The Truth Squad of History
Mike Davis likely will not be consoled by this notion, but he has ignited an old-fashioned, intellectual dogfight over the meaning of Los Angeles. Excellent, I say. Let loose the dogs of war, let the blood run from quill pens.
Davis, as you know, is the manic Jeremiah of Los Angeles history. He first wrote “City of Quartz,” which portrayed Los Angeles as the sun-blasted incubator of paranoia. Then he followed up last year with “Ecology of Fear,” a brooding and funny recitation on the ways man and God have wreaked havoc on our corner of the world.
“Ecology of Fear” stayed on the local bestseller list for 14 weeks, so it must have struck a chord somewhere. And last summer, Davis was awarded a grant from the MacArthur Foundation, the outfit that deposits a chunk of money in the bank accounts of “exceptionally creative” individuals. For Davis, the chunk came to $315,000.
Maybe it was the MacArthur that did it, I dunno. Or maybe the fact that Davis had cornered the franchise on the interpretation of Los Angeles and was getting all the phone calls from Le Monde and the New York Review of Books. Or maybe it was because people actually bought his books.
In any case, a truth squad of other intellectuals and commentators set out to destroy Davis’ reputation and his version of Los Angeles. They’ve gone through his footnotes, found alleged errors and publicized said errors. Then they’ve checked some more.
“The book is full of bizarre fictions,” wrote David Friedman, a truth squad member and urban commentator for the Los Angeles Downtown News.
“He’s an ideological zealot,” says Joel Kotkin, urban commentator from Pepperdine.
And so on. The situation gets uglier by the week. Truth squad stories have appeared in the Economist of London and Salon magazine on the Internet, and several more are forthcoming. These people want Davis’ head on a stick.
So why do I call this situation excellent? Because, for the first time in memory, we are fighting over something other than the site of a football stadium or the grosses for “The Prince of Egypt.” I’m telling you, the fight over Davis has meat on its bones. It’s about something more than footnotes. It’s nasty and personal and goes to the heart of an essential question: Who are we?
Davis, see, did not pop out of nowhere. Through his books he has joined a long tradition of writers who have explained Los Angeles through its sly evil, its insidious poisoning of the soul. This tradition is so rich, so repeated, that it defines Los Angeles for many of us.
Here, for example, is Raymond Chandler’s famous overview of the city:
“I used to like this town, a long time ago. There were trees along Wilshire Boulevard. Beverly Hills was a country town. . . . Los Angeles was just a big, dry sunny place with ugly homes and no style, but good-hearted and peaceful. It had the climate they just yap about now. People used to sleep out on porches. Little groups who thought they were intellectual used to call it the Athens of America. It wasn’t that, but it wasn’t a neon-lighted slum either.”
Chandler wrote that in 1949. Even earlier, in 1933, Nathanael West described the retirees from the Midwest who came by the train-car load to take the sun in our fair city:
“Once [in Los Angeles], they discover the sunshine isn’t enough. They get tired of oranges, even of avocado pears and passion fruit. Nothing happens. They don’t know what to do with their time. . . . What else is there? They watch the waves come in at Venice. There wasn’t any ocean where most of them came from, but after you’ve seen one wave, you’ve seen them all. The same is true of the airplanes at Glendale. If only a plane would crash once in a while so they could watch the passengers being consumed in a ‘holocaust of flame,’ as the newspapers put it. But the planes never crash.”
I could also cite Carey McWilliams’ 1925 description of downtown’s Pershing Square, with its newsboys shouting headlines of trunk murders, or Joan Didion’s recounting of her own near-nervous breakdown at a house on Franklin Avenue while she studied the murder of Ramon Novarro. But you get the idea.
The truth is, many of us love this interpretation of Los Angeles. It comforts us in an odd way. We sense, behind each of these descriptions, that there lies a fascination with Los Angeles, and perhaps a love for it, that cannot be stomped out by its many brutalities.
In any case, Davis now carries the burden of this long tradition. He’s of the same school, wallowing around in his descriptions of gated communities, fortified high-rises, fires and floods.
