Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Mike Davis Criticized

Tom Angotti dismantles Mike Davis's Planet of Slums, calling it a simplistic anti-urban screed that greatly exaggerates the negatives of cities and ignores the efforts of a lot of good people. Obviously I don't share Angotti's socialist viewpoint, but most of the pertinent points he makes are spot-on. What's interesting is that with the criticism coming from an unapologetically Marxist source, Davis and his supporters can't claim that he's being opposed simply for his leftist politics. If the people on your side are calling you a pessimistic, self-aggrandizing windbag, maybe it's because you're a pessimistic, self-aggrandizing windbag.

I must say, though, that one thing that bothered me about Angotti's review is his use of the terms "the North" and "the South" to describe the developed and less-developed (or developing, or whatever) world. I've seen this terminology before, and it always strikes me as being a poor choice of words. For one, it's insider jargon that's likely to confuse people because it appropriates terms that are more commonly understood to be simple geographic divisions. It's inaccurate because countries like Australia, New Zealand, and Singapore are clearly part of the developed "North." It also implies that geography is destiny; there's nothing about being in the north that determines the development level of a country, and countries' status can change. Taiwan and Korea, for example, have much more advanced economies now than they did 30 years ago, while Eastern Europe has been in a state of upheaval since the fall of Communism.

A binary divide obscures divisions between moderately-developed countries like Mexico and the truly destitute like the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It also ignores divisions within a country, such as that between Shanghai and the rural interior of China. It seems like using "Developed Countries" and related terms should be self-explanatory, and flexible enough to change depending on the context or as situations change.


At Wednesday, November 14, 2007 at 5:56:00 AM PST, Blogger Mike said...

I thought Davis's slum book was a real drag, basically claiming that nothing had ever helped any person in any slum in the history of time, that they were all doomed. I've never visited a developing-world slum, so I can't really argue otherwise, but it seems unlikely.

On the other hand, his recent "Buda's Wagon" book, about the history of the car bomb, is absolutely fantastic, and just what you'd hope: brisk, detailed, opinionated, and probably inaccurate in parts. A great read.

At Thursday, November 15, 2007 at 11:38:00 AM PST, Blogger Adam Villani said...

Similarly, while it should be read with a critical eye, Davis's "City of Quartz" deserves its reputation as a classic, a rather biting history of Los Angeles. But I read parts of "Ecology of Fear" and it was just garbage - a shaky premise backed up only by misleading statistics and unsupported assertions. Reading that made me question the value of City of Quartz. I've read bits and pieces of Davis since then, and my problem with him is similar to my problem with Michael Moore - I just don't trust him not to completely manipulate things away from the truth to make his points.


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