S U C K

"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 15 December 1998. Updated every WEEKDAY.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Wall of Voodoo

 

[]

Back in 1990, reviving the Old

Testament as a relevant social

text, ersatz leftist Mike Davis

warned that the degenerate

cities of the plain would soon

be pelted with fire and

brimstone. "In Los Angeles," he

wrote in the book City of

Quartz, "there are too many

signs of approaching

helter-skelter: everywhere in

the inner-city, even in the

forgotten poor-white boondocks

with their zombie populations of

speed-freaks, gangs are

multiplying at a terrifying

rate, cops are becoming more

arrogant and trigger-happy, and

a whole generation is being

shunted toward some impossible

armageddon."

 

And then Rodney King met Larry

"Gorillas in the Mist" Powell,

and "some impossible armageddon"

turned out to be entirely

possible; Davis instantly became

an urban-affairs Babe Ruth,

credited with having called the

shot a couple of years before

the Foothill Division took its

58 swings at the pitch. In that

climate, a couple of interesting

realities went unnoticed. For

one thing, it took quite a few

years before anyone really

bothered to do any sort of fact

checking on Davis' .357 magnum

opus.

 

That fact checking, however (as

predicted in these pages a few

weeks back), has begun in

earnest. And it's not pretty.

Bizarrely enough - and, we can't

help thinking, tellingly enough

- the gumshoe work was started

by a local realtor pissed off at

Davis' unrelentingly nasty view

of his stuccoed and landscaped

product; after years of gushing

praise from media organizations

like the LA Times (which

presumably has an office

somewhere in the city), it took

someone with no inside-media

enculturation to bother asking

questions like, "Is it true?"

 

[]

And quite a bit of it pretty

obviously wasn't. But, as we say

in Lotusland, duh. City of

Quartz is so full of

self-contradiction,

laugh-out-loud reasoning, and

rank hyperbole that just about

anyone could have instantly seen

through it, had they been so

inclined. Here's Davis' entire

account of a crime that augured

the '92 shitstorm: "In Pasadena

some Chinese high-school

dropouts - unwilling to spend

lifetimes as busboys and cooks -

ambushed and killed a carload of

crack DEA agents, before they

too were cut down by a vengeful

posse of nearly a hundred cops."

 

Be it resolved that: murdering

federal agents turns out to be

an ineffective strategy for

transitioning out of the

food-service industry. Note also

that the angry Chinese

busboy-dropout-ambushers appear

in the paragraph that directly

precedes that prediction about

the "impossible armageddon"

(page 316 of the Vintage

paperback, for those of you who

are playing along at home). And

this, of course, explains why

Chinese rage boiled over after

the verdict in Simi Valley.

 

[]

In the last few weeks, where the

matter of factual reporting is

concerned, Davis may have

permanently lost every ounce of

street cred in his possession.

The LA Weekly, a consistently

silly alternative newspaper, ran

a long profile on Davis, one of

its own consistently silly

longtime contributors -

assigning the subject of some of

Davis' past reporting to write

the thing. Lewis MacAdams

described a story Davis wrote in

1989, in which MacAdams himself

was quoted at length; he and

Davis had never met. "I was

amazed to discover he'd

fabricated an entire interview

with me," MacAdams helpfully

explains. "We were standing

together at the Fremont Gate

entrance to Elysian Park, a

place I'd never been...."

 

Once again, we cheerfully obsess

on the subject of paragraph

order: The paragraphs describing

Davis' fabrications ("Davis is

the first to admit that he won't

let a fact get in the way of a

good story") follow, many

paragraphs below, a slightly

more-than-glowing description of

the fabricator in question: "No

longer an obscure iconoclast

pushing a contrarian view of the

social state, Davis has emerged

as the single voice able to

capture and articulate the

darker weaves behind the glass

curtains of modern Los Angeles.

Following a century of boosters

and civic cheerleaders, City of

Quartz redefined L.A. almost

overnight." The Day of the

Locust, it turns out, was some

sort of glass-curtain tourist

pamphlet.

 

Which leads us to interesting

reality Number Two. You might

wonder if painting a city as a

place in which "gangs are

multiplying at a terrifying

rate" might help to create - or

at least reinforce and justify,

to use phrasing that will

shortly become kind of enjoyably

ironic - a social climate in

which cops would be permitted,

by a frightened elite, to become

"more arrogant and

trigger-happy."

 

To explore that idea further,

continue to follow along with

your study copy of City of

Quartz. "The social perception

of a threat," Mr.

the-gangs-are-breeding-like-rats

tells us, "becomes a function of

the security mobilization

itself.... Sensationalized

accounts of killer youth gangs

high on crack and shrilly racist

evocations of marauding Willie

Hortons foment the moral panics

that reinforce and justify urban

apartheid." Yeah, pretty much.

