“I Don’t Want to Save The World”
A Conversation With America Hoffman
Within the first five minutes of our talk America tells me he trusts me. I find that extraordinary and know it carries a certain amount of weight. After all, America Hoffman is the son of radical Yippie founders Abbie and Anita Hoffman. He was just a infant when on August 28, 1973 his father was arrested for selling cocaine to an undercover police officer. Facing a mandatory 25 years to life imprisonment Abbie went underground in 1974 to avoid prosecution for what was likely a setup to put the influential leader of the New Left out of commission for good. When Abbie was a fugitive Anita was a struggling single mother on welfare learning to organize a poor women’s movement, while being harassed and under surveillance by the FBI, the IRS and local authorities. I wouldn’t blame the man for being a bit paranoid. But talking to America was like meeting an old friend. In a rambling three hour conversation we discussed a wide range of topics: from tales of hanging out with El Duce of the Mentors to time serving on a grand jury and his faith in that system. Here are some highlights from the first interview he’s given in a very long time.
So, I understand your name is a source of confusion for some people.
“I was a crib mate with Tupac Shakur, and he had an interesting name. His mother and my mother were pregnant at the same time. My mother told me she was going to name me Tupac, but we didn’t grow up together or anything. I was named america with a lowercase ‘a’ and it’s that way on my birth certificate. Sometimes you’ll see it spelled ‘amerika’ with a “k” like the Franz Kafka novel, but that is incorrect. It was a positive thing, it wasn’t anti-American or anything. When I was born my dad got a Presidential blessing; a letter saying, ‘Congratulations on the birth of your son’ from Richard Nixon, which he was very proud of. My early childhood is in the book To America with Love: Letters From the Underground. It’s difficult for me to read. I have a hard time reading about Abbie. I did read Revolution for the Hell of It, but since he’s been dead… I like the autobiography [Soon to be a Major Motion Picture], but I have a difficult time reading it because I miss him. It’s very strange to read his books.”
You were still an infant when he went underground.
“I believe I was two or three when he went underground. We had a babysitter who was going through our garbage and mail and everything once he left, and she turned out to be an FBI agent. That’s when my mother decided to leave. See, they’d set it up so I could visit my dad. My parents had always planned that I’d get to see him. We arranged trips to visit. I visited him in Mexico a few times. In order to do that, and to keep the heat off us, we changed our names too. My name was Alan. I remember being very young in the house that we were living in in the North Hamptons. I was very young and he asked me, ‘How do you feel about changing your name? What name would you like?’ and I said, ‘Junior’ because he’d called me that before. But he said that they were going to call me Alan because my grandfather’s name was Alan. I was probably barely able to talk, but I remember the conversation. I remember being told that my name was changed, but I really didn’t understand the impact. I was Alan until I was about 14-years-old… And then I went to a new high school, and that was where I saw the first punk rockers I’d ever seen in my life. And there was a really cute punk rock girl in my class. They did this thing in English class where they said, ‘Come up to the front of the class and say a little bit about yourself.’ I think I was in the ninth grade, probably 15, and I just impulsively said, ‘My name is actually America Hoffman,’ and then I told the story of my name. And then the cute punk rock girl in the class smiled and seemed to kind of dig my name. So I decided to keep it. Sometimes I think my entire name and identity was to impress a girl. And I never did hook up with her. So it didn’t even work out, and here I am; I’ve been America for 30 years since…just to get the girl.”
Maybe you’d still be called Alan if it wasn’t for that little punk rock girl.
“Well, the name Alan, it was almost like it was a different person for me. I remember my mom calling out that name on the playground: ‘Alan! Come on in!’ She had a very strong Long Island Jewish accent and so she sorta drawled that name out. I love my mom. I think she’s great. So the name had other connotations. Alan was kind of the nerdy scholastic side and then I became America – a complete badass at 15. I spell my name with a capital ‘A’ because I was used to signing Alan with the first letter capitalized.”
