering men and women of industry and high finance, never realizing that if only I’d said it to sleepless children I’d be on the New York Times bestseller list and not counting nickels to buy my toilet paper.” It was a party.

I remember back when I first saw Dick Lester’s deeply significant 1964 film masterpiece, “A Hard Day’s Night,” and how the scene at the discothèque changed my life forever. It was the part of the movie where we find our lovable heroes, the Beatles, tired of being quarantined in their hotel room between public appearances and they decide to sneak out and go to a club to dance and meet girls. Most remarkable to me, and I was probably 12 at the time, was how cool John Lennon looked by not dancing as the other three were, choosing instead to sit and drink and talk—to philosophize, I guessed, judging by the attentiveness of his listeners and the soigné manner in which he held his cigarette!—with those around him. It seemed antithetical to all that I had been led to believe by the dominant culture about what grooviness and hipness were supposed to look like. What was hipness, particularly for a boy, supposed to look like? Well, the way I understood it was that hipness was largely determined by how well a fella could throw and catch a ball, how handy he was with tools and how gracefully he was able to communicate nonverbally with the opposite sex, whether through dancing, kissing or snubbing. Yet here was Lennon, in a black turtleneck and surrounded by beautiful women, appearing absolutely at home in his own skin, no ball or hammer or ChapStick anywhere in sight, just straight confabulation, pure and simple. The idea that one could appear gorgeous merely by having a conversation was somehow wonderful to me, and I decided to make it my life’s ambition to define my own grooviness by engaging in a never-ending dialogue with as many people as I could. What would be the point, I suddenly realized, of wasting my time trying to emulate the wordless and episodic pantomime that I saw everybody else engaging in with one person at a time?

“Did you make this book yourself?” asked a sapid old lady in half glasses and a pair of powder blue Bermuda shorts approximating the size of the landmass they were named after. She was standing at my sidewalk table, having come from nowhere, caressing the cover of my book like she was hoping to provoke a purr, a needle-thin crucifix hanging from her neck on a chain the width of a thread.

“Yes,” I said, smiling up at her in my Buddy Holly glasses, fresh haircut and three-button blazer, the perfect picture of benign Christianity and cherry-cheeked Americanism. Then she opened the book and concentrated on a random page, mumbling silently to herself the gagline to one of my cartoons. In an instant the sweetness drained from her face and she closed the book and slowly returned it back to its stack, her eyes tearing as if she’d just halved a red onion the size of John the Baptist’s felled head. “Well?” I asked her.

“You should be ashamed of yourself,” she spat, turning away and marching off in the direction of a live klezmer band playing the theme to “Rocky.” What struck me as peculiar was how this woman, who no doubt had lived through the Great Depression, who had seen the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the My Lai Massacre and 9/11, who had witnessed the mind-numbing tragedy of the Holocaust and experienced the devastation of environmental decay and worldwide unrest and famine and public assassination, could react to something I’d drawn as if a new benchmark for unspeakable horror had been set.

“What is ‘Go Fish: How to Win Contempt and Influence People’ about?” I’d said at the Greenlight, referring to the book that I held in my hand, just as the light changed at a nearby intersection and a serpentine line of Brooklyn traffic slowly panned its headlights across my back and sent an elegant succession of shadows pirouetting around the bookstore like joyous slaves. “Let me answer that question by telling you about a young man who wanted nothing more in his life than to be a famous artist,” I said. “He hated school, used to get in trouble for daydreaming all the time. He would lose entire afternoons meditating on the beauty of objects, on the aesthetics of light and shadow, his fingers forever smudged with oil paint, his clothes smelling of turpentine, his heart and mind awash in hope and optimism.” I paused, afraid of choking up.

“For him,” I continued, “there was no higher calling than to be a painter who created beautiful images for the public and who lived his life in service of his craft, his canvases designed for the singular purpose of inspiring people’s souls to grow. That young artist’s name …”—I stopped, looked around the room, then back at the book in my hand—“… was Adolf Hitler. The moral of the story being that if only we lived in a world less inclined to discourage lousy artists from continuing to create shitty art and more inclined to discourage lousy politicians from becoming monsters hellbent on conquering the planet we’d be a lot better off.”

