When the Macarthur so-called "genius" awards are announced it sometimes seems as if someone threw darts blindfolded at people whose names showed up in a Google search. The foundation gives enormous sums to people already making a damn good living. They give money to folks whose resumes show boldness but no particular intellect.
Well, it's their money. (The question of whether the rich should be taxed or allowed to funnel their obscene wealth into tax-free foundations is another one, and we'll explore it in upcoming issues.) Anyway, the foundation swears the word genius is misplaced and they reward creativity and promise. Whatever.
Sometimes the foundation bankrolls actual geniuses, and these people continue producing work that changes the way we think about our world. Such a one was Mike Davis, who died on Oct. 25 at 76.
Mike Davis, famously, left school at 16, working as a truck driver and in a slaughterhouse to support his family after his father, a meat-cutter's union member, suffered a major heart attack. Describing himself during this period as "alcoholic, delinquent and suicidal" Davis has recalled how his cousin, who was married to a black civil rights activist, brought him to a demonstration staged by CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality at the Bank of America in downtown San Diego. The demonstrators were doused in lighter fluid and threatened by a group of sailors before members of the Nation of Islam rescued them. Davis later described the 1962 demonstration as his "burning bush" moment.
What nobody would have predicted from a boy whose family home had no books except the Bible and copies of Reader's Digest was the outpouring of original thought contained in the 20 books that Davis wrote. Published in 1990, City of Quartz was only the beginning. Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster, published in 1998, predicted the wages of climate change. By then, Davis had become so successful that this book was attacked for a writing style that was intensely readable but occasionally hyperbolic.
The ideas were what counted. California historian Kevin Starr described the state as a place where landscape is central to culture and mythology. In The Ecology of Fear and subsequent books, Davis trained that sensibility on the late nineteenth century (Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World (2001), winner of the World History Association Book Award) and zoonotic pandemics, which he predicted in 2005's The Monster at Our Door. That "California" lens through which to view the world is turning out to be the one we need now, as climate change becomes the dominant force remaking our lives.
I followed Davis on a story once, reporting on one of California's last ragged edges of wild land being chewed up by real estate development. My sources told me that Davis had preceded me on that story. My head had been turned around by City of Quartz, which had changed the way I saw Los Angeles, and, pretty much every city or town in the U.S. and the world.
It's hard to remember much about that particular story now. What made the most lasting impression was how the suburban wives and mothers fighting to save a nearby river, women who had never been "political" until the behemoth landed in their backyard, spoke about Davis.
They spoke of his kindness.
We don't see a lot of that these days. This is why we memorialize a life like his, not just to talk about great ideas, but also to remind people that genius and conscience can be twinned.
Mike Davis on the California Fires
The Kardashian's home was saved by private firefighters; lower-income folks in Paradise lost their homes
Paradise, an old Gold Rush-era town (it was originally known as Poverty Gulch), sprawls along a partly forested and often wind-blasted ridge overlooking the Central Valley city of Chico. Over the last decade, it became an attractive refuge for retirees and disabled people on fixed incomes as well as building workers who couldn’t afford to live in the homes they constructed in the burgeoning suburbs on the valley floor.
Like Malibu, it has a fire history that reads like the arrest record of a master felon. Nine major fires have scourged the Paradise area in the last century, including two back-to-back blazes that reached the edge of town in the summer of 2008. The pyro-flora here includes Ponderosa and ghost pines, many of which are casualties of a drought-induced bark beetle infestation that has killed 128m California trees. Unlike residents of Malibu, where movie stars usually have a direct line to the governor, Paradise citizens possessed little political clout and subsisted on meager aid from a underfunded county government.
David Ulin on Mike Davis
Ulin's essay is a must read, not only for its lyrical understanding of Davis and his work, but for the author's insights into literature
....City of Quartz was, for Davis, less a definitive statement than a starting point. (It was his second book, after Prisoners of the American Dream: Politics and Economy in the History of the U.S. Working Class, which came out in 1986.) He got some things wrong, most notably in his account of “post-liberal Los Angeles” as “Fortress L.A.”—a place both guarded and gated, in which “the carefully manicured lawns of Los Angeles’ Westside sprout forests of ominous little signs warning: ‘Armed Response!’ ” In the contemporary city, such “new repressions,” while prevalent, are less overt; just think of the gentrification of Downtown and the renewed attention to mass transit for a sense of how this works.
