Hunter Thompson’s dead.
Jesus, how did that happen? It just went up on the news a couple of hours ago. They say he shot himself. And all I can think so far is that it doesn’t feel right. Sure, he was 67, and I know he’d had health problems (in his most recent book, he mentions having a large portion of his spine replaced with titanium), but I’ve been following his column on ESPN.com’s “Page 2” section, and his writing had the same savage swagger it always did. He was a newlywed, and mentioned his wife, Anita, constantly. Last week, he was manic with joy over his new idea of “Shotgun Golf,” which he said was going to make millions. These are not the words of a man about to kill himself.
Okay, so I know enough about suicide and depression (if that’s what it was) that you never have any idea when someone’s going to do it, but still, it just feels too soon.
Because there are still bastards out there.
That’s what Hunter Thompson was about, more than anything else. Sure, I grew up on Doonesbury‘s Uncle Duke, and I loved Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as much as anyone, and delighted in the descriptions of drugs I’d never even heard of, but in his heart, Thompson was all about politics. One of the joys of his ESPN column was that, even though it was supposed to be about sports, the man couldn’t go more than three sentences without talking about politics; he’d segue straight from a point about the Washington Redskins’ owner to blasting the latest outrage of the Bush administration.
And we needed him, now more than ever. I’ve been staying in hotels a lot recently, and so I’ve been watching a lot of TV. (My apartment doesn’t get many stations and I don’t have cable, so I watch a lot of DVDs, but don’t see much of the 24-hour news-media cycle.) I had no idea how bad it’s gotten. Pretty people reading clean, sanitized news about poor people on the other side of the world getting their guts blown out. And more often than not, having it done by us. All with a smiling face sandwiched between sports and celebrity fashions.
Hunter Thompson was the opposite of all that. News today, even when it’s basically right-wing propaganda and lies, makes a point of telling you how fair and even and balanced it is. Thompson knew better. In a lot of areas, there’s a place for objective, unbiased news: simple reports about what happened, where, when, and by whom. Politics is not one of those areas. Hunter made it personal, savagely using his words as a weapon. He did it because that’s the only way he knew how. He did it because you have to.
It’s very simple, he’d say. The people we have decided to let govern our lives, they have a certain amount of power over us. The job of journalists—and we need them as much as we do any other branch of government—is to keep an eye on those people, and not let them get away with any shit. Because they will try. The second we take our eyes off them, they will fuck with us. They will fuck with us for no other reason than because they can, and (this is the important part) they will fuck with exactly as much as we let them. The reason we need journalists is so we can know exactly how much they are currently getting away with.
Hunter Thompson knew this. He learned it the hard way, which is the only way you ever learn a lesson of that magnitude. He learned it at the Democratic National Convention in 1968 when the vengeful police thugs of Richard Daley and Lyndon Johnson beat and stomped and maced hundreds of unarmed protestors. He learned it as tens of thousands of young men were sent off to die in a pointless, unwinnable war based on lies, but that to this day, even presidential candidates who saw the worst of it first-hand aren’t allowed to come out and say that it was wrong. Thompson knew that it doesn’t make sense to appeal to the government to stop the bullies if they’re the ones who hired the bullies in the first place.
Thompson ended his now-final book, Hey Rube: Blood Sport, the Bush Doctrine, and the Downward Spiral of Dumbness, with an epilogue under his famous axiom “Politics is the Art of Controlling Your Environment.” He says, “Anybody who thinks that ‘it doesn’t matter who’s President’ has never been Drafted and sent off to fight and die in a vicious, stupid War on the other side of the World - or been beaten and gassed by Police for trespassing on public property—or been hounded by the IRS for purely political reasons That is when it matters who is President or Governor or Police Chief. That is when you will wish you had voted.”
What Hunter Thompson did was bring an emotional immediacy back to political journalism and the fight for civil liberties. The Left desperately needs to learn from him. News articles on the Patriot Act usually end with something like: “The ACLU and civil liberty advocacy groups are concerned that certain provisions of the Patriot act will erode Constitutionally-protected freedoms.” No wonder people see “liberals” as something remote and “other”—you might as well be talking about computer chips or the price of beef. What we should be saying is “The Justice department wants to be able to arrest you without any solid reason and hold you without charging you with anything or letting you see a lawyer or letting you know why they’re holding you or telling anyone they’re holding you, for as long as they want, until they decide to let you go. They’ll do this if they think National Security is at stake. Or if they think there’s something ‘not quite right’ about you. Or they just feel like it. Plus they just may torture you to make sure.”
“We don’t think they should be able to do this.”
That’s why we needed Hunter S. Thompson. We needed his hate. He learned from President Richard Millhouse Nixon that there are criminally vicious bastards who will try anything they think will work to gain more power, and that that power always comes with a body count. But he also learned that we can stop them. All we have to do is stop taking it.
It’s not like any of the lies or terrible crimes of the Bush administration are a secret; they’ve been working with everything right out in the open, and assuming that we won’t care. And it seems that, for at least half of us, they are right. The role of the journalist isn’t just to find out the truth anymore. The harder part, once everyone knows the truth, is to get people to give a shit.
In recent years, Hunter had taken up the case of Lisl Auman, a 20-year-old Colorado woman sentenced to life in prison without parole for a murder that took place while she was handcuffed in the back of a police car. When speaking of the case, he was fond of quoting Edmund Burke, that “the only thing necessary for the triumph of Evil is for good men to do nothing.” In retrospect, that makes as good an epitaph for Hunter S. Thompson as any. He set out to provoke a reaction. To make people give a shit. And this made him, in some sick, twisted way, a humanitarian.
We have four more years of the Bush era. And for whatever reason, Hunter Thompson won’t be with us for the fight, but we don’t dare stop. Because the worst thing the forces of Old and Conservatism and Small-Mindedness and Hate have done is to make us think it’s okay to not give a shit. Because if we don’t, they can do whatever they want.
And you’re next.
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