One of my favorite questions to ask people is, “what’s the insight of that hindsight?”
Hunter S. Thompson’s famous “wave” speech from “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” attempts to answer it in a way that only he can. The counterculture of the 1960s had felt so meaningful, and then it was just over. If felt like something went wrong, but what? How did society transform from that magic of being hippies into the misery of the 1970s?
“You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning… And that, I think, was the handle – that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting – on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave…”
The journalist and the historian help you to interpret the past. Their goal is to help you understand the factors that seemed to have driven the process from uncertainty towards certainty. They’re trying to give you the insight of hindsight – an understanding of the signals in the noise, some pattern you can look for.
The business person, the preacher, the charlatan – they “help” you consider “what’s next?” They try to quantify the current uncertainty into little pieces of risk, and then pattern match them to examples of uncertainty in the past that resolved themselves in a particular way. “If this, then that.” They apply the insight of hindsight to foresight.
But there is one more aspect we have to look for.
“So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark – that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”
The reason Thompson is fearing and loathing in Las Vegas, is in itself an answer to our question about the insight of hindsight. The ‘60s counter culture was a movement. Vegas, the business person, the preacher, and the charlatan – they are part of institutions. Vegas is the epitome of quantifying risks (for their own profits), while dangling the dream (uncertainty) in front of its patrons (“imagine what you would do if YOU won?!). The American dream is the movement, but America itself is the institution.
The movement lives and dies by the wave, but the institutions exist beyond the fluctuations. Movements are the outputs on your oscillator that rise and crash over time, but institutions are the clocks on the wall that just mark cycle, after cycle, after cycle.
Thompson, as a journalist, asked what the insight of hindsight was regarding the ’60s. In his own words, it was to have, “no sympathy for the devil; keep that in mind. Buy the ticket, take the ride…”
We can’t just sit there and feel bad for the devil who already got himself kicked out of heaven. We have to buy the ticket (from some institution) and take the ride (experience the movement). Talk about a journalistic calling.
Our own goal should be to either create or be a part of movements (plural). We want to reshape or make new institutions out of whatever we are a part of – whatever we genuinely care about that can make the world a better place. Once in a while, we want to make a big enough wave to knock an old institution down too. Buy the ticket, take the ride. Viva Las Vegas.