I have a feeling there are answers in the past somewhere. That, to us millennials, “the 60s” are rightly venerated, but viewed for the sake of vicarious nostalgia rather than guidance. There is too much similar between our generation and the baby boomers to be ignored. The millennial generation is characterised by an insistence on looking forward; which consumes our perspective despite being one example of a parallel with said past. So we don’t learn as we might from their successes and failures, but instead look back with a playful and dispassionate interest at characters like the Good Doctor: Hunter S. Thompson.
When you mention his name it usually results in a confused look “…no”, until you offer the prompt of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. “Oh, yes! The film?” Yes, but it was a book first, he wrote the book (1972). There is sometimes an awareness that he did a lot of drugs and that Johnny Depp is rumoured to have locked himself in his basement to take all the drugs Thompson took in order to play him in the film. Less known is that he was a political journalist writing for Rolling Stone, and less still that he was part of the left-wing “freak” movement of the 60s even going so far as to run for mayor of Aspen in Colorado with a peyote flower as his emblem. And he nearly won. There is an outside chance that there’s a knowledge of Hell’s Angels, his book derived from spending two years with the biking outlaws as part of his social circle. But less still that the type of ethnographic journalism that he engaged in to write that book contributed to the foundations of modern long-form journalism.
Beyond being very bookish or a real politics geek there isn’t any real reason why anyone would be familiar with his exploits. He had studied his morality – from the ancient Greeks, through Shakespeare, Jefferson, Horatio Alger and wider. A deep, scholarly understanding shone through his drug-fuelled soliloquies. I’ve envied both his ability to write in stream of consciousness with such eloquent passion and breadth of reference, and – with a certain Utopian defeatism – elements of his approach to life as a hedonist and an outlaw. Though he took firm political stances it was that hedonistic approach to life which informed everything. As Oscar Wilde did with aestheticism, Thompson took something seemingly superficial and gave it weight and gravitas – he gave reason to what seemed merely indulgent. That might sound like a post-hoc justification to get fucked up and disabuse yourself of responsibilities, but it came with huge self-imposed political responsibilities and, further, can guard against the plethora of modern life issues: all the reasons self-help books, psychiatrists and feel-good pharmaceuticals are such big business.
The subtitle to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is A Savage Journey to the Heart of The American Dream. I’ve read plenty of his stuff and am still no closer to understanding the link between the story of Fear and Loathing and The American Dream. During the road trip with “his attorney” he completely botches an attempt to cover a race in the desert and is then reassigned to embark on a hilarious visit to a police conference about drugs, all the while completely fucked on a series of substances mostly unknown to polite society. (“KNOW YOUR DOPE FIEND,” a police chief told the conference on the topic of weed, “his knuckles will be white from inner tension and his pants will be crusted with semen from constantly jacking off when he can’t find a rape victim.”)
Maybe the link is no more complicated than the juxtaposition of succeeding in out-sinning Sin City in the face of this “Dream”. In any case, his work from the 1968 Democratic National Convention onward was devoted to the idea that the promise bequeathed to post-war America was not only hollow but disingenuous. And it is that promise – that you can be whatever you want to be no matter your background, that The War is over and everyone can focus on prosperity and that there is little in the way of being able to live The Good Life – which is not only at the essence of The American Dream but also behind the implied support and optimism offered to The Millennial Generation.
To Thompson – as I’ve found with the most salient political and social commentators – daily life and high politics were intimately linked, almost one and the same. Politics was simply a term for the process by which we all decide to live our daily lives together. So there was no difference between him wanting to take a blast along the highway on his Vincent Black Shadow and Congress deciding which laws to pass or fell. The politicians were simply there to make sure he and everyone else had the infrastructure to be able to live their lives the way they wanted to. The ideas of trade and economics and social justice and welfare were all higher-order issues. Important – vital, even – but ultimately not the foundation of politics, they were the issues which arose as a result of discourse on the question of how to live. And should be bent to social will without being contaminated by short-termism or back-door diplomacy.
