There’s a moment in the film The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020) where we most clearly see the way that writer/director Aaron Sorkin manipulates historical events to fit his particular worldview and how he wants us to feel about the matter at hand. The movie tells the “true” story of the at first eight and then seven activists who were arrested for involvement in the anti-war protests turned riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. In the film as in real life legendary activist Abbie Hoffman, co-founder of the flamboyant Yippie activist group, testified on the stand. In the film Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) has this exchange with the prosecutor, Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt):
Do you have contempt for your government?
I think the institutions of our democracy are wonderful things that, right now, are populated by some terrible people.
Abbie Hoffman never actually said this. Instead, here’s a sample of what Abbie Hoffman actually said during his testimony at the trial:
HOFFMAN: [fellow defendant] Jerry Rubin told me that he had come to New York to be project director of a peace march in Washington that was going to march to the Pentagon in October, October 21. He said that the peace movement suffered from a certain kind of attitude, mainly that it was based solely on the issue of the Vietnam War. He said that the war in Vietnam was not just an accident but a direct by-product of the kind of system, a capitalist system in the country, and that we had to begin to put forth new kinds of values, especially to young people in the country, to make a kind of society in which a Vietnam War would not be possible.
In the film, beyond the anti-war activism (and the black rights activism of Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and the Black Panthers), you only get the vaguest sense of the larger goals at play here. Hoffman does refer vaguely to the ‘revolution’, and there’s a scene between Hoffman and Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) where Hayden refers to “equality, justice, education, poverty, and progress”. But those are all concepts so shorn specifics they could mean almost anything. You get no sense that Hayden was a guy whose most famous piece of the writing, the Port Huron Statement, advocated for replacing the American system of government with direct democracy, where all laws would be subject to votes from the entirety of the citizenry. You get no sense that when Abbie Hoffman talked about ‘revolution’, he literally meant overthrowing the American government. You get no sense of how these defendants were fundamentally against the small-l liberal Capitalism which they blamed for American involvement in the war in the first place. Jerry Rubin, the other Yippie on trial, remarked later that “During the five-and-a-half month trial I agreed more with the government’s analysis of our behavior than with our defense. … The government said: these men are radicals who wanted a disturbance in Chicago to disrupt American society and protest the war.”
No, the words the film puts in Hoffman’s mouth are pure Sorkin. Further, in the film, the Johnson administration is positively contrasted with that of Nixon, with Johnson’s Attorney General Ramsey Clark (Michael Keaton) getting a hero moment where he testifies that the police started the riot in Chicago (which he never said). And it feels like even though Sorkin, to his credit, opens the story with a clip of Johnson announcing escalations of the war effort, he still can’t help himself but show the Democrats in a positive light. Because Sorkin believes that the American system works well when in the hands of the right people, and the right people are Liberal Democrats—as illustrated by every frame of every episode of his liberal fantasia The West Wing—despite the fact that American involvement in the war being protested was begun and escalated under two Liberal Democratic administrations, and the Chicago Seven were arrested protesting the Democratic National Convention and beaten by police operating under the authority of a Liberal Democratic mayor.
Over and over again, the film invokes the theme that American values are good, and the people who the Right accuse of being anti-American or un-American are actually the most patriotic ones of all. This is why in the big climax Hayden reads into the record the names of American soldiers who died in the war, causing everyone in the courtroom to stand including the prosecuting attorney Schultz. Meanwhile in real life it was pacific David Dellinger who read the names of the dead into the record, and he included both the American and North and South Vietnamese war dead. Because it wasn’t about proving who was the most patriotic, it was about criticizing the horrors of war itself.
All mention of the evils of capitalism or any inherent problems at the heart of America are completely stripped away in this presentation. It’s very much a piece with Joe Biden saying that the Jan. 6 2021 riots at the US Capital “do not reflect a true America”, when in fact nothing reveals the true face of America better than entitled white people thinking they can take whatever they want without consequences. Indeed, the famously awful Judge Hoffman (Frank Langella) (no relation to Abbie) is portrayed as overtly Trump-like, and when the he bars Ramsey Clark’s testimony from the jury (which did happen, because the judge felt he hadn’t provided anything relevant), Clark whispers to the defense attorney to “just get to work on the appeal” (which he also never actually said in reality). In other words, the representative of Democratic Party politics is saying, we’re going to lose here but we’ll win later, as if promising the future Biden administration to the audience. Don’t worry, the good guys will win out in the end.
And while it’s true that the members of the Chicago 7 who were convicted were later freed on appeal, it’s also true that none of the police officers who assaulted them were ever brought up on charges or saw the least consequences and that American involvement in the war would continue for another five years, and not before expanding illegally into Cambodia.
