(Page 2 of 3)
Krassner never cared for that sort of thinking—as a stand-up comic, he says, he was "always willing to sacrifice a target" when an unjust leader left office—but he understands it, and occasionally he felt flashes of it himself. I mentioned the memo that made Nixon scrawl Good! He replied with a memory of his own:
When Cronkite came on and reported the Kent State shootings, he said, 'Something has happened that many Americans were afraid would happen,' something like that. It was a moment of horror, but I remember saying to myself, 'Good.' I wasn't glad it happened, I had terrible sympathy for the people who were killed and their families and fellow students. But a month or a couple of weeks before that, in some southern college, some black students got killed. And I thought, Now white people will see that it's their own that are getting it. Now maybe they'll get more involved.
That sort of strategizing doesn't always work out as planned. "The right wing believes so intensely in their own bullshit," Rubin wrote, "that they are too stupid to deceive and govern effectively. Unlike the liberals, they don't know how to divide-and-conquer." It turned out that Nixon and Reagan were adept at dividing and conquering after all. In politics, it's a mistake to assume you're the only one who understands how the media work.
Forty years ago, the yippies seemed unusual because they fused the political radicalism of the New Left with the long-haired, grass-smoking lifestyle of the counterculture. Today that combination is so familiar that many people don't even realize that the protesters and the hippies initially distrusted each other. What seems most curious about the yippies today is the way they mixed hard left politics with a deep appreciation for pop culture. Abbie Hoffman announced that he wanted to combine the styles of Andy Warhol and Fidel Castro. Jerry Rubin dedicated Do it! not just to his girlfriend but to "Dope, Color TV, and Violent Revolution." Even when praising a form of mass culture that had earned some grudging respect from the late-'60s left—rock 'n' roll—Rubin's list of musicians who "gave us the life/beat and set us free" included not just raucous originals like Jerry Lee Lewis and Bo Diddley but Fabian and Frankie Avalon, commercial confections that most lefty rock intellectuals disdained as insufficiently authentic. In one chapter, Rubin complained that if "the white ideological left" took over, "Rock dancing would be taboo, and miniskirts, Hollywood movies and comic books would be illegal." All this from a self-proclaimed communist whose heroes included Castro, Chairman Mao, and Ho Chi Minh.
It's not that the yippies swallowed pop culture uncritically. (Hoffman kept a sign attached to the bottom of his TV that said "bullshit.") It's that they saw the mass media's dream-world as another terrain to fight in. Krassner remembers the yippie circle analyzing virtually everything on the tube, even "watching shows like The Smothers Brothers and comparing that with Laugh-In, that Laugh-In was using easy reference jokes about controversial issues, whereas the comedy in The Smothers Brothers really represented how they felt."
Seven years after Chicago, Jerry Rubin turned up on the second episode of Saturday Night Live, pitching a product called Up Against the Wallpaper. Hoffman attacked the sketch as "a major sellout....He was a caricature of Jerry Rubin making fun of the '60s, but he was not pushing a point, an alternative." If you're plotting Rubin's political trajectory, you can mark 1975 as the year he moved to the right of Tommy Smothers.
To fully comprehend the yippies, you have to look at what they did in the '70s and '80s as much as the '60s. Hoffman got arrested on cocaine charges and subsequently spent six years underground. Rubin plunged into the New Age movement and sampled a series of self-improvement techniques. In his 1976 book Growing (Up) At 37, Rubin wrote about his experiences with everything from primal scream therapy to est; in one bizarre section, the man who once preached the life-changing virtues of LSD now waxed poetic about carrot juice.
Meanwhile, out on the lam, Hoffman wrote this in a letter to his wife:
Drugs have no intrinsic value. All communist countries have correctly outlawed them. There are loads of other exhilarating ways to get high. Communist governments have a cultural revolution to achieve that is national in scope. Our task in the U.S. is to build countercultural institutions that make the raising of children breeding grounds for revolution and rebellion against the wishes of the dominant, decadent culture.
His real views revealed at last? A temporary affectation by a man whose underground life had unleashed an identity crisis? Or maybe just a spasm of guilt in the wake of the coke bust? Who knows for sure? When he surfaced in the '80s, Hoffman crusaded against Reagan's drug war, and his passion for the issue certainly seemed sincere then.
By that time, Rubin had come up from the broader cultural underground, getting a job on Wall Street and later arranging networking parties for young professionals at the Palladium. I saw him debate Hoffman in the mid-'80s, when he and his sparring partner toured together as the Yippie vs. Yuppie show. Hoffman was high on the Sandinistas; Rubin preferred Gary Hart. The majority of the audience seemed to think Rubin was a right-wing sellout. Most of the rest thought Hoffman was a dinosaur who hadn't changed with the times.
Neither view was entirely accurate. Rubin insisted that his new self wasn't so distant from his old self, declaring in 1982 that his networking salons came "out of my 1960s organizing experience." He added, "I really don't think that I've become the person or symbol that I preached against in the '60s. I'm not a warmonger or munitions seller or corporate pig." Hoffman, in his own way, was intensely aware of the differences between the decades. In the last book he published before his death, 1987's Steal This Urine Test, he described a 1983 environmental fight in which "our protest song (as it should be in all environmental battles) was 'America the Beautiful.'...[I]t was very hard to sing it during the sixties as we were being shot, clubbed, jailed, and illegally wiretapped by the government. Especially hard while the mob sang all the patriotic songs. Today it seems appropriate." When Hoffman committed suicide in 1989, the Fifth Estate, an anarchist newspaper in Detroit, complained in an otherwise warm obit that his rhetoric had grown suspiciously patriotic in the last decade of his life.
This is what happens when the counterculture spills out of the '60s and sloshes all over society. It takes new forms, from Rubin's New Age capitalism to Hoffman's all-American socialism. I doubt the yuppie networkers at Rubin's Manhattan salons—young professionals hunting for business partners, bedmates, coke connections—thought of themselves as children of the '60s. But they were, just as surely as Hoffman's Springsteenian patriots were creatures of the Reagan era.