[21 February 2005]
We were somewhere around Crawford on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. There was screaming, I remember that much, but there wasn’t a whole lot worth remembering besides that. It wasn’t a hoax, it wasn’t a dream or even an imaginary story—the ugly reality of 2005 was sitting on the porch and drinking a diet soda.
Crawford is the epicenter, the dark heart of the latest in a seemingly endless series of Evil Empires, perpetually rising from the ashes of their predecessors to march across the savage dusty plains of American politics, stronger and meaner and faster with every passing generation. Every time the beast seems dead it just gets up and starts running around again, fresh as a daisy and animated by the power of pure spite.
The problem was the ‘60s. Even as that hoary decade recedes faster and faster into the past, the red-shift switching to magenta and eventually to a deep painful purple, the echoes of lingering culture war still hang in the air like cordite. We got Civil Rights and a man on the moon, but at the end of the decade we woke up and Richard Nixon was in the White House. Ever since Progressive politics got up and decided to upturn the apple cart, the Grand Old Party has dedicated itself to ensuring that the only new ideas are the old ideas, painting a perpetual appeal to the supposed wisdom of our drunken forefathers as some sort of revolutionary Demiurge.
The Right will never forgive the Left for the ‘60s, and the Left will never live them down. Something shifted, something dark and sinister born in the heart of the American Dream that was dedicated to the perpetuation of the Status Quo as an end in and of itself, totally ignorant of and in defiance to the laws of history. Even Watergate, we can see now, was just a feint, a momentary diversion on the way to the inevitable Morning in America. The liberals got their blood sacrifice but that was the last blood they would draw for decades—and in the end even Nixon would be canonized.
But Nixon was merely the beginning, the first in a long line of experimental prototypes dedicated to standing sentry against the forces of progress. Focusing on him to the exclusion of all else was what got us in trouble to begin with. It felt good to depose such a corrupt and incompetent king, but at the end of the day the impulses which had twice elected Nixon were alive and well at the heart of the body politic. They needed a new vessel, and had no problem finding one in the form of a charismatic California governor who just happened to have been a movie star. Reagan’s influence was enough to push the country so far to the right that the comparative virtues of William Jefferson Clinton were almost transparent. Eight years dedicated to ensuring merely that the opposing party succeeded in executing none of their divisive platforms—eight years of fighting the floodwaters of incipient fascism masquerading as religious piety and common sense.
Dr. Hunter S. Thompson saw everything important about the ‘60s die, as everything that mattered to the cause of Progressive liberalism was dragged behind the barn and shot in the head. It was enough that he actually believed in a Platonic ideal of the American Dream—he lived long enough to see Jack and Bobby and Martin pulled back out of the ground, only to be raped and molested by hordes of rampaging swine. Maybe these ideals only existed in hindsight, in the rear-view recriminations of a lost generation buffeted by constant, unending defeat and bolstered only by the sepia-toned memories of a few fading Pyrrhic victories. But they existed insomuch as they could be betrayed, repeatedly, and it was enough for Dr. Thompson that the end of these ideals was a constant source of grim inspiration. When the going gets tough, the tough turn to black comedy.
So what do we remember? The image flickers and we see Gary Trudeau’s rough caricature of Uncle Duke, a buffoonish patsy marooned on the shores of the collective unconscious but shorn of dignity. Bill Murray’s underrated performance in the forgotten Where The Buffalo Roam was superceded by Johnny Depp and Terry Gilliam’s faithful adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Amazingly, Thompson’s vision of gonzo journalism became a twisted prophecy—but instead of disillusioned Liberals wandering around the desert with a satchel full of narcotics in order to pierce the veil of reality and see the deeper truths at the heart of power, we’ve got Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly playing Laurel & Hardy, pushing that piano up the steps, screaming and screaming until the swarming black bats die of sheer exhaustion.
In the end, everything important is co-opted and corrupted. The ‘60s and ‘70s have become pre-packaged nostalgia trips for aging boomers and their gelatinous offspring, shorn of any meaning and sold in the streets. Hunter S. Thompson woke up from the ‘60s fever-dream of utopian enlightenment and saw that at a crucial juncture something had gone Very, Very Wrong. The Left pushed too hard and got pushed back, and the Right has never stopped pushing, trying to push the clock back even further than Kennedy, to Hoover and Harding and a time before the New Deal. He saw the heart of the American experience grow black and loamy, and beheld the changing face of a growing conservative movement that would eventually triumph so fully and completely that the very notion of objectivity would shift and warp to fit the changing times. There was fear coiled around the belly of the beast like a tapeworm, a fear that fed off the blood in the belly of the goat-suckers and made the body politic loathe all that was different and new. There’s something ugly in Crawford, but Dr. Thompson could no more put a stake through the heart of this shambling beast than he could ever really kill Nixon.
Futile resistance in the face of total ideological attrition is the mark of either a madman or a prophet. If there’s anyone left in the ruins of the Great American Empire in a hundred years’ time—whomever’s left to pick up the pieces after this misguided conservative revolution has its way—perhaps they will find a weather-beaten and yellowed copy of Fear and Loathing Las Vegas, and see that someone understood what was happening, and had the courage to call out the fear-mongers and hate-beasts for the empty electioneers that they were. Of course, prophets who operate with any degree of accuracy are usually ignored and derided in their own times, and Thompson lived to see his own image commoditized and pasteurized, all the edges sanded off and presented on a Disney Channel historical safari. Perhaps the only thing left to shock us with was his own death—but no, I refuse to believe that the good Doctor was anything but a determined survivalist. Anything else, including the bullet that killed him, could only have been indigestion. He was an antibody in the heart of the American vampire, a source of perpetual indigestion to the Chupacabra class—and a greater calling he could not have found.