In the film, yippie Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) chiefly serves as a comic foil and sidekick to Hoffman, with his main plot lines (both invented for the film) involving him falling in love with an undercover operative and being hilariously still hung up on her and feeling betrayed. “Does she ever mention me?” he calls after the prosecutor Schultz when they run into each other in the park. And he get one significant scene where he saves a protesting woman holding an American flag from being raped during a riot (a bit on the nose as a metaphor there, Aaron).
The real Rubin is a fascinating figure and is going serve as the central spoke of the argument I want to make in the rest of this piece to explain the relationship of Sorkin and his film to the larger hippy and activist culture of the 1960s. As indicated by Hoffman’s testimony and his own quote about the trial above, Rubin was a radical firebrand, a self-described Communist who wrote a book in which he encouraged young people to burn down their universities, join communes, and arm themselves. “Antiwar pacifists,” he wrote, “are only as strong as the crazy revolutionaries behind them ready to burn the whole motherfucker down.” Now, after learning all that, you might be surprised to find out that by the 1980s, Rubin had cut his hair, donned a tie, and gotten a job as a securities trader on Wall Street. How did such a thing happen?
Jerry Rubin, fresh out of college and working as a journalist, had a formative experience when he visited Cuba and met Che Guevara. Guevara told him and his young friends that they were doing the most important fight of all, fighting in the belly of the beast. When he returned to the United States he was arrested for the first time for his trip and his future path was set.
Rubin enrolled in grad school at Berkeley, but soon dropped out to join the throngs of “non-students” who’d taken to living around the school and hanging out on campus. These burgeoning hippies were mostly middle class, white baby boomers, born into the long prosperity in the wake of the New Deal and America’s flourishing of wealth following the wholesale destruction of the European economies, kids whose parents had enthusiastically embraced the suburban, post-war dream following the privations of the Great Depression and the war and embraced a conformity their children now found stifling.
It’s almost impossible for those of us who weren’t there to imagine what an irruption on the social fabric the hippies really were in the 1960s, and how they could really believe that their movement would reshape society. Rubin referred to the people living on the streets and in the low-cost housing around Berkley as “living Communism”, sharing things in kind and making whatever money they did need through selling drugs or hawking copies of the local indie paper. Rubin and his fellows imagined a future “New Nation” where hippy communes in the country could trade food directly with hippy communes in the cities who would provide services like free schools, health care, and cultural products, completely bypassing the capitalist economy. The real conflict, then, was not one of class but of generations, the old against the young who saw new possibilities and could imagine a better future, and every young person who ‘turned on, tuned in, and dropped out’ was another link in the chain bringing them toward that future. The strategy, then, was to show young people that it was just more fun on their side of the fence, and to that end Rubin and the kindred spirits he soon found in Abbie Hoffman and the rest of the merry pranksters of the Yippie group began their campaign of ‘guerrilla theatre’. The Yippies (members of the “Youth International Party”) played pranks to draw attention to their message such as throwing dollar bills onto the floor of the New York Stock Exchange to watch the brokers dive for them, or holding a press conference to nominate a pig for president.
Of course, creating a Utopia was never going to be quite so simple as performing stunts until all the youth were on their side. The War in Vietnam was a symbol of American imperialism forcing the same young people who should have been turning on and dropping out to die and kill in a foreign jungle. And in the hippy communities at home, police would regularly harass, arrest, and beat people with the tacit approval of folks like the Berkeley administrators who saw the throngs of unwashed literally encouraging their student body to drop-out as an existential threat. And, of course, as the hippy movement and anti-war protests became widespread, the government infiltrated the Movement (as it was known) with undercover operatives under the vast web of the Cointelpro operations to (illegally) disrupt and subvert leftist and antiwar political groups. It’s little wonder that Rubin came to believe that the Movement needed to arm themselves against an establishment that would never go down without a fight, and he dreamed of the day when, like his idols Fidel and Che, he might overrun the American government by force. (Though admittedly he never actually quite got around to building anything like a guerrilla army, and Che and Fidel would probably have been aghast at his utter lack of interest in the fine points of Marxist theory and governance.)
After the trial, Hoffman and Rubin had become properly famous and were in demand as speakers at campuses across the country. They both authored books, including Rubin’s Do It: Scenarios of the Revolution; and Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book, a guide to fighting against corporations and the government. But even before America had finally withdrawn from Vietnam in 1973, things had started to unravel for the Yippies and the Movement as a whole.
