The Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy Against Mike Davis

UC Irvine history prof Mike Davis cant write a damn thing without the nuts going nuts. This time, the controversys over an obscure reference to Winston Churchill.

But before we get to that, it's worth taking a moment to consider all that Sutherland thinks doesn't blacken Churchill's good name. The bombing of civilian homes is apparently all right. Concentrating those bombs on the poorest neighborhoods? Not a problem, it seems. The deliberate targeting of the enemies of the enemy? Sutherland passes over this in silence. It is only the N-bomb project—an attempt to develop a bomb capable of effectively dispersing anthrax over a wide area—that excites his sputtering rage.

Sutherland accuses Davis of attempting to create a "Monster Winnie" (Churchill, not the Pooh) by revealing Churchill's desire to add anthrax to his terror-bombing arsenal. Davis' claim is "a crock of shit," Sutherland says. But Sutherland concedes that Davis has an eminently respectable source for this fact (the work of renowned Stanford historian Barton Bernstein) and that Davis accurately quotes his source. Then Sutherland tries a little sleight-of-hand already attempted by some of Bernstein's British critics: unable to dispute the existence of the N-bomb project or Churchill's desire to use anthrax bombs or that the RAF, at Churchill's request, was, as Bernstein writes, "putting together a bombing plan for the use of anthrax bombs against six German cities: Berlin, Hamburg, Stuttgart, Frankfurt, Aachen and Wilhelmshafen"—unable to dispute these facts, he distracts readers by pointing to a later "feasibility study on poison gas bombs" (Sutherland's words) issued by Churchill's scientific advisers. That study advised the prime minister that dropping poison gas bombs on Germany was technically difficult and added as an afterthought that N-bomb technology wasn't sophisticated enough either. Sutherland summarizes their conclusion this way: "Stick to high explosives." And Churchill did, abandoning the brave new world of what we now call "weapons of mass destruction" for tried-and-true high-explosive and incendiary bombs.

And that's it. That's the substance of the complaint that drives Sutherland to spend 14 of his column's 15 paragraphs attacking Davis. At least, that's it as far as can be determined: confusingly, Sutherland claims to find offending passages about Churchill and the anthrax bomb "on pages 33, 57 and 82." Actually, the passage occurs on page 76.

* * *

If you are surprised that a passing reference in a work of history could inspire a lengthy, dishonest attack on its author in a major newspaper, then you don't know Mike Davis.

Born and bred in Southern California, Davis is one of the leading and most provocative historians of the region. He is the author of several acclaimed books and has been awarded both a MacArthur Fellowship (often called a genius grant) and a Getty Fellowship. Here is how Sutherland describes him for The Guardian's readers:

Davis shot to best-selling fame withCity of Quartz (1990), whose apocalyptic prophecies about Los Angeles were confirmed by the Rodney King riots two years later. He is nowadays America's hottest "scholarly" writer, a hero of the radical left. His books sell in the millions. SinceCity of Quartz, Davis has had his pick of plum university jobs and was awarded a MacArthur "genius" fellowship (that's the one where they ask you to please donate your sperm to posterity).

* * *

Everything about that passage will be instantly familiar to those who have followed Davis' career, especially the fact that each sentence contains at least one lie.

"Sutherland's characterization, alas, is only fantasy," Davis told me. "I don't know the sales figures of my books, but I would be surprised if all seven together had sold more than 100,000 copies. Far from City of Quartz making me instantly employable, I spent eight years after its publication as an academic migrant worker, trying to be a responsible single parent to my teenage daughter while splicing together various part-time jobs. I am not rich, famous or heroic. No one pounds at my door—thank God—asking for either my sperm or my autograph."

Every bit as familiar as the outright falsehoods in Sutherland's description of Davis are the subtler insinuations: the all-too-cute quotation marks around the words "scholarly" and "genius," implying that nothing could be further from the truth. And when Sutherland has to admit that Davis can be correct about some things—that his analysis of LA's social divisions in City of Quartzanticipated 1992's civil unrest—he resorts to the old trick of describing this as an "apocalyptic prophecy," allowing him to dismiss Davis' careful scholarship and insight as nothing more than the lucky prognostications of a modern-day Nostradamus.

* * *

Sutherland's column follows a well-established path in its criticism of Davis: the critic finds what he believes is an error in a minor matter and declares that it invalidates Davis' entire work. Usually this is accompanied by the critic insisting that Davis already knows the "truth" but is deliberately lying to further his own dark purposes. Sometimes this is stretched into a truly nasty ad hominen attack. Sutherland follows this path all the way to the end: "Why does Professor Davis not cite the contrary evidence, which he must know? Two reasons. Lies, as Oscar Wilde might say, are more thrilling than the truth. And, as publishers like to say, they sell more books."

(The reference to Oscar Wilde is a perfect example of the lazy incompetence that pervades Sutherland's column. Wilde expended much of his genius on the topic of lying—going so far as to devote an entire work of criticism to it, The Decay of Lying—but the Wilde-impaired Sutherland can't even be bothered to shuffle over to the nearest dictionary of quotations to find a line from Oscar, opting instead for that lame "might say." All in all, you might say, no sperm bank looking to preserve genius for future generations will be asking Sutherland for a donation.)

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