I watched “The Trial of the Chicago 7” with modest expectations and unsurprisingly, they were met. But the movie was close enough for most Americans’ version of rock and roll and that, in many ways, is the point. Since Alexis deToqueville made the American road trip a timeless institution, it’s been a truism that we are a country of the mushy middle. Yet I can’t help being disappointed that the movie missed the intensity of its real-life characters and the clash they represented. America's dirty moral quandaries, which have as much to do with class as race, are playing out on the streets now with a cast of the same street fightin' men and women.
Art and politics, contrary to the popular wisdom, can be virtually interchangeable. Abbie Hoffman, whose tragic second act had much in common with Lenny Bruce, was a performance artist in the tradition of the Dadaists and Karl Kraus and Karl Valentin, theatrical political satirists with a Surrealist bent. Retroactively and tragically, diagnosed as bipolar, not with Yippie Disease, Hoffman had a degree in psychology and had acted in theater.
Hoffman's first political prank went to the heart of the American experiment gone bad: he and Jerry Rubin threw dollar bills onto the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, Abbie cackling like a 20th-century Robin Hood with his merry men, as the traders scrambled for them. In case anyone didn’t get the message, they burned a fistful of $5 bills.
Leaving no hypocrite authority figure un-mocked, when the media rushed to interview Hoffman, he gave his name as Cardinal Spellman, the Archbishop of New York known for his political influence, which he used advantageously in his real estate dealings, and his reactionary politics. (Spellman founded the still-extant Al Smith political dinner, perhaps his most enduring legacy. Donald Trump made a fool of himself at the 2016 dinner, telling the crowd that Hillary Clinton "hated Catholics." He bailed out of attending for the next three years, slinking back this year, probably because it was held virtually.)
“It's all conceived as a total theater with everyone becoming an actor.”
—Abbie Hoffman on the Yippies and the 1968 Democratic Convention
What the movie did not fully capture was Abbie Hoffman’s depth, his combustible mix of fear and energy, or the ebullience that fired like cosmic bolts through so many rallies that I attended. I first saw him when I was fourteen. The last rally I attended was a protest against Nixon’s second inauguration, and ebullience had nothing to do with that one; tears and depression were more like it.
Julius Hoffman, the judge in the Chicago 7 trial, was a legal buffoon akin to Rudy Giuliani. Abbie Hoffman was a master at puncturing the kind of pomposity that persona requires. When Judge Hoffman made it clear to the jury he and Abbie weren’t related, Abbie screamed sarcastically “Father, no!”
One of the sacrifices to the medium—at least the medium of a mainstream Sorkinesque movie— is that one does not get any real sense that Nixon, Attorney General John Mitchell, Nixon aide J.R. Haldeman, the redoubtable J. Edgar Hoover et al were running black ops under the rubric of counterintelligence. The best known is COINTELPRO, which ran from 1956 until at least the late 1970s.
Freedom of Information Act requests have uncovered tens of thousands of pages documenting FBI infiltration of feminist groups, the Communist Party (well, of course), the Black Panthers, the American Indian Movement, the Puerto Rican independence group The Young Lords, and even, on occasion, the Ku Klux Klan.
A dodgier effort was Operation Chaos, a Central Intelligence Agency domestic espionage project that lasted, as far as we know, from 1967 to 1974. If that sounds a bit off, it should. The CIA’s mission is to deal with foreign threats, not domestic ones. Operation Chaos stretched the point, ostensibly working to uncover possible foreign influence on the civil rights, anti-war, and other protest movements. If only Trump showed a fraction of the interest in doing the same with election interference instead of being fixated on Pravda, uh, Fox News, we'd all be reassured.
The Nixon administration spied on reporters, too: that effort was called Operation Mockingbird. One can only speculate about the counter-intelligence ops going on now against reporters, and just about anyone The Donald doesn't like; a saving grace might be that the Deep State despises Trump even more than the media does.
Whatever their aims, so-called "counter-terrorism" always merits counter-investigation. Hoffman, at one time, had anywhere from a half dozen to a dozen government ops being run on him. In The Trial of the Chicago 7, it would have added to a larger understanding of the forces being marshaled against dissent if this had come up during the internecine arguments between Hayden and Hoffman.
Other than Sacha Baron Cohen’s valiant if questionable attempt at Abbie’s Worcester (“Wuh-stuh”) accent, my biggest complaint lies not just with this film but so many films, popular histories, and memoirs of the era: class. And that’s deeply relevant to today’s protests.
Of the eight defendants in the Chicago 7 Trial, all graduated from college except Rubin, who quit to join The Movement. (That includes Bobby Seale.) We seem to have forgotten that millions of white blue-collar kids were either drafted because they couldn’t get a student deferment or were working to pay the rent so they did not participate in those protests.
