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.

Photo by James BunoanUntil recently, the sperm of UC Irvine professors was not among the many subjects covered in the pages of The Guardian, one of England's leading daily newspapers. But there it was in John Sutherland's Sept. 30 column: "Tell Me Lies About Iraq: Politicians, generals and authors are all fighting the fiercest battle of all—to make us believe their side of the story."

Despite the column's title, no politician's statements are scrutinized. No general is mentioned. And the examination of authors is limited to one: UC Irvine history professor Mike Davis.

Sutherland accuses Davis of aligning himself with the forces of darkness by using his new book, Dead Cities: And Other Tales, to poison the public debate in the U.K. over a "preemptive" war against Iraq. "The Iraqi lie factories are in full production," Sutherland writes. "Davis has his product out early."

This is strange because Dead Cities isn't about Iraq. But then Sutherland isn't actually attacking Davis for anything he has written about Iraq. Instead, he's infuriated by something Dead Cities reveals in passing about the late, great Winston Churchill in a chapter on the U.S. Army's Dugway Proving Ground in Utah. Sutherland is so upset he uses 14 of the column's 15 paragraphs to attack Davis as a scholar and a person, in a way that is remarkable for its sneering disregard for the truth and for its incompetence.

Davis says Dead Cities is a study of "'the radical contingency of cities,' as well as the Urban West." One of the book's "dead cities" is the German Village, whose remains still stand at the Dugway Proving Ground. The U.S. Army Air Corps constructed the German Village during World War II to determine the best way to bomb Germany. "Best" in this context means "most destructive," and "Germany" means "German civilians."

And this is where Churchill enters the story.

* * *

Winston Churchill was an enthusiastic proponent of bombing civilians, as Davis amply documents. Specifically, Churchill was a proponent of bombing poor and working-class neighborhoods. The "mansions of the Nazi political and industrial elites" were off-limits because, as Davis neatly puts it, "this risked retaliation against Burke's peerage"—that is, the British aristocracy and landed gentry, including Churchill's own family. Middle-class neighborhoods were considered poor targets because the space between the homes made it harder for bombs to produce maximum damage. But the crowded conditions of working-class neighborhoods were perfect.

Churchill even had preferences when it came to selecting the working-class targets to be bombed: he liked targeting maps that flagged neighborhoods known to have voted communist before the war. The communists were, of course, Hitler's traditional enemies, but then again, they were also Churchill's. From the beginning of his political career to the boozy twilight of his life sponging off rich friends, Churchill maintained a suspicion of and hostility toward working-class radicals. (His famously inflexible stand against the Nazis lacked that lengthy pedigree. As the historian David Dutton notes in his recent study of Neville Chamberlain, "As late as 1937, he [Churchill] even seemed willing to give Hitler the possible benefit of the doubt. Accepting that history was full of examples of men who had risen to power by 'wicked and even frightful methods' but who had gone on to become great figures, enriching the 'story of mankind,' he held out the possibility that 'so it may be with Hitler.'" Note to those of you who slept through history class: 1937 was four years after the Nazis seized power, 12 years after the publication of Mein Kampf, and 14 years after Hitler first appeared on the world scene in the infamous Beer Hall Putsch.)

Churchill, of course, didn't advocate bombing the so-called "Red Belts" out of some desire to indulge his political prejudices. But it was those prejudices—his belief in the inherently disloyal and dangerous nature of working-class radicals—that made him favor those specific targets. He was sure that a campaign of terror bombing would turn German against German and help bring down the Nazi state. He was wrong. If anything, Churchill's bombs encouraged many of the Red Belts' citizens to embrace their enemies, the Nazis.

The remains of the German Village at Dugway are an eerie reminder of that failed campaign. Dugway was the junction where the British enthusiasm for bombing civilians met the Yankee ingenuity that made the bombing ever more destructive. For the most part, the leadership of the U.S. Army Air Corps (USAAC) was appalled by the Royal Air Force's (RAF) policies regarding the bombing of German civilians; the bombing of Japanese civilians was a slightly different matter. But the research and development projects run by the USAAC helped make that bombing increasingly terrible. The German Village was specifically designed—with the help of fire experts from Standard Oil—to help the Allies learn the best way to burn German working-class housing stock. The German Village experiment led to one conclusion: no one is better at burning cities than Americans. The British had nothing comparable to our M-69 napalm, which we dutifully supplied to the RAF.

* * *

The incendiaries weren't Dugway's top priority among bombs. That distinction belongs to the N-bomb project. This is where Sutherland raises his objection that Davis is using Dead Cities to blacken Churchill's good name.

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.)

* * *

This sort of errant extrapolation characterizes much of what's written about Davis. On Oct. 12, a Wall Street Journal reviewer attacked Davis for a misplaced exclamation point and then went on to cite Sutherland's column as evidence of Davis' sloppiness. Or consider an Oct. 9 review of Davis' book in our sister publication, New York City's Village Voice. There, critic Jim Lewis doesn't seem to have read Dead Cities but is nevertheless willing to make grand claims about it. Davis is "hyperbolic, careless and procrustean," "meretricious," "hasty and sloppy"; he's guilty of "grumpiness," and, if a sour disposition weren't enough, Davis also takes "self-hatred species-wide."

But has Lewis actually read the book? Not likely. Lewis disparages the book's first chapter solely on the grounds of its title: "White People Are a Bad Dream." The title, says Lewis, is "disingenuous enough, coming as it does from a white guy." But the title doesn't come from a white guy; it is a quotation from Wovoka, the Paiute spiritual leader who introduced the Ghost Dance into Native American culture at the end of the 1880s. If Lewis had read the essay, he'd have realized it isn't Davis' entry in the Self-Loathing Whitey Sweepstakes but rather an examination of the Ghost Dance, including its continuing religious significance for some Native Americans and its potential value to historians.

