Is This Book Relevant in the Twenty-First Century?

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Abbie Hoffman’s best-known piece of writing, Steal This Book, has one of the most recognized and often copied titles in publishing history. Newspaper articles and books about Hoffman often use some variation on this phrase, such as Steal This Dream and Live This Book. A 2000 film about Hoffman’s life was called Steal This Movie, leading many into the mistaken assumption that it was an adaptation of this random crazy-quilt of a book. Hoffman himself, knowing how much of a catchphrase the title had become, cannibalized his own work when he titled his 1987 book about America’s anti-drug hysteria Steal This Urine Test.

The title is familiar all over the world, but like Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again and Ernest Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon, it may have more power as a slogan than as an entry point into the book itself. Some critics would have no problem if the book were never read again; it was never written ‘‘well,’’ by anybody’s standards, and a good case can be made that once the novelty has worn off, the book has outlived any minimal value it had. Others hold onto it, though, as a magic totem that keeps the spirit of its time alive, and they fear its loss would represent yet another blow against free thought and individualism. To them, this is a work that purposely set out to defy all of the rules, and so it would be foolish to judge it by any other book’s standards.

The problem with treating Steal This Book as a sacred object and declaring it off limits to criticism is that, though it makes the book less vulnerable, it also renders it less interesting. To say this book sets its own standards is the same thing as saying that we cannot talk about it as a book, and with that kind of restriction people are bound to wander away from it. What is needed is to find a standard by which to measure the book and talk about it.

One of Hoffman’s stated goals was to parody the kinds of travel books that commonly show people how to take in an exotic land on a budget. As such, his last section, titled ‘‘Liberate,’’ was just right for its time. It gives specific names, addresses, prices, and preferred menu items. Best of all, the world to which it introduced its readers was one of soup kitchens, public libraries, and throwaways, all of the things urban dwellers usually do not notice in their environment and that tourists, far from being directed toward them, are usually advised to avoid. As a satire of the establishment, the book was highly successful, showing the positive side of things the social mainstream feared and disdained, such as poverty and crime. Adding advice about system abuse and drugs to the travel tips, one can see that the book’s agenda was to shine a positive light onto anything the straight society tried to suppress. Any objections on moral grounds, then, just fed the satire, making it grow stronger even after the book was already finished.

The problem with reading it like this is that the book becomes a throwaway, as dated and as doomed to obsolescence as the travel guides it parodies. Frankly, there is no big market for travel books ten years old or older: their prices are out of date, they talk about places that have gone out of business, and they almost always have been replaced by newer models with more relevant information. So it is with Steal This Book ....

(This entire section contains 1740 words.)

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Not only are most of the great bargains gone, but also faded from the American culture is that need to point out the establishment’s hypocrisy. We live in an ironic age, in which the order of the day, from entertainment to advertising to political rhetoric, is to point out one’s own internal contradictions with a wink. True, a good case can be made that the current level of irony might never have been reached without Abbie Hoffman, but being a creator of it does not excuse him from its effects. There is something a little too naive about pointing out that the mainstream culture is hypocritical, as if only the talented few can see it. We are all aware of the hypocrisy. These days, satire needs to be more subtle than portraying the enemy as violent and clueless. For some, this kind of obviousness might be considered a reminder of simpler times, when satire moved at an easier pace. Accepting the book in that spirit, though, puts Abbie Abbie Hoffman, a week before going on trial for the Chicago Seven incident, holding a toy bomb to be used in a demonstration related to the trial Hoffman’s revolutionary tribute to youth culture in the same category of nostalgia as silent movies and radio dramas. It is not really satire; if it is about a world from which the reader is comfortably removed, it then becomes camp.

