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Abbie Hoffman: American Rebel.

Here's a small grab bag of good books I neglected to mention last month, along with a farewell to a great pioneer.

Abbie Hoffman, a compassionate but critical biography, traces Hoffman's frenetic life--his youth in Worcester, Massachusetts, as a middle-class street tough and closet intellectual; his political awakenings at Brandeis and Berkeley; his work as a civil-rights activist in Worcester; his meteoric rise to fame as an antiwar protester and Yippie leader; the police riots at the Chicago Convention; the Chicago Seven trial; anti-Nixon activities; his cocaine bust; his years underground as Barry Freed, organizer of Save the River, an environmental group on the St. Lawrence; his resurfacing; his protests against Reagan's policies in Central America; his efforts to rebuild a student movement, and his struggle with manic depression, which he ultimately lost in 1989 when he committed suicide.

The author, Marty Jezer, has ideal credentials for this biography, and he brings an intimacy and depth of knowledge to the task. Jezer participated with Hoffman in several demonstrations in the 1960s, edited WIN, a radical pacifist underground magazine, and has remained engaged in politics ever since.

He is not content merely to chronicle Hoffman's life. Instead, Jezer uses his own political experience and reflection to make judgments not only about Hoffman himself but about the style of late-1960s protest that Hoffman came to typify.

Hoffman, the Yippies, the Black Panthers, and the Weather Underground went astray, Jezer argues, when they became dismissive and disdainful of the American people and their culture. What's more, the radicals' outrageous language, style, and tactics--calling police "pigs," saying that kids should "kill their parents," embracing violence as useful and legitimate--doomed them politically at a time when millions of Americans could have been won over, Jezer contends. Hoffman was as much to blame as anyone.

"When he stopped believing that people were listening, as he did at times in the late 1960s and early 1970s," writes Jezer, "he lost his grounding in the American culture, and his politics took a reckless, churlish, and self-defeating turn."

I have only one major disagreement with Jezer's critique--his argument that Hoffman, the Yippies, and much of the peace movement "misjudged the 1968 election." Jezer says they should have rallied behind Hubert Humphrey in 1968, despite his faults, to defeat Nixon and bring the war to an earlier end.

It seems to me, though, that Hoffman was right to oppose Humphrey, who was a staunch supporter of the war, as Jezer acknowledges.

And 1968 could have been an ideal time to forge a viable left-wing third party in America--had Eugene McCarthy or George McGovern chosen to go that route. But that's my schtick; Jezer believes in working within the two-party system.

Jezer also rebukes Hoffman for using homophobic language in the late 1960s and early 1970s when he should have known better, and he finds Hoffman less than a committed feminist man. As Jezer examines Hoffman's politics, so too does he analyze his character, and he finds plenty of flaws--chief among them Hoffman's egomania, his domineering personality, and his macho style.

At the same time, Jezer recognizes Hoffman's strong qualities--his genius at organizing, his knack for using the media, his ability to relate to all kinds of people, his infectious sense of humor, and his lifelong commitment to peace and social justice.

"He was a showman and an entertainer," Jezer writes. "He thought of himself not only as a community organizer but as a political artist. Without doubt he was the funniest activist in the history of the American Left, if not in the history of American politics. He cared deeply about people, and his passion for justice inspired his creativity."

Rooster Crows at Light from the Bombing is a collection of protest poetry and prose about the Gulf War that brings home the ghastliness of being an American spectator at a massacre of our own making. In one of the poems, "New York Honors Troops," Anthony Signorelli expresses the disgust many of us felt at the homecoming parades "paying homage to those who do our killing." The wonderfully haunting title of this book is a bit of found poetry--a comment by CNN anchor Bernard Shaw, who said from Baghdad after the U.S. air war commenced, "the strangest sound was a rooster crowing at light from the bombing."

This little book contains poetry from, among others: Anya Achtenberg, Robert Bly, and William Stafford. The prose comes from magazine pieces by such writers as Wendell Berry (from The Progressive) and Michael Ventura of L.A. Weekly. Ventura's piece, "Possessed by War," is a must-read. He begins by noting the discomfort and disquiet he felt at being asked by his editors (who were also his friends) to go cover the war. He ponders the pros and cons of going and ultimately decides not to because he does not wish to become implicated in the war's immorality.

