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May 31, 2002
Narco News '02
Authentic Journalism on the "War on Drugs" in Latin America
"The Name of Our Country is América" - Simón Bolívar
Publisher's Note: Last year, the publishing house Four Walls Eight Windows asked me to write a fresh introduction to the new edition of Abbie Hoffman's Steal This Book.
The new edition is now available and also includes a new introduction by Lisa Fithian, who worked with Abbie, Johanna Lawrenson and I (and many of you!) causing trouble in the 1980s. Of course, we're still at it, for as long as tyranny is on the loose. ¡Hasta la victoria, siempre! Here's what I wrote...
Still a Steal By Al Giordano
"He just had the idea it would be a good little gag to liberate this book from the bookstores. And we put 'STEAL THIS BOOK' on the back cover of Woodstock Nation and the Random House sales manager went bananas. 'We can't do this!' The crazier he went, the more Abbie loved it.
"At that point Abbie decided that his next book was going to be called Steal This Book and that's at least part of the reason that Random House refused to publish it. Also, they had a few problems with instructions for how to blow up things. I don't know if they ever noticed that the little Random House logo on Woodstock Nation was the little Random House being blown up."
- Chris Cerf
Editor, Random House
From Steal This Dream, by Larry Sloman (1998, Doubleday)
Abbie Hoffman was one hundred percent into anything he did. There was no such thing as halfway with Abbie. A task was either something worth going to jail for, worth dying for, or it was not worth doing.
Abbie had the same approach to writing books.
He wrote the introduction to Steal This Book from the Cook County Jail in 1970, from where he boasted that he was learning "the only rehabilitation possible - hatred of oppression."
Of all his seven published works, Steal This Book was the most widely read, the most notorious.
Revolution for the Hell of It, or Woodstock Nation, or The Autobiography of Abbie Hoffman may be better books - where his writing skills shone and he made arguments, to convince the reader, rather than the how-to manual structure of this one - but Steal This Book was, and remains, the most memorable of his literary works for the scandals it caused. It was also probably his most effectively radical because it was, largely, a how-to book.
"The title is 90 percent of the work," lamented the late independent filmmaker Jack Smith, but Abbie would somehow find another 110 percent, and that's what he put into Steal This Book. It was a "survival guide," exhaustively researched, to finding "Free food free clothing and furniture free transportation free land free housing free education free medical care free communication free play free money free dope ." to list the opening chapter titles. A lot of Steal This Book seems, today, three decades later, so, well, basic. Today, any 15-year-old already knows how to do a lot of these things. And part of why they know it is because Abbie didn't just push the envelope - he ripped it open, and declared everybody the winner of the treasures inside. I was one of many early teens who used that book to make free long distance telephone calls, to set off firecrackers and M-80s as "time bombs" with a simple wind-up alarm clock and some wires, and otherwise cause trouble. Steal This Book was, above all, utilitarian and working-class. It dealt with the basic necessities of life: how to eat, find clothing and shelter, and (we accept this, as Abbie did, as a basic human instinct) to have fun.
The press usually refers to Abbie as a "sixties radical" (never mind that this, his most famous literary work, came out in the seventies, or that his masterpiece political organizing work occurred in the eighties). And it associates Abbie, accurately, with the most well known causes of that era: particularly civil rights, opposition to the Vietnam War and the defense of the youth counter-culture that, today, has been thoroughly marketed to death to three generations by the same forces that once opposed it. Less spoken of, today, was the economic theory he laid out with his first pamphlet - titled Fuck The System - and in his first book, Revolution for the Hell of It. There must be, said Abbie, "a better means of exchange than money."
And that's what Steal This Book focused on: How to live free. He found cracks in the system, and rather than hoard them for himself, he revealed his secrets. Some long-accepted "facts of life" - that teenagers must obey their parents, or other authorities, for example - simply fell by the wayside. Other cracks found by Abbie and his pals were later sealed up by the system (techniques revealed here for hacking public telephones have long been technologically corrected and thus are obsolete; Caveat Emptor). For that reason, many - but not all - of the tips in Steal This Book are obsolete. Hitchhiking, anyone? Ripping off automats? (Anyone under 30 know what an automat is?) Draft dodging? Yes, there was a military draft to avoid back then; there's not one today. Thank you, Abbie.
