“Hunter Thompson is a moralist posing as an immoralist. Nixon is an immoralist disguised as a moralist. […] Hunter represents something wholly alien to the other candidates for sheriff: ideas. And sympathy towards the young, generous, grass-oriented society which is making the only serious effort to face the technological nightmare we have created. The only thing against him is that he is a visionary. He wants too pure a world.” – James Salter
Directed by Daniel J. Watkins and Ajax Phillips, Freak Power: The Ballot or the Bomb follows Hunter S. Thompson’s patriotic campaign for the sheriff of Aspen in 1970, during a time of upheaval, growing social and economic division, political scandals, violence, assassinations and, overall, of profound changes in America.
This 90 minutes documentary is a great achievement of both preserving history and of resurrecting hope. Hope in the power of one individual who worked with the people and for the people, arguing for radical but practical change, upholding political ideas that stood in stark opposition to many views that made up the status quo and boldly pursuing the dangerous road of giving everyone a voice, even to those who felt disenfranchised by the established socio-economic order.
In Kingdom of Fear, Thompson begins the second part of the book, the one dedicated to his run for sheriff, with a passage from the American author, environmentalist and lover of individual freedom, Edward Abbey, who wrote: “I know my own nation best. That’s why I despise it the most. And I know and love my own people too, the swine. I’m a patriot. A dangerous man”.
This encapsulates the soul of Thompson’s campaign in Aspen more than fifty years ago: a desire to do what’s right for the community – but nothing can be done right for a community if that community doesn’t have the political tools to do so. Thompson saw and understood this principle very well:
“The idea is not to become a sheriff in the sense that [..] everybody else has ever been the sheriff here before […] it’s a tentative thing to force people to participate not only in law enforcement but in politics”. Hunter S. Thompson, 1970
“It’s time in this country for somebody to run on some kind of realistic program rather than to get into this hypocritical gibberish that has characterized politics in this country for I don’t know how long and still does in most parts of it.” Hunter S. Thompson, 1970
“Freak Power” was the arsenal of tools that would bring about that change. The idea behind this combination of words was “[…] some strange deviation from nature; a monster. [of the power] is the ability to do or act; capability of doing or accomplishing something. That’s what we’re trying to do here. Not power to do strange or unnatural things, but just the ability to act and to have control over your environment, to have control over your government”. These were the words of Hunter S. Thompson when he was asked about this concept on the debate stage in Aspen or Fat City, as it was renamed by the freaks.
The notion was expanded in an article that was initially published in the Rolling Stone’s No. 67, called “Freak Power in the Rockies”, which was later reprinted in The Great Shark Hunt. It is safe to say, although somewhat of a generalisation, that the freaks were what the broader media called “free spirited” people. But this term didn’t seem to encapsulate the reality of American culture for a growing number of young people who were feeling that their free spirits were constrained by the ever expanding interests of government and corporations, or the industrial-military complex as it was called.
Indeed, this perspective was reflected by the strange and unique power base of the freaks – a completely new phenomenon in American politics, which was detailed in the Kingdom of Fear: “It was a strange combination of “Woodstock” vibrations, “New Left” activism, and the basic “Jeffersonian Democracy” with strong echoes of the Boston Tea Party ethic”. Beautiful.
The story of the Freak Power campaign has implications that go beyond the history of Aspen or of America – it is the universal story of individuals, rising one by one, standing up against the violent assault on their freedoms.
It is an encouraging example of men and women fighting, through democratic means, for having control over their own lives, for having the liberty to live as they see fit and for building a community that reflects their values, without the threat of economic, social or cultural blackmail.
In just a few years, Aspen changed from a small town that was the refuge of those who fled the madness of the cities in the second half of the 1960s into a well-known skiing resort that attracted international attention, including big developers that had zero initiative in caring for the community over which they were building.
What happened in Aspen expanded the notion of what is “foreign influence” to me. I no longer see as foreign influence only that of corporations, governments or people from other countries, but also the influence of those from my own country. Foreign influence is the influence of all actors, national and international, who have betrayed the free spirit of the individual and traded the notion of a community that lives by its own values for the false promise of expansion for the sake of expansion, pompously justified by models and theories. These actors would build over every tree, across all lakes, on top of ancient graves, cover the mountains with concrete so they can climb the ladder of progress to the moon and stare at the empty, cold darkness between stars.
Here is the segway into what is the most important aspect of Thompson’s campaign for sheriff: the freaks were a threat to the established order because they operated at the idea level. It was, above all, a symbolic move.
And how relevant is that move in today’s political climate, not just in America, but in so many other countries where individual freedom has been reduced to a pathetic joke, an arcane term confined to textbooks and even, in the worst cases, a dream!
In the end, however, Freak Power lost the election by 300-500 votes, depending on what account one reads. The documentary reports the 500 figure. The majority spoke up through their votes: they wanted the status quo to be maintained, even if the current order of things was rotten with corruption and injustices.
What does this mean? That opposition to an established order is futile? Were the efforts made by Thompson and his team in vain? Not at all.
The fact that we write and talk about it fifty years after it happened proves the complete opposite: the necessity of such disobedience, of standing up to forms of government, to authorities, to corporate interests, to any structure which suffocates the right to be free. As Henry D. Thoreau wrote: “disobedience is the true foundation of liberty”.
This is echoed by the documentary’s main soundtrack (the song below):
When injustice still feeds on the frail, we all know
That the power of freak needs to speak to the world once more
If the world turns its back on our rights, there’ll be news to report
On the battles begun in the valley of last resort
“I am not at all embarrassed to use the word freak. I think to be abnormal, to deviate from the style of government that I deplore in America today is not only wise but necessary” said Hunter S Thompson. If we take only one thing from this documentary is this phrase and the important idea embedded in it: for freedom to be alive, each one of us must stand up for it.
Categories: Art Reviews and Commentary