Democracy in America, Yippie!: Guerilla Theater and the Reinvigoration of the American Democratic Process During the Cold War
"The purpose of the theatre is to serve the needs of the people. The people have no servants. The people serve themselves. The people need revolution, to change the world, life itself. Because the way we are living is too full of pain and dissatisfaction. Fatally painful for too many people. For all of us. This is a period of emergency. Therefore emergency theatre is the theatre of awareness."
- Julian Beck, “ Notes Toward a Statement on Anarchism and Theatre ” 1972
Corey Sorkin was thirteen years old when he discovered that there was something wrong with his country. Everybody kept telling him that he lived in the land of the free, and that he should be grateful for such freedom since it did not exist in other parts of the world. However, the moment that he put his supposed freedom to use, he was suspended from public school for un-American activity. In what the Board of Education referred to as an “act of treason,” Corey refused to start his morning by saluting the American flag, which was nothing more than a symbol to him, and “he felt it was foolish to keep communicating with a symbol every day” (Sorkin 33). Despite Corey’s innocent intentions, the Board immediately accused his family of being communist. He would not be allowed to return to school until he agreed to continue saluting the flag each morning. Corey’s mother, Janet, later wrote an article for The Realist, in which she accused the Board of failing to see that “something one is forced to do every day could become mumbled nonsense” to a thirteen year old rather than “a reaffirmation of loyalty to your country” (Sorkin 34). But this was 1966, and the Cold War had taken over every inch of freedom and replaced it with numbing paranoia.
Government organizations, like the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and the National Security Council (NSC), had been formed to preserve traditional American values grounded in democracy, but quickly turned the 1950s into “a period of sterile conformity, when monsters such as Sen. Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin launched witch hunts against mostly imaginary communists, and the federal government fired thousands of employees just because they were gay" (Kaiser). McCarthy, along with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, propelled the country into its second post-war Red Scare. The government issued anti-communist propaganda on every media platform, turning communism itself into somewhat of a super villain to the American people. They were brainwashed into a state of paranoia and told not to trust anyone, not even their own family members. Communism was evil; democracy was virtuous. There was no gray area. At least that was what the American government wanted its citizens to believe.
This nationalistic use of propaganda was not unlike that of wartime Germany, a fascist state. America was so afraid of communism during its Cold War with the Soviet Union that it retreated deep into the far Right. HUAC and the NSC “never seemed to appreciate the irony that [they] proposed using the instruments of a totalitarian state to preserve American freedoms” (Lytle 15). Movie stars were put on government blacklists, mass media were censored, and ordinary citizens were arrested without any credible sense of just cause. The American government, out of raging fear and intense patriotism, began stripping its people of the very freedoms it sought so desperately to protect.
However, during the 1950s, the majority of the American public did not seem to mind living within a pseudo-fascist state, as long as its economy was thriving. In fact, “to many, it seemed the United States had sold out its democratic culture in favor of a numbing materialism” (Lytle 52). The war had pulled America out of the Great Depression and sent it along a path of economic prosperity. Industrialization led to the continuous technological advancements of household products. Such advancements, in combination with an increasingly affluent society and pro-capitalist agenda, caused an unprecedented rise in consumerism. The advertising industry skyrocketed as middle class America entered a state of materialistic bliss. Consumer products managed to dull the senses of the entire G.I. Generation while concerns about politics and civil liberties were set aside to make way leisure activities. The good life was more important than a free one.
It was not until about 1964, when the Baby Boomers started coming of age, that “the public began to distinguish between responsible anti-communism and the politics of paranoia of the far Right” (Lytle 24). In the aftermath of President Kennedy’s assassination and during the escalation of the war in Vietnam, Americans started to see past the Red Scare façade and take a deeper look into the current state of the Union. Young people took issue with what was passing for democracy as “the idealism embodied by John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. inspired [their] whole generation to change the way America was governed, and how millions of Americans would get to live their lives” (Kaiser).
Throughout the 1960s and into the 70s, youth organizations put democracy on their shoulders and carried it back to the forefront of American society. Students for a Democratic Society kicked off the wave of Baby Boomer activism in the United States. SDS helped spawn a nationwide democratic revolution, but no revolutionary outfit did more for the democratic process than the incomparable Youth International Party. Through the use of guerilla theater and manipulation of the mass media, the short-lived Youth International Party (Yippies) and its founding members revitalized American democracy by staging iconic, self-governed protests, including the unforgettable 1968 Democratic National Convention.
The Youth International Party began employing guerilla theater in the streets of major cities well before it had ever been given an official name. In fact, the Yippies had never intended on becoming an actual, organized entity until it became apparent that they needed to provide reporters with a who if they were going to garner the appropriate amount of media attention necessary for their plans in Chicago (Krassner, Confessions 162).
The founding members of the party came together on December 31, 1967 to make plans for the “convention of death” that was to take place the following August (Krassner, Confessions 162). The issue regarding their lack of a name became increasingly apparent, but they were at a loss. Jerry Rubin, one of the more famous Yippie co-founders and New Left activists, described the naming process in his antiestablishment handbook entitled Do It!: Scenarios of the Revolution:
“We got very stoned so we could look at the problem logically. It’s a youth revolution. Gimme a ‘Y.’ It’s an international revolution. Gimme an ‘I.’ It’s people trying to have meaning, fun, ecstasy in their lives—a party. Gimme a ‘P.’ Whattaya got? Youth International Party. Paul Krassner jumped to his feet and shouted: ‘YIP-pie! We’re yippies !’” (Rubin, Do It 81).
Out of a pot-fueled haze came a revolutionary idea, and without any fuss or further thought, a movement was born.
