Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘politics’

18 JULY, 2013

Fear and Loathing in Modern Media: Hunter S. Thompson on Journalism, Politics, and the Subjective

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“There is no such thing as Objective Journalism. The phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms.”

An iconoclastic hero of the written word, Hunter S. Thompson (July 18, 1937–February 20, 2005) endures as the godfather of “gonzo journalism” — that once-radical, now-ubiquitous style of New Journalism that does away with claims of capital-O objectivity and instead inserts the author into the story as an active first-person narrator. Thompson, in fact, was characteristically unafraid of vocalizing his opinions as a keen observer of and lively, if not hedonistic, participant in culture. But his opinions of journalism in particular he held and proselytized with especial zest — what it is and what it ought to be, what pretensions it could use to divest and what moral obligations it should at all costs uphold. In Better Than Sex: Confessions of a Political Junkie (public library), the fourth volume of his Gonzo Papers originally published in 1994, Thompson admonishes:

There are a lot of ways to practice the art of journalism, and one of them is to use your art like a hammer to destroy the right people — who are almost always your enemies, for one reason or another, and who usually deserve to be crippled, because they are wrong. This is a dangerous notion, and very few professional journalists will endorse it — calling it “vengeful” and “primitive” and “perverse” regardless of how often they might do the same thing themselves. “That kind of stuff is opinion,” they say, “and the reader is cheated if it’s not labelled as opinion.” Well, maybe so. Maybe Tom Paine cheated his readers and Mark Twain was a devious fraud with no morals at all who used journalism for his own foul ends. And maybe H. L. Mencken should have been locked up for trying to pass off his opinions on gullible readers and normal “objective journalism.” Mencken understood that politics — as used in journalism — was the art of controlling his environment, and he made no apologies for it. In my case, using what politely might be called “advocacy journalism,” I’ve used reporting as a weapon to affect political situations that bear down on my environment.

Page from 'Gonzo: A Graphic Biography of Hunter S. Thompson.' Click image for details.

But it took Thompson decades to develop his stance, the germ of which can even be felt a 1958 letter to Jerome H. Walker — long before the term “gonzo” was even coined in reference to a 1970 article of Thompson’s — found in the anthology The Proud Highway: The Fear and Loathing Letters Volume I (public library). In the letter, he addresses the subject more obliquely but with the same unequivocal intimation:

Sacrificing good men to journalism is like sending William Faulkner to work for TIME magazine.

In Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 (public library), published in 1973, he returns to the subject:

So much for Objective Journalism. Don’t bother to look for it here — not under any byline of mine; or anyone else I can think of. With the possible exception of things like box scores, race results, and stock market tabulations, there is no such thing as Objective Journalism. The phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms.

Two thumbs and four fingers holding a peyote button form the 'Gonzo fist,' which originated in Hunter S. Thompson's 1970 campaign for sheriff of Aspen, Colorado and went on to become an iconic symbol of Thompson and gonzo journalism as a whole.

In a 1997 interview for The Atlantic, Thompson reiterates his conviction, but adds a necessary distinction:

If you consider the great journalists in history, you don’t see too many objective journalists on that list. H. L. Mencken was not objective. Mike Royko, who just died. I. F. Stone was not objective. Mark Twain was not objective. I don’t quite understand this worship of objectivity in journalism. Now, just flat-out lying is different from being subjective.

Flat-out lying, in fact, is something Thompson attributes to politicians whose profession he likens to a deadly addiction. In Better Than Sex: Confessions of a Political Junkie, the very title of which speaks to the analogy, he writes:

Not everybody is comfortable with the idea that politics is a guilty addiction. But it is. They are addicts, and they are guilty and they do lie and cheat and steal — like all junkies. And when they get in a frenzy, they will sacrifice anything and anybody to feed their cruel and stupid habit, and there is no cure for it. That is addictive thinking. That is politics — especially in presidential campaigns. That is when the addicts seize the high ground. They care about nothing else. They are salmon, and they must spawn. They are addicts.

Later, he resurrects the junkie analogy in Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 and ties it back to journalism:

Anything that gets the adrenalin moving like a 440 volt blast in a copper bathtub is good for the reflexes and keeps the veins free of cholesterol… but too many adrenaline rushes in any given time span has the same effect on the nervous system as too many electro-shock treatments are said to have on the brain: after a while you start burning out the circuits. When a jackrabbit gets addicted to road-running, its only a matter of time before he gets smashed — and when a journalist turns into a politics junkie he will sooner or later start raving and babbling in print about things that only a person who has Been There can possibly understand.

Complement with this fantastic animation of Thompson on the burden of the living and his graphic biography, which was among the best graphic novels and graphic nonfiction of 2012.

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04 JULY, 2013

Walt Whitman Reads “America”: The Only Surviving Recording of the Beloved Poet’s Voice

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36 seconds of timeliness from a rare wax-cylinder capsule of timelessness.

