Fear and Loathing in America

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Hunter S. Thompson is one of the great American writers, muddling (and somehow transcending) genres like journalism and fiction. Superficially, Thompson is a madman. But peel away a layer of language and a layer of meaning, and revealed is biting Public Moralist channeling the best traditions of Mark Twain, Ernst Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

This book is a collection of his letters, written between 1968 and 1976, the height of his career, when he transforms himself from an obscure journalist barely managing to publish a book on the Hell’s Angels, to a cultural celebrity bordering on a societal archetype.

His best work comes from this period of his life. It’s heady stuff, that veers between crude craziness/ insane hyperbole to profound insights and highly technical blizzard-like assaults on public figures and institutions. Though and through, it’s amazingly funny. Refreshingly so.

Part of the secret of this is the idea of Gonzo Journalism, which Thompson not only invented, but has pretty much monopolized. You can’t write gonzo journalism without people assuming you are simply cribbing off of Thompson’s work.

Gonzo is journalism that plays upon the commonly held assumption that journalism and journalists must be ‘objective’. Gonzo is journalism played as extreme subjectivity. To me this signals that Thompson is a key figure in post-modernism. I mean that a society with ‘modernist’ beliefs hold dear to the idea of an ‘objective’ media/journalism. To savagely attack this idea, indeed, all meta-narratives, is a key feature of post-modernist thought.

Something that amazed me was the sheer volume and scale of his letters. In an age of email, txt, and twitter, these are massive missives which seem bizarrely luxurious and verbose. The common feature of famous people and authors having their letters published is almost certainly dead; there is simply no one writing like this anymore. Thompson may pretty much be the last.

In these letters, you see Thompson attempting to transform his burgeoning fame into actual wealth and influence, which sadly remains outside his grasp. I couldn’t tell you why. But more than that, you witness a man struggling against an increasingly corporate and artificial/legalistic world that is shutting down personal connections and the “human touch”.

For page after page, he will rail and rant on some anonymous lawyer attempting to collect, say a hotel bill, or against an editor who Thompson perceives to be a bit of an ass.

This book is exhilarating but also sad. HST is probably one of the few people who hobnobbed with the best of the best – like Jimmy Carter – and some of the weirdest nobodies ever. HST remains an enigma to everyone. Even at the height of his fame – and pumping out his best stuff – he seems frantic, unsuccessful, disappointed. He remains on the fringe, even as he becomes a public figure. He never seems to really “find a home” in his economic or social world.

It’s also very much as you would expect HST’s letters to be. And that’s pretty cool.

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Nixonland

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I was absolutely blown away by Nixonland. It’s like the WWII of wars. Perhaps that’s a rather tortured metaphor, but I have to say that Perlstein nailed it, in a way I wasn’t quite sure was even possible.

It’s very much history in the vain of Robert K. Massie and John Julius Norwich. That is, these writers take an episode of history – in this case late ’60s America – and bring it to life. It’s history. It’s fact. But its also a well captured story/ This is a cliche, but “they bring the history to life”. History is presented as a narrative, rather than a study or rigourous examination of fact.

There is an academic inside me who cringes slightly at times. Like when John Julius Norwich feels daily confident assuming thoughts and emotions and motivations from historical actors for which evidence might be little more than art, myth, and an inscription on a tombstone. At times, I have tried to imagine wiring such a book myself – about the Spanish Civil War (but I don’t know Spanish and that’s an obstacle) – and I find myself uncomfortable with putting words or ideas or thoughts into a historical person’s mouth. I do feel comfortable however with made up people who might cleverly represent a group or a time and place (for example, a typical American volunteer for the International Brigades). Not real, but real enough.

Perlstein is dealing with a relatively recent past. Not only is there massive documentary evidence, including video and recordings (Nixon’s secret tapes in the White House), but most of the historical actors are still alive. This allows Perlstein to push the narrative aspect of this history book even further.

