Historical Context

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Opposition to War
The organized resistance to the Vietnam War in the 1960s grew directly out of the civil rights movement of the 1950s. Up until the 1950s, America was still a segregated country, in spite of the fact slavery had formally ended in 1865. Southern states had laws, informally referred to as ‘‘Jim Crow’’ laws, that refused blacks equal access to the same public services that whites used, including transportation, housing, and schools. In 1957 the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), an organization of black churches and ministers, was formed under the leadership of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. to organize protests against racism. The organization welcomed the participation of northern whites, usually college-aged students who volunteered to fight injustice, risking their lives by attending marches and voter registration drives with southern blacks.

Starting in 1965, the SCLC changed its focus to fighting poverty in the North. White participants, including Abbie Hoffman, felt themselves being forced out by the group’s new agenda. With the skills they had learned organizing protests, they focused on the growing dissatisfaction over the war in Vietnam.

The struggle between North Vietnam and South Vietnam had gone on mostly unnoticed by Americans since 1949. Americans had given financial and tactical aid to South Vietnam, fearful that a victory by the communist government of the North would lead to a spread of communism all across the continent. President John F. Kennedy sent the first U.S. troops into the region in 1961; in 1964 President Lyndon Johnson used a report of North Vietnamese ships attacking an American ship to have Congress pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, allowing the president to escalate the war. By the end of 1965, 200,000 American soldiers were committed to the region. Years passed and American warplanes bombed Vietnamese villages, American soldiers died in battle, and an increasing number of American citizens quit believing that the abstract idea of stopping communism was a sensible explanation for the destruction. On college campuses, outrage against the war expanded to a distrust and hatred of the government in general. The outrage of the nation’s young people was channeled into political action by activists like Hoffman who had participated in the civil rights movement.

The Chicago Seven Trial
In 1968 various antiwar organizations called their members to attend the Democratic National Convention in Chicago to show their opposition to President Johnson, a Democrat, and to Hubert Humphrey, his vice president. Humphrey supported the war and was expected to be the Democratic presidential nominee. The protesters were opposed by overwhelming resistance from the government. Standing up against 5,000 protestors were 12,000 police, 6,000 army troops, and 5,000 National Guardsmen. From August 25 to 29, the streets near the convention center were scenes of violence, as the police, under orders from Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, attacked unarmed protesters with clubs, tear gas, and guns. The protesters’ chant that ‘‘The whole world is watching!’’ turned out to be true. Watching on television, Americans were in general more sympathetic to the bloodied protestors than the police and their strong-arm tactics. A government report commissioned later to investigate what happened in Chicago coined the term ‘‘police riot.’’

After Richard Nixon was elected on a law-andorder ticket, the Justice Department went about prosecuting the organizers who had encouraged people to come to Chicago to attend the protest. They were charged with conspiring to cross state lines to commit a felony, even though several of the defendants had never met one another or talked to each other before arriving in Chicago. Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin had been the founders of the Youth...

(This entire section contains 820 words.)

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International Party, or Yippie which focused on promoting change through raising public awareness with shocking and humorous stunts, such as backing their own nominee for the presidency—a pig from a local farm. Others came from the Black Panther Party, the Students for a Democratic Society, and the National Mobilization to End the War.

Throughout the trial in autumn 1969, Hoffman and Rubin brought media attention to what they saw as the ridiculousness of the government’s charges. They arrived in court in costumes, dressed as revolutionary war soldiers and as Chicago police offi- cers, and addressed Judge Julius Hoffman as ‘‘Julie.’’ These antics made Hoffman a hero to those who saw the whole trial as a political farce.

In the end, the defendants were found guilty of inciting a riot, with all convictions overturned on appeal. Hoffman was one of the defendants who had to spend a few weeks in jail for contempt of court. It was during this relatively light sentence that he wrote the introduction to Steal This Book, a fact that he alludes to in the book’s opening pages.

Steal This Book carried the Yippie attitude of resistance into the 1970s, even as the antiestablishment fervor was fading. Throughout the decades, it has been considered with almost mythical reverence by those who support the cultural revolution of the sixties, even though the advice it gives is seldom practiced.

Literary Style

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The German term zeitgeist means ‘‘the spirit of the time.’’ It is often possible to relate the time in which an author was working to the moral and intellectual trends that prevailed when she or he was writing. For instance, the wealth and hedonism of the jazz age are important clues to understanding The Great Gatsby. In the case of Steal This Book, it would be almost impossible to separate the zeitgeist of 1960s America from Hoffman’s writing style. The book is disorganized, repeating some advice and straying off its stated mission at what appears to be the author’s whim. For instance, the section on ‘‘knife fighting’’ has little to do with the political subject of fighting off police oppression, assuming that no police anywhere use knives to attack criminal suspects; it is more likely a subject Hoffman had experienced and felt like including in this guide, despite the irrelevance. Because the spirit of the time gravitated toward freedom and rebellion, the book is free to drift toward the sort of irrelevancies that would be considered distractions if included in books written for a different audience.