Walt Whitman is celebrated as the father of free verse and revered as one of the most influential voices in American literature. A century after his death, a serendipitous discovery surfaced a tape-recording of what is likely an 1889 or 1890 wax-cylinder recording of Walt Whitman reading his late poem “America,” an 1888 addition to his continuously revised 1855 poetry collection Leaves of Grass (public library; public domain). Though the origin and authenticity of the tape, preserved by The Walt Whitman Archive, has been debated, it is currently believed to be the only surviving recording of the beloved poet’s voice. What makes it all the more special is that the poem itself rings with particularly timely resonance as we celebrate a long overdue step towards equality for all in America. Enjoy:

Centre of equal daughters, equal sons,
All, all alike endear’d, grown, ungrown, young or old,
Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich,
Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love,
A grand, sane, towering, seated Mother,
Chair’d in the adamant of Time.

For an extra helping of awe, complement with James Earl Jones reading Whitman and a superb homage to the cosmos in a mashup of Whitman and NASA, then pair with the only surviving recording of Virginia Woolf’s voice.

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01 JULY, 2013

Kids on Gender Politics: Amusing and Poignant Responses from Children in the 1970s-1980s

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Minors counter major hegemony with disarming clarity.

“Children help us to mediate between the ideal and the real,” MoMA’s Juliet Kinchin observed in her wonderful design history of childhood. Indeed, children have a singular way of seeing even the most complex of cultural phenomena with disarming clarity. From Letters to Ms., 1972-1987 (public library) — the same wonderful tome that gave us the story of how feminist magazine Ms. sparked the “social media” storm of women’s empowerment and Pete Seeger’s delightful solution to gender politics in language — comes this charming selection of children’s responses to the cultural climate of the second wave of feminism. Amusing, poignant, and infinitely telling, the letters epitomize the signature Ms. “click” moment — a term coined by the magazine to denote an instant feminist insight derived from an anecdote that just “clicks.”

My four-year-old niece was sharing a snack of cheese and crackers with her grandfather. Halfway through the plate he noticed she was gobbling it up at a pace rivaling his own. He proclaimed, “Boy, Erin you’re really a ‘cheeseman’!” Amused at his obvious error she replied, “No, Papa! I’m a cheese ‘person’!”

This wasn’t a statement of the influence of feminism; it was an innocent recognition of an obvious mistake in word usage. At four years old, Erin was aware of someone’s casual denial of her womanhood. Before long she may no longer notice it and begin to accept it …. not if I can prevent it.

Name Withheld
June 24, 1981

I thought you might enjoy hearing a discussion I heard between my son and his neighbor friend. They were playing together and the little boy got the giggles. “Hee-hee-hee-hee,” he giggled, whereupon my son replied in a very condescending tone, “What are you, Danny, some kind of chauvinist? In this house we say “her-her-her-her!”

Her who laughs last,

Name Withheld
August 7, 1975

Recently my nine-year-old son and I were looking around the house for a ruler for his homework assignment. I observed to him that when I was growing up, most rulers had the golden rule printed upon them. “What’s that?” he asked. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” I replied. “Oh,” he said, “I know where you got that. You got that at all those ERA [Equal Rights Amendment] meetings.” Click!

Betsy Brinson
Richmond, Virginia
August 1980 Issue

I offer the following excerpt, taken from a school assignment written by my seven-year-old grandniece, as evidence of the future good health of the feminist movement:

“George Washington’s brother had died. In those days women did not get to own there own home. So George Washington’s sister did not get the house. George got the house. . . . He became the first president. And then he was put on a nickel.”

Name Withheld
March 11, 1979

The analysis of power-preserving notions of behavior based on biological characteristics in Steinem’s article was topical for our family. Only a few weeks ago our three-year-old daughter added to the list of attitudes toward genitalia undocumented in print.

Her behavior occurred in the locker room with her father after a swimming lesson. Observing all the male genitals, she asked if all people grow up to have penises. Her father told her that only men and boys have them. She studied him carefully and consoled him. “Don’t worry, Dad, it’s only a little one.”

Alice Fredricks
Mill Valley, California
September 23, 1978

I was observing in my daughter’s class during a sixth-grade open house when the discussion turned to immigration. Why did people immigrate to America? The teacher and the class discussed pestilence, war, persecution and then addressed famine. “What is famine?” the teacher asked one of the boys in the class.

“Discrimination against women.”

Name Withheld
April 1, 1981

I recently had an experience that I suppose falls into the click category. I was sharing the bathroom with my daughter, who is not yet three. She made an observation and the following conversation ensued:

“You don’t wipe your bottom when you tinkle.”

“No, Kristin, I don’t.”

Reflective pause, then, “Why?”

“Because my tinkle comes out a different place than yours.”

Another reflective pause, then, “Why?”

“Because boys and girls are different.”

Another reflective pause, then with certainty, “No, boys are different.”

My interpretation of this sample event is that she does not see the society or the world in terms of masculine “norm,” with her own status defined only in relation to that “norm.” I hope my interpretation is correct. As parents, we must be doing something right.

Robert J. Shaw, Minister
Tabernacle Christian Church
Franklin, Indiana
July 1981 Issue

Letters to Ms., 1972-1987 is absolutely fantastic — necessary, even — in its entirety, at once timeless and infinitely timely in bespeaking the struggles we still face as a society striving for equality in all dimensions.

Public domain photographs by Nickolas Muray via George Eastman House

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