In 2020, it is common for journalists, who lean left politically, to see themselves as quasi-activists. It seems, with each published article, that younger reporters at the New York Times, the Washington Post, or Vox believe they are slowly overthrowing systemic racism, sexism, the patriarchy, Trump’s authoritarianism — among other systems and ‘-isms’. If newspapers, magazines, and online blogs are the first drafts of history, then the history of the current moment can be recorded with a progressive tinge. In some cases, more than a tinge. In some cases, it is full-blooded revision.
Are there any journalists in America writing at, say, Rolling Stone who are thoroughly literary, who would consider themselves, first and foremost, aesthetes rather than activists, who could give zero hoots about whatever progressive ideology currently enraptures the elites? If so, they are few, and far in between.
But back in the ’60s and ’70s, journalistic literary figures, who didn’t make politics the single aim of their work, were in no short supply. Hunter S. Thompson and the “New Journalism” crowd, which included Tom Wolfe (who coined the label), Joan Didion, and George Plimpton are perfect examples. Their outputs then, and their legacies now, surely eclipse our journalism today, if not for the quality of their work then for the simple fact that they weren’t so mind-numbingly pedantic. These writers weren’t just journalists, and they weren’t activists, either.
Instead, the New Journalism writers immersed themselves in the world as literary personas. They didn’t hate the people they observed (except for Thompson’s hatred of Richard Nixon) nor the environment in which their subjects lived. They didn’t seek to destroy, upend, or spin the world’s narrative for their own political ambitions. Thompson, Wolfe, and Didion offered rare perspectives unmarred by half-baked ideologies, like “intersectionality” or “white fragility.”
The literary community also valued intellectual diversity. New York Magazine ran Wolfe’s “Radical Chic” as its cover story back in 1970. It was playful and satirical, directed at the ruling class, written with chutzpah. In 2020, the same magazine forced out Andrew Sullivan, perhaps the only writer left on its staff even willing to confront left-wing pieties. What a stark and depressing reversal!
But on July 18, we can fondly remember a bygone era of journalism. July 18 is Hunter S. Thompson’s birthday.
Gone are the days when a writer like Thompson, an unparalleled personality with an insatiable appetite for mind-warping drugs, could prowl the earth. His crackling prose, as wild as his personality, thrust the reader into a different reality. His politics leaned left, though it never gave him the excuse to chide and playact revolutionary. When the weird got going, the weird got pro, and Thompson was terribly weird, a misfit professional, a towering American literary hero, and — to some extent — an aesthete.
Happy birthday, Hunter S. Thompson.