“True,” I said, “if Hitler’s artistic career had been allowed to continue and not been cut short there would be many more crappy oils of quaint churches at dusk and abandoned hay wagons at midday and misty covered bridges at dawn to clutter up the world, but at least there’d also be millions more Jewish doctors, dentists and psychiatrists to absorb all that mediocrity into gaudy frames in their waiting rooms.”

* * *

“What’s your book about,” asked a DNC canvasser with a clipboard and a blue T-shirt bearing the Obama logo just as the Pennsylvania sun was dipping behind the trees. He was watching me stack all my unsold books on my tiny table in preparation for returning them to the bookstore manager inside.

“Huh?” I said.

“Your book there,” he said. “What’s it about?”

“It’s a coming-of-rage book,” I said. He didn’t answer me. “It’s about how constructive nihilism can be when kept on the tip of a pencil and off the point of a fucking bayonet.” It had been a long day.

“You registered to vote?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said.

“You supporting Obama?” he said.

“Why?” I said.

“I just want to know.”

“No,” I said, “I mean why should I support him?”

“Forget it,” he said. 

I did.


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By ardee, November 2, 2011 at 6:53 am Link to this comment

hogorina, November 1 at 6:11 pm

Whew!! Off your meds again?

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hilaryurquii's avatar

By hilaryurquii, August 1, 2011 at 5:39 pm Link to this comment

thanks mr. fish. somehow, the knowledge of other miserable, alienated souls with toilet-paper accounting problems made me feel better.

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By Shenonymous, August 1, 2011 at 9:35 am Link to this comment

Walking the halls of ivy, (university) Anarcissie, I palpably feel you
observe correctly.  Most of the professors are tight lipped and tight
assed, wanting only to keep their jobs.  And they make friends with
the administration.  Even the sociology faculty.

Sigh, and oh well…one does not enter the gates of hell alone.  I’ve
tried talking to some of my colleagues and get nowhere.  I admit to
needing to keep my job too.  An unwilling accomplice in the debacle.
It is such a crazy pace to get through a term, the quarter system does
not give much time to cover the course material let alone have political
discussions.  Change in academic will have to wait until the infection
gets too great to hold in the rebellion.  I am not radically worried.  It is
cyclic as I’ve noticed.  Let’s see the rebellious sixties was 60 years ago!  It
is beginning to feel (emotionally) time to regenerate.

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By Anarcissie, August 1, 2011 at 9:04 am Link to this comment

Shenonymous—I am told that one of the results of the Sixties was that the education industry became much more careful about who they allowed to pass through which gates.  These days, apparently, acting up means you won’t get in the right school, and therefore will miss your chance to make piles in, say, the financial industry or at a prestigious corporate law firm.  This policy keeps a lot of people quiet.

Chris—Abbie Hoffman is like a fugal theme for Mr. Fish’s article—a rather dissonant one.  He is a sort of ‘distant mirror’ (in Barbara Tuchman’s phrase) to Mr. Fish’s work.  There are three countersubjects: Mrs. Bermuda, Adolf Hitler the frustrated artist, and finally the mindless Obamanoid, who represent various features of the world Mr. Fish’s work encounters.  This seemingly simple account of trying to sell books is quite a cult-crit tour de force.

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By Shenonymous, August 1, 2011 at 8:20 am Link to this comment

Abbot Howard “Abbie” Hoffman and the Chicago 8 were ballsy. 
We don’t have anything like them today.  Most students on most
campuses are feeble, ineffective, powerless, sterile, weak, as are
their so-called academic professors.  I know lots of them. A Kent
State incident would never be able to happen in the 21st century. 
Yip yip yip yippiee!

Students and academics have to “dig” deep to get to their essential

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By Chris, July 31, 2011 at 4:11 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I might be missing something here but what does Abbie Hoffman have to do with
the rest of the article?  As for his significance, Abbie was arrested a number of
times, beaten and clubbed by the police, had a number of death threats, and a
significant F.B.I. file for what he believed in. He organized and demonstrated for
civil rights, against the Vietnam War, and for environmental causes. Him and the
other Chicago defendants were facing 10 years in prison during the Chicago trial.
He was also a master at media manipulation and street theater, something the left
could probably use at this point if we could do it as well as Abbie. He was also
funny as hell and used his humor to try and get people to think and act. And this
is only a partial bio! Sure Abbie had his problems, but when he said freedom he
meant it. Lava lamp? Miniskirt? Hardly.

