Surviving "Survivor" While Thinking Of Abbie
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 take:
"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 did."
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 nonetheless:
"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).