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323. Treading (III)

In America circa 1967, it was possible to go to a phone box, make a long-distance call, and then have the operator tell you how much change to deposit after the call concluded; and this fact delighted the Hells Angels who, according to Hunter S. Thompson’s eponymous account, would laugh at the operator and hang up. Now this is an antique world in a time when everyone has a smartphone and Zoom can connect New York to San Francisco for free. Yet it is one small anecdote that demonstrates how our world has grown worse over the decades; even in a major city, Los Angeles or San Francisco, America was such a high-trust society that a distant operator could tell and expect a customer to pay for services rendered—and they would.

The story recalls a tale told by Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s patriarch, who arrived in London in the 1950s and found a box of newspapers left on the street with a cup of change beside it; people helped themselves and left correct change without supervision. This is inconceivable now; although as with long-distance charges, newspapers have also vanished. Yet the point remains: Western societies are less trustworthy and safe than in the past and so we live in a world where all manner of technical security fixes are required to sustain cooperative behaviour (often, as with CCTV cameras, these fail) and where all manner of pleasant conveniences and enjoyable activities and goods are denied to us, simply because you cannot reliably trust people not to wreck them.

Thompson’s account of the Angels reflects this breakdown, generally thought to have become pervasive in the 1960s. He characterises the Angels as sociological detritus, the distant descendants of bonded servants who arrived in the New World as the scum of England and then rolled slowly West—eventually to become Okies and the like—always just behind a stake in the good land; eventually, they hit the Pacific and with nowhere further to go they stopped, grew fat in the war economy, and then saw their children become outlaw bikers.

As a reminder that the media is baloney, Thompson notes that the Angels are effectively unemployable in a high-tech economy, circa 1967. The media bangs on about an automation crisis now, and here is Thompson describing the same phenomenon in 1967—except for Thompson it has arrived, for us it is supposedly in the future. In reality, a great many people have probably been superfluous since the 1860s—never mind the 1960s or the 2060s—and this is why many people intuit, correctly, that their jobs are pointless. If you speak to any person vaguely connected to Silicon Valley they will always tell you: “We try to automate processes wherever we can.” This is more a verbal talisman to show you are in the startup world than a serious commitment, but they partly mean it.

The Angels formed a Männerbund; a primitive masculine group characterised by absolute loyalty to a leader, with bonds secured through transgressive initiation ceremonies—aka “showing class”, by, for example, performing cunnilingus on a woman in menses. The Angels affected swastikas and the like, very much in the way contemporary trolls do online; they said, effectively: “It’s for the lolz, to show we’re individuals and to shock the squares.” Then again, they would easily segue into the view: “There are some things we like about Hitler, the loyalty and discipline.”

The Angels had genuine affection for the Nazis; they were a highly disciplined—in their own terms—war band bent on rapine and plunder; so pretty much the Nazis, or the Vikings for that matter. Thompson’s stance on the Angels was liberal—in the Burnham sense, sympathetic to any minority group disliked by the police and the squares—until he himself was “stomped” for no good reason. At this point—having been, as they say, mugged by reality—Thompson turns Kurtz and suggests the only answer for the Angel menace is: “Exterminate them all!”


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