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By Anarcissie, July 30, 2011 at 9:48 pm Link to this comment

Actually, I think the (pre)dominant culture was profoundly changed by the various movements which appeared in the fabled Sixties.  That era and its movements were much more complicated than people seem to understand forty-odd years later.  For one thing, Reaganism can be seen as one of its outcomes, as well as Civil Rights, feminism, and Classic Rock.  Doing your own thing can mean a left-wing thing or a right-wing thing or an incomprehensible thing.  In its original context, Steal This Book was simply exploitive: either the listed resources no longer existed, or they were mostly very quickly destroyed by wide publication of their location and description.  Meanwhile someone made money off the book.  That kind of exploitive spirit blossomed in the ‘80s.

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By Not One More!, July 30, 2011 at 6:16 pm Link to this comment

Mr. Hoffman wrote (and I’m paraphrasing badly here because I read it a long time ago), ‘I sometimes act like a jester in public to get attention, but I am very serious about my message.’

There is a great movie, Steal this Movie, that is about his life. Yes, he wasn’t perfect, but who is? Anyway, the DVD extras had interviews with his actual friends and family. Those were most enlightening.

I think that the 60s/70s were a serious time of change where people combined social, political, and cultural (art and music) all to try to rise above the status quo which at that time was pro-war, pro-corporation. And yes, it was a whole lot more (sex drugs and rock ‘n’ roll), but there were some who actually wanted to make a significant change.

The dominant culture has not changed unfortunately, not for lack of trying. The dominant culture, which is controlled by the corporate elite and their henchmen (including our elected officials), has not only a vested interest in promoting their selfish policies, but have the cash to back it up. People can be bought for so cheap, and they don’t care about spilling their brother’s (or children’s) blood.

http://www.NotOneMore.US - Pledge for Peace

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By Nixon is Lord, July 29, 2011 at 8:18 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Wow, you think of yourself as “apple-cheeked” but
you’re a radical?  So you’re in “The belly of the
beast” with a “prophetic ministry”? 
  Please.  Abbie Hoffman was, according to a number
of college students I knew who had to “entertain” him
when he came to their campuses, a total jerk: self-
centered, greedy, demanding, sloppy, full of himself,
wanting every and any co-ed he could see and furious
if any turned him down.  He was famous for being
famous.  The world will, and should, ignore the
deaths of pointless clowns too lazy to actually work
for a living.  When I heard about this man’s death, I
thought “Now he can get his own goddamn weed on his
own goddamn dime.”

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By Kath Cantarella, July 28, 2011 at 11:59 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I wrote ‘tweet’ instead of ‘post’. My brain is Twitter-fried. Social media is a different kind of drug. Apologies.

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By mary, July 28, 2011 at 6:01 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I attended the Abbie Hoffman Memorial Picnic near New Hope after Abbie’s death. Richie Havens and William Kunstler were among the guests. It was mostly a crowd of hippies with their kids, sitting on blankets in the park. But there were lots of police and their paddy wagons there, as if they expected big trouble.  You know, the kind of police presence you never see at Tea Party events, even when the teabaggers are carrying guns.

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By Anarcissie, July 28, 2011 at 5:41 pm Link to this comment

Sorry I missed you at Greenlight, Mr. Fish.  Maybe next time.  As to Abbie Hoffman and New Hope, Pennsylvania, I’ve always had pretty mixed feelings about both of them.  De mortuis, etc., however.

The little vignette about Adolf would make an excellent introduction to the next edition, sure to offend those who need or desire to be offended, although it seems from New Hope’s Ms. Bermuda’s reaction it may be superfluous—like nature, the universe, and so forth.

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By Kath Cantarella, July 28, 2011 at 3:59 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I didn’t mean that to sound as though Abbie bore no personal responsibility for what happened in his own life. His own responsibility goes without saying. The culture’s responsibility is too often glossed over for convenience.

And no, this is not a conservative tweet. A conservative culture helped Abbie destroy himself without compunction, mainly because he stood up to it. It’s something that always grates on me: authoritarian anti-feminist and anti everything moderate types going on about how the culture has deteriorated and how everything is the fault of the other side. They seem to have so little understanding of why a culture actually falls apart: that freedom IS equality and equality IS freedom, and whichever of those two nouns you use to describe it, it is worth fighting, and dying for.

