February 2010

Dear Abbie

By David Feela

ºI should have written this book review when the book first appeared, not waited like I have until readers forgot about it, but 38 years late is probably better than never.

Back in the early ’70s when I worked as a public library employee, a patron submitted an interlibrary loan request for Abbie Hoffman’s “Steal This Book.” I knew very little about Hoffman at the time except as a news item, for protests associated with the Vietnam War. He was, I learned, one of the Chicago Seven, tried and convicted (the conviction was later overturned) for inciting riots in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic Convention.

Dutifully I sat down at my teletype machine and forwarded the library patron’s request. I’ll never forget the reply that arrived the next day: This book has been stolen from all holding libraries. I was impressed. To be able to write a book seemed magical, but to inspire legions of readers to walk off with the thing bordered on the absurd. Here was marketing gone mad, but in a way that surprised me.

I never actually read Hoffman’s book, not until last month when a used-bookstore copy surfaced in Flagstaff. It’s actually a facsimile edition printed in 1996, nearly a decade after Abbie Hoffman killed himself by overdose. According to those who believe in conspiracies, the jury is still out on that conclusion. Strangely, what he outlines in his “Table of Discontents” is nothing short of a declaring war on the system. The FBI kept a file on Hoffman’s activities that amounted to 13,262 pages. That’s 12,954 more pages than Hoffman’s actual book!

Still, as a radical and part-time underground fugitive, Hoffman inspired a generation to question authority and in every possible way, rip off the system, something many people are very committed to, even today. Illegal downloads and pirated movies rank high as popular domestic abuse, while Ponzi schemes and mismanaged banking practices have made the hit list as corporate criminal misconduct. In his book Hoffman openly advocated illegal behavior, but he always maintained “corporate feudalism [is] the only robbery worthy of being called a ‘crime,’ for it is committed against the people as a whole.”

Hoffman’s book obsesses on the idea of getting things for free, by scheme or outright theft. 1970s society was shocked by what he had to say, but Hoffman only touched a nerve that pretty much functions today as a pulse. Our latest economic meltdown emphasizes this trend — a new kind of American Free-dumb, just another word for nothing left to steal. Hoffman’s book might just as well be republished and sold, titled to appeal to today’s pseudo-revolutionaries: “Steal This Loan,” “Steal This Home,” “Steal This Medicare Payment,” “Steal This Retirement Fund,” “Steal This Bonus,” or “Steal This Identity.”

At the funeral a Rabbi eulogized Hoffman’s life as an embodiment of a Jewish tradition, one that seeks to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” To that end, Hoffman’s entire book is readily available on the internet for anyone to use, for free, sponsored by sites dedicated to keeping his style of political activism alive, but if you want to pilfer the book like a true Yippie of the ’70s, pull up in the dark to an unsuspecting and securitylax WiFi hot spot in your neighborhood and steal his download. It’s not exactly illegal, but if you’re sitting at home worrying about losing your job, a distraction might be just what you need.

David Feela writes from rural Montezuma County, Colo.