Re: An Ecology of Lies

Rohit Khare (
Sun, 13 Dec 1998 14:52:00 -0800

I dunno, I think it's charming to not give a shit about the geography of
Upstate NY. As one who was born there, but aopted LA, I'd have to say he's
merely using the kind of accuracy Mike is used to :-)

Frankly, the point in my forwarding it was to add my SOAP -- 'Westwater' is
basically right in debunking critical myths of Mike's dystopian LA.

Just for that, Ron, some more bits :-)



City of frauds

A Davis day WHEN the world wants to know about Los Angeles, the first
person it turns to is Mike Davis. His 1990 best-seller, RCity of
QuartzS, correctly predicted that Los Angeles was about to be torn
apart by riots, earning him the reputation of a seer; and his latest
book, REcology of FearS, is solidifying that reputation by insisting
that the cityUs ecology is every bit as fragile as its social
structure. For Mr Davis, LA is not just a Rjunkyard of dreamsS,
balkanised by race and class, ruled over by cynical white bosses, and
kept in order by a paramilitary police force and a gigantic system of
private surveillance. It is also an ecological disaster, rocked by
earthquakes, ravaged by fires, doused by torrential rains and plagued
by killer bees and man-eating coyotes.

Mr Davis's dystopian vision has turned this former meat-cutter and
long-distance truck-driver into one of the countryUs most celebrated
Marxist academics. His books have been almost universally praised. His
growing list of honours includes a fellowship at the Getty Centre
(which, no doubt to Mr Davis's relief, is built to withstand a massive
earthquake) and a $315,000 MacArthur Foundation grant for
Rexceptionally creative individualsS.

The problem is that Mr Davis may be a little too creative for his own
good. Brady Westwater, an estate agent in Malibu, has been so enraged
by what he regards as Mr Davis's anti-LA animus that he has examined
his work with a fine-tooth comb. ROf the heavily footnoted and
researched factsS, he concludes, Rnot just a handful, not just a few
dozen here and there, but many hundreds (and hundreds) of them were
simply made up. Or, if not made up, twisted, rationalised and
distorted until they bear as little relation to the truth as does
President ClintonUs definition of sex.S

Mr Westwater can come across as a trifle obsessed. But his case has
now been taken up both on the Internet and in the local free
press. Jill Stewart, a columnist with the New Times, claims that many
of Mr Davis's Rkey anecdotes and major factsS are Rfake, phoney,
made-up, crackpot, bullshitS; a long essay in the current Salon asks
whether Mr Davis's Los Angeles is all in his head. To make things
worse, a recent issue of LA Weekly, a source that is normally
sympathetic to Mr Davis, reveals that, back in 1989, he made up an
interview with Lewis MacAdams, a poet and environmentalist. (Mr Davis
admits the fabrication, but justifies it on the ground that he was
Rtrying to figure out how to write journalismS.)

One of Mr Davis's key points, first made in RCity of QuartzS, is that
LAUs public spaces are being progressively sealed off from the
populace, with 2,000 Rgated communitiesS and an epidemic of security
cameras and armed guards. His prime example is Bunker Hill, a downtown
district that Mr Davis describes as Ra fortified redoubtS, complete
with bullet-proof steel doors and a Rtotalitarian semiotics of
ramparts and battlementsS, designed to Rreproduce spatial apartheidS.

But the city's department of planning says that LA has no more than
100 gated communities. Far from embodying the Rarchisemiotics of class
warS, Bunker Hill is one of the most accessible corners of the city,
lavishly provided with lawns, plazas, fountains and even an open-air
amphitheatre for performing artists. It is regularly full of tourists
and Rpeople of colourS. In fact, greater Los Angeles has seen a
flowering of public spaces in the past few years: Santa Monica and
Pasadena have created pedestrian precincts, and Venice Beach and
Melrose Avenue are sometimes as crowded as mid-town Manhattan.

Mr Davis's contention that, thanks to its fragile ecology, LA is an
Rapocalypse theme-parkS is equally off-beam. It is true that, as this
piece was being written, a wind storm knocked out the power in your
correspondentUs office; but LA is not the only city to be built in an
earthquake zone, as the citizens of San Francisco and Tokyo can
testify. The weather is much less hospitable in most of the rest of
the United States: this summerUs heat-wave took 100 lives in Texas,
for example. Mr Davis's contention that LA is plagued by killer bees
and fierce animals (Rman-eaters of the Sierra MadreS as he dubs them)
borders on the eccentric. Mountain lions and coyotes, though
indigenous to the region, have not claimed a single life in the past
200 years; killer bees, though a serious problem in Mexico city, have
not yet reached LA.

Why has Mr Davis been allowed to get away, up to now, with conjuring
up an image of Los Angeles so obviously at variance with the facts?
After all, if a prominent British academic portrayed Piccadilly Circus
as an urban fortress, designed to keep the people at bay, he would not
have to wait several years to be corrected.

Part of the answer lies in the fact that the New York publishing
establishment has a weakness for books that portray the upstart city
of the West, its chief cultural rival, in the worst possible
light. Part of it lies in the fact that LAUs universities are full of
left-leaning scholars who regard their host city as exhibit number one
in their case against capitalism. (Michael Dear, the head of USC's
Southern California study centre, for example, argues that LA presents
"a superficial gloss of striking beauty, glowing light and pastel
hues, which together conspire to conceal a hideous culture of malice,
mistrust and mutiny.")

The biggest reason for Mr Davis's free ride, however, lies in the
self-dramatising tendencies of ordinary middle-class Angelenos. These
love to pretend that they live in one of the world's toughest urban
jungles, beset by warring gangs and malevolent Nature, when, in
reality, the biggest danger they face is that the person behind the
counter at Starbucks might mis-hear their order for a double tall,
decaf, non-fat latte with a vanilla shot and make their coffee with
full-fat milk by mistake.