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By Kath Cantarella, July 28, 2011 at 3:30 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Bi-polar is a bitch. But how many ‘misfits’ drug themselves into brain damage and psych disorders when a less bigoted, less authoritarian & more equitable culture would’ve allowed them some measure of real happiness w/out the mind-altering crap? We are, perhaps just a bit, sometimes a lot (anybody here a maven?), all responsible for our cultures.

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By Kath Cantarella, July 28, 2011 at 3:08 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Abbie had a lot to lose, probably more than most. I imagine he just couldn’t live with what others had done to it.

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By fact-based rationality, July 28, 2011 at 10:41 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Abbie Hoffman rocks. We still love you Abbie. Howl Forever.

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By Glenn, July 27, 2011 at 9:44 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

What makes you think Abbie Hoffman killed himself?

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By norman harman, July 27, 2011 at 6:25 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Mr. Fish,

As Hoffman might have said (and probably did on many occasions), “right-on

I like your writings, I like your drawings and I like your attitude. I’m going to go out
and steal your book.

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By C.Curtis.Dillon, July 26, 2011 at 4:06 am Link to this comment

Isn’t it truly amazing that someone can be offended by a swear word or by a naked breast but can’t even bat an eyelash at a picture of a human body blown into a million pieces or the bloated belly of a starving child? What deep character flaw makes that possible? Whatever it is, we in America seem to have an epidemic of it and I only hope we can find a cure before it’s too late. Can’t someone invent a vaccine?

Nice work Fish ... you’ve pointed out, once again, the absolute hypocrisy of our fellow Americans.

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By john crandell, July 24, 2011 at 10:39 pm Link to this comment

Japhy Ryder once said: “Register your absence with The Null and Void Trust Company.” You, more than anyone else, have done that Mister Fish.

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By johnp, July 24, 2011 at 8:33 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Thanks again meestar feesh..your work keeps a lot of us from joining the united states of amnesia

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By kerryrose, July 23, 2011 at 6:54 pm Link to this comment

‘What struck me as peculiar was how this woman, who no doubt had lived through the Great Depression, who had seen the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the My Lai Massacre and 9/11, who had witnessed the mind-numbing tragedy of the Holocaust and experienced the devastation of environmental decay and worldwide unrest and famine and public assassination, could react to something I’d drawn as if a new benchmark for unspeakable horror had been set.’

Yes, I’ve always wondered (and secretly envied) the ability of a large majority of people to transcend ugly reality, and rise, unencumbered, to the ultimate plane of politeness, appearances, civility, and conformity.  I’m not kidding.  I wish I had the ability.  Life would be easier.

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By poodfreemon, July 23, 2011 at 2:37 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Mr. Fish: We need you, for a special mission. We want you to write the next State of the Union address, and publish it ASAP. We want you to tell the utter truth about everything. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, will be to connect all the dots.

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By Bronwen Rowlands, July 23, 2011 at 1:38 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Excellent, Mr. Fish.  You have lifted my spirits, again.  I will buy your book on

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By JB, July 23, 2011 at 7:53 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I think I’ll head down to New Hope today and buy a copy of your book. Then I’ll read it cover to cover and then I’ll donate it to my local public library. The kids have a right to know. You rock, mr. fish.

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By rumblingspire, July 23, 2011 at 7:16 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Mr. Fish,
May you always disturb that comfort that comes before justice

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By Jack, July 23, 2011 at 5:21 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The phrase “The same year that he killed himself” glosses over the fact that his family all dispute that his overdose was intentional.

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By PatrickHenry, July 23, 2011 at 4:49 am Link to this comment

I still have a copy of ‘Steal this Book” in my bookcase.

I consider it a must have survival manual.

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By Michael Fish, July 23, 2011 at 4:43 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Great Read. You go Mr. Fish. A big Hug to you.

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By Joshua Alan Beane, July 23, 2011 at 3:58 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

keep on keepin on, brother. I’m with you 100%

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By DarthMiffy, July 23, 2011 at 2:54 am Link to this comment

Good one, Mr. Fish. Need to find your audience, though, and they don’t appear at
these little bookstores in Hooservilles.

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