What happens to a leading Marxist writer after he gets a MacArthur genius grant, a Getty Fellowship, and his new book hits number one on the nonfiction bestseller list? If the writer is Mike Davis and the book is Ecology of Fear, what happens is that the New York Times news pages, The Economist, the LA Times and a variety of other publications large and small take tremendous interest in opponents who zero in on a few errors in the footnotes, manufacture other mistakes and denounce the book as “fiction” and the author as a “fraud.”
The book got many strong reviews, from the New York Times Book Review to Business Week, which called it “compelling” and “persuasive” [see also John Leonard, “California Screaming,” October 5, 1998]. But the attacks, which began in October, have been vicious. On its front page, the LA Times quoted critics who described Davis’s book as “self-promoting, city-trashing rot”; the New York Times quoted critics who declared, “There’s something pathological” about the way Davis has “twisted the facts”; and the normally staid Economist quoted a columnist calling Davis’s work “fake, phoney, made-up, crackpot, bullshit.” Salon, the on-line magazine, has published three attacks on Davis; New Times LA, a free weekly, has published four; Suck, the Webzine of Wired magazine, has published two; and it’s not over yet.
Beginning with his first book on LA, City of Quartz (1990), Davis has been 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. Although it was widely praised, City of Quartz never made the bestseller list and never aroused much criticism. But now that Ecology of Fear has spent seventeen weeks on that list, the voices of the LA establishment, whose policies Davis has excoriated for years (sometimes in the pages of The Nation) are striking back–with a vengeance. At heart, it’s a battle over who gets to define Los Angeles: the downtown boosters and their journalistic friends, deeply invested in selling the city as a sunny paradise, or Davis, who argues that developers have placed the city at risk of social and environmental disaster, a disaster “as avoidable, as unnatural, as the beating of Rodney King and the ensuing explosion in the streets.” Davis’s critics are not out to refute his arguments; instead, they seek to destroy him.
The attacks began in a small throwaway weekly in Los Angeles, the Downtown News, which published an article by former development executive David Friedman reporting on the work of one Brady Westwater, who had set up a twenty-two-page Web site claiming to document factual errors in Davis’s book. The Web site and associated e-mail to journalists provided the starting point for virtually all of Davis’s critics. Westwater opens his manifesto with a critique of the biographical information on the back of Ecology of Fear, which says Davis was “born in Los Angeles” when in fact he was born in Fontana. Fontana is an industrial suburb about twelve miles east of the county line and is generally considered to be part of greater LA. Davis has hardly kept his birthplace a secret, devoting the final chapter of City of Quartz to Fontana’s socioeconomic decline since his birth. For Westwater, though, the flap copy is “much like the Stalinist era creation of non-persons,” transforming Fontana into a “non-place.” To “claim he is a native son with specific firsthand knowledge of LA,” Westwater concludes, “is…well, fraud.” Anywhere else, such a denunciation would be dismissed as loony, but Westwater’s “fraud” charge has been repeated over and over, even providing the headline for The Economist‘s story.