Another way to look at Steal This Book today would be to forget about the humor, which depended on the circumstances of the sixties and seventies, and to concentrate on its value as a guide to orchestrating a successful urban revolution. True, America is less interested in revolution today than it was then, but the general lack of interest does not in itself make Hoffman’s advice any less practical. Bombs are still bombs, demonstrations are still public displays of opposition and when the bombing and demonstrations are done, medical and legal aid is still required. Some of his advice has lost its relevance over time—for instance, it is now cheaper and easier for a struggling radical group to post its ideas on a Web site than to print an underground newspaper—but the staleness of those cases is offset by his masterful sense of how to draw media attention even to a small event. Even today’s Web sites lack the insight into social protest that Hoffman had, if only because protest today is such a rare occasion, while for him it was an everyday event.

Unfortunately, revolution is serious business, and the book’s satirical element works against this. It would be nice to say that satire and revolution, when mixed together, yield a well-rounded, healthy worldview that is smart enough to distrust and yet sincere enough to fight for a cause. The actual result of the merger though can be frightening. The chapters of Steal This Book that deal with guns and street fighting, for instance, fall somewhere in the middle of the book’s possible uses. They are too much a product of Hoffman’s romantic imagination to be useful as battle training, but also seem counterproductive to social revolution certain to attract the sort of violent response from the government that spells the end for any gang of protesters, however well armed. On the other hand, this is a violent world, and it is hard to take advice about fighting with weapons as a joke, especially as a joke on the dominant culture. Perhaps at the time Hoffman actually believed that guns and knives could be used to overthrow the government, though the knife fighting passages of the book make it pretty clear that he, at least some of the time, used the idea of revolution to play out some 1950s street gang fantasy from his youth. As sound as the book’s advice for protestors is, it blurs the line of reality with its glib treatment of weapons. Groups that took up arms against the government did not fare well even before the world became vigilant against terrorist attacks, and they seem particularly delusional now.

Of all of the tips passed along in Steal This Book, perhaps the most telling is the one about getting free buffalo from the government. In that one small episode, Hoffman captured the whole essence of the book and the significance it will have for coming generations. Hoffman advised readers to write to the Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C., 20420, claiming that the government had some program to give away buffalo to anyone who wrote and agreed to pay their buffalo’s freight charge. As a tip, it was not a very practical one; the program had already been discontinued by the time the book was written. A true guide book would have dropped it right there. It was included in the book anyway, as a sort of advertisement for Hoffman and his methods. ‘‘So many people have written them recently demanding their Free Buffalo,’’ he wrote, ‘‘that they called a press conference to publicly attack the Yippies for creating chaos in the government.’’ Presumably, no matter how many letters the Department of the Interior received asking for free buffaloes, the government was never really in danger of falling into chaos. Telling it this way though, poses a minor bureaucratic situation as a major battle between the government and the Yippies, with the government backing down, defeated by its own rules, reduced to babbling and to publicly acknowledging the power of the Yippies’ information sharing.

Hoffman goes on to tell his readers, ‘‘Don’t take any buffalo s—- from these petty bureaucrats, demand the real thing. Demand your Free Buffalo.’’ He could not have picked a better symbol for his own book. The word ‘‘buffalo’’ was once a slang term for intimidation or deception. Currently, the most common association with the word is of the animal that once roamed the plains until government- sponsored massacres pushed them near extinction. Now it is the Yippies who are nearly extinct, and readers are still left to wonder just how much Abbie Hoffman was trying to buffalo them.

The book’s relevance comes down to this: a little bit of a reminder of a dying breed, a little bit of a riddle about the mind of the man who wrote it, and a little bit of the rebellious attitude that we all suppress. It is up to each reader to decide if these add up to something they feel is worth reading, but one thing that seems pretty clear is that there is enough here to make the book worth it for some people, and there will be for a long time to come.

Source: David Kelly, Critical Essay on Steal This Book, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, Gale, 2003.

A Product of It's Time

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Students coming to Steal This Book for the first time may find themselves a little perplexed. The current edition of the book begins with three separate introductions, each testifying to Abbie Hoffman’s inspirational courage as a revolutionary. Steal This Book is said to be ‘‘his most widely read’’ and ‘‘his most notorious.’’ In Hoffman’s introduction, he speaks of Steal This Book as ‘‘a manual of survival in the prison that is Amerika.’’ What follows is a breezy guide to shoplifting, freeloading, and milking the system, peppered with cartoons. There are sections on building bombs, guerrilla broadcasting, and street fighting, but these are short and not particularly useful. (Hoffman’s advises would-be knife fighters to ‘‘work out with the jabbing method in front of a mirror and in a few days you’ll get it down pretty well.’’)

