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.

If Davis' work elicits an unusually violent and public response on the part of some critics, it is partly because he has had the unusual experience of having the value of his work confirmed in a violent and public way. When Davis predicted in City of Quartz that LA's official violence against the poor was likely to provoke a riot, few paid attention—until the rioting broke out on April 29, 1992.

Then, too, Davis' work—in City of Quartz and now again in Dead Cities—elicits rage because it undermines myths that typically serve the powerful. Writing in The Nation in 1999, UCI history professor Jon Wiener described City of Quartzas the work of "a passionate historian and analyst of the underside of a city built on PR and mythologized from its inception as a kind of dreamwork in the desert." Factor in that Davis is absolutely open about his cheerfully radical political beliefs—"I am a socialist in the same sense that Billy Graham is a Baptist," he told the Weekly—and you don't need the gift of "apocalyptic prophecies" to understand there was always going to be trouble.

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Davis' approach to his subjects is interdisciplinary. In City of Quartz, he drew on methods from the social sciences. In his next book, Ecology of Fear, he added the natural sciences—from seismology and meteorology to zoology—in order to answer the question: How does LA fit into its natural environment? The answer: poorly and, moreover, dangerously.

The book explores the paradox that LA, so often associated in popular imagination with catastrophic disaster, turns a blind eye to the very real dangers raised by its relationship to the natural environment. Earthquakes may be an LA cliché, and the threat of wildfires is always in the back of one's mind; Davis covers both. But before Ecology of Fear, few people realized that tornadoes hit metropolitan Los Angeles almost twice as often as metropolitan Oklahoma City (an average of once every 2.2 years vs. an average of once every four years). In part, this is because LA's tornadoes are much weaker than Oklahoma's, but, as Davis explains, it is also because newspapers such as the LA Timesrefuse to call a tornado a tornado, preferring euphemisms like "freak wind" instead. OC is also part of what Davis calls "our secret Kansas," at one end of "a distinctive 'tornado alley' along the Los Angeles plain from Santa Monica to Newport Bay."

To question the safety of LA—socially or ecologically—is to question the very foundation of the city's image, and selling that image has been LA's principal business since the 1880s. And when that questioning is being conducted by a scholar with an international reputation, whose book is steadily moving up the bestseller list—Ecology of Feareventually reached No. 1 at the Los Angeles Times—something needs to be done. It was: the tide of Sutherland-like criticism came crashing in.

"At its heart, it's a battle over who gets to define Los Angeles" is how Wiener described the campaign of criticism that followed. "The boosters and their journalistic friends, deeply involved in selling the city as a sunny paradise, or Davis, who argues that developers have placed the city at the risk of social and environmental disaster."

The attacks came from the highest levels in journalism (e.g., The Economist) to the lowest (the late, supposedly "alternative" New Times LA joined the dour Los Angeles Times in an excited defense of LA). The attacks were by no means universal—The New York Times and Business Weekgave the book good reviews, for instance—but the most telling thing about the criticism was the absence of scientists among those complaining about the scientific evidence Davis used to support his arguments. Richard Walker, chairman of UC Berkeley's geography department, told Wiener, "Most of what Mike is saying is completely accepted wisdom among scholars who work in the area of environmental disaster."

Still, evidence good enough for scientists wasn't good enough for Davis' most vociferous critics. The Timeswas the most prominent of these, although even it later admitted that most of the factual mistakes it pounced on were "minor." But the most emblematic was Bradley Westwater, who set up a website devoted to exposing Davis' "errors" (many of which turned out not to be errors at all). The site was the spawning ground for much of the Sutherland-like criticism, although, as Wiener revealed in his Nation article, the biggest error on the site was the claim that Bradley Westwater existed: "Westwater," it turned out, was a pseudonym for Ross Ernest Shockley, a Malibu realtor. One of the chapters in Ecology of Fear, it should be noted, is titled "The Case for Letting Malibu Burn."

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But as ill-informed or devious as some of Davis' earlier critics were, at least they attacked him on the topic he was writing about: Los Angeles. This is where Sutherland, the latest in a long line of outraged Davis-haters, breaks new ground. He is claiming that Davis is somehow writing about Iraq, when Davis is actually writing about Utah.

We have already noted that the reference to Churchill and the anthrax bomb is just a passing detail in a chapter that recounts how the German Village at Dugway was used to refine Allied firebombing strategies. And the story of the German Village is just a small part of a larger discussion of the terrible impact that chemical, biological and nuclear weapons testing has had on the ecology and people of Nevada and Utah. It is about the American West, then, not Iraq, but Sutherland has somehow made the connection between the two in his own mind, and like many before him, he can't forgive Davis for making him see something he didn't want to.

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