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The Editor's Spin -
Revolutionary Road

Stephen F. Nathans

June 2001 | Spring has sprinted into Cambridge and brought with it blooming passions such as the rarefied-air environs of university campuses annually spew forth. In my day, it was a curious mixture of lust, anxiety, and, most of all, protest. And the civil disobedience could be disarmingly civil. You'd ask for arrest and you'd get it, usually via the same fun-loving campus cops who'd drive you home when you were stumbling drunk. And as the chapel bells chimed out "We Shall Overcome", you'd feel as though you were actually freeing people. Campus protests are known quantities; in my neighborhood, in the late '80s, they were respectfully tolerated, even routine. We could step out on sit-ins for meals and classes and return at will to find the flag still raised. But the administrative types we supposed our enemies always knew what was coming next and how to handle it smoothly and safely. No matter how spirited the battle, the possibility of real tumult or violence seemed as remote as Johannesburg itself.

Still, echoes of a past fraught with more loudly clanging, clashing forces loomed everywhere. The chants of "The whole world is watching!" from Chicago '68 became "The whole state is watching!" as TV news-team trucks from Hartford's WVIT 30 rolled in. Reduced to Tyco model train-scale, an occupation or blockade that ended in televised arrest was a "Birmingham"; a subtler, internally handled round-up of names for in-school judiciary censure was an "Albany, GA."

I don't know whether the kids who are currently occupying the inner sanctums of Harvard's military-intellectual complex know their history as we did, well enough to use it to distort their present. They've probably heard of Kent State, perhaps even enough about it to know what war those kids were protesting. Maybe they even know that the topic of their own ongoing protest, the living wages of non-academic university employees–housekeeping, dining, and grounds staff–was a cause célèbre in Kent State days as well.

But I wonder if any of them are historically savvy enough to have brought along the self-styled Boy Scout manual of political resistance, Abbie Hoffman's Steal This Book, or for that matter any of the essential equipment he details therein. Best-remembered for inspired moments of comic agitprop, Hoffman was the clown prince of '60s rebellion, a welcome dose of counterculture mischief in the overly serious arena of Movement confrontation and sloganeering. Steal This Book provides a fascinating counterpoint to his image as a semipolitical prankster, as interested in creating chaos as revolution. Steal This Book is a practical manifesto for revolution, with a litany of tips for protester preparation and self-protection. I do know these kids can't come and go as they please. So I wonder if any of them brought along such Hoffman-tabbed necessities as knee pads, rib guards, helmets, "sneakers for running or boots for kicking"; or if they followed Hoffman's specific guidelines for gas mask selection, based on gas they anticipated to be in use. There probably aren't too many walkie-talkies or shivs on hand, either.

So, what would Hoffman find if he had survived to pop in on the temporary residents of Harvard's presidential office suites, determined to rally and rile up the troops? He'd see an armada of laptops (PC and Mac), replete with wireless Web and campus WAN connections, along with a fair complement of desktop printers, and one-per-protester, standard-issue mobile phones. He'd also encounter a host of Palm Pilots, and would likely double-take when he realized that affinity group strategy meetings were being conducted via Palming and beaming.

But what would really alarm him was what kind of stuff was dancing across those laptops day and night: WAN-posted lectures, some via streamed audio and video, others simply as text; notes and assignments, Web-installed syllabi; papers and problem sets submitted via email. He'd discover students employing these machines for virtually every other element of academic give-and-take in service of the highly unrevolutionary activity of keeping up with their classes, from post-Keynesian economics to biomedical engineering to discrete math to Milton. Don't they know, he'd wonder, that the only reason to be in college is to destroy it?

Truth be told, though, I think Abbie Hoffman actually would have appreciated what he was seeing after he got over the initial shock of it all–kicking boots replaced by reboots, bombs by Palms and so forth. The overarching lesson of Steal This Book is that the best way to stick it to The Man is to learn to live without him, independent of his rules and his resources. Bob Dylan said, "To live outside the law you must be honest"; Hoffman would have probably reversed it, then offered you a practical guide to living out that "honest" life. And he would have seen the seeds of it in that humming huddle of portable protester PCs. Could the multiple "Malcolm X Freedom Universities" that proclaimed themselves in the aftermath of administration building takeovers in the '60s have functionally begun operations without relying on the infrastructure of the institution they were engaged in tearing down? Not like these kids, who actually own, and have brought along, the building blocks of electronic-age self-sufficiency.

And they owe it all to new technology, from wireless and Airport-equipped laptops to Palms, and, by extension, to commodity-priced CD-Rs and ever-cheaper DVD-Recorders and ever-more-accessible DVD creation tools. These are precisely the kind of items that sneak the word "revolution" into product propaganda in ads from PC Mag to prime-time. Apple's iDVD isn't my idea of revolution, nor is the Napster March on Washington that should soon usher in yet another comedy of co-optation. But I bet you'd see at least a few of those things in a 30-year anniversary update of Steal This Book. Abbie Hoffman had nothing if not a sense of humor. And I guarantee he'd put it all online.

Comments? Email us at letters@onlineinc.com.

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