Rewriting the Sixties

Rewriting the Sixties

Decency is a subjective perception. And so arbitrary.


As a co-founder of the Yippies (Youth International Party) with Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin in 1967, I observed how they were able to manipulate the media to further their antiwar mission. If you gave good quote, you got free publicity. Furthermore, in a tactic borrowed from the CIA, if you presented newsworthy street theater, the media manipulated itself. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your agenda, that kind of behavior has a way of backfiring. And so I was both amused and annoyed by an item by Dwight Garner in the August 13 New York Times Book Review. He wrote:

Thomas Ricks, the senior Pentagon correspondent for The Washington Post, has a book on the hardcover nonfiction list this week… [Fiasco] got a boost from strong reviews and from appearances on both “The Charlie Rose Show” and NPR’s “Fresh Air”…. He filled the air with analogies that were funny, sad and apt…. George Bush and his team were like 60’s radicals. (“They really were going to, kind of, ‘groove on the rubble,’ as Jerry Rubin used to say. They were going to tear it down and see what happened.”)

Of course, glibness isn’t necessarily a virtue. “Has it come to this?” asks Yippie archivist Samuel Leff. “With the Iraq War now an obvious catastrophe, Ricks is comparing the Bush gang’s mindless destructiveness to sixties radicals like Rubin?”

Then, in the August 17 issue of the Los Angeles Times, linguist Geoffrey Nunberg wrote in an op-ed piece:

In the mouths of the neocons, “fascist” is just an evocative label for people who are fanatical, intolerant and generally creepy. In fact, that was pretty much what the word stood for among the 1960s radicals, who used it as a one-size-fits-all epithet for the Nixon administration, American capitalism, the police, reserved concert seating and all other varieties of social control that disinclined them to work on Maggie’s farm no more…. Time was when right-wingers called the ACLU a bunch of communist sympathizers. Now Bill O’Reilly labels the group and others as fascist, with a cavalier disregard for the word’s meaning that would have done Jerry Rubin proud.

Leff comments that “if Nunberg had been thrown down the stairs, as Rubin was, by the New York City Tactical Police Force–a Waffen-SS-type goon squad of especially large men in uniform–who raided his apartment looking for drugs on secret orders from the FBI, Nunberg would have less ‘cavalier disregard’ for using Rubin’s name in the same breath as the authoritarian fascist personality of Bill O’Reilly.”

Finally, on August 20, Frank Rich wrote in his New York Times column:

In 2006, the tired Rove strategy of equating any Democratic politician’s opposition to the Iraq war with cut-and-run defeatism in the war on terror looks desperate…. A former Greenwich selectman like [Ned] Lamont isn’t easily slimed as a reincarnation of Abbie Hoffman or an ally of Osama bin Laden.

Yeah, right. It was bad enough that a brainwashed American public would have even believed Bush Administration propaganda that Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden were married in Massachusetts and then adopted a Chinese baby. But Hoffman’s worst caper was becoming a defendant in the Chicago Conspiracy Trial for what the official “Walker Report” described as “a police riot,” while bin Laden was behind the 9/11 attacks. Now, however, in the guise of history, they’ve been paired. Abbie and Osama, together again.

I have not been immune to such incongruous couplings myself. The late Harry Reasoner, an ABC News anchor and 60 Minutes correspondent, wrote in his memoir, Before the Colors Fade:

I’ve only been aware of two figures in the news during my career with whom I would not have shaken hands if called to deal with them professionally. I suppose that what Thomas Jefferson called a decent respect for the opinion of mankind requires me to identify those two. They were Senator Joseph McCarthy and a man named Paul Krassner or something like that who published a magazine called The Realist in the 1960s…Krassner and his Realist were part of a ’60s fad–publications attacking the values of the establishment–which produced some very good papers and some very bad ones. Krassner not only attacked establishment values; he attacked decency in general, notably with an alleged “lost chapter” from William Manchester’s book, The Death of a President.

I appreciated Reasoner’s unintentional irony–having started my career as a political satirist poking fun at McCarthyism–but I resented being associated with McCarthy. Whereas he had senatorial immunity for his libels, I risked lawsuits. What I really wanted to do was crash a party where Reasoner would be. “Excuse me, Mr. Reasoner,” I would have said. “I just wanted to say how much I enjoy your work on 60 Minutes.” And then, as a photographer captured us shaking hands, I would add, “I’m glad to meet you. My name is Paul Krassner or something like that.”

Decency is, of course, a subjective perception. And so arbitrary. In 1964 Lenny Bruce was found guilty of an “indecent performance” in Greenwich Village. In 2003 New York Governor George Pataki granted Bruce a posthumous pardon–but in the context of justifying the invasion of Iraq: “I hope this pardon serves as a reminder of the precious freedoms we are fighting to preserve as we continue to wage the war on terror.”

When I told Abbie Hoffman that he was the first one who made me laugh since Lenny Bruce died, Hoffman said, “Really? He was my god.” The combination of satirical irreverence and sense of justice that Bruce and Hoffman shared was the real spirit behind the Yippies, an organic coalition of stoned hippies and political activists who engaged in such symbolic actions as throwing money on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. So when journalists link the Yippies with misleading bedfellows, at best it’s careless shorthand; at worst it’s deliberate demonization. Osama bin Laden wanted an aircraft to crash into the Pentagon. Abbie Hoffman merely wanted to levitate it.

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