Geert Lovink on Wed, 6 Jan 1999 23:58:10 +0100 (CET)


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<nettime> Marc Cooper responds to Westwater attack on Mike Davis (fwd)


 [compound quoting and web cruft cleaned up from the original.
  this is a response to an article published a few months ago
  and sent to nettime. you can find it searching "westwater" 
  at <http://www.nettime.org/nettime.w3archive/>. --tb]

column by Marc Cooper in NEW TIMES (Los Angeles)

Attack of the Lilliputians 

     The critics of author Mike Davis are a bunch of 
     lightweights with their own political axes to 
     grind and vested interests to hide 


I suppose if you're going to lie, you might as well tell a
whopper. I can conclude nothing else after reading my colleague
Jill Stewart's bilious, ad hominem rant spilled on local author
and historian Mike Davis last month in these pages. 

Davis, an itinerant professor who has eked out a living by
teaching part-time at a kaleidoscope of local campuses, is the
author of two critical books on L.A. history: City of Quartz and
his more recent (and regional best-seller) Ecology of Fear. Now we
hear, from Stewart, that Davis is one of the "money grubbers" and,
worse, a "toast of the toadies at the Los Angeles Times." His
latest 484-page book and its substantiating research are a "work
of fiction...fake, phony, made-up, crackpot bullshit." 

Stewart's attack was in fact just a barely retouched rewrite of a
Downtown News column published a month before by business
economist David Friedman. Friedman, however, tells us that Davis,
an ascetic socialist for the 30 years I've known him, is, in fact,
a darling of unnamed "Armani radicals," a "haute-culture hero," a
stalking horse for L.A.-hating, pointy-headed Bay Area and New
York elites. ("Cookie, get a rope!") 

The attack has been joined by longtime Friedman associate (and
ubiquitous quoted source for Stewart) Joel Kotkin, the excitable
journalist and business mouthpiece. His argument, as reproduced in
Stewart's column is that "a tremendously spoiled and guilt-ridden
layer of elites in Los Angeles" just love to have Davis trash our
city. Davis' critique of L.A., declares Kotkin, is "truly
nauseating." 

Well, thank you Mr. Kotkin, for the proper modifier. In my life I
have seen a lot of political and ideological mud fights in this
city, but never have I seen such a stomach-turning, vicious,
disingenuous, thinly-veiled attempt to assassinate an individual's
character and besmirch his life's work on such flimsy grounds.
Shame on Friedman and Kotkin, who know better. As to Stewart,
well, shamelessness seems to be her standard m.o. 

No one should hesitate to honestly dissent from Davis' arguments.
If you believe that development in Los Angeles has been rational,
racially just, economically egalitarian, that we have made the
wisest of land-use decisions by building downtown on an earthquake
fault and Malibu in one of nature's preferred chimneys, and that
L.A. is a new paradigm of social harmony, that's your business. 

As Kotkin himself recently wrote: "Although written with great
verve and insight, Davis' passionate critiques of Los Angeles are
more important in how they are regarded than in themselves." In
other words, it all depends on how you politically view Los
Angeles.  But there are two very disturbing glitches in the
current "debate" over Davis: 1) His critics are not being honest
in that their real difference is ideological and instead are
trying to sully his research; and 2) when on the few occasions
they do put their objections in political terms, they are grossly
distorted. 

Let's deal first with the second point. The politics. In Jill
Stewart's head, Los Angeles is run by a highbrow alliance of
multicultural minorities and lily-livered liberals who, from their
headquarters inside the L.A. Times, are intent on imposing a
socialist agenda on an unsuspecting city. Against this backdrop,
Davis emerges as a "self-enriching" elitist locked in dubious
battle with populists Friedman and Kotkin (and, by extension, the
rest of the city's common Joes, from Dick Riordan to Rick
Alatorre). 

Let me interrupt this transmission with some facts. While Mike
Davis used to write an occasional piece for the Times, both Kotkin
and Friedman are contributing editors. In the last two years
alone, they have written dozens of op-ed pieces for the Times.
Davis has written exactly none. This supposed "toady" of the Times
in fact has been actively boycotting the Gray Lady in protest of
the way the paper covers Latino issues. 

While Davis has allied himself actively with just about every
low-rent leftist political cause in the city, Friedman and Kotkin
have truly enriched themselves by being the consistent spokesmen
for Los Angeles business interests. For years Friedman managed
land and mineral rights for the Catellus Development Corp., one of
the largest land developers in the West. (Catellus has built,
among other projects, the much-criticized headquarters building
for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.) As to the supposed
populist Kotkin, in a September 1998 article for American
Enterprise magazine, he argued at length for enlightened elites to
exercise urban leadership. "For such mega-cities such as New York
and Los Angeles," he wrote, "the ability to compete with smaller
cities will hinge on the capacity to re-invigorate the local
elite." Help me out here, Jill. These two pro-elite,
business-connected consultants and boosters, both contributing
editors to the L.A. Times, are in reality tribunes of the people,
and Professor Davis, who has walked dozens of picket lines and
given scores of midnight political pep talks to a host of
do-gooder nonprofits, is the voice of the effete elite? 

