What Really Happened to the Class of '68?
Friday A/V Club: The Yippies, the yuppies, and the ghosts of the '60s and '80s
Here at the Friday A/V Club, we look at the junk left in our cultural attic, not the junk that gets nominated for prestigious awards. So I won't dwell on the fact that Aaron Sorkin's The Trial of the Chicago 7, which is up for six Oscars on Sunday, took the three-ring lunacy of the Chicago 7 trial and somehow managed to reduce it to the pat platitudes of a Stanley Kramer movie. In fact, I won't dwell on the Chicago 7 trial at all. Suffice to say that the government tried to prosecute seven activists (originally eight) for their roles in the protests at the 1968 Democratic convention, that a lot of crazy shit happened in that courtroom, and that the defendants were eventually acquitted on all charges, though some of them didn't get a full acquittal until they appealed the original verdict.
Now let's leap ahead a decade and a half.
In the last installment of this column, we talked about "a disorienting moment in American history: a time after the convulsions of the 1960s and '70 had ended but while most of the giant figures of that faded age were still around, trying to find a place for themselves in a changed world." In that case I was talking about the LSD evangelist Timothy Leary and the Watergate burglar G. Gordon Liddy, who held a series of public debates in the early '80s. But those weren't the only veterans of the '60s culture wars to launch a stage show in the Reagan era. Two members of the Chicago 7, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, went on a debate tour of their own.
In 1967, Hoffman, Rubin, and three other activists founded the Yippies, a group of psychedelic revolutionaries known for their media pranks and guerrilla theater. (Among other things, they staged an invasion of Disneyland, nominated a pig for the U.S. presidency, and—in Rubin's case—showed up at a hearing of the House Committee on Un-American Activities dressed as Santa Claus.) Then Hoffman got busted for dealing cocaine and went underground for six years, while Rubin spent the '70s sampling a smorgasbord of New Age trends. By the '80s, Hoffman was an activist again, albeit of a more conventional kind, while Rubin was an entrepreneur who worked on Wall Street and organized networking salons for young professionals. In 1984, the former comrades went on the road as the Yippie vs. Yuppie debate.
I caught their act in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in February 1985—15 years to the month after the Chicago 7 verdict had been handed down. A year after that, they held their final debate in Vancouver. Some folks from AM Productions recorded the Vancouver show, and you can watch it here:
By this point, the tone between the two was more bitter than it had been when I watched them debate in Chapel Hill—and Rubin's mood got grumpier when someone stormed the stage to throw a pie at him. Hoffman was the better showman: He always was the funnier of the two, and he worked the crowd with ease. Whether he "won" depends on who you ask. The video includes some interviews with audience members at the end, and they had a variety of views on the subject.
And what did the duo say onstage? Hoffman pretty much took the standard positions of an '80s leftist—the sorts of views you would have heard on Mayor Bernie Sanders' public access TV show. While Rubin…well, the Jerry Rubin of the '80s was an interesting creature. He had plenty of criticisms of the New Left and the counterculture: He said that he and his comrades had been too macho, too drug-addled, too smitten with Third World Marxist regimes, too unwilling to see the positive side of business. But he insisted that he hadn't turned his back on his past, that he still wanted social justice, that his work in the '80s was a natural sequel to his '60s activism. In some ways, he foreshadowed an idea that later became much more widespread—that beneath those ideological masks, the individualism of the 1960s and the individualism of the 1980s were closely linked.
Unfortunately, Rubin attached that idea to a rather vapid veneration of the baby boom. His big argument wasn't a libertarian claim that those ideals of peace and freedom are better served by an open economy than by state socialism; he was arguing that the baby boomers were an enlightened generation, that they were joining the establishment now, and that they would put the wealth they were building to more socially conscious uses than the old capitalists did. Some of Hoffman's best moments in the debate came when he harpooned such generational stereotypes, pointing out that the majority of the baby boomers had not been lefty activists in the '60s and that there was no good reason to expect them all to have progressive values in the '80s either. (Rubin's big example of yuppie do-goodism was Hands Across America, a then-pending effort to raise awareness of homelessness by forming a human chain from one side of the country to the other. Bad choice: In Tyranny of Kindness, her 1993 exposé of the charity-industrial complex, Theresa Funiciello notes that the event "took some $16 millon to raise barely $15 million.")
In any case, I was ready to mock Rubin when I saw him predict that "in 1988, you will see a baby boom–oriented candidate elected president of the United States." (Spoiler alert: That didn't happen.) But later in the video he tempered his forecast and said that the boomer ascension might not happen for another four years after that. So give him a point for the prophecy: Bill Clinton did get elected president in 1992, and his policies did bear some resemblance to the "neoliberal" ideas that Rubin espoused in Vancouver. (Yes, Rubin really used that word—though he meant it in the Charlie Peters sense, not the modern academic sense.) But Clinton didn't exactly usher in the millennium that Rubin promised, and neither did the three boomer presidents who followed him. And if Joe Biden surprises us all and gives us Rubintopia, he still won't count: He was born in 1942, so he doesn't technically qualify as a baby boomer.
But then, neither did Jerry Rubin, who was born in 1938. The would-be generational spokesman didn't actually belong to the generation he claimed to be speaking for.
Fun fact: In his Hoffman biography, For the Hell of It, Jonah Raskin writes that Abbie Hoffman's speaking gigs in the '80s often brought in "as much as a hundred thousand dollars a year," some of which he quietly invested on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Raskin then quotes Hoffman's broker, who said the old Yippie "loved the idea of making more money than Jerry Rubin."
(For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here. For another installment involving the Yippies, go here. To see another stop on the Hoffman/Rubin debate tour, this one recorded in Alberta, go here. To see Jerry Rubin's cameo in an early episode of Saturday Night Live, go here. To see me imagining Aaron Sorkin writing The Trial of the Chicago 7 as a heist movie, go here.)