This is something of a sore spot for me personally. Roughly 17 percent of all Americans had a four-year college degree in 1970. (Now the figure is 35 percent.) On the block where I grew up in Flushing, Queens, of the 30 of us who regularly hung out on the street corner, I was one of two guys who went to an out-of-town college. Maybe another three or four graduated from Queens College or another local school, about the same number who spent time mugging people on the subways or robbing banks.
I'm of the very, very strong opinion that the anti-war movement was, for a large majority, in the end, a selfish enterprise. The day Nixon ended the draft in 1973 - and this is historically accurate - the anti-war movement entered its death throes. The all-volunteer army was one of the most effective political moves against protest ever instituted in America. I remain convinced that if the draft were still in effect, under the lottery system, with no student draft deferments, the Iraq war would never have happened. And Afghanistan would have ended very fast.
Take a listen to the interview with Christopher Hitchens, below. None other than Milton Friedman, the University of Chicago economist who was the chief proponent of neoliberal capitalism (aka trickle down economics) advised Nixon to do away with the draft.
Even at elite schools, radicals were a minority. After the Columbia University campus takeover in 1968, the university found that more than two-thirds of students were against the sit-ins that led to the cancellation of classes. For me, coming from Flushing, the rousing applause that finishes the film was as misleading as the true but deceptively truncated biographical lines about Hoffman, Hayden and Rubin that close the film.
The last line should have been “In 1980 Ronald Reagan, a racist, homophobic and corrupt man was elected president of the United States.” Reagan, despite his avuncular reputation, was a mean-spirited simpleton.
There is a direct line to Trump and, if you look closely, very little substantive difference.
The difference is in Reagan knew how to read a script written for him by brilliant image makers, just as he had in Hollywood. He was a well-rehearsed front man for the people who controlled the national narrative.
Trump, on the other hand, thinks he is an “extremely stable genius” who hates reading from a teleprompter and whose speeches sound like a steroid psycho doing Mad Libs. But the two have more in common than most of us "libs" realize.
Reagan was deft enough not to let his blunt racism show in public but wasn’t smart enough to keep quiet on a secret tape where he blithely opined about the Tanzanian delegation to the U.N.: “To see those monkeys from those African countries – damn them, they’re still uncomfortable wearing shoes." Trump let go with the howler that he is the “least racist person,” which kinda becomes less laughable with his pronouncements about Africans living in huts in their “shithole countries.”
The Proud Boys and their ilk have twigged to the affinity between their icons. The energetically wooed "swing voters" should, too.
Reagan was considered an unelectable clown by the American Left in the Sixties. I thought so then, too. I was not going to be fooled again. It’s hard to take any pride in my prescience (if that’s what it was) but after Trump received the nomination, I told everyone I knew he had a damn good chance to win the Electoral College. I wish I hadn't been right.
I think Biden will win this election. But Trumpism isn't going anywhere. Neither will the radical left, which I consider myself a part of. But the Left needs to get real. We must accept that Bernie Sanders was never going to be President of the United States, and understand that positive change in America has been and is incremental.
I wish it were otherwise.
That's why, as art and as truth, if not fact (and these are not the same) “The Trial of the Chicago 7” feels false to me. That’s not just a matter of creative differences. It’s way past time for American artists to stop giving us feel-good endings and teach Americans how their world really works, or we’ll have QAnon to kick around for one helluva long time.
The guys I grew up with, some of whom were as dim as Don Jr. and Eric, but many of whom were damn smart, were conditioned by a shockingly inefficient New York City school system that had an unteachable 40 kids per class. And like their parents, who were brainwashed by films like Gone With the fucking Wind and Frank Capracorn It’s a Wonderful Life slop, they’ve been fed too many Rambo movies where we won the Viet Nam War and fantasy shows like Friends, which they know is bullshit and represents a life they will never have. Expose these people to serious popular entertainment, educate them, and now their kids, to the truth. They can take it.
And then, I believe a change is gonna come.
From Bruce Bauman’s novel Broken Sleep
Mindswallow and Alchemy Savant have recently met and are on the way to Los Angeles, when they stop at Magnolia College to meet Nathaniel Brockton. Mindswallow and Alchemy will go on to form the soon-to-be world famous rock band The Insatiables.
Me and Alchemy turn down this tree-lined road, and he tells me about the school and the campus and I see these gigundo three-story houses.
Brockton ain’t there. The door is unlocked, so we slip in and take a few beers and some slices of roast beef from the fridge. The place is like some mini-museum with paintings and photos covering the walls. I was staring at a black-’n’-white with Brockton and a real young Dylan.
“He hung out with him?” I asked 'cause I kinda ain’t buying it.
“Way back. A little.”
“Ya meet him?”
“Who’re all these others?”
Alchemy names the faces as we move down the living room wall.