But Friedman's (and his mimic Jill Stewart's) primary assault on
Davis has been to question the authenticity and accuracy of his
reporting. In taking on Davis' 484-page Ecology of Fear (and its
850 footnotes), Friedman and Stewart have stooped to relying on
the "research" of one Brady Westwater. 

Diplomatically described by Stewart as a "Malibu realtor," and
"amateur historian," Westwater is -- truly -- an unreliable
source.  Yet, he ignited the anti-Davis movement with a 23-page
e-mail shotgunned to just about every reporter in the city.
Westwater's screed reads like something downloaded from an Area 51
news group. Neither Friedman nor Stewart bothered to report that
the 50-year-old Westwater was actually using a pseudonym -- his
real name is Ross Ernest Shockley. What they did latch on to was a
half-dozen or so of Westwater's contentions that Davis was getting
his facts wrong: What was the real cost of the Northridge
earthquake, did L.A. actually have the most intense rainfall in
the world, the precise frequency of inner city fires, etc. 

Five years of research went into Davis' latest book. Friedman and
Stewart chose to take Westwater at face value, not even bothering
to follow up any of his accusations. It's simply breathtaking that
on that basis she would condemn Davis' work as "crackpot
bullshit." 

Now I can't swear that Shockley (a.k.a. Westwater) is himself the
crackpot. But after a half-hour discussion with him I would assert
that any mediocre reporter would have the right to come away with
that opinion. Here's just a few of the doozies I harvested from
Shockley/Westwater's febrile colloquy: 

"I've got a lot of ideas how to make this city better. For years
no one has listened to me. Maybe they will now. 

"I have five different lives...I write fiction and
non-fiction...Everything that's happened in this city, I was
there, like Zelig. I was at the Pandora's Box riot, at the
Ambassador when R.F.K. was shot, I was in the Sheraton Town House
when J.F.K. was giving a press conference, I was on Eighth Street
when Korean signs first went up and I knew they weren't Chinese, I
met Tom Bradley and Bill Mills when they were still street cops, I
was on Bunker Hill when they started tearing it down, I was in
Linus Pauling's lab when he got a call from Bertrand Russell, I
was on 103rd Street just a week before the Watts riots, I used to
shop at the White Front in the ghetto..." 

Need Isay any more? Actually, yes. In a recent critical piece on
Davis in Salon magazine, Douglas Sherman, a USC professor with
expertise in natural disaster, supports Mike Davis on one of
Shockley/Westwater's major attacks -- that Davis is wrong about
L.A. rainfall. 

"He's right," Sherman said. "The San Gabriels have measured the
highest intensity rainfall in the world." When I mentioned this to
Shockley/Westwater he began to fulminate. "Well I know that this
guy that Salon talked to at USC said he didn't know who Mike Davis
is. But Davis had been lecturing at USC that week. You see?" 

"No," I answered. "I don't get your point." 

"My point is that guy [Sherman] claimed he didn't know Davis but
he was defending him," Shockley/Westwater frothed back. "I mean if
they start lying to cover for each other, I mean we could be
talking about Academicgate here!" 

I suppose we could also be talking about, say, anal sex. But we're
not. What we are talking about here is what any good reporter
knows is a gadfly -- or an outright crank -- who deals in
innuendo, suggestion, rumor, and wild extrapolation. 

I did bother to consult some slightly more authoritative sources
on Davis. Dick Walker, chairman of the Geography Department at UC
Berkeley, calls Ecology of Fear "a brilliant path-breaking book."
He adds: "I'm astonished. Here you have Mike Davis, L.A.'s
smartest public intellectual, with these Lilliputians at his feet
trying to bring him down. The idea that Mike is out of line here
scientifically is preposterous. His work is the most important
work today in the world on urbanization and environmental history.
He's right up there at the top." 

William Deverell, a Caltech history professor now on sabbatical at
Stanford, says he's "baffled by these political attacks on Davis.
Davis' work is taken with the utmost seriousness among academics." 

Of Shockley/Westwater's notion that Davis has bungled his
reporting on Bunker Hill, UCLA Urban Planning professor Anastasia
Loukaitou-Sideris, co-author of Urban Design Downtown, says she
fully agrees with Davis' conclusions about the project. 

I am not about to vouch for each of the 850 footnotes in Davis'
book. I blush thinking of the number of stories I have written
where I have fumbled this or that fact. But that doesn't mean my
work -- or Davis' -- is "phony" or "made up." 

Jill Stewart should learn to honestly state her political
disagreements with her subjects and argue the case rather than
sully their character. In her column on Davis, she writes: "Most
telling may be that Davis is on his fifth wife." Telling about
what, exactly? She never answers the question she leaves hanging.
That line tells us much more about Stewart than Davis. It tells us
that Stewart sounds like the Bob Barr of L.A. journalism. 

I'm still waiting for her 484-page book on anything. Perhaps it
will be on the sex lives of prominent Los Angeles socialists.
Perhaps I will wind up reading about myself. In the meantime, when
it comes to Mike Davis, I will trust, first, my own instincts.
And, second, given the choice between believing Davis' academic
defenders on the one hand, and his detractors on the other -- two
hired guns for business, a self-described "Zelig," and Jill
Stewart -- well, there really is no choice at all.  

           1998 NewTimes, Inc.  All rights reserved.
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