Meanwhile, Davis kept writing. In 1998, he followed City of Quartz with the magnificent Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster, which sought to untangle the apocalyptic strains of Southern California life, arguing that the region’s ongoing development was the result of a willful disregard for the forces, geologic and otherwise, that have always determined the way we live here. “What is most distinctive about Los Angeles,” he wrote, “is not simply its choreography of earthquakes, wildfires, and floods, but its uniquely explosive mixture of natural hazards and social contradictions. Not even Miami, that other fallen paradise, can approach the conflagrationist potential of Los Angeles.”
By then, we had all seen the effects of such “conflagrationist potential.” The fires and floods of the early 1990s, the Northridge earthquake, the 1992 insurrection after four Los Angeles Police Department officers were acquitted in the beating of motorist Rodney King. If City of Quartz—which was published less than six months before the assault on King and a year and a half before the verdict—appeared prescient, Ecology of Fear was a look through the other end of the telescope.
Still, what is prescience but a form of paying attention? Davis didn’t create the issues he sought to highlight, but he had the presence to catalog them. Like [Carey] McWilliams, writing about the Zoot Suit Riots or the Sleepy Lagoon murder case to underscore the scourge of anti-Mexican discrimination, he identified situations that were in plain sight: the power dynamics between Downtown and the Westside, the booster era, the rise of Hollywood....
In July, after he announced that he was stopping treatment for his cancer, he gave an interview to the Los Angeles Times, in which he rather explicitly made that point. “To put it bluntly,” he told Sam Dean, “I don’t think hope is a scientific category. And I don’t think that people fight or stay the course because of hope, I think people do it out of love and anger. Everybody always wants to know: Aren’t you hopeful? Don’t you believe in hope? To me, this is not a rational conversation. I try and write as honestly and realistically as I can. And you know, I see bad stuff. I see a city decaying from the bottom up. I see the landscapes that are so important to me as a Californian dying, irrevocably changed. I see fascism. I’m writing because I’m hoping the people who read it don’t need dollops of hope or good endings but are reading so that they’ll know what to fight, and fight even when the fight seems hopeless.”
On City of Quartz
"The idea for City of Quartz had been germinating for years. 'I had this daydream of Walter Benjamin finally coming to L.A. and sitting in a bar with Fernand Braudel and Friedrich Engels. They decide to write a book about L.A. and divide it into three projects. Benjamin is going to get at all the complex and lucid fragments about power and memory. Braudel will explore its natural history, the larger world-historical forces that made it possible. And Engels will report on L.A.'s working classes.' City of Quartz was to be the first volume in this 'imaginary trilogy.' The title came from a poem written by Davis's old SDS comrade Todd Gitlin, who 'compared political struggle to quartz, hard and sharp. I thought it applied better to L.A., because it implied something that looks like diamond but is really cheap, translucent but nothing can be seen in it.'
Jon Wiener: "He continued to see things others didn't"
He continued to see things others didn’t — or preferred not to. He said he wrote about what scared him the most, and in 2005 he published “The Monster at Our Door,” the fruits of his studies of virology and what he called the “viral asteroids” threatening humanity. That seemed exaggerated and overdone — until winter and spring of 2020.
Next was “Planet of Slums” (2006), with that unforgettable first paragraph: “Sometime in the next year or two, a woman will give birth in the Lagos slum of Ajegunle, a young man will flee his village in West Java for the bright lights of Jakarta, or a farmer will move his impoverished family into one of Lima’s innumerable pueblos jovenes. The exact event is unimportant and it will pass entirely unnoticed.
Nonetheless it will constitute a watershed in human history, comparable to the Neolithic or Industrial revolutions. For the first time the urban population of the earth will outnumber the rural.” You can see why Pope Francis would invite him to the Vatican after reading that.
Jon Weiner is most recently co-author, with Mike Davis, of Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties.