Thursday, March 29, 2012

Angle of Research: Author Gray Brechin Replies

[Here’s something that doesn’t happen every day: The following is a response by Gray Brechin to my review of his book, Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin, which, with Gray’s kind permission, I’m now sharing with you.]

Dear Thomas,

Belated thanks for the kind and fine review of ISF. Despite its success hereabouts, it was never reviewed by the East Coast press which, apparently, thought it was only about some pretty city west of the Hudson. Nonetheless, it continues to sell since there is nothing else (for SF, at least) quite like it. 

I'm pleased that you got that it is a critique of cities throughout time since it really was inspired by a winter I spent in Venice, a city I still love despite what I learned about how it got that way. The Metro Desk editor of the SF Chronicle and I had a testy exchange last year; she loves ISF but insists that her Hearst newspaper is different than it was under the deYoungs, so she didn't understand that the book is only partly about the past. That is why the three central chapters are about how thought is shaped by a few people almost totally unknown to the little people who read, hear, and see their product. As I said in the Hearst chapter, what is not said is far more powerful a tool of thought control than what is, and there is so much that isn't or can't be said. 

If you think that ISF is a jeremiad, try Farewell, Promised Land: Waking from the California Dream which I was working on at the same time. The hardest thing I've ever written was the final chapter of that book since UC Press wouldn't have published it and the Oakland Museum wouldn't have exhibited Bob Dawson's photograph without a slightly upbeat ending about California's fate. What I wrote is a lie. 

Don't get me wrong: I love great cities like London, NY, — and San Francisco. They offer extraordinary opportunities for personal growth and freedom, especially if one has money. (If one is poor, they are places of torment.) Enough has been written about that, however, such as this recent offering: I wanted to do something that illustrates Lewis Mumford's ecological ideas about urban parasitism, and the very small coterie of people for whom that works best: chiefly the people who have the land and the mass media. 

War and the city were born together, and that has never ceased. The creation of the United Nations was an attempt to abort that immemorial process in the wake of the worst war and the worst weapon, but as far as I can see, it has failed miserably. As those in the Earth's growing cities become ever more dependent on remote control of a planetary contado, they become less aware of their dependence by the illusions the city throws up around and in them. (Have you ever visited a trading floor where nature and humans are transmuted into glowing numbers and frenetically dancing brokers?) We are now all marinated in 24/7 fantasy and desires concocted by others and thus are largely incapable of comprehending let alone dealing with the multiple crises overwhelming civil society and our fellow creatures. Few bother to remember that the planet is trip-wired for instant annihilation except when that detail can be used to persuade them that shock and awe must be applied to other cities to prevent that from happening to ours. 

Cassandra's curse was her compunction to tell the truth that no one wanted to hear. And so Troy burned and fell. 


Copyright 2012 by Gray Brechin

Photo by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

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