“Allen Ginsberg. Angela Davis. Abbie Hoffman in Chicago during ’68. Joan Baez. That’s a cover of “Osawatomie,” an underground magazine from the ’60s.”
I heard of Baez, she being Dylan’s babe in her prime. I had a vague idea about Abbie Hoffman ’cause Pete Townsend clocked him with a guitar at Woodstock, but that’s it. “Who’s the
dogfaced old fart with the funny eyes and big glasses who looks so cum-fucking happy nestling with all them young?”
“Jean-Paul Sartre. In Paris. Not sure when. The girls? His groupies, I guess.”
I remember thinking, If a guy that butt-crack ugly could get chicks, so could I. Or maybe I should move to Paree. Alchemy was always giving me books, and he gave me some by that guy. Most of them are boring as a bologna sandwich except the one where the people get locked together for all time — sometimes I think that was us in the band.
Right next to the picture of the Frenchy was a black-an’-white of Salome in come-on-over pose. Her backside facing out. Man, she had a killer ass. Her face was turned profile with a beret tilted over her forehead.
Alchemy nudged me. “Xtine took that. She took hundreds of photos of my mom. Some were for Life. She helped raise me, too. She did some great shots of the Dictators and Television at CB’s way back. You want the rest of the magical history photo tour?”
I nod and we start inching down the hall, and I catch sight of some major spiders crawling on the ceiling corners, creeps me out. Alchemy stops and raises both his hands and touches the wall wit’ his palms and fingertips, slowly like he’s searching for an invisible portal. The wood is burnt and charred.
“This is why my mom is now back in the sanitarium. She locked Nathaniel in his office” — he pointed down the hall with his chin — “and started a fire.” He shook his head, half laughing in disbelief.
“Alchemy!” Brockton blustered in an accent that was a mix of Foghorn Leghorn Southern and Manhattan clothespin-on- the-nose hoity-toity. He seemed like a pretty old dude by then even if he was only fifty or so. In them early photos he was real skinny, but now he was lumpy with a potbelly. His face was full of lines like a scruffy old basketball, and his hair going thin and gray. He reminded me a bit of this nerd in grade school, Ronnie Nadler, who never sat still. Drove the teachers nuts. We call anyone whose body parts were out of control “Nadling.” Brockton was a Nadling champ. They shook hands, stopped, and then bear-hugged each other.
“So, who is your uncivilized-looking friend with the jaundiced mien?” He smiles like he done paid me a compliment. He reaches to shake my hand. I wanna show him uncivilized by rearranging his damn crooked teeth. I’m ignorant of what he means by “jaundiced mien” ’cause I ain’t yellow-eyed, so I don’t shake his hand. I only says, “Hey.”
Alchemy introduces me as “Ambitious Mindswallow, member of the Insatiables,” instead of Ricky McFinn. First time I hear my full moniker de rock ’n’ roll. I gotta admit, I took to it right away. We move single file back into the kitchen, and Alchemy turns and tosses me a take-a-hike glance. I get the message.
Magnolia is like some massive male fantasy camp. Seven hundred babes. This was my first up-close and personal view of the split between the truly rich and the rest of us. In the city you felt it ’cause of Park Avenue bullshit, but they don’t flaunt it in the same way. Even after we made it and I become one of them, I feel like the snotass from Flushin.’ Only in America could a farting, cursing juvee degenerate like me crawl from the sewer and into a penthouse.
Brockton cooks about the best BBQ I ever ate. We’re getting drunk and riffing on cars, movies, sports, only it keeps swerving to the serious-politico, and Brockton and Alchemy rant about the L.A. riots and President Bush being a WASPy sub rosa racist. Brockton’s face is sliding from easy rolling to mean-motor-scooter drunk, and his eyes and lips go school-nun stern and his body stops bouncing except for him clicking his teeth and Brockton finally asks me, “What do you think? You a Republican?”
“I’m a nuthin’.”
“Let’s say I’m noncommittin’.” Alchemy, he forgets zilch and hears everything, ’cause years later he comes up with The Non-committal Nihilists for Nuthin’ record. It’s sharp mouthed, none of Alchemy's hookie-dookie or political stuff.
Brockton looks like he’s ready to explode on me. Alchemy sees it, too. “Nathaniel, cut it. He’s only — ”
“Nah, man, I can handle myself.” Brockton’s too old to smack, so I take an empty beer can and crush it in my hand.
Brockton snorts at me.
“Look, pals, I don’t know all this crap like youse two, what I learnt in that shit hole where I come from is if you ain’t committed to saving your own piddly ass, zero else means squat. Most of the people ain’t got the dough to be committed to nuthin’ but making their rent, and no one is sending them to ‘horse-grooming college.’ The way I see it, it’s on such highly educated ass wipes like youse to make the world a better place for us dumb-as-nails lowlifes.”
