ed note: originally written for the now defunct Left Turn magazine.
In Praise of Barbarians: Essays against Empire
I am writing this review as Southern California burns and I cannot help wondering what Mike Davis, the great social critic of Los Angeles, is thinking right now. Mike Davis is among the best of left wing political writers. He is also extremely prolific. It seems every time I am in a bookstore, there is a new Davis book. He has written a brilliant analysis of Los Angeles in City of Quartz, and the continually timely Ecology of Fear about the environment and Southern California. On top of that he has put out in the last couple of years a cultural history of the car bomb in Buda’s Wagon, and a controversial assessment of global urban poverty in Planet of Slums. That list only gives you a small smattering of some of the best writing he has produced. Somehow, in between all of this, Davis finds time to write regularly for a number of small left publications, lecture and produce op-eds for various mainstream newspapers. Those shorter, generally timelier, pieces are what make up the bulk of In Praise of Barbarians.
Some of what we have in In Praise of the Barbarians is vintage Davis. Davis is at his best when he is getting deep inside and idea or a social condition, looking at it from all sides, and writing about the abstract and concrete issues at play in a given place, issue or phenomenon. In this volume Davis shows us how its done in a few pieces. There is a brilliant piece about the Los Angeles “Sunset Strip Riots” that is the kind of writing that got Davis recognition in the first place – the piece is part social history, part first hand reporting and part social commentary. It is the best essay in the book (and apparently gives us a taste of a social history of Los Angeles protests that Davis is composing). Other stand outs include an excellent interview done by Jon Wiener where Davis gives a historical take on the concept of terrorism (and promises yet another book on terrorism between 1878 and 1932) and the excellent essay “At the Corner of New Orleans and Humanity” which was originally published in the Nation and is about as good a left assessment of the Katrina shitstorm as you are going to find anywhere.
Unfortunately, while there are some stands out pieces here, much of this material is not Davis’s best work. Too much of this book is made up of out of date pieces written for the Socialist Review and other small publications. Davis’s take on the Democratic primary race (and his support of the Green Party candidates) may have been interesting in 2004, but now these writings seem dated. The publisher tries to convince us on the back page that these writings are Davis’s insight into important leaders like Howard Dean. But that isn’t what these pieces are about. The electoral writings in this book aren’t think pieces, they’re quickly written reactions to political developments in an electoral race that is three years old. I can’t help but think that they were included to fill out what would have been a rather slim (but much better) volume with them.
Any book by Mike Davis is worth picking up and this one is no exception. Its too bad that it is padded with outdated writing, but Davis on New Orleans and Southern California riots is enough to justify the price of admission.
Recommended for the enthusiast.