Monday, May 2, 2011

"The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved"

That's the title of the very first example of Gonzo Journalism, by Hunter S. Thompson, and also marked the beginning of his famous collaboration with the artist Ralph Steadman.  Back in his hometown to write an article for an obscure magazine, he immediately begins to reveal the ugly fear and loathing that lurks beneath the veneer of American complacency.  Here's an excerpt but of course you should click the link and read the whole thing:

I shook my head and said nothing; just stared at him for a moment, trying to look grim. "There's going to be trouble," I said. "My assignment is to take pictures of the riot."
"What riot?"
I hesitated, twirling the ice in my drink. "At the track. On Derby Day. The Black Panthers." I stared at him again. "Don't you read the newspapers?"
The grin on his face had collapsed. "What the hell are you talkin' about?"
"Well...maybe I shouldn't be telling you..." I shrugged. "But hell, everybody else seems to know. The cops and the National Guard have been getting ready for six weeks. They have 20,000 troops on alert at Fort Knox. They've warned us--all the press and photographers--to wear helmets and special vests like flak jackets. We were told to expect shooting..."

"No!" he shouted; his hands flew up and hovered momentarily between us, as if to ward off the words he was hearing. Then he whacked his fist on the bar. "Those sons of bitches! God Almighty! The Kentucky Derby!" He kept shaking his head. "No! Jesus!That's almost too bad to believe!" Now he seemed to be sagging on the stool, and when he looked up his eyes were misty. "Why? Why here? Don't they respect anything?"
I shrugged again. "It's not just the Panthers. The FBI says busloads of white crazies are coming in from all over the country--to mix with the crowd and attack all at once, from every direction. They'll be dressed like everybody else. You know--coats and ties and all that. But when the trouble starts...well, that's why the cops are so worried."
He sat for a moment, looking hurt and confused and not quite able to digest all this terrible news. Then he cried out: "Oh...Jesus! What in the name of God is happening in this country? Where can you get away from it?"
"Not here," I said, picking up my bag. "Thanks for the drink...and good luck."

What has this got to do with trees dying from pollution, you may wonder?

This year marks the 137th run of the Derby, which is held on the first Saturday in May.  Below are posted some screen shots from videos of the 2009 and 2010 races, which were held May 2 and May 1, respectively. This year the first Saturday won't fall until the 7th, and it so happens that middle daughter (the one who is studying to be a horse vet) has been working at the Kentucky Horse Park over the past week. She sent pictures of trees yesterday, the 1st of May.  It's hard to compare her photos with the earlier screenshots without getting the inescapable impression that trees are declining at a rapidly accelerating rate.

The following four shots are from 2010

In both years, on May 1 and 2, trees have leafed out almost uniformly.

Now contrast those green treelines with current conditions.

A click on a picture will enlarge it, and make it clear that many trees have lost significant branches.

Not only are they leafing out slowly, it looks probable that quite a few will not leaf out at all.

It's kind of creepy that these people are wandering around what is essentially a tree leper colony, and if they're like most, they have no idea anything is abnormal.

I'll have to watch the Derby this year, and see what the track looks like.

Thompson's essay is a reminder from the past that many of us felt that the world was dangerous and doomed back in 1970.  We've seen an orgy of conspicuous excess since then, decades of a party as heedless and depraved as what he describes at the Derby...a frantic party which is on the verge of ending.  He wrote of Steadman...

He had done a few good sketches, but so far we hadn't seen that special kind of face that I felt we would need for a lead drawing. It was a face I'd seen a thousand times at every Derby I'd ever been to. I saw it, in my head, as the mask of the whiskey gentry--a pretentious mix of booze, failed dreams and a terminal identity crisis; the inevitable result of too much inbreeding in a closed and ignorant culture. One of the key genetic rules in breeding dogs, horses or any other kind of thoroughbred is that close inbreeding tends to magnify the weak points in a bloodline as well as the strong points. In horse breeding, for instance, there is a definite risk in breeding two fast horses who are both a little crazy. The offspring will likely be very fast and also very crazy. So the trick in breeding thoroughbreds is to retain the good traits and filter out the bad. But the breeding of humans is not so wisely supervised, particularly in a narrow Southern society where the closest kind of inbreeding is not only stylish and acceptable, but far more convenient--to the parents--than setting their offspring free to find their own mates, for their own reasons and in their own ways. ("Goddam, did you hear about Smitty's daughter? She went crazy in Boston last week and married a nigger!")
So the face I was trying to find in Churchill Downs that weekend was a symbol, in my own mind, of the whole doomed atavistic culture that makes the Kentucky Derby what it is.


  1. "Decadent and Depraved" That explains Sarah's Derby dress down, huh?

  2. Ugh...that is a very heartbreaking sight. I visited LA in March, & one of the first things I saw was a number of contractors with chainsaws removing rows of mature trees along a street in Little Tokyo. Most of the trees appeared to have been severely damaged or dying. It is amazing that the people in your photos appear unperturbed by what is around them.


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