Like anything written by Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, The Social Network), there are a lot of words—and thus a lot of ideas—packed into his latest film, The Trial of the Chicago 7. The verbose courtroom drama (rated R for language and violence) depicts the true events surrounding the highly publicized 1969–’70 trial in which seven activists and counterculture leaders were accused of conspiracy and inciting riots during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
Sorkin uses these historic events to explore a host of big issues with contemporary relevance: the competing interests and tactics of political progressives, racism in the justice system, police brutality, performative activism, the role of mass media in political change, and more. Indeed, even as it documents events a half-century ago, the film’s arrival in October 2020—a year that continues to bear striking resemblance to 1968—situates it squarely as a commentary on the political present.
The most insightful commentary comes from the character of Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), one of the “seven” whose brand of infotainment, performance-art activism foreshadowed 21st-century media and political dynamics.
Infotainment from Hoffman to Trump
Hoffman studied under Herbert Marcuse at Brandeis and was influenced by the Frankfurt School of critical theory. Recognizing the importance of media and pop culture for exerting power and changing hearts and minds, Hoffman’s brand of activism put him at odds with more traditional activists like Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), who tells Hoffman in the film, “I don’t have time for cultural revolution. It distracts from actual revolution.” But Hoffman was convinced cultural revolution was a precondition for political revolution. As the adage goes: politics is downstream from culture.
Hoffman suspected photo ops and publicity stunts would become more important than persuasive policy; celebrity more essential than credentials. His 1960s activism was thus primarily about performance for the cameras. And his agitprop theater and penchant for putting comedy into ostensibly serious matters—putting the “act” in activism—was laughed off by many at the time but proved prophetic.
There’s a fairly direct line in American political history that can trace Abbie Hoffman to Donald Trump. Though their politics are polar opposites, both recognized the power of performative provocation in politics. Both intuitively recognized the blurred lines between politics and entertainment in an age of mass media—seizing upon the idea that a carnival showman’s charisma could be an asset in political success.
One of the ways Chicago 7 highlights this dynamic is by intercutting scenes of Abbie Hoffman in a stand-up comedy club, narrating his version of the 1968 protests and subsequent trial. The scenes are fluidly intercut with trial witnesses giving courtroom testimony, as well as scenes of the actual events. By interchangeably telling the story with various “performed” versions of it—stand-up comedy, the “theater” of the circus trial, and occasional archival news footage—Sorkin observes the surreality of our “infotainment” age, where we watch the “news” for fun, politics is one big reality TV show, and a sitting U.S. president shares Babylon Bee satire as “news” while often calling real news “fake.”
Something about the late-1960s made this dynamic clear and unsettling. Marshall McLuhan released books like The Medium Is the Massage, observing the way mass media forms changed our relationship with reality. Filmmaker Haskell Wexler explored this in his 1969 film Medium Cool, which took its title from McLuhan and remains the definitive film about Chicago 1968. Radical at the time, Wexler’s acclaimed film blended fiction and nonfiction against the backdrop of the DNC protests. The film’s lead actors (Robert Forster and Verna Bloom) at times play out their scripted storyline amid the real-life protesters (and real-life tear gas) on the streets of Chicago. That Sorkin’s film and Medium Cool share an interest in the media’s role in 1968 is evident in the fact that the final line in both is the iconic chant, “The whole world is watching. The whole world is watching.”
Cultural Revolution(s) in a Fragmented Age
But is the whole world watching anymore? In 1968 the “mass” in mass media was a real thing. Media channels were relatively few, and most people more or less watched the same “reality” on the news. This meant a huge amount of power was consolidated into relatively few media gatekeepers who “controlled the narrative.” It meant the Frankfurt School’s concerns about hegemony via “culture industries” had at least some merit. Hoffman’s talk of “cultural revolution” made sense in a world where mass culture was a real and potent thing. To control the airwaves and advance a compelling narrative in front of cameras had demonstrated potential to move the needle on public opinion, because the world really was watching.
But it doesn’t really make sense anymore, because we can’t really speak of “mass” culture anymore. Media still has considerable power to advance ideas and change hearts and minds; it’s just that the hyper-fragmented, “there’s a channel for every niche” nature of today’s landscape means the power is diffused into an ever-wider horizon of personally curated echo chambers. To be sure, individuals are constantly being shaped in these media bubbles, but by wildly different narratives of reality and in wildly different convictional directions. We could say “cultural revolutions” (plural) are happening in today’s algorithm-fragmented world, but they are micro-revolutions that give rise to a diversity of radical expressions (from Antifa to Proud Boys, BLM to QAnon) that exist in wholly separate worlds that neither understand nor (in many cases) even know about each other.
We could say ‘cultural revolutions’ are happening in today’s algorithm-fragmented world, but they are micro-revolutions that give rise to a diversity of radical expressions (from Antifa to Proud Boys, BLM to QAnon) that exist in wholly separate worlds.
What this means for national politics is probably that broad, ideologically coherent coalitions are no longer possible. Instead, successful parties and campaigns will need to lean into the necessarily hodgepodge—and thus unstable and often self-contradicting—nature of micro-revolutions, somehow striving to simultaneously draw in various groups with often-diverging convictions (e.g. Trump appealing to both LGBT activists and conservative evangelicals). This will invariably look chaotic and breed instability from election to election, as the dynamics of micro-revolutions rapidly morph and react against one another. Long-term political change, as a result of broadly shared ideological convictions and goals, will become nearly impossible. Permanent (but rather impotent) volatility and stalemate, not lasting revolution, will rule.
Only Lasting Revolution
This presents both an opportunity and a caution for the church. While political coalitions become more fragile and frustrating as coherent channels for meaning and purpose, the global coalition of Christ followers can stand out as an appealingly stable, consistent agent of change.
As politics becomes ever more locked into a cycle of volatile unpredictability—constantly beholden to whatever bizarre cocktail of extremisms can be currently mixed into a coalition—Christians should embrace their faith’s relative continuity of belief and practice across time and space. While political parties divide over health-care solutions and struggle to make progress on addressing homelessness, education, and mass incarceration, the church carries on with its own efforts in these areas—hospitals, schools, medical missions, crisis-pregnancy centers, homeless shelters, prison ministry—as it always has. For today’s frustrated young activists in the mold of Hoffman and the “Chicago 7,” what if the Christian church came to be seen as the most reliable movement for effective, lasting change?
While political coalitions become more fragile and frustrating as coherent channels for meaning and purpose, the global coalition of Christ-followers can stand out as an appealingly stable, consistent agent of change.
Meanwhile, as people become ever more skeptical of bias-infused, error-prone media—Christians have the advantage of a reliable source of wisdom that remains refreshingly practical and resistant to political pigeonholing: the Bible. But this is also a cautionary reminder, because many Christians today are sadly shaped less by the Bible than by their respective media bubbles. They are less animated by the revolution of Jesus Christ than they are by whatever micro-revolution is currently blowing up their Facebook feed. Rather than clinging to the solid epistemological foundation of Scripture, many Christians have sunk in the post-truth quicksand of our infotainment marsh. And rather than using the platforms of media to spotlight Jesus, we often follow the world in simply spotlighting ourselves.
Christians can nod along with Abbie Hoffman when he recognizes the media’s power to advance a revolution. But we must be clear that, in a world where we can easily get sucked into any number of social-media–fueled micro-revolutions, there’s really only one revolution worth fighting for. It’s a revolution that wasn’t started on the streets of Chicago or the screen of a mobile phone, but on the shores of Galilee.