The baby boomer and millennial generation share more in common than I have seen made mention of. As they had the end World War II we had the fall of The Berlin Wall. As they shook the status quo with the counter-culture of sex, drugs and rock & roll so we do with the internet and technology. As they blazed forward with civil rights movements we saw left-wing politicians govern and campaign – offering tangible hope – more effectively than ever before. And as they watched their movement crumble during the 70s with the elections of Nixon and Thatcher, we were smacked over the back of the head with Trump and Brexit. The following quote is from Thompson’s autobiography and to swap out some names and dates it could easily speak to the current political climate:
“the general political drift of the 1960s was one of the Good Guys winning, slowly but surely (and even clumsily sometimes), over the Bad Guys … then with Agnew and Nixon and Mitchell coming into power so full of congenital hostility and so completely deaf to everything we’d been talking about for ten years… it took a while to realize that there was simply no point in yelling at the fuckers. They were born deaf and stupid.”
Or how about this one, feel free to swap “America” for “Britain” and find it no less appropriate:
“Mr. Jones does not even pretend to know what’s happening in America right now, and neither does anyone else… there really is nobody flying the plane …. We are living in dangerously weird times now. Smart people just shrug and admit they’re dazed and confused. The only ones left with any confidence at all are the New Dumb. It is the beginning of the end of our world as we knew it. Doom is the operative ethic.”
Thompson first used the phrase “fear and loathing” in a letter to a friend after JFK was shot. Kennedy was his guy, his candidate, the one who was going to advance everything he held to be a virtue, and then, “there is no human being within 500 miles to whom I can communicate anything – much less the fear and loathing that is on me after today’s murder.” But it was five years later at the Democratic National Convention when the protesters he was part of were rounded up and beaten by a coordinated police attack that the scales finally fell and he realised The Establishment and American democracy were not all they were claimed to be:
“It seems to me that the underlying assumption of any public protest—any public disagreement with the government, “the system,” or “the establishment,” by any name—is that the men in charge of whatever you’re protesting against are actually listening, whether they later admit it or not, and that if you run your protest Right, it will likely make a difference… So in the end the very act of public protest, even violent protest, was essentially optimistic and actually a demonstration of faith (mainly subconscious, I think) in the father figures who had the power to change things—once they could be made to see the light of reason, or even political reality… [They] only needed to be shaken a bit, jolted out of their bad habits and away from their lazy, short-term, profit-oriented life stances… once they understood, they would surely do the right thing.”
But it had to come to that assumption being destroyed in order for it to be realised. The same, but worse, was on its way in the form of the Kent State shootings in 1970. The establishment had heard them and wanted them silenced – with lethal force if necessary.
After Brexit and Trump I didn’t really know what to think. There are plenty of talking heads, politicians and journalists trying to explain what happened and why, most of whom are still so far from any form of understanding one wonders how they collect a pay check for their ramblings. I hadn’t read anything from Thompson for a while, the stuff I had read was characteristically laced with the phrase “fear and loathing”, but towards the end of 2016 the phrase somehow took form, it stuck and felt appropriate and meaningful.
Us millennials grew up during the 90s when there was very little by the way of war and huge promises were afoot in the shape of Clinton’s and Blair’s elections. The world felt rested and at ease, many of the old divisions sewn up and progress felt inevitable. We didn’t even know all of it was new – it was normal to have things like the minimum wage introduced, an army sat twiddling their thumbs and a fully functional NHS. The Home Front, at the very least, felt progressively secure. Francis Fukuyama went so far as to publish his theory The End of History. Even once Cameron was elected he was still a liberal enough conservative to pass gay marriage and Obama was in The White House. We are children of the long summer, and we didn’t know how fiercely the cold would bite until 2016 collapsed onto us like a creaking, asbestos-lined roof, letting in the gales and squalls we assumed had subsided. And we now fear and loath the prevailing edifices. We now look back as Thompson did in 1971:
“that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. . . .
