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The prophet of doom

Dead Cities, A Natural History, Mike Davis, The New Press: 432 pp., $27.95

November 24, 2002|Fred Siegel | Fred Siegel is the author of "The Future Once Happened Here: New York, D.C., L. A., and the Fate of America's Big Cities."

New York and urban America may never recover from Sept. 11, and that's a very good thing if you believe Mike Davis. For Davis, who first won attention with two books on Los Angeles, "City of Quartz" and "Ecology of Fear," America's cities are a toxic expression of imperial hubris and greed, and 9/11 was punishment for New York's sins against socialism, squeegee men and dark-skinned Muslims, just as fires and earthquakes are L.A.'s punishment for its sins against nature.

"Dead Cities" is a collection of previously published articles from the last decade. What's new in this collection is the opening essay on 9/11 titled "The Flames of New York." The essay's title is borrowed from an image conjured by science fiction writer H.G. Wells in his 1908 book, "War in the Air," in which the city is destroyed in a surprise attack from Kaiser Wilhelm's zeppelins. "Lower Manhattan was soon a furnace of crimson flames," writes Wells; it is a conceit that brings equal pleasure to Wells, who despised New York and, apparently, to Davis, who characterizes the Wells' story: "In a single day, haughty Manhattanites are demoted to slaughtered natives."

Wells' pestilential view of man runs through "The Flames of New York," as does Davis' own penchant for ideologically induced assertions. Later in the essay, he takes up the case of the Egyptian Muslim fanatic Sayyid Qutb, who was, according to the New York Times, Osama bin Laden's intellectual inspiration. Qutb visited the United States in the late 1940s and developed a thoroughgoing hatred of New York and America. Among the sources of his anger, writes Davis, was "no doubt" that the dark-skinned Qutb had "wounding encounters with Jim Crow." But Qutb, who thought of himself as a man of high European and Islamic culture, wrote of "jazz" as "a type of music invented by Blacks to please their primitive tendencies and desire for noise." He was horrified by the American concept of "fun" and thought of the United States as a sinkhole of sexual license.

Davis concludes "The Flames of New York" with the claim that America has begun a reign of terror against Muslims. In the "the good ole boy equivalent of Kristallnacht," he writes that "there were at least six murders and a thousand serious assaults committed against people perceived as 'Arab' or 'Moslem' " in the six weeks after Sept. 11. His sources for this assertion are the Oct. 26 Washington Post, which has no record of such a tally, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations. But, according to an article in the Wall Street Journal published last month, the council lists only 289 claims of attacks on persons or property in the five months after the World Trade Center collapsed.

Similar skepticism is in order when Davis argues, on the basis of a dubious and unconvincing article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, that Winston Churchill tried to develop an anthrax super-bomb to destroy Germany's cities. In a similar vein, writing about New York, Davis claims that "more than 20,000 housing units per year were still being abandoned in New York City as late as 1996," when, in fact, the city was booming. His source is a national survey in which, as he concedes in a footnote, New York refused to cooperate.

Davis is devoted to the specter of catastrophe. In the chapter "Dead Cities: A Natural History," he quotes the German "eco-fascist" Max Karl Schwarz, who shares his sense of the "toxicity" of cities, as arguing that after the bombings of Hamburg, Cologne and Kassel, the landscapes might be revitalized by leveling the debris and planting trees. In "Dead Cities," Davis holds out similar hopes for asteroids, meteors, earthquakes, tidal waves and global warming.

Kevin Starr once said of Davis that "if he doesn't watch it, he'll become a crank." That day has arrived.

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