The truth squad people, however, represent something else entirely. They take the sunny, upbeat view. Los Angeles, they seem to believe, would benefit from a big dose of boosterism, a view that’s free of irony. They want to define Los Angeles by the number of jobs it’s created in the past year. They want to talk high-tech, re-purping, bandwidth.
And, surely, they have a case to make. So why not make that fight rather than going the petty route of attacking Davis’ footnotes? We’ll get to the possible reasons for that strategy in a moment, but first let’s examine some of the truth squad accusations.
Friedman, for example, contends that Davis’ errors begin almost immediately in his new book. “On ‘Ecology’s’ first page,” Friedman writes in his column, “Davis claims that it rains harder in L.A. than anywhere else.”
Actually, Davis claims something slightly different. Here’s what he wrote: “When the billowing, dark turbulence of the storm front collides with the high mountain wall surrounding the Los Angeles basin, it sometimes produces rainfall of a ferocity unrivaled anywhere on earth, even in the tropical monsoon belts.”
Clearly, a claim that Los Angeles receives the hardest rain in the world would be false. But a claim that the San Gabriel Mountains receive occasional, unrivaled bursts of rain may be true. I say “may” because no one has yet proved otherwise.
Moving on, Friedman addresses himself to Davis’ claim that the old Committee of 25--a now-defunct group of downtown business leaders--operated in secrecy. “The Committee of 25 . . . was never secret,” Friedman writes.
At this point, you might sense the pickiness of this scandal. Nonetheless, let’s be obsessive and pursue the issue. It so happens that my old friend Al Martinez, now a columnist for The Times, was the journalist who first described the workings of the Committee of 25 in the early 1970s.
I sent Al a computer message asking if he had been forced to ferret out the existence of the committee while doing his investigation.
“I had to ferret the hell out of it,” Martinez wrote back.
Most likely, in the end, Davis will be found to have made some factual errors. What book could survive such scrutiny unscathed? And it will also be revealed that occasionally he pushes his material to the max.
Surely the errors are regrettable, and some readers may be offended by Davis’ dogged pursuit of his point of view.
So let’s take a poll: Shall we shoot Davis for his mistakes? I mean, if the truth squad eventually produces a dozen fuzzy footnote cites, does that qualify as an impeachable offense?
I argue that it does not. I also suggest that the truth squad members get down and pray each night that their own books do not catch the attention of chief truth squadder and footnote checker Brady Westwater.
For those of you new to the controversy, Westwater is the Malibu real estate agent, sometime screenwriter and historical gadfly who has supplied the truth squad members with their ammunition. Exactly why Westwater has spent months checking footnotes and sending e-mails to journalists is not clear. But his obsession with his cause is undeniable.
Only weeks ago, Westwater was claiming that he had discovered “hundreds” of mistakes in Davis’ new book. When I talked to Westwater this past week, he juiced his claim to “thousands” of errors. And he’s still looking for more.
For the record, Brady Westwater is a pseudonym. Truth seeker Westwater’s real name is Ross Ernest Shockley.
Who says these guys don’t have a sense of humor?
The question of why still remains, though. If the truth squad disagrees with Davis’ view of Los Angeles, why not fight the battle on those terms rather than hound Davis with arguable disputes over small facts?
Why not try and make the case that Bunker Hill amounts to a mighty fine downtown environment, or that the San Fernando Valley was well-served by its developers?
I think the answer is simple: They don’t believe they can win that intellectual war. So they have resorted to an infinitely smaller, petty war.
That’s too bad. Wasn’t it Henry Kissinger who remarked that academic fights are so vicious because the stakes are so small? In a sense, that’s what we have here. A fight that could be delightful and fascinating instead has become something mean and largely pointless.
We are, in the end, defined by the battles we choose to wage. This battle, if it continues at its present level, will demean all those who participate in it.
And you can check that out.
Love a good book?
Get the latest news, events and more from the Los Angeles Times Book Club, and help us get L.A. reading and talking.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.