What would Hunter S. Thompson, in many ways the ultimate American, have made of his country’s political scene today? Having lived, in the words of his 2005 suicide note, “17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted,” the self-styled and always uncompromising “gonzo journalist” didn’t stick around to observe much of the 21st century, and even as grimly vivid a political imagination as his could hardly have foreseen many of its developments. Yet like the longer-gone Alexis de Tocqueville, also very much a man of his own time, Thompson’s perspective on democracy in America has in some sense only grown more relevant over the years without him.
Thompson would, in life, offer this perspective on any and all occasions, including during a shootout with his neighbor. In his final decades, his biographical blurbs referenced both a love of firearms and a 42.5-acre “fortified compound,” known as Owl Farm, in Woody Creek, Colorado.
One might assume that such a remote and secluded location would rule out the possibility of conflicts with neighbors, but Thompson’s experience (as often it did) proved an exception. In the recently released footage above, we see him exchanging gunfire with a newly arrived resident in a dispute having something to do with livestock. “If this son of a bitch wants to bitch about his cows over here and shoot at me, well… it’s our country. It’s not theirs. It’s not a bunch of used car dealers from southern California.”
No matter how impulsive or reckless it might seem, Thompson’s behavior arose organically, from a foundational political philosophy. “The people who did this Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were, uh, good people,” he says in voiceover as we watch him assume a combat stance and fire off a few rounds. “And it’s a good place. Here we are in the middle of it, up on the mountain,” from his perch on which he came to see himself as a kind of ultra-libertarian defender of the mission of the Founding Fathers, or at least the mission of the Founding Fathers as he interpreted it. The author of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas ends by reminding Americans of something they tend to forget until plunged into one crisis or another: “In a democracy, you have to be a player.”
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.