So when you get to the points of the book that are merely pointing out the obvious and you proclaim, "Jesus! He's telling us how to make a bookcase out of cinder blocks and lumber? How lame is that?" that is the precise moment to pay attention. On those pages, we see just how far behind American society was only a few decades ago. Kids didn't have the Internet then to seek out the information that their parents and the media didn't want them to have. They didn't even have a hundred cable TV channels. They had three television networks in the major markets, and maybe one or two in rural areas. It was an atmosphere of total control. There was no Bart Simpson. But there was Abbie Hoffman, without whom Bart would not have been possible. And he was a living, breathing person who got clubbed over the head, spied on, infiltrated, outlawed, imprisoned, exiled, forgotten, rediscovered, forgotten again, then, as Artaud wrote about Van Gogh, he was suicided by society. And a whole hell of a lot of what we take for granted today as basic "rights" are here and present because real human beings fought for them, and were persecuted for waging that fight. His era was full of heroes. But none were as effectively heroic as Abbie.
To read Steal This Book today, in the 21st Century, is an historical adventure. Thus, a little historic context may be helpful. When he wrote Steal This Book, Abbie had been on trial in Chicago in a conspiracy case - stemming from demonstrations outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention - in what the American Civil Liberties Union later called "the political trial of the century." He was America's most widely-recognized radical, a media personality, an emblem, a symbol, a myth, and still - I may be giving away his secret weapon here - a human being, obviously so, to anyone who encountered him in person or through any media. He wasn't bigger than life, or better than it. He was, in a word, alive. And this was better and more exciting than the walking death that most celebrities offered then and now.
Abbie recounts a dialogue between Random House publisher Jason Epstein and he when he was preparing to write Steal This Book. He described it in the May 1974 issue of Harper's magazine, in an essay titled "Steal This Author: In which the master of the rip-off learns that anything he can do, big business can do better." Abbie recounted that Epstein "roared with laughter" at the idea of writing a book no one would publish. "He had studied society," Abbie wrote of Jason. "He knew how fame was bottled and that infamy was even more salable in the fanciful world of pop politics." The dialogue part is repeated here:
Jason: "What book are you going to do next?"
Abbie: "Jason, I'm going to write a book no one will publish I'm going to call it Steal This Book, and it'll be a handbook for living free, stealing, and making violent revolution. I'm going to take on the entire publishing industry. I want to test the limits of free speech."
Jason: "You'll lose, Abbie; everybody does in the end."
Abbie: "We'll see."
The result is now legend. After being rejected by 30 publishers, the book finally made it into print when Grove Press agreed to publish Steal This Book, and was it one of the most smashing successes, probably the most notorious, in publishing history. Abbie turned the publishing of Steal This Book into a public teach-in on the entire industry of bestsellers.
"Grove estimated that half the book sales were made in New York City," wrote Abbie in his Harper's piece. "In Pittsburgh no stores carried the book. In Philadelphia only one store did, and it charged a dollar more than the cover price. No books were to be found in Boston when I took reporters on a tour. None in the San Francisco Bay area either. The entire Doubleday chain of bookstores was boycotting the book. Vice-president George Hecht stated, 'We don't want to tell people to steal. We object only to the title. If it was titled How to Live for Free, we'd sell it.'"
Dotson Rader then reviewed it for the New York Times Book Review during John Leonard's disobedient tenure as editor, even as the Times refused to accept advertising for Steal This Book. "I clipped the review, wrote a check, and sent the Times its own review for an ad," recalled Abbie. The ad was rejected by the Times, that self-defined cathedral of Freedom of the Press.
In one feel swoop, Abbie had accomplished what he'd set out to do: "Test the limits of free speech." He exposed where those fences truly were, and kicked many of them down in the process.
Today, the lid is back on the book publishing industry. I can hardly find a book worth shoplifting in the chain stores that now dominate the industry. It's all formula. But if you like books, or once liked them, even if you end up paying for the new edition of Steal This Book, you're getting an authentic book and that, in this age of corporate tyranny, is a steal.
- Somewhere in Mexico, August 2001
Al Giordano worked with Abbie Hoffman as a young political organizer in the 1980s. Today he is publisher of The Narco News Bulletin - www.narconews.com - reporting on the drug war from Latin America and is (WAS!) a free speech defendant - being sued by billionaires - in the Drug War on Trial case in New York City.
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