Leonard Quart | Letter From New York: Abbie Hoffman and Lenny Snyder

Letter From New York

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NEW YORK — I remember the Yippie co-founder Abbie Hoffman as one of the most flamboyant stars of the '60s counterculture, a movement that I was in contact with when I taught many students who had embraced it. Abbie was imaginative, charismatic, incendiary, and sometimes funny. And he was a pied piper for the young, leading them into an uncharted world where supposedly absolute personal freedom would reign and all conventional constraints would be off. He tried to undermine the status quo with every mischievous and malicious action, rhetorical flourish, and stand-up comedian's patter that he could devise.

Hoffman saw himself as a revolutionary: "Revolution is not something fixed in ideology, nor is it something fashioned to a particular decade. It is a perpetual process embedded in the human spirit." His radicalism was never solemn, dry, or schematic, it had no theory or set of political and social policies. It was anarchic and chaotic, often infantile, and given to facile talk about engaging in violence.

I could enjoy his witty putdowns of power and inventive theatrics. But Hoffman was mostly an egotistical performer, and no real societal change would ever occur because of his manic routines despite his ability to entertain and provide a few pointed insights into how a repressive system works: "You measure a democracy by the freedom it gives its dissidents, not the freedom it gives its assimilated conformists."

For many of my students his radicalism was understandably much more seductive than the different versions of radicalism promoted by Marxist academic theorists, Students for a Democratic Society activists and Weathermen terrorists. I recall our college hiring a sociologist who had been fired from a Canadian university for taking part in a protest. The students on the committee were predictably excited by his hip persona and pushed to hire this wild, not quite articulate academic and Abbie-Hoffman aficionado rather than a solid, disciplined social democrat who would have brought structure to the department and taught the students something about the way social institutions work. One of the assigned texts in his classes was Hoffman's "Steal This Book" (1971) in which Abbie advised its readers how to obtain things through legal and extra-legal means:"To steal from a brother or sister is evil. To not steal from the institutions that are the pillars of the Pig Empire is equally immoral." So the book encouraged the use of slug coins to get free subway rides, taking advantage of government and church handouts, and a variety of shoplifting techniques as ways to rip off the corrupt and inequitable system.

THEFT ISN'T RADICAL

I never felt there was anything remotely radical in gratuitous thievery or screwing the system. It's what money people who are as vile and avaricious as Donald Trump and his cohorts have done all their lives. It's nothing more than the acquisitive capitalism of devouring sharks, not radicalism.

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Many radicals apromoted the notion that drug dealers, street muggers, and prison inmates were part of the revolution, which was an absurdly destructive bit of political romanticism. The professor mentioned above rarely came to class. He took drugs, drank heavily, and offered little of intellectual substance to his students before he lost his job. I suppose you can say he was following Hoffman by ripping off the system. I'm not saying that embracing Hoffman was the cause of his self-destructive behavior, but I have a feeling it only helped encourage it.

In Joshua Furst's "Revolutionaries: A Novel" (Knopf), Lenny Snyder (closely modeled on Hoffman) had a son, Fred (short for Freedom), who now, as an adult, is struggling to comprehend the nature of the father he admired as a child. Lenny's behavior, he recalls, ranged from warm and spontaneous playfulness to neglect and cruelty. In his memories, Fred is clear-eyed about Lenny and his mother , believing that "in their profanity and filth, and chaotic refusal, they were holding up an ideal they only could achieve" by shaping a new human being.

The novel, beginning with Snyder's halcyon days when he was a media celebrity and was viewed as the personification of the spirit of the '60s, succeeds in vividly evoking the period — demonstrations, be-ins, and a great deal of drugs and sex — and skillfully integrates major figures of the time like the kind, unstable and tragic folksinger Phil Ochs, William Kunstler, and Allen Ginsberg into the novel.

Much of the novel deals with what happens to Fred and his mother, who is mostly an appendage to the narcissistic Lenny, as she begins to break down when Lenny flees underground after receiving a sentence for drug dealing.

It's a passionate and vibrant, sometimes overwritten novel that is on target when it deals with the ruined hopes of the '60s in its portrait of a defeated Lenny losing a sense of who he is. His wife Suzy sums the era up succinctly: "No one wins. You can do some good things." However, many of the central figures of the '60s counterculture, like Lenny, could not deal with the fact there was no utopia to be realized, and from the novel's perspective they lost their direction in different ways.

Leonard Quart can be reached at cinwrit@aol.com


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