Diana West: Fear and loathing of the gonzo establishment

R.A. Hettinga rah at shipwright.com
Mon Feb 28 12:53:34 PST 2005



Fear and loathing of the gonzo establishment
Diana West (back to web version) | Send

February 28, 2005

If there is one thing that bugs the Left, it's the idea of empire -- and
particularly the idea of its own established empire -- the media culture it
still dominates by dint of groupthink.

 That's why when Hunter S. Thompson committed suicide at age 67, the empire
of the Left, a.k.a. the mainstream media (MSM), had to pretend that a bona
fide "iconoclast" had died, someone at odds with the establishment -- "like
Galileo or Martin Luther," as Orville Schell, dean of the Graduate School
of Journalism at UC Berkeley, rather colossally saw fit to describe
Thompson's clip file for the ages.

Far from living life on the fringe -- which is not to say he didn't live a
fringey life -- Thompson was enshrined as an icon by the so-called
establishment. By "establishment" I mean the prevailing powers that be, the
media and cultural powers for whom Thompson was never a threat, but always
a promise. He has long been appreciated, if not celebrated, for his open
and prodigious drug use. (He was "who Mark Twain might have been if Twain
had discovered acid," friend and National Public Radio foreign editor Loren
Jenkins told The Washington Times.) And he has been consistently applauded
for a concocted reportage that divorced "journalism" from fact. (His work
was "true in a way the bean counters would never understand," said a New
York Times appreciation not penned by Jayson Blair.) Thompson's "gonzo"
career was a template for counter-cultural behaviors and attitudes that had
reshaped the American mainstream by the end of the 1960s. Tantrums.
Hedonism. Self-absorption. And the "craziness," the Washington Post
appreciation toasted, "that comes with sticking the big toe of your brain
in the socket of 'high-powered blotter acid,' and 'uppers, downers,
screamers, laughers.'"

Guess you had to be there. Even if you weren't, even if you tried to read
"Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail" and couldn't, the "gonzo"
sensibility lives on. Indeed, the gonzo sensibility has infused our culture
to the point where it's no longer a relic of the old counter-culture, but
is an innate characteristic of the establishment today. Who keeps his head
up in the mainstream today who isn't gonzo-"wild" and gonzo-"crazy"? In
gonzo we trust. This explains not only the lavishness of praise being
heaped upon Thompson, but also the extraordinary lengths to which his
appreciators -- and they are legion -- have gone to palliate his lifelong

My favorite: His was a "lifestyle dominated by a long and sophisticated
romance with drugs," said the New York Times appreciation, quite
picturesquely dispensing with the ravages of chronic drug use. Then there
is Thompson's "obscenity-laced prose."  Not to worry, said his Times
obituary, expletives "broke down walls between reader and writer." As for
his "creative blend of fact and fantasy" (wasn't that Dan Rather's
problem?), his "rule-breaking style" and "outrageous voice," they "helped
refocus the nation's customarily straitlaced political dialogue." How? The
obit doesn't say, but maybe his political coverage that "made no secret of
his hatred of Nixon" had something to do with it. And thank goodness. What
would the republic have done without him? Too bad he couldn't have been
around to refocus the Constitutional Convention.

Gonzo-style aside, what's left? According to a line in the middle of the
Washington Post appreciation, not so much. "In fact, he'd never done very
much in his life except write about it, which he did with clarity, hilarity
and big-train momentum." Well, to each his own. On the other hand,
gonzo-style alone, given that it has become a way of life, may be enough to
rate the posthumous star treatment, although a little distance between star
and treatment-ers would be appreciated.

But there is something else. "For a generation of American students," The
New York Times writes, "Mr. Thompson made journalism seem like a dangerous,
fantastic occupation." This notion is echoed in The Washington Post: "He
was a particular hero to journalists, whose terrible secret is that beneath
all the globe-hopping and news anchor fame, they are merely clerks and
voyeurs. Thompson ... had the bearing of an adventurer striding out to the
very edges of madness and menace."

Fear and loathing. Madness and menace. Danger. Fantasy. These are the moods
of adolescent rebellion, the stylistic attitudes of an adversary culture
that has long dominated the MSM. Which tells me that when all the ink is
dry, Thompson's special place both on the Left and in the MSM is as a sort
of adversary mascot, a totem of a mythical time when the empire still lay

Too bad the emperor has no clothes.

R. A. Hettinga <mailto: rah at ibuc.com>
The Internet Bearer Underwriting Corporation <http://www.ibuc.com/>
44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'

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