More puzzling still is Hoffman’s general tone. Despite his subversive rhetoric, Hoffman sounds like nothing so much as a boastful, mouthy teenager, the kid who wears an anarchist symbol on his denim jacket and bores everybody with his selfserving rhetoric. It’s impossible to imagine anybody taking this person seriously as a record store cashier, let alone a revolutionary leader. And yet Hoffman’s reputation has only grown since his death in 1989. Steal This Movie, a major Hollywood release, came out in 2000.

But understanding Abbie Hoffman, his book and the man himself is difficult without a solid understanding of the 1960s and his role in them. Despite the fact that he is associated with the baby boom (it was Hoffman who coined the phrase ‘‘Woodstock Nation’’) and figured so prominently in many of the signal events of the counterculture, Hoffman was not a baby boomer himself. Abbie Hoffman was born in 1936, which means that he became conscious of public life in the years immediately after World War II. Those years were ones marked by an unusual brew of anxiety, conformity, and a generalized feeling of moral superiority in America that rankled many. In fact, the conservatism of the Truman and Eisenhower years was highly exceptional, a result of having won the greatest war ever fought and the worst depression in American history simultaneously. Many adults felt that America had the high moral ground in the struggle against Soviet communism, and the moral imperatives of the 1960s, such as civil rights and women’s liberation, were not yet on the horizon.

As a result, to many young people of Hoffman’s generation, America seemed smug and oppressive, its citizens brainwashed by material goods and government propaganda. They dismissed all dissent as ‘‘pink’’ and were satisfied with women, minorities, and the poor kept low. Hoffman’s generation was born too late to know the privations of the depression, so America’s glee at things like row houses, new cars, and the security of suburbs and corporate jobs seemed merely greedy to them. And it so happened that when the great causes of the early 1960s came along, they were just coming into their early adulthood.

Some, like Tom Hayden of the University of Michigan, applied all the seriousness of cold war civics to creating a ‘‘new left,’’ which would oppose the political status quo from a radical but serious-minded and deeply moralistic perspective. At the same time, an apolitical ‘‘counterculture’’ was being formed in places like San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district. This movement could hardly have been less political. Although given over to sloganeering and a sometimes-justified paranoia about ‘‘the straight world,’’ most hippies sought pleasure in their own lives and had little use for political debate and organization.

Abbie Hoffman was among the first to become well known for fusing both camps, and that is what Steal This Book is all about. Hoffman came to prominence in 1968, when he and several other antiwar activists came upon the idea of organizing an outrageous ‘‘festival of life’’ at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Calling themselves the Youth International Party or ‘‘Yippies,’’ they proposed to substitute outrage, street theater, and ‘‘cultural revolution’’ for the tiresome programs offered by the New Left. Hoffman was the most visible of the provocateurs who clowned for the cameras in Lincoln Park, and when Mayor Richard Daley unleashed an army of policemen to attack the protesters, Hoffman was cast into the national spotlight.

It was a place that suited him well. As Steal This Book suggests, Hoffman had no real political program and little in the way even of political rhetoric. What he was good at was playing the gadfly, spouting incendiary rhetoric, and mugging for the camera. (He tried to seize the stage at Woodstock for a Yippie rant, but the crowd booed loudly and guitarist Pete Townshend of The Who knocked him off the stage by bashing his head with a guitar. The ‘‘Woodstock Nation’’ cheered loudly, many going so far as to call it Townshend’s greatest solo.) Hoffman was not easily gotten rid of, however, and he became a major media star in those years. In 1969, Hoffman and several other Yippies, along with Black Panther leader Bobby Seale, were defendants in a much-publicized trial of the Chicago Seven. With Hoffman’s newfound celebrity to emulate, many New Left activists took to the streets, doing whatever was necessary to get media exposure. ‘‘The whole world is watching’’ was their motto, and the spectacle so repelled most Americans that the New Left was extinguished as soon as the spectacle grew tiresome, which it soon did. Hoffman kept publishing books and his name remained one to conjure with, but he was a walking anachronism after the early 1970s and disappeared from public view for most of the decade.