So now… you can go up on a steep hill… and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”
Hunter S. Thompson shot himself in 2005 aged 67. He left a cryptic suicide note which spoke to his claim that he was always going to kill himself once he got to 50 and hadn’t done, so it was time. There are many theories as to why he did it. Some say the years of drugs had taken their toll and he was in constant pain, others that he had developed a persona of a wild and crazy presence to be around and was bored of acting up to it. I won’t pepper you with more quotes just yet, and there was definitely no single reason. But it seems to me that he had watched the end of what he referred to as “The American Century” and with its closure George W. Bush was elected, The Twin Towers fell and The West went to war in the Middle East.
He had accepted that his movement, his purpose, his life’s work and the work of his friends had failed – and with that it was time to accept reality, a desire not to be constrained by bastards and swine had left him with one final choice. And with that his obituary to “his attorney”, Oscar Acosta, now seems most fitting to himself, “and there he goes. One of God’s own prototypes. A high-powered mutant of some kind never even considered for mass production. Too weird to live, and too rare to die.”
It’s a sombre note to strike and I only mention it to round off the Thompson story rather than any form of defeatist proposal. The world he relieved himself of is now ours. We watch Brexit and Trump rumble on with winces, cringes and rolled eyes – with fear and loathing – but we are still that generation of the internet, change and progress. The promises of the 90s – of being a generation that could be for the sake of being – don’t feel over to me. Progress is just harder to come by than we first assumed; and let’s be honest that assumption was arrogant. Careers and responsibilities and shit elections might close doors meanwhile we are the first generation to grow up with the knowledge of a “mid-life crisis”. Watching the phenomenon unfold in older generations, I’m sure I’m not the only one who has thought “fuck that!” Could it be any worse than reaching 50 and realising something intangible that was implicitly held dear is lost or late or broken?
And indeed I am not the only one. The generation which was ridiculed for the indulgence of a “gap yah” has turned into a generation intent on traveling with the utmost frequency, if not indefinitely. The number of travelers who earn as they go and stay away for years or who have what we refer to as an “early mid-life crisis” and “sack off work” now almost outnumber the gap year set. Traveling isn’t The Answer for everyone, but it’s an interesting development. Though it feels like those who’ve found an answer, in travel or elsewhere, are a tiny portion – most people I know would far more readily relate to the insipid, standard issue “Happy Hump Day!” memes. Hardly the sentiment of a free and content self, or a purposeful generation.
In the face of 2016 and being confronted with responsibility I see little from us millennials which speaks to any real autonomy, no real desire to deviate from “the path”. So how can progress on any scale be expected? We can’t simply expect change from our environment without being different. We are at once confused by the political trajectory and on course to make all the mistakes we have been taught not to make. While it’s admirable that there’s a focus on the plight of others it seems to have displaced a focus on that which we already have answers to, to the detriment of both. We must achieve what our counterparts in the 60s did not. And if the politicians won’t listen we have to start at home, redraw the life-politics link without which politics never made any sense anyway. Easy it is not, but it is where previous advice can be sought and better developed. In 1958 a friend of Thompson wrote to him asking for such advice. He replied humbly (“To presume to point… with a trembling finger in the RIGHT direction is something only a fool would take upon himself.”) the full letter is worth looking up. But I’ll end with this excerpt:
“So if you now number yourself among the disenchanted, then you have no choice but to accept things as they are, or to seriously seek something else. But beware of looking for goals: look for a way of life. Decide how you want to live and then see what you can do to make a living WITHIN that way of life. But you say, “I don’t know where to look; I don’t know what to look for.”
And there’s the crux. Is it worth giving up what I have to look for something better? I don’t know— is it? Who can make that decision but you? But even by DECIDING TO LOOK, you go a long way toward making the choice.”