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21 February 2005

Hunter S. Thompson

In lieu of saying much directly about Hunter S. Thompson's death, I'll tell a story which I suspect may have some bearing on this monstrously unhappy event.

In his autobiography "Disturbing the Universe," the physicist Freeman Dyson talks about his first post-college job, as a low-level scientist working for the British Air Ministry during World War II. He was paired in a tiny office with a young Irish scientist.

They were researching a troubling problem. When an American bomber was shot down over Europe, nearly every member of the crew managed to escape and parachute to safety, but when British Lancaster bombers went down, they crashed with almost no survivors. Dyson and his colleague quickly discovered the reason: American bombers had sufficiently large escape hatches, while the Lancaster had been built with a much smaller escape hatch, and in the minute or two during which escape might be possible, a handful of men wearing bulky parachutes couldn't all escape out the tiny hatch.

The solution was equally clear: Retrofit a larger escape hatch. Dyson and his colleague submitted this action plan up the chain of command.

It went nowhere. Nothing was done. They heard nothing back from the Air Ministry, for months, which dragged on for years. The death rates were unchanged.

As they tried to bring the life-and-death problem to the Ministry's attention, they did get informal hints about why the Ministry was so reluctant to take action. There was a culture of Royal Air Force combat commanders which didn't want to make it too easy to escape an injured plane. The plane might not be doomed; perhaps heroic crew efforts might enable it to recover and complete its mission or limp back to base. The too-small escape hatch was serving as a sort of Mandatory Courage Machine, forcing the crew to stick with their damaged plane and do what they could to save it.

As Dyson realized the hopelessness and stupidity of the Ministry's non-response, he became deeply depressed, and sank into paralytic inaction.

The Irish guy, on the other hand, just got angrier and more outraged and furious. He stalked every colonel and general and marshal and civilian authority in the Ministry, he went out of channels, he violated the chain of command, he chased officials on the golf course, he forced them all to listen to him and read his detailed scientific reports. No matter how much trouble he got into, no matter how often he was warned to behave, no matter how foolish or clownish he seemed to others, no matter how little he got out of his efforts, he never gave up.

Eventually he won. The Air Ministry finally and grudgingly agreed to enlarge the escape hatch, and the new, safe hatch actually went into service on Lancasters -- a few months after the end of the war. (There are lots of other ways for a bomber to fail and fall than enemy fire.)

It was a lesson Dyson never forgot: Depression accomplishes nothing for anybody. Anger is (or can be) a Creative Force that can actually change important things in the world for the better.

* * *

There are few people past or present I have admired more than Hunter S. Thompson. He didn't just amuse or thrill me. I think his written insights into American politics, from Nixon to the present, deserved the Nobel Peace Prize and/or the Nobel Letters Prize, they were so uniquely explosive with moral passion and a ceaseless screaming demand for a better world. To America, he compares very forceably and substantially to Germany's "Gruppe 47" writers like Böll and Grass, who took upon themselves, in 1947, the task of rescuing, salvaging and resurrecting the German language from two Nazi decades of soul-destroying political gibberish.

Now, if we are lucky, someone else will have to rescue American English from "No Child Left Behind," and say bluntly that it's code for Fuck Poor and Black Kids.

If the America Thompson was ceaselessly describing and critiquing had changed the way he thought it should, this would be a far greater society than the corrupt, dysfunctional shithole it has degenerated into. Thompson's vision would be an America Americans could authentically take pride in, an America which non-Americans would admire, rather than despise and fear.

Those tempted to respond with critiques of Thompson's clownish, carnivalesque side should aim them elsewhere, not at me. I admired this side of him every bit as much as I admired his brilliant political and social insights. I don't know what true human freedom is any better than anyone else, but I know it when I see it, and Hunter S. Thompson was a very Free American -- with no one else harmed or put in fear by his free American living, and millions gratefully served.

Throughout Thompson's career, the most elite, prestigious members of the American press corps, those who have shot to the top of both print and electronic media, have channelled nearly all their efforts into Dignity, Fine Tailoring, Fine Hairstyles, Team Playing, the limo lifestyle -- and Freedom-Kissing the anuses of the Great Figures of Political Power with polite, unembarrassing softball coverage. They have done all this at the expense of journalistic courage, clarity and truth. Since Nixon, they have become terrified of losing access to The Great Men in Congress and the White House. They have helped get us into this mess.

Thompson never gave a flying fuck about any of that, about what he looked like, about how he was perceived by politicians or other journalists, about civility, about kissing anybody's ass, about access. (Actually, he had plenty of access; a lot of politicians are well-educated and smart and of the generation that mainlined Thompson's books and columns back in college; even lots of Republicans loved to answer the phone for Hunter S. Thompson, and considered chatting with him a rare cultural honor.)

Is that what they mean by Gonzo Journalism? I just always thought Thompson's stuff meant truth, savage honesty, and courage, which I thought good journalists were all supposed to be doing to begin with. If you wanted a shelf of the finest and most influential American social and political journalism from 1965 to today, who else's books would all be there? Who else's political writing from this era will survive a century from now? Who else will anyone spontaneously and enthusiastically want to read?

Gary Trudeau's "Uncle Duke" was a cartoon lampoon of a figure Trudeau clearly admired and loved as much as I do. Every naughty thing Uncle Duke did around the world he did only because of the currupt, greedy, racist and vile spheres our foreign and military policies had created. In a decent, responsible America, Uncle Duke would have vanished as an effective comic figure, Trudeau would have had no use for him.

* * *

My story about Dyson ... I suspect Thompson succumbed (temporarily, but that's all it takes when you have liquor and firearms in the home) to the despair every decent, intelligent, insightful, sensitive person has been slimed with since November 2000. The Germans, who need many more words for "depression" before they prescribe a pill, have a word, Weltschmerz -- "world pain" -- which is defined as the feeling one gets from comparing How the World Could Be with How the World Actually Is. Only the ignorant and insensitive -- the Fox News crowd -- can escape the caustic effects on the spirit from the 2005 comparison of worlds.

Do not despair that he died. Rejoice that this remarkable firestorm of rage, anger, celebration and freedom lived and wrote and lived so wonderfully and so fully. Health Tip: Drink less, and if you have firearms in the house, take them out of the house and keep them locked at the firing range.


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