Steal This Book was published in 1970, at the very acme of Hoffman’s fame. Steal This Book isn’t really about how to steal food, build a sterno bomb, or start a commune. It’s about how to be Abbie Hoffman. Not the real Abbie Hoffman, of course, but the mythologized Abbie Hoffman, the clown prince of the New Left, the archetypal radical insurgent. Hoffman’s entire public career consisted of the creation of this myth, and in fact Steal This Book was one of the crowning achievements in that career.

Notice that Hoffman seldom talks about himself in Steal This Book. And yet, on nearly every page, his presence is the primary message. Hoffman’s other books are written with a similar strategy, but where they relied on political rhetoric and grand sociological themes (‘‘We are the Woodstock Nation’’), here Hoffman presents his would-be emulators with an encyclopedia guide for outwitting ‘‘Amerika.’’ Seen from without, this is just a faulty manual for petty criminals, written by an incompetent. But from within, Steal This Book is a celebration of the trickster myth, with Abbie Hoffman as the B’rer Rabbit / Bugs Bunny hero who constantly outwits those bigger than him. By making the techniques seem so easily heroic (‘‘Communicating to masses of people . . . is very important. It drives the MAN berserk and gives hope to comrades in the struggle’’), Hoffman invites his readers to identify with his own fantasy of rebellion. Thus, practicing with a knife in a mirror isn’t just fantasizing; it actually trains you to become an effective knife fighter.

There is surely something laughable in the transparency of all this. But it doesn’t take away from Steal This Book’s value as the romantic literature of a distant time and place. As a manual for insurgents, Steal This Book isn’t worth the paper it’s written on; but as a document of a unique episode in American history, it can hardly be surpassed.

Source: Josh Ozersky, Critical Essay on Steal This Book, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, Gale, 2003.

Counterculture in Hoffman's Book

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Abbie Hoffman’s how-to guide for beating the system, Steal This Book, embodies many of the values of the 1960s counterculture, a counterculture that has survived into the twenty-first century, albeit greatly transformed. However, many of the actions that Hoffman advocates in the book, actions that have helped to define the counterculture itself, are no longer possible because of legal and cultural changes in the last thirty years. An exploration of some of these actions will give readers a sense of how much America has changed during this time.

An activist who protested Americans’ selfishness and acquisitiveness, Hoffman sought to shape the counterculture movement while providing its sympathizers with the tools to survive. One of Hoffman’s recommendations for how to survive in America was to hitchhike. By hitchhiking people could share rides and they did not contribute to polluting the country’s air or to furthering America’s dependence on foreign oil. Hitchhiking costs nothing and in the 1960s and early 1970s, was legal in most states. It also carried with it a certain allure linked to the image of the free spirit, someone not bogged down by the demands of work, family, and home ownership. During the 1950s, Beat writers like Jack Kerouac in novels such as On the Road helped to popularize hitchhiking with romantic descriptions of road life. During the 1960s and much of the 1970s, it was common to see hitchhikers along highways, thumb up and heading for their next adventure. In the twenty-first century, however, hitchhiking is highly regulated, if not illegal, in most states and on almost every interstate highway, and hitchhiker sightings are decreasing. In the last twenty-some years, the image of the hitchhiker has changed from that of a carefree hippie looking for a free ride to that of a deranged killer looking for his next victim. This change, in part, is a result of the media’s demonization of hitchhiking and of the increasing fear many Americans have of strangers, a fear fed by popular culture’s representation of hitchhikers in movies and on television as psychotic killers.

