[3 June 2003]
In the May 16 edition of IMDb’s daily news column, they report a controversy brewing over Joaquin Phoenix’s new film Bufffalo Soldiers. The film’s poster features Phoenix, playing a Cold War-era soldier, flashing a peace sign. A source at Miramax (which is releasing the movie) explains that “The poster is clearly intended to be satirical, but a number of people have objected to Phoenix’s flashing the peace sign, which is being interpreted as a decidedly anti-war gesture.” And while Miramax is of course considering changing the poster, it shouldn’t escape our attention that the label “anti-war” has itself become a serious accusation, against which one must defend oneself with all the vigor appropriate to proving one is not, say, a communist. Meanwhile, the Dixie Chicks are famously now facing death threats for publicly criticizing the President. Their crime, of course, was not being patriotic; to show that you love America, you must believe, speak, and act exactly the way the government tells you. Which is, after all, what being an American is all about.
Gee, remember when being “anti-war” was considered a good thing? Or at least not tantamount to treason? Remember when being questioning, critical, or even contemptuous of authority was not only accepted, it was a part of the American character?
Hunter Thompson does.
He begins Kingdom of Fear, a rambling bastard of a memoir, with the story of his first encounter with the FBI, at the tender age of nine. One morning, the story goes, two agents came to his door, saying they had evidence that he was involved in the tipping over of a Federal Mailbox: a Federal Offense, and one that carried a sentence of five years in a Federal Prison. What was more, they had spoken to several of Hunter’s associates, who had confessed to the crime, and names Thompson as the ringleader. (“We have witnesses.”) Little Hunter’s parents began to panic and urge him to confess (best to cooperate); Hunter (who had surely planned and carried out the act of vandalism as payback against a vicious, drunken substitute bus driver) was about to confess, but then took a risk. He asked, simply, “What witnesses? Who did you talk to?” At this point, the façade crumbled; Hunter’s father started asking questions as well, and the agents went away, never to be heard from again. No one was ever charged with the crime.
Every memoir needs a charming anecdote from the author’s formative years to set the tone for his or her later life. And here, this story serves its purpose quite well. Whether or not any of it is true, I have no idea. Here is a man, after all, whose carefully fashioned mythology has overtaken anything we know of him. The man who formed the very concept of “Gonzo,” the rambling, drug-addled, vicious, take-no-prisoners style of journalism that is, depending on who you ask, the bane of Real Journalists’ existence, or pure joy. His acknowledged masterwork, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, is told through a fictional alter-ego, and Lord only knows how much of it really happened. His entire self-presentation is carefully scripted, and as he is fond of saying “politics is the art of controlling your environment,” so too does he control his image.
However, this image has grown past the point where even he can control it. Most famously, he has become a cartoon character: the loveable journalist/drug fiend/ambassador/opportunist/presidential candidate Uncle Duke from Gary Trudeau’s Doonesbury. However, while Duke is essentially a clown in Trudeau’s world, Thompson has also inspired a far more dangerous (and heroic) alter-ego, outlaw journalist Spider Jerusalem, in Warren Ellis’ comic series Transmetropolitan, which recently ended its five-year run. Sure, Spider goes off on the occasional unintelligible rant, and does enough drugs to kill an entire herd of small elephants, and he does at one time attack the President with a Bowel Disruptor (a device that well, never mind), he is also smarter and more devious than he appears. More important, he knows that in politics, the most precious resource is the Truth. And he manages to use it to bring down a corrupt and tyrannical President.
Thompson comments on his being turned into a cartoon character, as “it hasn’t helped a lot to be a savage comic-book character for the last fifteen years a drunken screwball who should’ve been castrated a long time ago. The smart people in the media knew it was a weird exaggeration. The dumb ones took it seriously and warned their children to stay away from me at all costs. The really smart ones understood it was only a censored, kind of toned-down, children’s-book version of the real thing.”
Because he still has plenty to say, and he is still dangerous, for he speaks with the power of Truth. Interspersed with disconnected vignettes about his storied history, he discusses our present start of affairs, which he is clearly not happy about. He says, “to say that this goofy child president is looking more and more like Richard Nixon in the summer of 1974 would be a flagrant insult to Nixon. Whoops! Did I say that? Is it even vaguely possible that some New Age Republican whore-beast of a false president could actually make Richard Nixon look like a Liberal? The capacity of these vicious assholes we elected to be in charge of our lives for four years to commit terminal damage to our lives and our souls and our loved ones is far beyond Nixon’s . . . The prevailing quality of life in America - by any accepted methods of measuring - was inarguably freer and more politically open under Nixon than it is today in this evil year of Our Lord 2002.” Keep in mind that Nixon was Thompson’s arch-enemy, upon whose death he wrote “he has poisoned our water forever . . . by disgracing and degrading the presidency of the United States, by fleeing the White House like a diseased cur, Richard Nixon broke the heart of the American Dream.”
