It’s a strange world. Some people get rich and others eat shit and die.—Hunter S. Thompson, Generation of Swine.
The father of gonzo journalism was known for his uncompromising but brutally honest, edgy and witty insights that cut through the noise of everyday life and presented to the reader the naked truth as Thompson saw it: no matter how violent and vulgar it was or how crazy or dangerous it seemed.
Thompson established himself as a writer with the 1967 Hell’s Angels, a nonfiction novel which offers an intimate insight into the dangerous life of this “strange and terrible” motorcycle gang. Five years later, Thompson published what is now probably his most notorious work: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas—a saga of drugs, gambling, drinking, sex, fast cars and the pursuit of the American dream which, in the end, the author proclaims dead.
Thompson placed himself in the middle of the events about which he wrote, often mixing reality and imagination to highlight ways of life tangential to mainstream culture, but nevertheless integral parts of society. Though exaggerated, such descriptions as the following were, in essence, true:
The Circus-Circus is what the whole hep world would be doing Saturday night if the Nazis had won the war. This is the sixth Reich. The ground floor is full of gambling tables, like all the other casinos … but the place is about four stories high, in the style of a circus tent, and all manner of strange County-Fair/Polish Carnival madness is going on up in this space.
However, his uncompromising and honest remarks could often be grotesque and offensive. Take this paragraph on his own profession, journalism:
The press is a gang of cruel faggots. Journalism is not a profession or a trade. It is a cheap catch-all for fuckoffs and misfits—a false doorway to the backside of life, a filthy piss-ridden little hole nailed off by the building inspector, but just deep enough for a wino to curl up from the sidewalk and masturbate like a chimp in a zoo-cage.
Or this one, in which Thompson takes a swing at President Nixon:
If the right people had been in charge of Nixon’s funeral, his casket would have been launched into one of those open-sewage canals that empty into the ocean just south of Los Angeles. He was a swine of a man and a jabbering dupe of a president. Nixon was so crooked that he needed servants to help him screw his pants on every morning. Even his funeral was illegal. He was queer in the deepest way. His body should have been burned in a trash bin.
The flow of Thompson’s unusual and vibrant style is the by-product of a free individual creatively expressing himself and offering new perspectives on life.
Would such language be tolerated in today’s culture of political correctness?
Individual freedom, self-expression and creativity are under siege from institutions that were founded on those values. Free speech is not dead—otherwise I wouldn’t be able to publish this article. But there are people—some of them very prominent—who are trying to redefine, if not kill it.
Journalists have been calling for censorship of views they dislike; newspapers have been excluding certain perspectives; moviemakers have been bowdlerising films; and technology companies have been censoring and deplatforming.
There has been a tide of attacks on freedom of expression, affecting everything from Dr. Seuss books and American classics to TV shows, media personalities, authors like J. K. Rowling, YouTubers and scientists. Even Eminem has recently been the target of cancel culture.
The arguments for censorship include accusations that people are peddling hate, spreading conspiracy theories, offending others, causing harm, etc. The core issue, however, is who comes up with these justifications, who enforces and who benefits from them. If freedom of expression dies, it won’t be the powerful who suffer.
Of course, the impulse to ban, destroy or censor those who express unorthodox views, promote unconventional lifestyles or question established norms is not new. Indeed, Thompson himself made many enemies through both his savage writing style and his unconventional, risky, libertine lifestyle. “If you’re going to be crazy, you have to get paid for it or else you’re going to be locked up,” he stresses in Kingdom of Fear.
So, would the father of gonzo journalism get cancelled today? Thompson wrote about a number of taboo topics, including drugs and alcohol, dangerous driving and police brutality. Some of these subjects continue to be controversial, though some—like drug use—have become more acceptable, partly as a result of Thompson’s own writing.
The subjects of Thompson’s work might not have been problematic in today’s environment, but his style may have very well led to him being censored. Thompson didn’t believe in pulling his punches. “With the truth so dull and depressing, the only working alternative is wild bursts of madness and filigree,” he writes in Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, a book that would surely have got him accused of encouraging reckless behaviour and perhaps even of inciting violence, as when he laments the fact that people have to live under the fear of “suddenly getting locked up in a military detention camp on vague charges of being a terrorist sympathizer.” But, as Thompson himself tells us, there is no way of understanding life without delving into controversy and dealing with the uncomfortable and ugly truths of our own nature. As he writes in Hell’s Angels: “The Edge … There is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over.”
The way to defeat the enemies of free expression, is not to seek to silence them but to ensure that we provide enough platforms and powerful enough megaphones for those who promote unconventional perspectives, in order to ensure diversity of opinion on topics that matter.
Some platforms are already trying to provide controversial figures with a place in the mainstream, but they are facing backlash. Politico, for example, stirred up controversy by offering Ben Shapiro a position as a contributor.
Freedom is dangerous. But the risk of letting freedom die is far greater, as we can see from the bloody history of both communist and fascist regimes. However, Thompson believed that the biggest threat came from society, not governments:
In Orwell’s 1984, rigidity is imposed by the will of the state. Whereas in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, it’s the will of the people. I’ve always operated on that second theory. Nobody is stealing your freedoms. We’re dealing them off … I’ve always seen myself as a carrier of the torch against that urge.
Hunter S. Thompson died in 2005. Luckily, others, such as Matt Taibbi and Glenn Greenwald, have taken up the torch. We need such people more than ever—people who have the courage to seek the truth wherever it may lead, question those in authority and express themselves freely.