The whole purpose behind the official formation of the Yippies was to get “huge numbers of people to come to Chicago along with hundreds of performers, artists, theater groups, engineers. Essentially, people involved in trying to work out a new society” (Hoffman, Revolution 64). The ultimate goal was to manipulate the media in order to create a myth, something that was fantastically bigger than them and had the capacity to swallow Chicago whole. The myth allowed for “each individual to determine for himself or herself what being a Yippie meant” (Misiroglu 771). It was able to encompass an entire generation of increasingly political youths without ever having to occupy concrete space. Instead, the Yippies occupied the media and maneuvered their way into the hearts and minds of millions.
Despite being officially founded under somewhat desperate circumstances and the potent influence of marijuana, the Yippies rapidly became a “politically radical answer to hippies” (Misiroglu 771). In other words, they managed to merge the New Left with the counterculture, providing both dissident groups with an avenue for expression through their signature use of guerilla theater. The Youth International Party became a way to bring everyone who rejected the traditional values of society together as sociopolitical organism, a united force of miscreants. Rubin best described whom the Yippies really were when he said:
“The Marxist acidhead, the psychedelic Bolshevik. He didn’t feel at home in SDS, and he wasn’t a flower-power hippie or a campus intellectual. A stoned politico. A hybrid mixture of New Left and hippie coming out something different. A streetfighting freek, a dropout, who carries a gun at his hip. So ugly that middle-class society is frightened by how he looks. A longhaired, bearded, hairy, crazy motherfucker whose life is theater, every moment creating the new society as he destroys the old” (Rubin, Do It! 82).
At that point in the revolution, it was clear to the Yippie co-founders that “tolerance of rational dissent [had] become an insidious form of repression,” and that the only way to fight such repression was to use their newly formed myth to recruit a dissident subculture that was willing to be irrational (Krassner, “The Birth of a Yippie Conspiracy”). The myth quickly became “something that people [could] play a role in,” and they were eager to be a part of it (Hoffman, Revolution 64).
Yippie co-founder, and icon of the revolution, Abbie Hoffman knew from the beginning that he wanted the Youth International Party “to remain a mystery” (Hoffman, Revolution 66). The Yippies were to use guerilla theater at every chance in order to keep that mystery alive and continue the perpetuation of their myth. Before long, media “distortion became the life-blood of the Yippies,” as such manipulation helped fuel their ideology forward (Hoffman, Revolution 103).
While Hoffman received most of his revolutionary training from a community-action group out of San Francisco known as the Diggers, his use of media manipulation caused tension between him and the differing philosophy of his trainers (Hoffman, Autobiography). “Whereas the Diggers wanted to avoid all the attention brought about by the media, [Yippies] sought to utilize the media as an organizing tool,” so that they could extend the myth beyond their own community and allow it to reach people throughout the nation (Krassner, Confessions 162). Hoffman knew, perhaps better than anyone, that if his theatrics could garner the attention of the media and proceed to play out in front of a widespread audience, then a mass revolution could be set in motion.
From an early age, Hoffman preferred taking action in order to make a point. He had no qualms speaking his mind, regardless of how radical his thoughts may have been at the time, but often chose to follow-up his thoughts with his fists. Despite being expelled from high school, Hoffman managed to become a student of psychology at Brandeis University and later pursued a master’s degree from the University of California at Berkeley. Shortly after he began his graduate work, he got swept up in the wave of sociopolitical activism and dropped out of school (Hoffman, Autobiography). He poured all of his energy into the revolution, but soon discovered that his methods were too wild and eccentric for well-established organizations like SNCC. At that point, he was struggling to find his place within the movement. He recounted his frustrations in his book Revolution for the Hell of It, which chronicled his time spent as a revolutionary:
“There are those who believe that it is necessary for ideas to triumph among the greater part of the masses before initiating action, and there are others who understand that action is one of the most efficient instruments for bringing about the triumph of ideas among the masses. Whoever hesitates while waiting for ideas to triumph among the masses before initiating revolutionary action will never be a revolutionary. Humanity will, of course, change; human society will, of course, continue to develop—in spite of men and the errors of men. But that is not a revolutionary attitude” (Hoffman, Revolution 10).
Hoffman believed that if you wanted society to change then you had to change it yourself. He could not simply accept the fate of his country, so he charged headfirst into the battlefield with nothing more than this desire for change as his weapon.
Luckily for him, in spite of their differing philosophies, Hoffman got involved with the aforementioned Diggers, who provided him with the most important weapon of all: guerilla theater (Hoffman, Autobiography). He took what he had learned from them and multiplied it, making it his signature. He created a type of street theater that was bigger, better, and more outrageous than they could have ever imagined. He gave it that special Abbie Hoffman touch, something that could only come from a man who “tempered his fearlessness with a gift for humor that was sharp and spontaneous” (Krassner, Confessions 156).
While living in New York, he met friend and Yippie co-founder Paul Krassner, who was immediately entranced by Hoffman’s incomprehensible sense of freedom and boisterous attitude. It came as no surprise that Krassner, the founder and editor of The Realist, “one of the most influential and durable underground publications in America during the latter half of the twentieth century,” took to such an eccentric man without hesitation (Misiroglu 612).
Hoffman may have been wickedly sharp with a knack for theatrics, but Krassner was a natural-born satirist. The Realist was monumental publication, not just some run-of-the-mill underground magazine. It “blurred the line between fiction and reality, often leaving readers questioning what they [were] willing to accept as true” (Misiroglu 612). While Hoffman could manipulate the media theatrically, Krassner was able to manipulate the message that was being broadcast.