Fear and loathing of the gonzo establishment

Posted: Feb 28, 2005 12:00 AM

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 depravities.

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 ahead.

Too bad the emperor has no clothes.