For Rubin, the Yippies started to turn on him as early as 1972 on his 34th birthday which happened to occur during protests at the Democratic National Convention in Miami. He got called a hypocrite for sleeping in a hotel rather than in the park with the other protesters (not quite being an exemplar of “living communism”) and young yippies showed up at his hotel, saying that the man who’d once helped popularize the phrase “Don’t Trust Anyone Over 30” was now old enough to be retired, and gave him a pie in the face. More seriously, back at home he found his car vandalized, windows shattered, by young activists who resented him not dropping out as a leader of the Movement.
Rubin wrote that, “When we in the movement realized we weren’t going to dismantle the system, we turned our hostility towards each other.” This factionalism and infighting is one of many reasons he gives for the Movement’s ultimate dissolution. Others include women abandoning it because of the chauvinism of its leaders; people scared off by the possibility of state violence after the Kent State Massacre, in which National Guardsmen gunned down unarmed student protesters; moderates driven away by the violent rhetoric of leaders who demanded a willingness to die or kill; paranoia seizing everyone because of FBI infiltration—tapping phones, opening mail, searching trash, and impersonated protesters; the younger generation rebelling against the hippies by joining the establishment; and finally, the economic recession that began in 1975, finally putting an end to the post-war economic boom and sending people “back into the system to survive”.
Anyway, the war was finally over and Nixon had resigned. The will to protest dried up. Rubin himself started feeling like a hypocrite getting paid to speak at Universities where he told students to burn the schools down. And so he turned inward, moving almost too neatly for the purposes of this essay from the poster child for hippy protesters to the poster child for Tom Wolfe’s “me” decade. As described in Wolfe’s famous New York Magazine article [https://nymag.com/news/features/45938/], the ‘70s became a time when the counterculture turned towards personal fulfillment, personal development, and self-help. Rubin didn’t know who he was after the revolutionary goals which had defined him had fallen away and it became clear he was never going to be Che Guevara. And so he set out to “find himself”, cycling through a laundry list of alternative and fad therapies including yoga, acupuncture, chiropractic therapy, Rolfing, bioenergetics, Reichian therapy, gestalt therapy, Est therapy, Arica training, and more. The new movement he took part in he dubbed the “consciousness movement”, where society might move away from treating symptoms in the Western tradition towards an Eastern concept of treating causes, of changing yourself and your lifestyle in order to be healthier and happier. And he saw in this a new way to rebuild society, writing:
“In the sixties we exposed the degree to which external institutions controlled us and created poverty, injustice, and alienation. The seventies have been a somersault: ‘I am responsible for my own condition.’ This self-responsibility has liberated people to work from within to change social institutions. … I have a positive vision that America will peacefully elect a politically humanistic government. … A political movement will emerge out of the awareness revolution to implement the new consciousness.”
In other words, by focusing on the self, individual, the “man in the mirror” as Michael Jackson would later have it, we will change the world. This is an incredibly seductive idea. After all, you have much more control over yourself than you do on society at large, and it’s a heckuva lot more pleasant to do yoga than to get gassed, beaten, and arrested at a protest. Besides which, everything in our society encourages centering the self, in line with the capitalist principle of rational self-interest that’s supposed to govern the economy.
So why shouldn’t you provide well for yourself? Making yourself happy brings more happiness to the world, and seeking your own interest keeps the economy moving and creates jobs.
Which is how Jerry Rubin, Marxist revolutionary who satirized Wall Street by throwing bills on the floor of the stock exchange, transformed into Jerry Rubin, Wall Street securities trader.
Once again, the story moves so perfectly that if I made it up it’d be called unrealistic. Rubin even undergoes his final transformation in 1980-81 right at the start of the decade and the dawn of the Reagan era. The term “Yuppie” itself is popularized by a newspaper article about Rubin from 1982 called “From Yippie to Yuppie”, and Rubin took the term as a brand of honor and became a major booster of it.
Rubin groused that his previous reputation cost him deals and connections, as many in the business world just didn’t want to be associated with a guy who used to tell people to overthrow the government. Still, the economy was changing in exciting ways with the new buzzword “the Information Age”. As Rubin would point out, fueled by new technologies, ten times more companies were being started by the 1980s per year than had in the 1960s, and most new jobs were created by those new companies. This burgeoning “entrepreneurial capitalism” would replace the old industrial capitalism and the jobs it would create would solve the problem of poverty entirely. We shouldn’t hate those who are successful in the capitalist economy, the successful people were going to save us.
Following on the idea of generational conflict and change, Rubin posited that the Baby Boomers who had been the hippy generation hadn’t “sold out”, they were “taking over”. He wasn’t a fan of Ronald Reagan, comparing him to an old cowboy, a 19th century ideal, but he predicted that in 1988 a baby boomer would be elected president and that would mark the transition to a new kind of politics in the United States. The Boomers, powered by the lessons of both the hippy and consciousness movements, would introduce a kinder, more gentle form of capitalism with progressive social politics to cure America of sexism, racism, and disastrous foreign wars. He said,
When they write the history of the past decade they’re going to say that in the 60s they fought and in the 80s and 90s they implemented what they fought for in the 60s.
