Poli-Sci 101 : Hunter S. Thompson Edition
by Sam Wilkinson
Once, I was a graduate student pursuing a PhD in Political Science, a stupid idea for at least a thousand different reasons, perhaps most importantly my aversion to political science in general. I took a comprehensive exam in which I was expected to cite literature that the department had decided was important to the field. As I am wont to do, I insisted upon including a reference to Hunter S. Thompson’s “A Southern City With Northern Problems,” an essay he wrote about Louisville, Kentucky. It was an evisceration of his hometown, something written shortly after a more expansive and more widely read piece he wrote about the Kentucky Derby (“The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved”). Needless to say, my professors were not impressed, I was sent a not-so-subtle message that it might be time to move on, and I agreed.
Political science made a point of informing me via sledgehammer about the importance of its own literature. This isn’t a point that’s worth debating; every field has its books that greatly matter. I have to be honest though – political science books are painfully boring, especially the more modern ones, the ones that decided that emotion made books worse, the ones that decided that math made books better. This also isn’t a point worth debating, because I know that analysis matters and I know that math makes analysis easier or better or both.
But the appeal of “A Southern City With Northern Problems” is that we’re not forced to waste time, first on understanding the dataset, and then on understanding how we’re going to flog it to death. Instead, we have a simple article in a writer makes one conclusion absolutely clear: this is bullshit.
You can engage with the article on its most immediate level, in which it becomes plainly clear that blacks in America are fighting a virtually unwinnable fight against a society filled with what Thompson describes as Southern and Northern racism, the Northern variety being the harder of the two to triumph above. The point he makes, even decades later, remains salient today, but it is the larger point that matters more, the point about the absurdity of the whole thing. Thompson emphasizes the dangerous entrenchment of cultural bias, the sort of bias that cannot be done away with legislatively, but instead can only crumble under the relentless pressure of time. Things will change, in other words, so long as the aggrieved are willing to wait.
Screaming about the inherent injustice of such a necessity does about as much good as walking to the ocean to complain about the tide. There is unfortunately no better solution, such that even when we witness great progress on particular social issues (such as a sitting president endorsing, albeit cautiously, gay marriage) we still run immediately into stories like the one today out of Virginia, in which a prosecutor whom everybody (”Dogs and cats, living together, mass hysteria!”) agreed was eminently qualified to hold the position was nonetheless rejected because he was gay.
I get it – such bigotry or “Reasonable religious objection!” or whatever we’re using to describe decisions such as these – require considerate volleys from dedicated opponents willing to fight such behavior for generations if need be. It makes sense to me that the slow and steady approach in which hearts and minds are changed over the course of weeks and months and years does more good than anything else. Still, there are times when it seems worthwhile to take a critical view of the entire situation and mutter disgustedly under your breath, “This is fucking ridiculous.”
The swearing is off-putting maybe. I’m 31; perhaps I should have grown out of such things. But I see no decent reason to avoid the language that most accurately describes the thing. Which doubles me back to Thompson’s essay; unlike the political science research that I so loathed for its utter lack of substantive impact upon the lives of breathing human beings, Thompson saw a broken situation and said so. Although he didn’t explicitly pivot from that situation to the much larger one at play throughout the United States (a situation that still plays itself out in a million little ways as human beings try desperately to draw lines between themselves and others, often on the most ridiculous of grounds), the criticism was clear: the culture matters more than the policy, and until that changes, the disunity of our society isn’t going to change.
On my shelves, I have dozens of books that political scientists consider valuable. I wonder if any of them does as effective a job communicating a message as that one slight essay does.