The change in attitude towards hitchhikers also reflects the public’s suspicion of anyone they perceive as trying to obtain something for free. The image of the hippie as a benign and spaced-out freeloader was already well formed in the public imagination by the end of the 1970s. However, during the Reagan administration of the 1980s, the hippie became a joke, a symbol of national shame, product of a troubled era with impossible ideals based on the sharing, rather than the hoarding, of resources.

If hitchhiking has fallen out of practice because the political climate of the country has changed, then trying to ‘‘get one over’’ on corporate America has changed because of increasing corporate vigilance and technological change. Many of Hoffman’s recommendations on how to extract free services such as telephone calls are now untenable. For example, spinning two pennies counterclockwise into the nickel slot of a pay phone to mimic the action of two nickels does not work because local calls are no longer ten cents, and because the mechanism for pay phones has been digitized. Likewise, shoplifting, a practice to which Hoffman dedicates a number of pages, is now considerably more difficult due to the proliferation of surveillance cameras and store use of electronic data tags.

The American public’s attitude towards corporations has also changed. In 2002, almost half of all Americans own stock either directly or through their pension funds. Cheating the telephone company or shoplifting from a major department store then is not simply stealing from the rich, but also stealing from oneself. America is more corporate now than it was in 1970, and more Americans, whether they like it or not, are part of the corporate fabric of the country. The link between large corporations and the average citizen has been made abundantly clear in the last two years, when millions of people saw their retirement funds collapse after the bubble in Internet stocks burst, and multi-billion dollar corporations such as World Com and Enron went bankrupt.

Many of Hoffman’s recommendations on how to fight the government and corporations, though arguably more important now than ever before as corporations continue to expand, are also becoming increasingly untenable. Protesters can still print underground newspapers and start up low-powered pirate radio stations, as he recommends, but the advent of the Internet has made these strategies relatively insignificant. Anyone with a gripe and an Internet connection can now put up a Web site for less money than it would cost to print a broadsheet. The primary task that faces protesters trying to get their word out via the world wide web is marketing. With literally billions of websites online and tens of thousands of new ones being created each day, attracting the attention of already message-saturated readers is a formidable task.

The advice that does remain relevant today is Hoffman’s description of how to plan and stage a street demonstration. His suggestions on how to secure permits and how to dress for a demonstration and prepare for possible responses from authorities are still useful, and many of them were implemented during demonstrations in Seattle against the policies of the World Trade Organization in 1999. However, Hoffman’s recommendations for using flash guns, tear gas, mace, and Molotov cocktails, while foolhardy in 1970, are almost suicidal today, as law enforcement officials are ready to pounce on the perpetrators of any act of public violence in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Indeed, September 11 has radically changed the shape of America’s counterculture, which is literally built on the freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment. Arguing that the United States is at war with terrorists, the current administration is developing a system, the Total Information Awareness (TIA) program, that would collect data from private companies and public agencies on every living American, making it easier for the government to profile and track the actions of its citizens, and—it claims—to identify foreign terrorists. Similarly, the Federal Bureau of Investigation compiled a massive file on Hoffman during his life, tracking his activities as an environmental activist and free speech advocate. This file, most of which has been released under the Freedom of Information Act, is available on the World Wide Web, as is the complete text of Hoffman’s book.

Although much of the information in Steal This Book is outdated, its spirit of protest against the status quo remains strong; so strong in fact, that most libraries do not carry copies of the book (selling 250,000 copies in its first six months), even though it was a bestseller when it was first published and remains a classic of counterculture literature. Many of the bookstores that do carry it keep the book locked behind a glass case, so that enterprising ‘‘shoppers’’ do not heed the title’s command. The book’s many tips on how to survive a culture that is more focused on individual rather than community gain were sent in to Hoffman after the publication of his book Woodstock Nation. Steal This Book was written while he was in Cook County Jail awaiting charges stemming from his protests at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968. As such, Steal This Book is as much an encyclopedia as it is a how-to book, and Hoffman’s voice is the voice of a generation determined to change business as usual.

Source: Chris Semansky, Critical Essay on Steal This Book, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, Gale, 2003.


Critical Overview