Thumbing through my copy of The Proud Highway: A Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman 19655-1967 (1997), which is the first volume of “The Fear and Loathing Letters” of Hunter S. Thompson (edited by Douglas Brinkley), I came across something the late Gonzo journalist had written about the stresses of unemployment that I think could serve as his commentary on the Occupy Wallstreet Movement. It’s dated March 1, 1965, and was written to Charles Kuralt of CBS News who was “one of Thompson’s drinking buddies in Rio,” something Thompson wrote about in his novel The Rum Diaries (1998), which has recently been turned into a film by Bruce Robinson.
Thompson writes, in true Thompson fashion, exaggerations (prescience?) and all,
If you ever get the feeling that you’ve lost touch with everyday John Doe reality, go out and do what I did today. look for a job. Not a TV slot or anything where you already have leverage, but just any job that several thousand people in the immediate vicinity can do just as well as you can. It is a truly humbling experience. I haven’t done it in five years, and then only for a few months in New York, which is different. But jesus! [sic] I didn’t realize until today why so many people re-enlist in the army. I used to think “dehumanizing” was a New York liberal cliche. My treatment at the hands of various clerks and receptionists reminded me of the old Nazi theory about giving little people just enough power to let them feel big. […]
My situation today was like that of a man whose job has been croaked forever by automation. Assuming that was his only real skill, he can’t compete in any other job market – so we gets in line for whatever comes up for grabs. Down in the ditch, scrambling for the high ground, elbows churning. This may be a white cousin of the Harlem syndrome: degradation leading to frustration leading to violence. If so, rape and mugging will soon be passe. The new thing will be senseless violence, an outburst of supposedly normal people running amok in the streets with tire irons and butcher knives. At the end of the afternoon I came home and kicked the dog. And that was only one day.
…. I offered myself on the labor market, claiming experience in just about everything but journalism. And I suppose that 20 or so days of the same brutal seeking might lead to employment of some kind, but at the end of the 20 days I’d be reduced to jelly. You ought to try it sometime, especially if you ever hear yourself deploring the public’s taste for escapist entertainment. If what I got today was a valid taste of the workaday world I can easily understand why the poor bastards who never get out of it don’t want documentaries on Vietnam or “problem dramas” when they get home at night […] (p. 493-494).
Also, for those out there like GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain who says the poor and jobless should blame themselves and not Wall Street, I would encourage you to do what Thompson did – go try and get a job. It’s harder than it sounds and I’m sure the 9% of the population who are unemployed (and the millions more who are discouraged workers) would agree. It’s a good way to get back in touch with “everyday John Doe reality.”
While Thompson’s prediction that “normal people [will be] running amok in the streets with tire irons and butcher knives” may be a bit off his observation that those seeking employment in light of AUTOMATION and PROGRESS will find themselves broken, “jelly” and wishing for escape still holds true. Many of us can decry some of the trash we see on television, the fact that we are more interested in MTV and the [Pseudo-] History Channel than things like PBS or the evening news should not come as a surprise. When one spends every waking hour struggling to survive, working to live and living to work, what else can we expect? Until we change the way in which we spend our working hours we’ll never change the way in which we spend our leisure hours.