Sasha Baron Cohen sparked my Abbie Hoffman memory.
In commenting on his portrayal of Hoffman in Aaron Sorkin’s upcoming Netflix film, “The Trial of The Chicago 7,” Cohen remarked recently that he thought Hoffman was “the smartest person in the room.”
I found him to be the most toxic.
Vice President Mike Pence in his treatment of Sen. Kamala Harris in the vice presidential debate reaffirmed that the same brand of microaggressions against women in professional settings is historic and ongoing.
It was 1987 in Dallas; Hoffman was on a press tour for his latest book, Steal This Urine Test: Fighting Drug Hysteria in America. I was a feature writer at the Dallas Times Herald—a liberal Pulitzer Prize-winning daily now defunct, where I wrote profiles and features on pop culture players from Jerry Hall and Rod Stewart to Tom Wolfe and Joyce Carol Oates.
Through the publisher’s publicist, I arranged our interview in Southern Methodist University’s student cafeteria —clever, right? –placing the unpredictably outrageous founder of the Yippies and student-driven 1960s anarchy on a private, protected campus where preppy couture reigned and freshmen drove BMWs.
I read his book, researched his work, and planned to ask how he thought times had changed since his days of uproar, violence, and dissidence. I would ask him to look around and see if this is what he envisioned his efforts would have wrought, how it felt to be a post-revolutionary.
“So they sent the bullshit reporter,” Hoffman said as he greeted me, referring to the light feature story I had on the front page of the Living section that day on greeting cards.
His speech was slurred, his blue-jean legs were very thin and I remember thinking he embodied the epitome of that Texas phrase, “rode hard and put up wet.”
For several minutes he rambled that I didn’t know anything about the importance of his work and his life because I wasn’t a serious journalist. I let him rant for five to 10 minutes, maybe more, hearing nothing worth quoting because it was all about me.
Pre cell-phones, pre-email, I searched for a payphone, got up to call my editor, and tell her I wanted to leave because he would not cooperate. Reaching her in the newsroom, she said to go back, get him to calm down, get the interview; she had saved space for the story.
I went back to the lunch table where Hoffman was now spewing spit, telling me I didn’t know anything about who he was. The dark circles under his eyes were the color of bruises. The publicist sat there. Silent.
After 15 more minutes of his ranting, I shut my notebook, told the public relations minder this was not OK and walked outside to my 1984 Renault Alliance in the parking lot. Hoffman followed me.
“Fu*k you, you little Texas bitch!” he shouted.
“I’m not even from Texas!” was all I could think to say.
A year or so later I read that Hoffman had died, April of 1989. his death ruled a suicide, as he had taken 150 barbituates and was found on his bed by his brother.
All of the obituaries and features I read about him immortalized him as a brilliant, creative mastermind of change, that he was forthright and cunning, an author of several books, able to articulate the demands of a generation. None I read mentioned he was sexist.
Although on the surface better behaved than Hoffman, Pence was similarly dismissive, condescending, and rude to Harris on the debate stage. This belittling is not new for Harris or for any WOC holding positions that are deemed threatening to men, mostly white men.
“I’m speaking,” was her repeated response to his interruptions.
Traditionally such microaggressions from celebrities, politicians, business leaders, and individuals deemed powerful have been assumed or expected, apparently forgiven if the person has other redeeming qualities, like leading a country, company or organization that has an impact.
President Donald Trump’s chronic crude and insulting treatment of female journalists –especially– is evident in his name-calling and rudeness to female journalists including Abby Phillip, Weijia Jiang, Cecilia Vega, Paula Reid, April Ryan, Yamiche Alcidor, Jordan Phelps and more demonstrate a normalcy of attempted erasure that women endure in most every field and discipline.
This behavior apparently is in the playbook of so many men –and women–who assume the power dynamic that has hoisted them to the top of the food chain. They act as if they have permission slips to be foul-mouthed, abusive, insulting. At best, they swear. They fire, demote, attack, ruin the emotional and professional lives of those they target. At worst, they assault.
Even Ellen DeGeneres, with a reputation for being so nice, had to recently apologize for the toxic power plays in her own company. “I learned that things happened here that never should have happened. I know that I am in a position of privilege and power and with that comes responsibility and I take responsibility for what happens at my show,” CNN reports.
I understand that as a privileged, employed white woman, I am spared a lot of venom, vile rape, and death threats just by being white. It is not catastrophic a famous person swore at me. My experiences are not comparable to what millions endure daily as symptoms of a culture infused with racism and misogyny that permits –and eRemove featured imageven rewards– cruelty and ignores the moral imperative for civility afforded to everyone.
It is only noteworthy today that a long-dead revolutionary told me to f-off as a movie immortalizing him reminds us these demonstrations of dominance affect so many still. For many the actions, fallout and trauma are much, much worse
The glimmer of optimism is perhaps that the tolerance for toxic behavior may be shredding, thanks to videos captured on cellphones and outbursts captured on tape recorders. Many on the receiving end refuse to keep silent about these attacks. Consequences may force accountability.
As my late mother would say, you turn the light on and the cockroaches run.
About Michele Weldon
Michele Weldon is an author, journalist, emerita faculty at Northwestern University, and senior leader with The OpEd Project. Her latest book is Act Like You’re Having A Good Time.