Your mother was a big part of the whole Yippie thing, wasn’t she?
“Yes, she was. She also founded the Downtown Welfare Advocate Center in Manhattan.”
Did she espouse Yippie ideas or try to pass that on to you as a child?
“I definitely heard about the patriarchy. And, you know, just how bad men were. I was told that Judaism was this hardcore patriarchy. I don’t want to say she was anti-Jew or anything. She grew up in the 1950s and ‘60s and times were a lot different. I do think a lot of the counterculture in the ‘60s was heroic. I think it had to happen and I don’t think it’s taken our country in the wrong direction or anything. I really love Marshall McLuhan and I feel like [what happened in] the ‘60s had a lot to do with television, and especially live television. Everybody sort of springing up all over the country and becoming hippies. These exoduses of people from all over the country to places like Berkeley and San Francisco. The whole movement. I think television played a major role in it.”
Absolutely. I think it was very media-driven. And I think your father’s work was very much inspired by Marshall McLuhan.
“Yeah, and the Diggers, and some of the old left criticized him, saying, ‘He’s a master at television. He’s a master of the sound bite.’ These were new phenomena back then. He was very sharp, quick, witty. He knew how to say a very short sentence that would resonate with a lot of people. He used TV very well.”
People can criticize the sound bite or slogan as being simplistic, but it’s an effective way to get a message across to a large amount of people. And that was one way your father and other luminaries from that period did it, and it still resonates to this day.
“I also don’t think the media was very polished back then. They showed a lot of footage of the Vietnam War which I don’t think would get shown now. I don’t think the modern media would do that. They’re a much more loyal machine now. I think the entire counterculture happened because of the media and live television.”
I understand your father was interested in MTV when it first came out.
“We saw the first video, which I think was ‘Video Killed the Radio Star.’ I was at his apartment in New York and we turned on the television, and MTV was on and he said, ‘This is going to be huge.’ And of course it was. My dad had these David Bowie videos that I just went apeshit for. The only way I could describe it was like Yellow Submarine or something. They weren’t really common back then. My favorite was ‘Ashes to Ashes’ because it was so psychedelic – it just made sense to me. I liked things that were goofy and weird and strange. And this was before I was doing psychedelic drugs. (laughs) That’s the stuff I grew up with… I learned how to read from R. Crumb comics. Big Ass Comics were like my See Spot Run books. And I don’t know if that warped me or if I was already jaded to all the extreme sexual content. By the time I was six I’d already seen everything.”
That’s pretty advanced. I’m a big fan of Crumb’s work, but I don’t think most parents would want their 6-year-old reading that stuff.
“I don’t know if they even knew I was reading them. I remember those vulture women with the really big boobies. Those were in my dreams as a kid… I wanted to live in that world.”
Have you ever met Robert Crumb?
“No, I’ve never met him. I like his art now. I looked at his The Book of Genesis and I like it because I look like those guys. I’m that Hebrew looking, so I feel like there’s definitely some history.”
It seems like he’s got a natural attraction to Jewish women.
“He’s been around it more than me. I’m not very well versed in Judaism or knowing them. My mother was Buddhist and I was probably more in touch with Thích Nhất Hạnh than knowing anything about the Bible or Judaism. I’m very much an outsider to it, but I have all these traits that are exactly like other Jews. So, I want to say I like them, but I’ve never felt like I’m part of the people…whatever the hell that means. You don’t see a lot in construction. I’m sure there are some, but usually I’m the very Semitic-looking person at my jobs and I have to constantly say that I don’t have a nationality, that I’m American… Sometimes I’ve gotten annoyed and just said I’m Israeli or Arab or Muslim. I do have strong Semitic features and when I worked in the South I was asked, ‘Are you an Arab?’ I’ve got the name thing and the look thing, so either I throw it on them or I’m just under a barrage of questions constantly. My dad said always to answer a question with a question. That usually works.”