“Good rap, kid. You’re no fool. In fact, you’re pretty savvy. How much TV do you watch? How much tobacco and dope do you smoke? And your folks? Do they vote?”
“My dad says he’s gonna vote for that Pro guy if he stays in the race.”
“You mean Perot?” Nathaniel asks kinda snotty. “Why him?”
“’Cause he’s different. He ain’t one a them.”
Nathaniel don’t talk to me but to Alchemy. “See? Third parties, it almost doesn’t matter what you stand for. Perot is a weasel with the money to promote himself. He’s funny looking with a squeaky voice and announced his candidacy on CNN. No one has ever done that before. He has no serious policy but, like the kid says, he ‘ain’t one a them,’ and he’s neck and neck with Bush and Clinton.”
Alchemy nods and Nathaniel turns to me again. “So, Ambitious, will you vote for him?”
“I tolt ya, I’m noncommittin’.”
“Nathaniel, he’s not even old enough to vote.”
“Am so. Am eighteen now.”
“Hang on, guys.” Alchemy decides to change the course of the conversation and disappears from the kitchen. He reappears with a book and starts reading:
“Let’s get the stones a throwing and the bombs a bursting and punch some holes in the souls of the monsters running the Military Industrial Oedipus Complex. It’s no time to lie back, because if you do, you’re going to GET FUCKED instead of getting laid. It’s time to turn off the tube, turn on your heart, and change the world. Let them eat fire and burn!”
He closed the book and laid it on the kitchen counter. “I’m still waiting for the return of Bohemian Scofflaw. Or, at least, your memoir.”
“You’ll have to keep waiting. The powers that bemoan the death of literacy do not care one whit what a dinosaur like me has to say.” Brockton hangs his head and reminds me of Larry Bird when he was washed up and couldn’t play no more. “I sent out the memoir to some agents at Distinguished Writers International who once represented me. The top agent of DWI called me all excited. They wanted salacious gossip. Not my thing. The self-indulgence trip leads to degradation and gracelessness.”
“Nathaniel, you think that’s true of Rousseau, Nabokov, or even Fitzgerald in “The Crack-Up”? They wrote great memoirs.”
“It was a different time and I am not them. I can’t read 'The Crack-Up' — it’s both pathetic and bathetic.”
He runs his hands through his hair and ties it up into a ratty ponytail with a rubber band.
“I’m a guy who, almost by mistake, wrote a book that caught the zeitgeist. Guys like James Simon Kunen or George Jackson, we’re not true writers. I’ll keep working the front lines. I’m going back to Sarajevo during the Christmas break, but as a writer, I’m done.”
Alchemy gulps his drink and sits down next to Brockton and says. “I can’t believe I’m hearing this defeatist line from you. You always insisted that the personal is political.”
“Alchemy, I said that all politics is personal. But all that is personal is not political. Your personal life can make you political, but that doesn’t mean it has any meaning to anyone. It has meaning in our life choices: How we spend our money, who we vote for, or who we work for. It does not mean squawking about your mother’s drinking problems, the finicky sexual diversions of your father, or your mate’s emotional crises. My personal life is not for public consumption.”
“I agree on that principle. What about a follow-up to Tag? Everyone loves Scofflaw.”
“I can’t get the voice right. Besides, I was full of hope back then. Now I’m a fifty-three-year-old earnest secular preacher who believes the bad guys are winning.”
That self-analysis sounded perfecto to me. Alchemy cups his right hand into a loose fist and then rubs his nose with his knuckles, a sign I come to recognize meaning he is displeased. He takes another hit of scotch.
Brockton ain’t finished yet. They stare at each other. I see that Brockton idolizes Alchemy, and Alchemy, well, he worships Brockton and becomes all smush-brained when he’s within five miles of this good-for-good’s-sake bullshit, like Brockton’s his damn dad or the dad he wished he had.
“For now, keep in mind what Shelley wrote about poets being the unacknowledged legislators of the world. Your way will be the hardest challenge, but you can do it, the third-party way. Too many American artists have surrendered their ideals in favor of fame or esteem. All art is political, whether they want it to be or not, and by accepting these rules of the game, their art will suffer.”
He stood up, pretty whomped. “Anyone who says there is no relationship between art and politics is selfish. Or cowardly.”
Bruce Bauman is the award winning author of the novels And The Word Was, Broken Sleep, and his work-in-progress The True Story of My Fictional Life. He was senior editor of the regrettably departed Black Clock literary magazine.
"The cleverest thing Richard Nixon ever did was abolish the draft."
MC5 ::: The American Ruse
Loudon Wainwright III ::: Movies Are Mother to Me
Young Americans ::: David Bowie
Party Political Speech ::: Peter Sellers
Political World ::: Bob Dylan
Draft Morning ::: The Byrds
Draft Dodger Rag ::: Phil Ochs
The Love of Richard Nixon ::: The Manic Street Preachers