How does social change come about?
1960s radicals Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin traded strategies and barbs in a series of mid-80s debates, including this one filmed in 1986 in Vancouver, British Columbia and hosted on UbuWeb.
Sure, there is plenty of yippie-versus-yuppie posturing, but entrenched institutions evolve but slowly, and much remains relevant today.
Abbie urged divestment from South Africa, while Jerry praised “Hands across America.” Jerry got hit with a pie (~64 minutes). The last ten minutes or so features interviews with the audience.
I think that everything I’m doing today is a natural evolution of the past. … In the 70s, millions of individuals made individual decisions to go into the system, in one way or another. … And the transformation of western society from an industrial society to an information society, a historical transformation, is taking place because of the baby boom generation.
What is the role of self-reliance in changing society? Self-reliance used to be, and historically has been, a right-wing cop-out idea. But I’m proposing that we take the idea of self-reliance and marry it to the concept of community.
I know that when Jesse Jackson goes to black high schools … his message is something like this: Stop blaming whitey. Stop blaming capitalism. … Change yourselves.
So a superficial right-wing message of changing yourself is, I believe, an explosive philosophy that people from the 60s should adopt and inculcate into a new method for changing society. … The real challenge for the activists of the 60s is to build a majority coalition for the 80s and the 90s.
I am the broken record. I am the has-been. … I still believe in the effectiveness of political activism and grassroots organizing. …
I call on people to make a balance between their individual needs for a comfortable life and as citizens in a community and partners in a world out there. … I don’t want to see a country that feels it has to control the rest of the world in order to build its standard of living. …
I don’t want to see people define success as money alone. … Where’s the evidence that the new generation of rich is going to be any different from the old generation of rich?
How fascinating to listen to this debate 27 years later. Rubin’s opening statements are prescient – he’s virtually predicting the era of Clinton, the baby boom president. Was it a coincidence that the Clinton era was a golden age of entrepreneurship and start-ups? I doubt it. Hoffman’s biting sense of humor and tendency towards strident polemic cancel each other out, making him an effective gadfly at one moment and irritatingly divisive the next. Yuppies a dying fad? Please. And yet: Hoffman’s achievements as a grassroots organizer are more impressive than Rubin’s as a yuppie pundit, and his philosophy of balance between individual and community well-being more coherent and satisfying. But in the end, I think the debate is a draw. We need both entrepreneurs and activists in society. We need people working both within the system and outside the system, keeping each other honest. And the degree to which Hoffman and Rubin are talking past each other is disappointing.
Great response, Noah!