And there, you have probably the strongest unifying theme of Hunter Thompson’s career: the Death of the American Dream. For him, it came during the rioting at the 1968 Democratic National Convention: “what I learned, in Chicago, was that the police arm of the United States government was capable of hiring vengeful thugs to break the very rules we all thought they were operating under . . . There was no point in appealing to any higher authority, because they were the people who were paying those swine to fuck me around. It was LBJ’s party and I was an unwelcome guest, barely tolerated.” This was the moment (for him) when all the hopes of the ‘60s, that we were going to change things, that the good guys would win out, all came crashing down, and he forever learned the lesson that the Government is Not your Friend. Law Enforcement is Not your Friend. Ever.
So what are we to take from all this? Because there is a point to Hunter Thompson, beyond the amusing rambling and colorful metaphors and automatic weapons. Just remember, when the First and Fourth Amendments have been gutted to correct for “freedoms that go too far,” who let them do this?
You were the ones who elected these bastards - and their sons - and let them run roughshod over your lives. As Spider Jerusalem writes during a “riot,” manufactured to allow the police to pound several hundred unarmed members of a minority group into the pavement, “you see, here’s how it works; Civic Center and the cops do what the fuck they like, and you sit still . . . They do what they like. And what do you do? You pay them . . . You must like it when people in authority they never earned lie to you.”
The upside of this is that, much as they would like you to forget this, governments only have as much power as you give them. Not too long ago we believed that if a government becomes destructive and tyrannical, we have the right, even the obligation, to remove it from power. Oops! Did I say that? I’m just clambering for a D-Notice now. Except people forget that that screwball, terrorist rhetoric came from the Declaration of Independence. I can’t wait to see how the next generation explains the Founding Fathers, since they were, at least according to the criteria currently being used by the Justice Department, terrorists. They overthrew a government ordained not even by the people, but by God. Ditto for the Civil Rights marchers in the ‘60s, who broke the law against a system that almost everyone (everyone who mattered, anyway) supported.
So if you don’t like what’s going on - and I know there are a lot of us out there - fight back. Do something about it. If a law is wrong, truly wrong, you are under no obligation to follow it. That’s how the social contract works. According to a cover story in Relix magazine, “Thompson is an avowed enemy of Timothy Leary’s ‘turn on, tune in, drop out’ mantra.” He explains “Leary, that son-of-a-bitch, that fraud . . . I think he was the most horrible person to come out of all the ‘60s.” And unlike what journalists are supposed to do, he makes no pretense of objectivity. Accordingly, Spider Jerusalem sums up the ethos, “Every law that curbs my basic human freedoms; every lie about the things I care for; every crime committed against me by their politics - that’s what makes me get up and hound these fuckers, and I’ll do that until the day I die . . . That’s what we achieve. We show them they’re accountable. We show them that just as they try to herd us back into cages of quiet mediocrity, we can chase them back to fucking hell with the truth.”
That is his call: to get involved in politics. Make it Personal. Otherwise you’re just letting them win. He tells Relix, “until you personalize politics, you’re not gonna get anywhere. This war is not some distant thing. If every Deadhead voted, this country would be a different place.” To illustrate, Hunter Thompson ran for sheriff of Aspen in 1970, on the “Freak Power” ticket, and almost won, were it not for a sudden, desperate collusion between the two major parties to keep him out of office. He comments that “if the Freak Power brain trust learned anything serious in that election, it was that ‘working within the system’ is merely a lame euphemism for ‘playing by their rules.’” Those opposing War today have become, let’s face it, a joke. No one takes them seriously, least of all the people they’re trying to reach. The most they do is convince the rest of the world not to hate all Americans, just most Americans.
The protest marches of the ‘60s don’t work now (and according to Thompson, didn’t even always work in the ‘60s), and while the Left has stagnated in the same old tactics, the Right, led by what Thompson calls “the vengeful, bloodthirsty cartel of raving Jesus-freaks and super-rich money mongers who have ruled this country for at least the last 20 years, and arguably for the past 200,” have organized into a well-oiled machine, taking control of the terms of the debate so seamlessly and quietly we never even knew what hit us. And how exactly did the Left get maneuvered into sticking up for Saddam Hussein? That was where the battle was lost. Clearly, some new plan is needed, and I don’t know what will work, but it’s time to start trying something new, and to hell with the rules.
And so, our nation has gone to war. And we probably will be for the rest of our lives. Unless enough people get fed up and stop doing what they’re told, and start keeping a close watch on these people we have somehow entrusted with the power to run our lives. And that’s why it doesn’t matter how much, if any, of what gets attributed to Hunter Thompson that he actually did. Why now, more than ever, we need him, and people like him. ‘Cause he’s not a journalist; he’s a fucking hero. And right now, we need all the heroes we can get.
Late in Kingdom of Fear, Thompson relates an exchange he’d had with Bob Dylan the night before. Dylan told him, “we may never be able to defeat these swine, but we don’t have to join them.” Even if we can’t win, if these bastards end up getting re-elected, because dissent is treason and we see what they want us to see, then at least we can go down fighting.
So how about it? Do you still remember how to rebel?
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/kingdom-of-fear/