The ’60s. Something we hear a lot about, but few seem to understand. There seem to be many “narratives” about what happened and why. Quite simply, there was a second civil war. And it’s creation of American politics today. Pretty much anything that happened before Nixon’s election in ’68 is something that we cannot relate too. The fault lines in our society, the rhetoric, the narratives, even the emotional outlook of voters was created in the late ’60s.

Nixon created the formula for Republican presidential victory; it’s the one that’s being used today, even by Trump. It goes by many names – the “Southern Strategy” is probably the most tactically prosaic. Nixon played on Middle America’s resentments, fear, and angst. This isn’t enough to win a national election. So to win the South, Nixon plays a winking game with racism. He walked a delicate rhetorical line that defended racist policies as reasonable; or disguised retarding action as progressively motivated. And that’s what’s worked for conservatives ever since.

Perlstein makes Nixon’s “formula” a natural outgrowth of this small, resentful man’s character and outlook. Nixon’s high school was apparently socially dominated by the rich, beautiful popular kids who had organised themselves into an actual club called “the Franklins”. Nixon organised a rival club – “the Orthogonians” – to compete with those popular kids he resented. An orthogonal (apparently this word Nixon made up has something to do with right angles) is someone who works hard; someone who’s taking grenades in the trenches and gets no recognition for it. Nixon would have you believe its the people who get good grades and do their homework, but I think it more closely captures the spirit of the kids who want to be cool, but can never, ever quite fit in the the cool crowd.

And its that emotional mark that Nixon rode to power in ’68. Perlstein relates Nixon’s outlook and Americas in terms of Franklins (the Kennedys, hippies, liberal college professors, FDR-esque bureaucrats, etc) and Orthogonians (white ethnic minorities like the Polish neighbourhoods in Chicago, ‘hard-hats’ i.e., uneducated whites, the Silent Majority, a phrase redolent of low-information voters).

The other side of the coin here – the hippies and the general growth of a progressive or radical America is actually a bit sad. I’ll just say it: the baby-boomers blew it big time. A generational temper tantrum. As much as they where right (in that the Vietnam War was an unwindable disaster and a lie) they where unable to actual articulate that truth. The kindest thing that could be said for them was that they followed the maxim of “Epater le bourgeois”, which means, “shock the middle class”. It hasn’t work. It’s never worked, and it only made them vote for Nixon.

Perlstein takes a complex socio-political history and makes it fascinating; he is able to illuminate the entire era. It was the best decision of my life to read this book, now during this presidential election season. There are so many parallels, so many echoes and similarities.

Required reading if you want to understand American politics today, the ’60s, and Nixon’s crimes.

Just required reading in general.

 

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

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My first foray into classic science fiction. It’s hard to get any more “classic” – than Heinlein. He hits all the scifi buttons: weird technological futures, questionably crude political ideas, and some lazy metaphysical speculation. It’s technical, but fanciful at the same time. It’s seems like its a parable, but you wind up thinking that the whole thing is just a bit too trite for it have been the author’s main purpose for writing the thing.

It’s the Moon in 2076…and it’s a penal colony that ships grain to a badly overpopulated Earth. A self-aware computer and a computer repairman essentially go and torment a revolution, roughly a redux of the American and Bolshevik Revolutions – it’s a bit like Heinlein could’t decide which revolution to crib off of; or he couldn’t decide if he’s in favour of revolution or not. Because a big part of this book is a cynic’s depiction of revolution; but another part of this book is a a man having his political revolution fantasy…aka how would my revolution go and what sort of government would it create?Heinlein would probably be at home with the Tea Party or an Ayn Rand convention; his politics seems to veer between an at best Platonic fascism, and a libertarian free for all bordering on pure anarchism.

It’s an enjoyable read; Heinlein is at his best musing on technology, like sentient computers and moon economics. It’s a big let down when it comes to characters, plot, and humanistic ideas.