This chapter is of central importance because in it Davis sets out what he's trying to accomplish in the rest of Dead Cities: to turn on its head the traditional approach to the history of the American West.

Though they differ on many points, Davis says, the major schools of Western historiography "acknowledge a certain stable core regional identity and historical continuity." But "the heirs to Wovoka" reject this. As Davis recounts, they reject a belief in "the finished product, the conquered landscape, the linear historical narrative, the managed ecosystem. . . . They know the supposedly 'permanent' structures of tradition and meaning in the white West seldom endure more than a single generation . . . including our most dearly held conceptions of the West as a region." This is what Davis means by "radical contingency."

"Radical" is the key word, both in its original sense of getting to the root of the matter and because of its political connotations. Davis isn't indulging in some New Age fawning over Native Americans; he is exploring how the teachings of the Ghost Dance tradition complement the very secular tradition in which he works. "Like a certain German philosopher," he writes of Wovoka's heirs, "they are all too aware that 'all that is solid melts into air.'" Davis would expect his readers to recognize that famous line from The Communist Manifesto. It's a measure of just how eclectic and non-dogmatic Davis' radicalism is that he can blend the insights of a Paiute shaman with, among others, those of Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud and philosopher Ernst Bloch.

In his review, Lewis dwells on Dead Cities' many references to catastrophes but fails to understand what Davis is getting at. The explanation can be found in the discussion of what the Ghost Dance tradition offers the historian:


Wovoka, in other words, sustains his great-great-grandchildren with an apocalyptic vision of the history of the American West. Since "apocalyptic" is such an overused and cheapened term, it is important to recall its precise meaning in the Abrahamic religions. An apocalypse is literally the revelation of the Secret History of the world as becomes possible under the terrible clarity of the Last Days. It is the alternative, despised history of the subaltern classes, the defeated peoples, the extinct cultures. I am claiming, in other words, that Wovoka offers us a neo-catastrophic epistemology for reinterpreting Western history. . . . He invites us to reopen that history from the vantage point of an already visible future when sprawl, garbage, addiction, violence and simulation will have overwhelmed every vital life-space west of the Rockies.


This is why Davis is interested in "catastrophes" and "apocalyptic" themes: he isn't reveling in the misfortune of others but attempting to make use of the unique vantage point that can be found in the midst of the sprawl and the garbage and the violence. And far from being "a merchant of spiritless misanthropy," as Lewis calls him, Davis acknowledges the wisdom of the Ghost Dance tradition—that the "end point is also paradoxically the point of renewal and restoration."

Despite its grim title, Dead Cities is in many ways a hopeful book, recounting victories of common people against great power, pointing to positive trends like the New Urbanism, and showing how the fight for social justice can be carried on against tremendous odds. If Lewis had bothered to read the whole book, or even the first chapter beyond its title, he might have realized that. He might have even enjoyed it.

* * *

Any scholar who writes the sort of long and complex books Davis does can expect to have colleagues discover some errors. When that happens, the worst the author might typically face is a cutting remark in some dusty journal read only by other academics, not an extended attack in a major newspaper. But Davis is used to this sort of thing. When his 1999 book, Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster, appeared on the nonfiction bestseller list, it triggered a flood of Sutherland-like criticism, including an attack on the front page of the Los Angeles Times.

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.

* * *

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."

* * *

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.

"My sin in his eyes," Davis says, "is not so much that I attack the national fetish of Churchill as that I provide possible ammunition—via Churchill's enthusiasm for terror weapons—to critics of the Anglo-American crusade against Iraq." And while Sutherland never explains how or why he made the leap in logic from Utah to Baghdad, the connection between the two is indeed what has him so vexed.

The irony of all this is that The Guardian's readers don't need Davis to tell them about "Churchill's enthusiasm for terror weapons." On the same morning Sutherland was fulminating, another column in the paper carried a quotation from Churchill when he was secretary of state for air and war in 1919: "I do not understand the squeamishness about the use of gas," Churchill wrote then. "I am strongly in favor of using poisonous gas against uncivilised tribes." As anyone acquainted with Churchill's career as secretary of state for air and war knows, at the top of his hit list of "uncivilised tribes" were the Pashtuns of Afghanistan and the people of Iraq. In the case of Iraq, as historian Phillip Knightley has shown, Churchill suggested the RAF should draw up plans for what he called "some kind of asphyxiating bombs" to be dropped on the villages "in preliminary operations against turbulent tribes." Only technical difficulties spared Afghans and Iraqis from Churchill's brutal intentions. "In the end," Knightley writes, "the RAF stuck to high-explosive bombs, a method we are still using today."

* * *

Gary Younge, the Guardian columnist who quotes Churchill, doesn't shy away from considering what Churchill's behavior can tell us about those who now invoke him as a moral exemplar to make their case for war against Iraq. And these days, the cult of Churchill is even stronger in Washington than it is in London. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld regularly invokes the "Churchillian spirit" to ward off skepticism. The Bush White House contacted the British Embassy for help in finding a bust of Churchill for the president's Oval Office desk. The Brits were happy to help.

Anyone looking to understand Churchill's behavior and what resonance it may have in our current situation could do no better than to start with the chapter in Dead Cities on Dugway's German Village, whose uncanny ruins Davis describes as "reproof to the self-righteousness of punishing 'bad places' by bombing them." Reading that phrase, you can begin to understand why Sutherland thinks a book about the urban West might have an impact on the debate over Iraq.

"The chapter did not have that purpose in mind," Davis says, "although I am grateful to Sutherland for making the connection."

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