THE MEDIA verdict on this disaster seems to be that the federal government and the state and local authorities did a great job, and everyone who evacuated to the Qualcomm football stadium is getting the royal treatment. What’s left out of this picture?
THERE’S BEEN a fractal class bias at absolutely every level of the coverage.
If you look at the international news, it’s all about the fires threatening
There are a lot of invisible victims who aren’t enjoying backrubs and nouvelle cuisine down at Qualcomm stadium.
This has turned into a carefully managed, semi-hysterical celebration of Republican values–all drawing a marked contrast to
Meanwhile, Arnold Schwarzenegger was going around the stadium, saying people are happy, and everything’s wonderful–they have yoga, they have massage, they can get Padres autographs. When a newswoman had the temerity to confront him, he grabbed her arm so hard that it looked like he was going to break it, and he started shouting at her, “All you have to do is look around here and see how happy people are.”
The only discordant note is from Duncan Hunter, the right-wing Republican presidential candidate, who seems to think he’s in Iwo Jima and not
But the consistent representation is–to use the words of Geraldo Rivera–that this is the “anti-Katrina.” Or as another Republican said, “We have a civilized evacuation.”
CAN YOU talk more about the invisible victims?
THERE ARE basically four different kinds of society in the backlands of
First, there are the native Californians.
Then, there are the bikers and construction workers–ordinary working people, Mexican as well as anglo, who have lived in traditional small towns for generations. This is the kind of society I grew up in, on the edge of the back country in eastern
In addition, there are the new subdivisions–sprawling planned communities, some of them with biotech companies and so on, along the corridor of the I-15 freeway, which links
Finally, there are the luxury lifestyles–castles and Beverly Hills-like subdivisions somehow smuggled into the depths of some of the deepest canyons and most inaccessible back country.
Recently, I had a reunion with some of the guys I grew up with 50 years ago and haven’t seen since the Vietnam War. And we were incredulous at all the mansions on brush-covered hilltops where we had hunted rabbits as kids–in areas where wildfires were bound to occur.
Throughout this back country, there’s a long-running, low-intensity class struggle of the blue-collar residents trying to preserve not just rural lifestyles, but to be able to afford to live here–against the encroachment of the McMansions, the subdivisions and the traffic jams. It’s polo versus rodeo.
Some of the victims of this fire are people living in trailers or shacks, or on modest ranches. But their agony isn’t what the news focuses on. Instead, the news is focused on the solidly Republican suburbs and country mansions.
AS ALWAYS, the media are focused on how the fires started, rather than the deeper causes. Can you talk about some of the factors like development and climate change?
THE LOS Angeles Times had an article that said climate change wasn’t a factor in the fires. This is probably balderdash. Everything that’s happening, including the dramatic number of mega-fires in the rest of the West, accords with the simulations generated in the climate models used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Not only are extreme events becoming more common, but it’s possible that the base climate of the Southwest and most of the rest of the West is itself changing. One of my old buddies who I saw at the reunion just retired from the state park service as a ranger, and he’s horrified by what he sees happening. He says that the pine forests in the
In other words, what we’re seeing are not simply extreme events, but epochal changes in the environment and vegetation.
On the other hand, the tendency–even among people who a few years ago were denying climate change–to blame everything on the climate is a kind of one-stop response that avoids any political responsibility.
The truth is that much of the fire destruction is the result of political decisions, backed up by the power of developers and real estate interests, to override any public opposition to controlling growth in the backlands and the spread of luxury lifestyles like a fungus across the landscape.
After the 2003 fire, a coalition of backlands people and environmentalists put an initiative on the ballot in
The problem is essentially unsolvable unless you’re willing to deal with the political economy of land ownership and land inflation.
Property values have risen along the coast to such an incredible extent. In
So people are forced inland. But people who live on the coast are either so wealthy, or their wealth has been so augmented by the rise in property values, that they’re now buying second homes. Increasingly, you see these second homes throughout the back country–and not just cabins, but 4,000-square-foot houses.
So although I think climate change is a crucial part of the background, the real essence of the problem is this sprawl that’s ultimately driven by the lack of any real social regulation over land speculation and land inflation. And that, of course, is exactly the same issue that the Karl Marx of
WHEN WILDFIRES struck southern
NOTHING HAS changed. The response to the devastation of 2003 was a series of thunderous “no” votes against controlling growth or enlarging firefighting resources.
The one positive thing was that an outspoken maverick named Mike Aguirre was elected city attorney partially because he appealed to people about the deterioration of services.
He pointed out that the city government doesn’t hesitate to throw tens of millions of dollars in tax subsidies to the Spanos family, extremely conservative Republicans who own the Chargers, or to John Moores, the Padres owner and
Recently, Aguirre has been crucified in the local newspapers, where we’re totally at the mercy of Copley press, except for one of the weeklies. They’ve been crusading against Aguirre because he dared to come out and say we need water conservation measures. I’m not sure my kids can even remember what rain looks like, but the mayor of
So you end up with this irony–the very Republicans who should be wearing sackcloth or running to hide in
All of this is drawn in a continuous, invidious and basically racist comparison with
SOME RIGHT-wingers–like Duncan Hunter, the Republican presidential contender and representative to Congress from the
DUNCAN HUNTER is a one-trick pony. He’s saying exactly the same thing he did in 2003–to send in the Marines, like we need to storm the beaches. And of course, people are pointing out in the background that the reason aircraft didn’t fly was because there were gusts of wind up to 70 miles an hour.
You just push a button, and you get the same response from him. But it’s very sinister to watch him, Brian Bilbray and Darrell Issa, the three suburban San Diego Republicans, smiling and gloating over this chaos.
Another dimension–homeland security linkage of all this–is that the Bush administration has sent in the FBI. There’s a big arson investigation of the fires in northern
They’re probably going to have trouble blaming
Among the communities that burned,
But as my witty friend Sheila Johnson again pointed out, it’s going to be very ironic, because the same Mexican workers they’re trying to deport are going to be the very people they beg to rebuild their homes.
YOU’VE MADE the point that disasters like these won’t be solved with a technical or scientific fix, but by taking up the political and social questions involved. Why?
THE SOLUTION has to lie in changing power relations within communities and within the region. In truth, the issues of affordable housing, job creation for youth, protecting the environment and dealing with congestion are all part of a single fabric.
The problem in the past has been that groups like the Sierra Club tend to be focused just on the open space and environmental side of it. They haven’t given answers to people who are worried about growth or jobs. Nobody’s making the elementary point that we need massive reinvestment in the inner cities, and making communities more environmentally stable, and more conservation and restoration work in the hills.
What’s needed is a populist politics that relates these issues and shows that at the end of the day, you have to fight to try to change the balance of power.
Once again, the Democrats are missing an opportunity because they’re not prepared to take on the real issues. They’re too gutless to attack the invidious comparison of the wildfires to
It may partially be the bias of the media, but on five local TV stations, I’ve yet to see a Democrat. That’s because they just yield the ground, just as over the war and everything else of fundamental importance. And besides, most of the Democrats here get money from the same developers.