Tell us again about the

terrifying gang explosion and

all those zombie speed-freaks?

 

All of which leads us to suggest

an answer to the questions

behind reality curtain Number

Two: Mike Davis' more hysterical

fits have been taken seriously

precisely because of their

usefulness in the reinforcement

and justification of the status

quo in a city that finds the

threat of Armageddon useful. In

which case the subject of

factuality is beside the point,

since Saint Mike of the

Apocalypse turns out to have

been servicing a faith for

people who were plenty willing

to believe. And who, in this

context, are the faithful?

 

Newspapers are supposed to help

us understand the cities they

cover - and sometimes they screw

up badly enough to do precisely

that. In May of '92, for

example, the Los Angeles Times

defined LA well enough to make

alert readers flinch. On 7 May,

for a good first example, the

newspaper ran a breathless story

on what was called, in a

headline, the collapse of the

"Illusion of Sanctuary." ("And

the city's wealthy watched and

waited, transfixed in

uncertainty and horror....")

 

Even if the Times couldn't quite

get a whole lot of actual

wealthy people to participate,

the idea was there: Stock

characters included the "frantic

chiropractor's receptionist in

Beverly Hills" whispering "Are

they coming this way?" into the

phone, and the shoe store

manager who finally realized

that the rioting was serious

"when the Beverly Center closed

for security reasons."

 

[]

"In the end," the paper

concluded, "compared to the

battle zones to the south and

east, the damage to the Westside

was minimal. But the psychic

shock will linger. To the list

of casualties of the days and

nights of social upheaval, add

one more: the notion that the

Westside is a sanctuary from the

urban ills that beset the rest

of Los Angeles."

 

Casualties in the rest of the

county included 4,000

fire-damaged buildings and

several dozen dead human beings,

but we really do mourn for that

notion of sanctuary.

Incidentally, the Times did

explain - on the very same day -

why damage on the Westside

turned out to be so minimal,

psychic shock aside: The cops

were all over the place like

white on - well, like white on

the Westside, come to think of

it. "Santa Monica, Beverly Hills

and West Hollywood emerged

remarkably unscathed by the

riots," the paper explained. "In

some cases, the looting and

arson came right up to the

borders of the smaller cities,

then stopped - almost as if the

communities were gated."

 

Well, yes: Very much as if the

communities were gated; in all

of those cities, police deployed

in force literally along city

limits. Inside city borders, the

Times added, cops treated every

call "as if it augured the

downfall of the city....

Response time was often less

than a minute."

 

Still, if they escaped with a

little less damage than the rest

of the city, LA's white

upper-middle class appeared to

have missed the part of the

movie where things turned out

pretty well for them. A Times

reporter surveying the damage

immediately after the violence

stopped wrote about people

trying to "reclaim" pre-riot

rituals, for example, and get

back to normal. "For many of

this city's well-heeled

residents," the story went,

"normal on Sunday means brunch."

 

[]

Among those battling for

normalcy in the mean old city

"was a woman who eats breakfast

at Campanile every day - by

interrupting that routine, she

said, the riot had reduced her

to tears." (Another family

taking breakfast at Campanile

allowed that the riots had

changed their lives forever:

"While the city was under

siege," the Times explained,

Jason and Gail Asch were "forced

to cook at home.")

 

Which paints a pretty ridiculous

picture, and creates a strong

urge to grab people by the

lapels and forcefully explain

that they live at a level of

enforced safety that most people

in the rest of the world envy -

and will never come close to

having.

 

Just one problem: Los Angeles,

it turns out, is a city

threatened at all times from all

sides. Gangs are exploding;

zombie speed-freaks clutter the

suburbs; tornadoes scour the

ground; wild animals hunt in the

streets; fires gut buildings by

the box lot. It's a city that

sits constantly on the edge of

anarchy, poised for an

apocalyptic fall. And so, to

everyone who lives in it, the

same points for toughness and

perseverance accrue. Topanga

Canyon is a hell, as is - in

precisely the same measure -

Adams Boulevard. Suffering and

fear spread across Coldwater

Canyon and Vermont Avenue;

strong people occupy the

neighborhoods around Ventura

Boulevard as they do the

neighborhoods around Slauson

Boulevard.

 

And in a city like that, who can

afford to undo the locks and

step into the open? Isolation

and insulation - as ecologists

of fear understand - are the

only defenses that come to mind

in a place of perpetual danger.

We have Mike Davis to thank for

some of the more effective

depictions of Los Angeles as

that place.




courtesy of Ambrose Beers
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 





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