In Praise of Barbarians

THE PUBLISHER of Mike Davis’s new collection of essays takes its name from the Haymarket Martyrs, the radical labor leaders convicted of (and in four cases executed for) inciting Chicago’s 1886 Haymarket Riot, which claimed the lives of seven policemen. Davis himself gets credited on his dust jacket as a “socialist activist,” and one of his forthcoming projects, as he reveals in a chapter titled “Artisans of Terror,” is “a world history of revolutionary terrorism from 1878 to 1932.” There’s no mistaking where he’s coming from.

But Davis’s book may be of interest to more than just the readers of Socialist Review, where many of these essays first appeared. With few exceptions, the evils Davis describes, from the plight of post-Katrina New Orleans to the blowback of American foreign policy, are real enough viewed from anywhere on the political spectrum. And two of the most vivid pieces here are more notable for Davis’s firsthand knowledge than for any ideological slant: “Heavy Metal Freeway” likens the SUV arms race on southern California’s freeways to the tank battle of El Alamein during World War II, while “Riot Nights on Sunset Strip” recounts the teeny-bopper versus police battles that enlivened LA nightlife in the ’60s. Though a committed internationalist, Davis is at his best when he’s most localist.

Topics farther afield elicit less spark and more ideological bark, though “Sister Catarina,” about the unprecedented South Atlantic hurricane of 2004, is a sober warning of global warming. Pieces on the Vietnam War atrocities of “Tiger Force,” a special unit of the 101st Airborne Division, and on the British Empire’s use of Iraq as a testing ground for pacification by poison gas and aerial bombardment (tactics heartily endorsed by Winston Churchill) are also excellent, if derivative. Elsewhere, ideology gets the better of Davis as he peddles class-war clichés and tags the likes of Mel Gibson and Arnold Schwarzenegger as Nazis. He’s prone to mistakes when discussing figures he dislikes: California Republican Tom McClintock becomes “Paul,” Ed Meese is called Nixon’s attorney general (he was Reagan’s). Such flaws aside, however, Davis’s polemics are rousing and heartfelt, and when his facts are in order readers of all persuasions ought to find them compelling.