Monday, March 3, 2008

The Importance of Having Chutzpah

John Eskow ran an interesting memoir about Abbie Hoffman this morning on The Huffington Post in an effort to demonstrate that Barack Obama shares Hoffman's "history as community organizers." While I appreciate that invoking Hoffman's memory may be one of the best antidotes to all of the current "memorial worship" of Ronald Reagan, I came away with the disappointing impression that Eskow may have missed the point of some of his most salient memories. Consider the following example:

Abbie and I are walking through the Lower East Side in the long hot summer of 1968. Inter-racial tension sizzles off the pavement. Three tough young black men start taunting Abbie: "Hey man, when you gonna cut your hair?" Abbie turns around, walks up to the biggest heckler, and says: "Whenever I feel like it, whitey."

What followed was a moment of stunned, ominous silence so enormous it seemed, briefly, to engulf all of New York -- until the three black men burst out laughing and gave Abbie a round of spontaneous power-handshakes. Within moments they were walking to a demonstration with us.

From my point of view, this story illustrates the most salient attribute of Abbie's character, which was his sheer unadulterated chutzpah (and which Eskow overlooked entirely). More specifically, in the tradition of my criteria for Chutzpah of the Week awards, the anecdote is a demonstration of chutzpah with the most positive connotation. Obama may have the audacity, not just of hope but in his rhetoric of change; but chutzpah is the spinal chord without which audacity cannot stand up to adversity. Abbie knew that, as does Dennis Kucinich, who remains my "poster child" for chutzpah with a positive connotation. However, I suspect that much of Kucinich's chutzpah is informed by the "hard knocks" of his personal experiences, particularly the adversity visited upon him when he was Mayor of Cleveland. My greatest fear is that Obama's background may not have had enough of that kind of adversity to teach him the value of such chutzpah.

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