"If I go there, even as a writer, my stakes change," he explains. "If I'm with a combat outfit on the ground in Saudi Arabia, I want them very much to win. I suddenly have an enormous stake in the success of the policies of George Bush. If he can save me and these soldiers by bombing Iraq senseless, I'm not going to have mixed feelings about that, at least not right then.... Allowing oneself to be in that position, no matter who you are or what your function may be, is either tragically stupid or deeply immoral, depending on whether or not you knew what you were getting into. It is a forgetting of one's soul. And that's further than I'm willing to for my country or my profession."

But Ventura recognizes that there is no safe refuge--not even in protest--from the poison of war. "Being against a war doesn't insulate you from its demonic properties," he warns. "It can be very exciting having a war to protest. Your small personal life takes on cosmic historical significance. It feels like you're gaining stature, but actually you're at risk of losing your identity. As a protester you, like the soldier, are not quite yourself. You are yourself plus the war. . . . War is dangerous to everyone, on all sides."

For those who are June Jordan fans, as I am, Technical Difficulties is an exhilirating collection of some of her best essays and speeches from the last six years, many of which appeared first in these pages. Every time I read Jordan's work, I am struck and re-struck by her authentic voice, her fresh poetic style, and, above all, the intensity of her commitment to justice and equality.

Like most great American agitators, and she is proudly an agitator, Jordan holds up our country's ideals and points out the distance we are from realizing them. Hers is a patriotic quest in the best sense: to make America live up to its promise.

In "My Perfect Soul Shall Manifest Me Rightly: An Essay on Blackfolks and the Constitution," Jordan documents the problems in our society. "There is a terrible trouble across the land," she writes. "As a nation we have become a beacon for tyrants, greed-driven entrepreneurs, and militaristic fantasies. As a people we have become accustomed to the homeless, the beggars, the terrorized minorities, and the terrified elderly. As an electorate, we have become the craven subjects of deceitful, lawless, and inhumane leadership. As African-Americans, we have become coast-to-coast targets for resurgent racist insolence and injuries."

But characteristically, she finds hope. After detailing other terrible troubles, she reverses field. "There is a terrible trouble across the land because We, the People, are becoming more powerful," she writes. "Despite the limited intentions of the Fathers of this republic, We, the People of America, are forcing a democracy out of Pilgrim Rock.... This was not always the case. This was not meant to be."

Jordan offers more than just politics, narrowly defined. She includes a warm tribute to her West Indian immigrant parents; a poignant account of how she rejected the isolated, individualistic life of a secluded poet and decided to return to a city and community; a couple of rousing commencement addresses; a funny and pointed piece--given as the keynote at an Activists' and Socialists' Conference--that begins memorably, "Two weeks ago my aunt called me a communist"; a laudatory yet critical essay on Martin Luther King Jr., entitled "The Mountain and the Man Who Was Not God," and an exuberant recollection of Jesse Jackson's 1988 bid for the Presidency.

I always find June Jordan inspiring and empowering, and it is a treasure to have some of my favorite Progressive essays--such as "Waiting for a Taxi," "Can I Get A Witness?", and "Requiem for the Champ"--collected under one cover. But it is a particular delight to discover some earlier pieces that display her talents and her humanity in all the rich and dazzling hues that have come to characterize her distinguished work.

Finally, a farewell. Audre Lorde, the great black feminist lesbian poet, died on November 17 after a long struggle with cancer. For a generation of lesbian activists, Lorde served as a model of courage, a valiant fighter against bigotry in all its stripes.

I came to know her writing only in the last few years, after my colleague, Joy Wallin, brought her to my attention and took me to hear her speak in Madison. Lorde gave one of the most impressive lectures I've ever heard. She spoke with unflinching resolve, and she cared not a bit for applause. "Don't clap. That's easy," she told her audience. "Go out and do something."

I went out and bought all the books of hers I could find at Madison's superb bookstore, A Room of One's Own. And I was won over, immediately. And I remain so. When I heard from Joy that Lorde had died, two days before The Times tucked her away, I stopped what I was doing, went to my bookshelf, and for two hours, often at the copy machine, reread some of her extraordinary work.

Her aphorisms ("The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house") and her poetry will continue to nurture generations of activists to come. But for now, we can only be grateful to her. I quote from her poem, "October":

Carry my heart to some shore

my feet will not shatter

do not let me pass away

before I have a name

for this tree

under which I am lying

Do not let me die still

needing to be stranger.
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Author:Rothschild, Matthew
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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