Almost as important as the advice given in Steal This Book is the tone that Hoffman takes throughout the work. It is his tone that conveys his attitude. Though the practicality of many of his tips might be questioned, what is clear is that he takes a consistent attitude throughout. This book offered some useful tips and many ideas that were not even realistic when it was first published. Over time, many of the corporate interests Hoffman encourages readers to ‘‘rip off’’ have refined their security measures in order to avoid being victimized by the kinds of malicious crimes he describes. Still, this is a useful document because it conveys through its tone a way of looking at the world that was prevalent in the 1960s and 1970s.

The book’s tone is set by the use of the word ‘‘pig.’’ Though the word later came to be used mainly as an insult toward police, Hoffman uses it here to describe anyone who is greedy, lazy, and small-minded. His assumption is that these are the attributes shared by those in power, making anyone who is part of the economic system a ‘‘pig,’’ and thereby a fair victim of robbery, ‘‘trashing,’’ and violence. The word is frequently used to refer to members of the police force, but that is because they are the members of the establishment with which readers would most likely come into contact if they followed the book’s guidelines. In general though, the police, corporate employees, politicians, and business owners are all workers for what Hoffman refers to as the ‘‘Pig Empire.’’

Compare and Contrast

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1971: Angered at the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, many American citizens feel the need to resist the prevailing social order, sometimes violently.

Today: Frightened by the prospect of terrorist attacks, many citizens look to the American government for protection.

1971: One of the longest periods of economic growth in the country’s history makes it possible for young people to take financial security for granted, turning their backs on the morally unsatisfying pursuit of money.

Today: The unstable economy makes money harder to come by, which in turn makes it harder to survive off sharing or handouts.

1971:Steal This Book takes a position that large, faceless corporations are inhumane and deserve to be robbed.

Today: Advances in transportation and telecommunication have made corporations multinational and therefore even more impersonal. Nineteensixties- like protests are aimed against the G- 20 Conference and the World Trade Organization, groups that coordinate world-dominating corporations.

1971: Abbie Hoffman writes a guidebook so that readers who are not part of the hippie movement but are interested in participating, can benefit from the informal tips usually passed from one person to another by word of mouth.

Today: Informal tips like these can generally be found on the Internet.

1971: There are two major world superpowers: America, with a capitalist economy that supports private ownership, and the Soviet Union, with a communist economy that is based on government ownership.

Today: Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, the American form of capitalism is the main economic influence in the world.

Media Adaptations

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The 2000 motion picture Steal This Movie is not an adaptation of this book, as is commonly assumed; actually it is a biography of Hoffman. It was directed by Robert Greenwald and stars Vincent D’Onofrio, Janeane Garofalo, and Jeanne Tripplehorn. It is available from Trimark Home Video.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Hoffman, Abbie, Steal This Book, Four Walls Eight Windows, 2002.

Hoffman, Jack, and Daniel Simon, Run Run Run: The Lives of Abbie Hoffman, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1994, p. 179.

Rader, Dotson, Review of Steal This Book, in the New York Times Sunday Book Review, July 15, 1971.

Further Reading
Becker, Theodore L., and Anthony L. Donaldson, Live This Book: Abbie Hoffman’s Philosophy for a Free and Green America, The Noble Press, Inc., 1991.
This is one of the few sources that seriously considers the philosophical and spiritual bases for Hoffman’s brand of media manipulation. Written after his death, the book takes into account his whole life, including his post-sixties political organizing under an assumed name.

Farber, David, Chicago ‘68, University of Chicago Press, 1995.
The events in Chicago of 1968 were important in American history and in understanding the full significance of Abbie Hoffman’s place in it. This book is a scholarly explanation of the dynamic forces involved, including a detailed explanation of Hoffman’s Yippie philosophy.

Isserman, Maurice, and Michael Kazin, America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s, Oxford University Press, 2000.
The authors take a balanced, scholarly look at the political turmoil of the decade, careful to avoid common mistakes of romanticizing the hippie movement or unfairly blaming it for society’s ills.

Sloman, Larry, Steal This Dream: Abbie Hoffman and the Counterculture Revolution in America, Doubleday, 1998.
This oral history compiles hundreds of interviews from people who knew Hoffman and presents their impressions of him in their own words.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide