Monday, January 30, 2006

D.P. Camp Gaza, July 2006: News from the Near Future

Displaced Persons Camp Gaza, July 4, 2006: Initially, the victory of Hamas in Palestinian elections last January caused some nervousness among Palestinians. They heartily agreed with the plan to throw the Jews into the sea, but the other aspects of Hamas' platform didn't sound so pleasant.

By March, the Hamas program began to take hold with Shari'a, sex-separated schools, an end to all Western music and cinema, mandatory burkas for women and the confiscation of all shaving equipment for men. The daily beheadings of hold-out Fatah members further heightened unease. Some Palestinians secretly called for joint U.S.-Iraqi intervention to stop the killings. And not a single Jew had been thrown into the sea.

The great revolt began the night of April 12, as Jews celebrated the first seder of Passover. Gazing at dynamic, tolerant Israel so close but unfathomably far away, tens of thousands of Palestinians spontaneously rebelled against Hamas' plague of blood in the most dramatic way possible. They decided they would become Jews.

Later, many people swore they saw the "Angel of Life" sweeping through the refugee camps. Within days, thousands of Palestinians fled to the borders of Israel and declared they were willing to immediately convert if they could then be admitted to Israel. The move enraged Hamas, which attacked the new refugee camps, but heavily armed Fatah members repelled most of the attacks.

One of the new converts explained his determination to become Jewish despite the furious assaults: "Better to die a Jew than live like a schmuck under Hamas."

Accustomed to sudden surges of immigration, the Israeli government reacted with calm efficiency. Absorption and security officials fanned out through the camps, such as D.P. Camp Gaza, to interview families to weed out infiltrators and determine the sincerity of the conversion. Engineering crews built emergency mikvahs to handle the wave of conversion ceremonies.

By May, hundreds of Chabad's most seasoned shluchim appeared throughout the camps to organize and instruct the new Jews. Before long, stickers saying "We Want Moshiach Now!" written in Arabic appeared, along with blue tzedaka boxes.

By June, with ulpan and religion classes proceeding smoothly, the Judeo-Palestinians were definitely getting the knack of their new faith and culture. For example, the first synagogue in D.P. Camp Gaza bitterly split into two opposing factions over the issue of gay rabbis. The first bar mitzvah was a big success, disrupted only when a Kalashnikov rifle accidently discharged during the kiddush (no injuries were reported).

Reaction in the U.S. was mixed. David Letterman tickled his audience at the CBS Late Show with his "Top 10 Plagues Wished Upon Hamas" (number 1 was Suha Arafat).

Abraham Foxman of the ADL sent out an urgent fund-raising appeal that said, "I am deeply troubled by the conversion of thousands of Palestinians to Judaism. This is nothing less than the latest diabolical plot by the Religious Right to CHRISTIANIZE America! Send in your donations now!!"

Notaries public throughout D.P. Camp Gaza are busy helping the converts legally change their names. Most of the converts adopted Hebrew names as part of their plan to enter Israeli society. Some, however, opted for names associated with American Judaism as a way to distinguish themselves and perhaps garner more support from the U.S.

One couple for example, went from being Ali and Yasmina to Harvey Fierstein and Barbara Streisand. Barbara told Kesher Talk, "Ali -- excuse me, I mean Harvey -- and I are huge fans of Broadway musicals. And, believe it or not, 'Yentl' has always been incredibly popular at Palestinian video stores. So it seemed natural to honor these Broadway legends." Harvey added, "I've already got us tickets to see 'Spamalot' when it plays in Tel Aviv. Barbara's plotzing, she's so excited."

An informal survey found that other Judeo-Palestinians are now calling themselves Philip Roth, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Tony Kushner, Ron "Hedgehog" Jeremy, Madonna, Kinky Friedman, Sara Michelle Gellar, Alan Greenspan, Judge Wapner, Jack Bauer, Fran Drescher, and Montel Williams.

Informed that Montel Williams is not, generally speaking, considered a Jewish name in the U.S., one man replied, "Montel, Shmontel, as long as they let me in."

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Conversations with a Spook: William Colby, the Spy Who Played Computer Games

In March 1996, I interviewed William Colby, former Director of Central Intelligence, for a profile in the Princeton Alumni Weekly (Colby was Class of '40). Only a month later, however, Colby died in a boating accident in Maryland. Due to Colby's death, PAW never ran the article on the venerable and controversial spymaster. The profile appears here for the first time.

William Colby, the Spy Who Played Computer Games

Seasoned by decades of espionage work during hot and cold wars, William Colby ’40 knew he had to be thoroughly prepared before embarking on his latest assignment in the wilderness of mirrors. A professional would do no less. So Colby, Director of Central Intelligence from 1973 to 1976, started playing computer games.

“I looked at ‘Return to Zork,’” recalled Colby. “I went through enough of it to understand how it worked.”

Colby’s Zork play helped him understand the intricacies of interactive entertainment while he served as a consultant on the development of Spycraft: The Great Game, a $49.95 computer game marketed by Activision Inc. of Los Angeles, which also markets the Zork series of adventure/role-playing CD-ROM games.

The project teamed Colby with former KGB major general Oleg Kalugin, whom Colby knew from the post-Cold War conference circuit. Kalugin gained fame in the Gorbachev era when he resigned from the KGB and switched to the pro-democracy side in Russia. Starting two years ago, they shared their espionage experiences with writer James Adams, who worked the material into a script.

“The basic thrust of the project was two things,” explained Colby. “First, that it’s time for Russians and Americans to work together on intelligence matters. There are common enemies and problems. We wanted to look at the future rather than the past. Second, we wanted to be somewhat realistic about what intelligence is all about.” The game revolves around the assassination of a Russian presidential candidate.

Colby picked up the theme from there: “You, as the CIA case officer, are chosen to find out who did it, because the U.S. President is next on the hit list. You work with the Russians on it.” The search involves drug trafficking, nuclear weapons, and other perils. Besides briefing Adams on spycraft, Colby and Kalugin both stepped in front of the film cameras to appear in the game. Colby’s part came naturally to him: “My role is as a senior counselor to the player. I tell him he’s wrong, or suggest he try different things.”

The chance to educate game fans to the realities of espionage attracted Colby to the project when an agent (the Hollywood kind) approached him on behalf of Activision. “It seemed like a way to get to a new audience that didn’t know about intelligence,” said Colby. “I want the general public to understand and support that we need good intelligence and we can find new allies.” While it has what Colby terms the “bang-bang” elements─eliminating double agents, rescuing hostages─Spycraft confronts players with the intellectual and ethical challenges facing spies.

“You have to know who’s telling the truth and who is lying,” he said. Colby faced all of the challenges in his long career, starting with his work as an OSS agent in Nazi-occupied France and Norway in World War II. He served in Sweden, Italy, and Vietnam from 1951to 1962, when Allen W. Dulles ’14 [2006 note: Dulles was a member of the Princeton Class of 1914] was Director of Central Intelligence (Colby noted, “He would have loved the game. He was very much a hands-on intelligence officer”). He was chief of the CIA’s Far East Division from 1963 to 1968, and director of the agency from 1973 to 1976. Since then he has served as a consultant, lecturer and lawyer, and written the books Honorable Men and Lost Victory.

Colby sent his former employer early outlines and scripts of Spycraft, following the terms of a contract he signed with the CIA to let the agency examine anything he writes on intelligence matters. “They finally said, go ahead. I know what I can say and can’t say,” he explained. “the only thing they look for is does this reveal any secrets we should be keeping.”

Activision reports strong sales of Spycraft, and in April Colby took part in an online chat session on Activision’s Web site to answer questions about the project. Colby is already thinking about material for a sequel that’s under discussion. After all, the great game never really ends.

Friday, January 27, 2006

'24' Alert: George Mason is Definitely a Jew

Inspired by the recent essay revealing Jack Bauer's Jewishness, correspondent Fausta of Bad Hair Blog gazed thoughtfully at the ever-expanding CTU Memorial Wall of Honor in LA and wondered whether the late George Mason might also be Jewish (that's George at the right in the photo, going mano-a-mano with Jack Bauer).

Fantastic idea, Fausta. And you know what? You're right. George Mason IS (or was, anyway) Jewish. Here's why.

One strong factor point to George Mason's Judaism is that he is undoubtedly related to this well-known fellow. My sense is that their grandmothers were second cousins.

During his time at CTU, seasons 1 and 2, Mason was a highly ambiguous character, at least in the beginning. As LA director of CTU, Mason clashed with Jack Bauer and had a history of financial chicanery, both of which made him a prime candidate as a mole.

However, like Judah in the story of Joseph, Mason revealed himself to be a man with a deep sense of self-sacrificing decency. During season 2, Mason is exposed to a lethal dose of radiation as CTU tries to stop a nuclear bomb plot. He realizes instantly he's a dead man, but rather than moan and kvetch and spend his final hours downing Jell-o shots at Hooter's, Mason reaches out to his estranged son John and reconciles with him before his fateful last assignment as a stow-away.

Mason, brilliantly played by Xander Berkeley, emerges from the back of an airplane that Jack is flying with a nuke to a remote area of Southern California. In a moment of supreme composure and duty, Mason boots Jack out (with a parachute, of course) and pilots the plane himself and saves millions of lives. I'm pretty sure I heard him reciting the Sh'ma as the plane headed deep into the mountains.

Here's an erev shabbat salute to George Mason, our landsman.

(And besides being a mensch, you know George was Jewish because he was also a generous macher and a MAJOR supporter of this institution.)

Friday, January 20, 2006

Fantasies of a '24' Obsessive: Jack Bauer is Jewish!

The fifth season of “24” blasted off last Sunday and Monday on Fox, packed with four hours of non-stop mayhem. As a 24 obsessive since the very first episode in 2001, I constantly scan the show for any Jewish angle.

The casual observer sees plenty of skulking Middle Eastern killers, but almost nothing in the way of overt Jewish presence. 24 approached matters of Jewish identity in season 4 with a brief appearance by a sniveling lawyer with a Jewish name who ran into the Counter Terrorism Unit (CTU) headquarters representing a terror suspect. On the surface, that's it.

What’s a Jewish 24 fan to do?

I thought carefully about this during the season premiere. After a glass or two of slivovitz, my mind refocused and suddenly 24 emerged as the most Jewish show this side of “Fiddler On the Roof” with Harvey Fierstein. Hang with me here:

1. Jack Bauer, brilliantly played by Keifer Sutherland, is Jewish because his real name must be Yaacov Bauer. His last name suggests a back-story with roots as the scion of a mittel Europa dynasty of rabbis and scholars. Jack himself holds an English lit degree from UCLA, so you know underneath the tough exterior is a sensitive soul who reads 19th century romantic poetry and loves cuddling up to watch movies based on Jane Austen novels.

2. Jack Bauer’s approach to counter-terrorism work shows Talmudic subtlety worthy of Rabbi David Small in Harry Kemelman’s rabbinic detective series. After careful thinking that can last at least 15 seconds, Bauer comes to logical conclusions and carefully explains them. In season 1, for example, he executes and beheads a drug dealer as part of a plan to get close to a terror suspect. Bauer tells a colleague who is skeptical of his unorthodox (!) methods, “That's the problem with people like you, George. You want results, but you never want to get your hands dirty. I'd start rolling up your sleeves.” Hillel himself could not be more pithy.

3. Jack Bauer loves his family. Throughout 24, Jack Bauer’s work intertwines with children, especially his trouble-prone daughter Kim, played by the luscious Elisha Cuthbert. Jack always does his utmost to help Kim out of jams, even if he has to kill, kill, and kill some more. As a good Jewish father, Jack gets to know Chase Edmunds, a CTU agent in love with Kim, although he struggles with Chase's relationship with the hot but ditzy Kim. At the end of season 3, he has to cut off Chase’s hand to stop something horrible from happening, but Chase is a surprisingly good sport about this. What a son-in-law he’ll be! I’m sure Jack, Kim, and Chase will work out any lingering issues in family therapy. Perhaps that will happen in a special episode called “24: The 50-Minute Hour.”

4. Jack Bauer has a Jewish sense of time. Except for the first episode, which began and ended at midnight, every season begins at some other time, usually in the morning. This is almost like the Jewish concept of time, in which the new day begins at sunset. Jack’s string of “the longest day of my life” does not follow the western concept of new days.

5. Jack Bauer can sustain loving relationships with women. The cliché that Jewish men make good husbands (or at least good boyfriends) absolutely applies to Jack Bauer. Jack reconciles with his estranged wife Terri in the first season, and rescues her several times. True, she is murdered at the end of the first season by the evil CTU mole Nina, Jack’s former lover, but Jack feels really bad about this. In season 4, Jack sustains a wonderful relationship with Audrey Raines (played by Kim Raver), daughter of the Secretary of Defense, who is still married to Brit financial wizard Paul Raines. The relationship suffers a bit of a bump, I’ll admit, when Jack tortures Paul, decides he’s OK, and then, after Paul is shot, lets him die in an operating room because Jack forces doctors to tend to a wounded Chinese scientist with super important information. But Audrey is back for season 5. The smoldering glances of long-suppressed passion are about to erupt. I am confident they’ll find time to work through their issues and maybe end the season at a Basherte couples weekend to celebrate their love. I foresee Jack reciting “Eiyshet Chayil” to Audrey by hour 23.

6. Chloe O’Brian is Jewish. Granted, this technology genius's name doesn’t sound Jewish, but that is just a red herring to throw off audiences unattuned to Jewish signals. Chloe is brilliant, a rule-bender, socially awkward at times, and has a dazzling instinct as a stone-cold killer of the bad guys. Chloe’s greatly expanded role in the new season befits her status as an audience favorite.

In her big moment in season 4, Chloe shoots a man in self-defense and has this memorable discussion with colleague Edgar Stiles, who is also, I’m sure, a Member of the Tribe:

Edgar: You okay?
Chloe: I'm fine.
Edgar: Is there anything I can do?
Chloe: I said I'm fine! I am trying not to think about what happened, I'm gonna process it later, okay?
Edgar: Sure, fine.
[walks away]
Chloe: Edgar, I appreciate your concern. I really do. Just when I shot that guy, I thought I'd go all fetal position. But the truth is, I didn't feel anything. At all. I hope I'm not some kind of a psychopath.
Edgar: Well, he *was* trying to kill you.
Chloe: Yeah, but still!
Edgar: Maybe it's a delayed reaction kinda thing. Maybe you'll freak out about it in a few days.
Chloe: I hope so.

Get this woman on JDate ASAP!

7. Edgar Stiles is Jewish. Hey, he's got an honors degree from New York University. Maybe he grew up in the Five Towns. Another nebbishy techno-geek, Edgar shines with his love for his mother. When a nuclear bomb exploded near her home in Season 4, he desperately wanted to leave CTU to rescue her from the radiation. But his mother urged him to stay at work and, with tears in his eyes, he agreed. Such a good Jewish son!

8. Tony Almeida is Jewish. Don’t let the name fool you. Tony has to be Sephardic. His savoir-faire would make him a JDate favorite, as when he discusses a day at the office with his ex-wife Michelle (deceased as of the first minutes of season 5), saying, “So, uh, what are we saying here? If we save LA from a nuclear bomb, then you and I can get together for dinner and a movie?” Tony's character is so important to the show that he warrants his own fabulous fan site.

9. Ryan Chappelle is NOT Jewish. Try as I might, I can't find a Jewish angle on Ryan's character. He was Jack's boss as regional director of CTU. He was, anyway, until Jack had to execute him. Jack felt sorry about this, as did Ryan. I could develop an Abraham-Isaac Akeda comparison, but that would just seem forced. No angel came down to stay Jack's hand.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Conversations with a Ghost: The Abbie Hoffman Interview, Conclusion

In 1986 I interviewed 60s radical Abbie Hoffman. Never before published, the edited transcript now appears through the magic of the Internet. This is the final installment.


Part 1

Part 2


Mission2Moscow: Do you ever get tired of being ABBIE HOFFMAN, in capital letters?

Hoffman: Very much, yes. Being underground, if I heard the name I just ducked immediately, I got scared. So I still don’t like to hear it today, to this minute I don’t like to hear the name. But fame can give you access. You can call up people, they don’t hang up. Well, it’s an OK name. I’m proud of what I do – and did.

Mission2Moscow: How do you like to relax?

Hoffman: Orgasms. I’m trying to figure out how to make it last longer than three hours (shrieks of laughter). Believe me, international revolution, that’s how you do it – three-hour orgasms.

Mission2Moscow: Your mother called you an excellent bowler. You were a jock back at Brandeis.

Hoffman: Sports? Let’s see, tennis. I love playing pool, going to pool halls and shooting pool. And I like watching sports on TV. I love arguing with the television. I spend about three hours shouting at the TV. It gets me in good shape.

Mission2Moscow: Are you a vegetarian?

Hoffman: No, do I want to see my shit green all the rest of my life? I’ve been on long fasts. In prison it’s very easy. If you’ve had burrito surprise in a maximum security prison, you’re ready to fast. But I’m not a vegetarian and I’m not sure I’d let my daughter marry one.

Mission2Moscow: In other times we’ve talked, you’ve always brought up the networking person’s name. Have you ever wanted, in your juvenile delinquency moments, to go down to the Palladium and put a cream pie in his face? [2006 note: The Palladium was a night club in New York where Jerry Rubin held networking parties in the 1980s.]

Hoffman: It’s funny about that. I’ve only been cream pied once and he did it to me. And I hated it. It happened in a debate.

Mission2Moscow: In your autobiography you described the two of you as still close friends then. Does that still apply?

Hoffman: What I wrote about Jerry Rubin, being friendly with him, that’s a mistake. We’re not friendly. This is not because of what he does. I don’t even know what the hell it is. Networking? It’s got people coming and they exchange business cards and they want to get laid, I guess. So that’s cool. But he has decided to put his ideas into the political arena, and I have to deal with him as a public personality, not just as a private person. What am I supposed to do about somebody who says he picked out his wife because she wouldn’t feel guilty about wearing a fur coat and getting in and out of limousines? Now I’ve got 30 or 40 quotes like that from Jerry Rubin that I would just whip out in the debates and he’d say that’s a lie – but they’re all true. He will say that thing and then he will turn around and not connect it. There are no connections. That’s what’s so lousy about being born again.

I just couldn’t believe that introduction (to the Whole Life interview with Rubin). It said the book he wrote about his insights were sincere. Every single chapter was the latest fad. If it was Werner Erhard [2006 note: Erhard was the founder of the est training] it was in, if it was Rolfing that was in, and then that was wrong and this was it. This is so crass, so petty, so nouveau riche, so disgusting.

Mission2Moscow: You sound disappointed.

Hoffman: People who want to make money in this society are literally a dime a dozen. It’s not that I’m disappointed in Jerry as a human being. He paid his dues. I’m disappointed in the kind of political things he feels he has to do to make his way and brag about going to restaurants where George Steinbrenner and Donald Trump hang out. God, I’d be afraid I’d get some kind of disease.

Mission2Moscow: Is Judaism part of your mentality?

Hoffman: I’m not about to deny my Judaism, and I’m not about to let B’nai B’rith and real hawks on Israel define what Judaism is.

Mission2Moscow: How do you define it?

Hoffman: A way of life. A way of championing the cause of the underdog, of not being afraid of being a dissident, almost a permanent outsider.

Mission2Moscow: Like a prophet.

Hoffman: You mean “et.” Proph-ETS.

Mission2Moscow: Proph-ETS, right, the Jeremiahs and Isaiahs of the world.

Hoffman: The ones who went for broke, as opposed to . . .

Mission2Moscow: The ones who wound up broke.

Hoffman: Who wound up broke. I cannot conceive of winding up any other way but broke.

Mission2Moscow: Is there anything you haven’t done, that you would like to do?

Hoffman: I want to go to Bali, and I want to go back to the Amazon. I never want to go to Europe again, that’s for sure. I want to go to Africa and Asia, the developing worlds. If I had my way, right now, OK, no shit, all things considered, if I was financially secure I would be out of this country. I would be gone, you wouldn’t know Abbie Hoffman. Now we’re dealing with the truth. He has enough money, he’s out of there. I’d be in Nicaragua, that’s where I’d be. I don’t know if I’d be carrying a gun or driving an ambulance, but I’d like going there. I like Nicaragua.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Conversations with a Ghost: The Abbie Hoffman Interview, Part 2

This continues my 1986 interview with Abbie Hoffman.

The introduction can be found here.

Part 1


Mission2Moscow: You once said that politics is swaddled in “perhapses.” What do you think is the biggest perhaps for you – personally or politically?

Hoffman: Maybe the drug bust, going underground. The world of Latin America would have been known to me only through the media. It wouldn’t have been known so much from direct contact. Never mind the direct experience of somebody who worked and lived there as a fugitive. Also, the battle on the St. Lawrence River as another person, as Barry Freed. It would have been very easy for me to avoid it, but seeing, in a sense, my true identity come out, that I am a community organizer, that when I see a way to beat the powers that be, when they are about to commit an injustice, I just have to act. I don’t know how to sit there and watch it go by, or rationalize.

I was tested in the underground. I was tested by having my kids forced to live on welfare. My ex-wife Anita –who is a hero of mine, who when faced with the choice, very bright, could have become a yuppie, could have developed her career like that – chose instead when she was broke to form the Downtown Welfare Advocate Center here in New York, which has remained one of the best advocate centers for welfare mothers in the country.

Mission2Moscow: If you hadn’t gone underground, what would have happened in the intervening years before you resurfaced?

Hoffman: Everyone has this fantasy of opening a small restaurant. I love cooking. I do al the cooking here.

Mission2Moscow: A lot of Spanish food?

Hoffman: I have an excellent way with huevos rancheros and can make Mexican paella. You know the article where I posed as Playboy’s restaurant critic (to gain entrance to top European eateries)? I got all the recipes in my head. That’s the contradiction of life. The lefties can’t understand great cooking. Hedonism is wasted on the left.

Mission2Moscow: What’s the difference between a Jewish woman and a shiksa?

Hoffman: I’m trying to figure out an answer to this without getting into trouble (laughter, then pause). I’ve experienced love a couple of times it’s not something I choose to live without. This Hebrew Jewish warrior image of myself as lonely community organizer, dollar a year, ready to go into any community, fantasies of fighting in the mountains, in Nicaragua, the Spanish Civil War . . . I’m basically a romantic and I can do this because I am in love. If I wasn’t in love I’d probably go into business.

Mission2Moscow: “Come back to the drug company, Abbie, all is forgiven”? [referring to Hoffman’s time as a sales representative]

Hoffman: Or pharmaceuticals. More a restaurant, more marketing,, more like you-know-who is doing these days. It’s nice that you haven’t dropped the name of . . . the other one. More like the other one is doing.

Mission2Moscow: Oh, no. I think he’s passé. The whole project is kind of boring.

Hoffman: Good, good, good. But if you’re an organizer you know how to bring people together. Maybe I’ll promote soccer in America, or like “Hands Across America.” I can do that stuff. That would be a natural tendency for my talent, although my political sensitivities just say, “no way, this is too mainstream.”

Mission2Moscow: You talk about being in love on different levels when it involves Jews and more currently goyim. (Hoffman’s two wives were Jewish, and he now lives with a gentile). Is there a cultural difference between Jewish love and gentile love?

Hoffman: It’s very hard to put this in ways that are not going to make Jews appear more intelligent, because you want to say things like gentile love seems more instinctual, it seems more like loyalty, whereas me, the Jewish male, just constantly seems to be flying about every minute. That may be the difference between the heart and the brain, but they all sound sexist and religious and a bit off the mark. This is a hard question to answer to be both honest and politically correct.

Mission2Moscow: Just try honesty.

Hoffman; Why? (laughs) What the hell does honesty get you? It’s better to be politically correct. Let me put it this way: There is a difference, and trying to figure out what the difference is, is certainly part of the attraction. And I’m not sure I’ve figured out what the difference is. We’re talking about a very unusual woman, a woman who has literally saved my life three times.

Mission2Moscow: Why do you call her your running mate?

Hoffman: It’s an interesting non-sexist term. Lovers sounds a little like the 30s, roommates – not exactly roommates. Partner, I don’t know. But running mates, ‘cause they know we’re running around all the time, so she’s chosen. She’s a very big hero of mine and has a more developed concept of justice than I do.

Mission2Moscow: What are your kids like? Did they grow up to disrespect authority?

Hoffman: Yes.

Mission2Moscow: And they still do that?

Hoffman: Yes.

Mission2Moscow: How do they do that?

Hoffman: Well, they don’t work for corporations. You’re not going to find them in corporate America, you’re not going to find them on the Upper East Side. You’re not going to find them constantly thinking about upward mobility and status.

Mission2Moscow: What do they do?

Hoffman: My oldest son (Andy) is an artist. He makes things very artistically: jewelry, earrings, he’s very good with his hands, extremely good for a Jew (laughs). And he’s married. My daughter (Amy) just graduated from Hampshire College and works as a paralegal. She has a job, but in the social movement. She was an activist in the Jesse Jackson campaign. I wouldn’t call her an activist, like me. The youngest kid (america) has that potential. He’s determined not to register for the draft. He is determined to make his mark in the world as a rebel. Whether it is a good rebel or a bad rebel is something we discuss a lot.

Mission2Moscow: Are you a grandfather?

Hoffman: Not that I know of. I keep thinking about what a surprise that would be to so many people – including myself – because most people still have me pegged at the terrible twos. I’m certainly still a juvenile delinquent in a way. This becomes very complicated, by the way, because my youngest kid has a touch of the juvenile delinquent about him.

Mission2Moscow: How so?

Hoffman: He gets in trouble with the law.

Mission2Moscow: What’s he done?

Hoffman: I ain’t squealing.

Mission2Moscow: Does this tickle you, or concern you as a parent?

Hoffman: Of course it concerns me. It has to do with the lecture of the good rebel and the bad rebel. Robin Hood was a good rebel because he didn’t take for himself. So I don’t want to stifle my kids’ rebellion against authority but I want to see them use that rebellion in a positive way, that’s all.

Mission2Moscow: It sounds like that’s a tough thing to accomplish.

Hoffman: Bringing up kids is not easy. I often will turn to my kids while we are having little frictions and say, “Do you think this is easy? What the hell would you do if you were on this side? What would you do?” And then they laugh, they kind of like that.

Mission2Moscow: What did you tell your children about drugs?

Hoffman: Which drug? I’m very specific. You mean recreational drugs?

Mission2Moscow: Cocaine.

Hoffman: I think every one of my kids has tried cocaine. I think they’ve all tried recreational drugs. I am a philosopher about that. I tell them drugs have positive and negative sides, they can be dangerous, but it is one of the things mass society is lying about right off the bat and the only way they are going to come to terms with this honestly is to do what your own conscience dictates.

Mission2Moscow: Marijuana.

Hoffman: Two have outgrown drugs. One’s used marijuana. The youngest kid, he’s sort of California cool, you know, he’s like, uhhhh.

Mission2Moscow: (regarding Hoffman’s 1973 arrest for involvement in the sale of three pounds of cocaine) Was there a death wish at work there?

Hoffman: There was probably a wish to disgrace myself more than death. Well, maybe death. Those cops had the gun, they said, “You want to run for it, go ahead.”

Mission2Moscow: They said that to you?

Hoffman: Oh, yeah, they said that a lot of times. I was really tempted to go down in bullets, right at that moment. You see yourself as a criminal.

Mission2Moscow: Was this just another caper when they arrested you?

Hoffman: No, it was much more serious, but I was on cocaine, so I was pretty zonked. As I reflect back, sure, it was shameful. I was very ashamed. I didn’t like to have to be forced into a situation where I had to bring so much pain to myself and to my family and friends. I had to walk through the fire, really. I just disappeared. I would have been the last one to say we would be sitting here just like this and I would be Abbie Hoffman again. That was gone forever.

Mission2Moscow: So you’re not addicted to anything now?

Hoffman: No. Except psychologically, like good movies or good food or good sex. I should tell you right off, I’m glad I got busted.

Mission2Moscow: Yes?

Hoffman: There were certain adventures I had along the way underground, seeing what the world was like as another person, just being an observer rather than someone who is so much a participant. You walk into a room as Abbie Hoffman, this isn’t a room. You walk into a room as somebody else with a vague past, who doesn’t have much money, you’re seeing a completely different reality. That was an incredibly important experience philosophically, psychologically, in terms of the way I look at the world, as something apart from my own personal experience. I met Johanna, and that wouldn’t have happened unless all the other things happened. And we’re just very happy together. I’m just very happy and lucky.

Conversations with a Ghost: The Abbie Hoffman Interview, Part 1

In 1986 I interviewed 60s radical Abbie Hoffman for a New York publication. The edited transcript, taken from five hours of conversation, never was published. Thanks to the Internet, Hoffman's wit and energy can now be read by a new generation. The introduction to this piece can be found here.

Hoffman: I was just surprised last month to get a call from Walt Disney to use me in a commercial to plug their latest movie, Ruthless People. It’s funny to get a call like that.

Mission2Moscow: Are you going to do it?

Hoffman: I turned it down, no.

Mission2Moscow: Why did you turn it down?

Hoffman: They wouldn’t let me see the movie, for one thing. But there is a big difference. These things, like being called by Walt Disney, or being on the Phil Donahue Show or talk shows, speaking to large numbers of people. I am used by the U.S. Information Agency as propaganda around that world that this is how much free speech we have. Probably 90 percent of the readers of Whole Life believe – believe the fact that I’m giving this interview here – that you are interviewing me, I’m on the cover, that I am a self-proclaimed dissident, that I am anti-state, that I have a point of view that may be in the minority of the people who are thinking out there in the world, but certainly a minority view here, that the fact that I’m allowed is free speech.

I’m not one of those people. I don’t believe that at all. You’re asking me the questions, you’re framing it, I’m stuck between the ads. We have the best information money can by, and that’s it. Period. We don’t have the best information.

Mission2Moscow: You once said you thought Walter Cronkite was the best newsman or the most . . .

Hoffman: The most trustworthy. That’s just a general image he’s concocted in America. I would never give the system that much credit. When I say the best, I mean it in this context. I would say Ted Koppel of Nightline has the best talk show on TV – news talk show, but I’m describing something in a narrow context – which is pro-corporation, which is anti-Russian, which accepts certain premises like the fundamental principle of our thinking is the key to keeping the Western alliance together, which is to maintain national security through strength of weaponry. Which, with, that God exists, is alive, is a Christian, that drugs are the devil, that Communism is the devil, that history is irrelevant, that anecdote is important, that accepts the system that will say the strongest critic that is allowed out there is somebody who will say, “Well, there are some things wrong with America, but it’s 90 percent OK.” That’s what you’re allowed as a critic. That’s not a dissident. I am a self-invention. This is not an invention of the media. You cannot be an American dissident. It is simply not allowed. It is like being an American refugee. You cannot renounce this system. It’s just now allowed. You are just like an ungrateful, spoiled brat who wasn’t breast-fed, or who doesn’t really mean it.

Mission2Moscow: You mentioned avoiding free speech. The issue of pornography has come up a lot these days, the Meese Commission and all that. Are you afraid that political stuff is going to be the next target?

Hoffman: Obviously, it always is, it is already happening. It’s no secret to me that the Dead Kennedys are one of the most political groups in the country. That’s why Jello Biafra (its leader) is on trial for his genital poster (included in an album). It’s avant-garde and the radical politics generally – not always – tend to go together with that. That’s why the left is split. When you have Women Against Pornography saying, “I don’t find anything wrong with being in camp with Edwin Meese,” a guy who says his goal is to dismantle the Miranda decision. You have this contradiction of looking in an adult porn store and everyone behind that grimy window looks like Edwin Meese (laughs). I mean, who are they talking about anyway?

If the left was left to sell left-wing politics to the United States, it’s like sell deep-freeze units to Eskimos. There is no market for those kinds of ideas. There hasn’t been since maybe the 1930s, when the unions had their day. In the 1960s what happened was that a kind of generalized leftist politics occurred at the same time as the sexual revolution as the breaking away from the puritan ethic – the puritanical anal restrictive attitudes towards sex, drugs, rock and roll, general kind of thinking about life. Some other kind of thinking that there were other ways out there. So if that’s taken away, you are left with a movement that is not particularly well versed on selling anything because it comes out of an academic tradition and you really have nothing much to sell.

Mission2Moscow: For the past five or six years you have been involved in Central American and environmental activities. How so?

Hoffman: I’ve taken four trips to Nicaragua and I’ve brought more than 100 people there. I also speak at workshops and conferences and in my regular campus lecturing. I probably speak more on this issue than anyone else in the U.S. and to larger numbers of people.

Mission2Moscow: When was the last time you were there?

Hoffman: Last August, September (1985). I’m on the phone once every two weeks to Nicaragua talking to friends there. I belong to a service, Agenda International, through which I get a week’s summary of everything printed in every major American newspaper on Nicaragua. I get International Barricada, which comes straight out of Nicaragua.

Mission2Moscow: Did you met with Daniel Ortega when he was here in New York?

Hoffman: I was away, actually. I’ve worked on visits. I stayed at their house once. I feel like I know these people well (Nicaraguan leaders), in a very close way. These are 60s people. These people were there in their way, the way we were in the streets of the USA. And they were influenced by many of the same cultural experiences: they wore long hair, they smoked dope, they wore bell bottoms, they listened to rock and roll, their thinking is anti-ideology, as was ours in the 60s. But this has to be put into the context of what anti-ideology means given a Latin American education. It’s a different experience.

Mission2Moscow: Had you been in Nicaragua before the revolution, when you were a fugitive?

Hoffman: No, but I had been in Guatemala, Honduras, Belize and since then in El Salvador. I lived in Mexico two and a half years and speak the language. Also, when I was a fugitive I met many Chilean refugees because they all had headed there. I have a sister who has lived 27 years in Mexico, and I am in love with Latin America. I was recently in Peru, Ecuador and the Amazon. I love to be in Latin America. It is the developing world.

Mission2Moscow: You’ve said that you still see yourself as a community organizer. Is that still the self-image?

Hoffman: Yes, absolutely.

Mission2Moscow: is there a living to be made these days as a community organizer?

Hoffman: Only very very, small numbers of people can do what I do in this society and support themselves even in the middle . . . well, this is not a palace [referring to his apartment on E. 34th Street in New York). My total worth is easily under $50,000. I’m sure I’m worth much more dead than alive. Younger organizers have a much harder time economically. The economics of the 60s – I was getting $40 – movement wages were $40 a week and you were OK. You had a good time and didn’t worry about money or anything, or careers or rent. People could volunteer themselves to a movement and scratch around at the surface and figure out how to get by. Today, that’s extremely difficult.

Mission2Moscow: You mentioned the Walt Disney ad. Do you find yourself turning down an awful lot of offers? Do you feel conflict sometimes between something that might make you commercially more comfortable and principles? You talked about how people will say, “Abbie, we’re going to make you a star, endorse this album.” Does that still happen?

Hoffman: Yes, it happens. When you fight against the system and give it as much thought and fight as hard on a pragmatic, practical level as someone like myself or any of the anti-war leaders, if you want to turn around and cash in – I’m not even talking about the fame, I’m talking about how the system works, you know how the system works! If you understand the system well enough to challenge it so effectively, it’s pretty easy for you to turn the switch.

The advertising moguls on Madison Avenue – if I went, that’s where I would go. Obviously, it’s Madison Avenue. I have a certain way with words and you can make unpopular things popular. It’s nothing to then turn around and use that ability to market things and to use your basic knowledge about human motivation and what moves small and large groups. My fantasies about being a millionaire are only in terms of winning a lottery or something like that.

Mission2Moscow: You’re comfortable then, and that’s enough for you?

Hoffman: No, I wouldn’t say that. No, because I am middle-aged and you’re not comfortable when you’re middle-aged. You have your middle-life crises. But there were a lot of points in my life over the last 10 or 12 years when I did not have to become engaged in the social battle and I chose to be engaged. It is in my nature. On two occasions I became physically ill when I did not choose to interact.

Mission2Moscow: You’ve said that generally the lifespan of an activist is about two years and after that the pressures become too much. And you’ve been doing it for 25 years! Where did the longevity come from?

Hoffman: Aside from the fact that I’m the son of God, or that I come from the planet Krypton . . . Human beings on occasions tend to get depressed. On the left you have a romantic vision of human nature. That is, it doesn’t have to be rich and poor; there doesn’t always have to be injustice and inequality; that human beings can enter a situation like the existentialist warriors they are and they can alter history with their own being. So that’s a rather romantic view.

Now, when you are depressed and you have this view, there is a strong tendency to translate that depression into your politics and so you become disillusioned. On the right they don’t have to have that because individual greed . . . there is a certain fatalism that there is always going to be rich and poor, you know there are certain things built in where the world doesn’t have to be just. So they can deal with emotions like depression a lot easier, politically. On the left it becomes a complicated problem.

Mission2Moscow: So you think it’s because you have been able to deal with depression over the years?

Hoffman: Not necessarily just that I have been able to deal with those things, but that I’ve been able to understand what is politics and what is human nature. And that you have to have a certain distance, a certain sense of humor that you develop a certain sense of spacing over the years. I don’t expect enormous social change right now in the US. In fact, I expect change for the worst. The difference between my optimism in the 80s and my optimism in the 60s is that in the 60s it was more generalized than it is now. Now it is more refined, much more specific. You have to be more specific about our questions about where there is hope and where there is not much hope.

Mission2Moscow: You talked once about how long hair has lost its social bite.

Hoffman: Doesn’t have any bite? My kid who’s a punk, america, is 15 years old, and says the hippies are the ones you’ve got to run from, man.

Mission2Moscow: What does have social bite these days?

Hoffman: If the choice is between punk and yuppie, I’ll take punk. In terms of culture for white people, that’s the choice. I sense another choice, but it may be a cop-out. I sense that the counterculture of the 80s is Latin culture, so if people want to learn the counterculture language, or the alternative culture or the hippie language, you learn Spanish. You travel to Latin America, you go to Nicaragua, you check it all out, you eat Latin food, you listen to the music. When you ask me what has bite, I have to go to the developing world to get my answers. I can’t get them in the United States.

It’s not that activism is not on the rise in the U.S. It is. I see people doing good work, they do it in a different context. They are hedging their bets with their careers. I meet somebody like Mitch Snyder (Washington, D.C., activist for the homeless) and I say, “Oh, this is great,” and he tells me he is 42, and I say “Uh-oh.” Maybe we’re two years away from national organizations and leadership in our next generation. I can’t wait. This is lonely what I do, this is lonely work. It is lonely. [2006 note: Mitch Snyder committed suicide in 1990, a year after Hoffman.]

Sunday, January 08, 2006

The Functional Value of Heartache

Adult dating involves set narratives, similar to job interviews. Two people make an acquaintance and, as they proceed, start talking. Initial conversations often are rituals of standard questions posed, reliable answers proffered. If the elusive chemistry exists, the masks slip down so the less polished self emerges. The real connection begins then.

The masks slipped quickly last spring when I met a woman I'll call Tieta. From our first encounters, online on JDate and then in person, I sensed something special about her -- and, as important, about us. We revealed bits about ourselves that very few others know. I allowed plans for what we could do, what we could be, to form in my mind. That's what happens when somebody touches the reptilian boy-girl attraction node deep inside me.

It didn't last. Tieta thrashed in a spider-web of complications involving parents and exes that thwarted our relationship, so we constantly took one step forward and two steps back. Finally, she decided to take the two steps back and no more steps forward. She abruptly left me to thrash on my own. I could only take tiny solace from edits she made to her online dating profile, where she wrote, "Sometimes you meet the right man at the wrong time."

Months later, the heartache of Tieta remains with me in a surprising way. Our experiences became part of my dating narrative. I never expected this to happen. I'll talk to some degree about my marriage or my nuttier dating adventures, but I never talked about Tieta because the whole sequence was so baffling and hurtful, so close to my dreams and expectations of what life could indeed hold.

But I am finding that heartache carries a functional value. That value emerges in response to questions that lately women have been asking. For my part, I never ask women about their dating experiences, online services to which they subscribe, anything that crosses into the realm of "none of my business."

However, some Jewish women are very curious about this side of my business. Have I had a steady relationship since I got divorced? Do I date much? What's my online experience been like?

The first time a woman asked me whether I'd had a steady relationship since my day in divorce court on Black Friday, June 13, 2003, I didn't know what to say. I finally said I had known different women, made some good friends, but nothing really serious had happened. Buzz! Wrong answer for this woman, who expressed concern that I may not be very serious in the pursuit of romance.

Afterward, I thought about what she asked, what I said. Treating this as a "it's none of your business, honey" question may not be the right approach. What was she truly asking? What have I truly felt and experienced? I decided the questions are anything but casual. They aim to sound out my past and intentions, what I'm seeking, whether I'm merely a male hummingbird sipping the nectar of available blossoms, or whether I'm serious about this business of romantic cross-pollination.

Before long the issue arose again. This time, I was ready. Tieta and I did have something potentially serious, and I'll be damned if I downplay what it meant -- what it meant for me, anyway. Combining honesty and discretion, I replied, "Yes, I had something that looked very promising. We really connected. But the timing just wasn't right. Her life was complicated. It just didn't work out."

That basic response may evolve, depending on the question and the amount of tequila involved in the conversation. Women ask, and they deserve an honest answer. Now I have one, spoken through gritted teeth and showing hard lessons taught by Tieta. If not asked, I won't bring up the topic. But if asked, I have a narrative that shows I am indeed capable and serious.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Bubba Ho-Tep: An Outstanding Addition to the Lee Harvey Oswald Film Collection

Long-time readers of this blog know well my academic interest in cultural works referencing Lee Harvey Oswald. Several psychiatrists have traced this obsession to repeated viewings of Oliver Stone's JFK at impressionable times in my life.

Anyway, I'm pleased to announce an outstanding addition to the collection of Oswaldiana: Bubba Ho-Tep, a beloved low-budget movie about a decrepit Elvis (or Elvis imitator) wasting away in an East Texas nursing home. Another resident is President John F. Kennedy -- or, at least, an elderly black man who insists he is in fact JFK, diabolically disguised by Lyndon Johnson. The two team up to battle an evil mummy who's terrorizing the good citizens of the Shady Rest Retirement Home.

JFK, played by the late, great actor Ossie Davis, decorates his room with pictures of Oswald, Jack Ruby, and others. The centerpiece is a Dealey Plaza scale re-creation, including -- be still my heart! -- a "Lee Harvey Oswald Depository Playset, complete with Sniper’s Nest," according to an interview with art director Justin Zaharczuk. In fact, here's a picture of Oswald from the playset:

Bubba Ho-Tep itself is a fantastic movie, one that gives me hope in the ability of some filmmakers to stress intelligence and emotion above fancy F/X and useless "talent" from Young Hollywood. From the delirious title to the stunning performance of Bruce Campbell -- who IS Elvis, or at least a great aging Elvis impersonator -- Bubba Ho-Tep works. Sure it drags in places, but this is that rare movie that digs itself into your consciousness. It deals with topics many American films avoid, such as aging, male friendship, finding dignity in the presence of death, and, of course, the omnipresence of mummy attacks in East Texas.

The movie is a southern-fried cri de coeur, an innovative variation on the Dylan Thomas poem that starts
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

I like to think that nursing-home Elvis had Dylan Thomas in mind when he snarled at the evil mummy in a cowboy hat, "Nobody fucks with the King, baby."

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

The Cinematic Record of the World Trade Center

In his new movie Munich, Steven Spielberg shows two Israeli Mossad characters talking with the World Trade Center in the background. I haven't seen the movie, but I'll take the word of Philadelphia Jewish Exponent editor Jonathan Tobin, who wrote,
"Spielberg even uses an image of a still-standing World Trade Center to punctuate a scene in which Avner rejects Israel to lead us to falsely think 9/11 might have been avoided had America also abandoned the Jewish state.
With Oliver Stone and others preparing 9-11 movies, I've become curious about the cinematic treatment of the WTC. Spielberg takes a forboding approach while Stone deals head-on with the day itself. My interest comes from a different angle: how did the WTC figure into earlier movies, and can those films be seen without a shudder? Is the WTC simply there, part of the background, or in some Spielbergian sense do the towers add another layer of meaning and dread that viewers understand only in retrospect? One thorough list of WTC film references can be found here. I wonder how movies set in New York -- both before and after that day -- will deal with the attack. One way or another, the towers will be there, if only by their absence.

The thoughts came to me after, by sheerest accident, I flipped TV channels and found 1983's Trading Places, with Eddie Murphy and Dan Akroyd. The scene showed the two characters striding across the WTC plaza on their way to a business appointment. Akroyd turns to Murphy and says,
"Nothing can prepare you for the unbridled carnage you're about to witness."
My stomach lurched at the line. It was just one of those things, something humorous dipped in blood by time's passage. If readers can suggest others, I'll add them and give you full credit for the tip.

Car Stories

[For an open-mic performance of this essay, follow this link .] My name is Van. I’m named after a car, the 1950s British racecar called ...