Rubin would actually have to wait until 1992 to see the Boomer he’d predicted come to the White House, but Bill Clinton would sound uncannily like him with his rhetoric of social progressivism, jobs, and technology. During the election of 1992, SNL had a skit where George Bush Sr. (Dana Carvey) looked over at Clinton (Phil Hartman) and saw a tie-die wearing hippy, and Clinton looked over at Bush and saw a dowdy grandmother. They might as well have been describing Rubin’s view of the world. Rubin even channeled the same right-wing talking points that Clinton absorbed, referring to poor people becoming ‘dependent’ on hand-outs from the government and the scourge of drugs on the street (which he regretted helping to popularize).
Rubin, who died tragically in a car accident in 1994, becomes a kind of rosetta stone for what happened to America politically and socially as the Baby Boomers came of age. Entrepreneurial Capitalism has resulted in thousands of blossoming start-ups sailing rivers of venture capital, and produced a gaggle of monstrously large Information Age tech firms that dominate our economy, largely founded and run by Boomers and the Gen Xers who followed them. These tech companies, as parodied for example on the TV show Silicon Valley, are perennially caught between the “make the world a better place” rhetoric of the Bay Area’s hippy past and the rapacious, amoral demands of investor capitalism. (No more perfectly embodied on Silicon Valley than by the figure of tech mogul Gavin Belson (Matt Ross) who says things like “I don’t know about you people, but I don’t want to live in a world where someone else makes the world a better place better than we do,” before consulting with his grifter Indian “guru”.)
And while there have been notable and welcome gains on social issues as Rubin also predicted, entrepreneurial capitalism has comically failed to end poverty, we have continued getting involved in disastrous foreign wars, and it’s now the Boomers pushing back against the youth while we all watch the economic system Rubin thought would liberate us literally and not so gradually destroy the world.
And one particular Baby Boomer who 1980s Rubin sounds a lot like is the guy who wrote a television episode in which the representative of an almost angelic Democratic Baby Boomer president dismisses WTO protesters as not understanding how capitalism helps everyone.
That is to say, he sounds like Aaron Sorkin.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 , cleaned almost completely of the anticapitalist revolutionary beliefs of its actual historical subjects, becomes a liberal fantasy of the matured Baby Boomer, a revisionist history that 1960s Jerry Rubin would have been disgusted by and 1980s Jerry Rubin would have wholeheartedly approved. Like everything Sorkin produces, the writing is excellent, full of snappy, well-crafted dialogue and a building progression of layered meanings and character growth. But it believes wholeheartedly in American liberal, capitalist democracy, if only we can steer away from the “American Taliban” Tea Party set on the right wing, as Sorkin’s TV show The Newsroom had it, if only we can select the right people. As if those right wing fundamentalist activists just appeared out of nowhere and weren’t created by think tanks and astroturfing and a never-ending onslaught of right wing media funded by a cabal of greedy billionaires who will do anything to preserve their wealth and power including watching the world burn down all around them. As if the system which creates and abets those billionaires doesn’t simultaneously create all the problems we’re now faced with.
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This episode took a while, in part because of issues I had recording the audio. However, the text version has been up on Patreon for weeks now, and for as little as $1 an episode you too can get early access to episodes, as well as exclusive author’s notes at Patreon.com/ericrosenfield.
The author’s notes this time will have a lot of material that was excised from earlier drafts, as there was a lot of stuff on the subject of Rubin, Hoffman, the Yippies, and the rest of the Chicago 7 that didn’t really work for the flow of the piece but is still really interesting, so you’ll want to read that.
I’d like to thank my Patrons, Kevin Cafferty, Wilma Ezekowitz, IndustrialRobot, Hristo Kolev, Benjamin Pence, Jason Quackenbush, Nancy S. Rosen, and Arthur Rosenfield.
Bibliography and Further Reading
- Abbie Hoffman testimony at the Chicago 7 trial
- Differences between the film and what really happened
- Wikipedia page about COINTELPRO
- Do It! (1970), Jerry Rubin
- Growing Up at 37 (1976), Jerry Rubin
- A profile of Jerry Rubin from the 80s
- Abbie Hoffman’s debate with Jerry Rubin in 1985, “Yippie vs. Yuppie”, and another time
- NY Times obituary of Jerry Rubin
- “The ‘Me’ Decade”, Tom Wolfe