REMEMBERING MIKE DAVIS: 2003 interview captures the then-UC
Irvine historian's views on US imperialism, cities, Orange County,
academia, and UC Irvine
by Daniel C. Tsang
As a radio show host, later turned occasional podcaster, I find I best remember Mike Davis by listening to his voice and the gems he dispensed, the various times he kindly appeared on my show. Here transcribed are portions of a 2003 interview I conducted with Davis on KUCI's Subversity show, which I had started in 1993. Joining us was Stefano Sensi, an activist as well as a UCI adjunct neurologist.
N.B. November, 2022: I get Mike Davis’s unease about US imperialism but wonder what he would have said about US-China relations after the Hong Kong regime cracked down so sternly after the 2019 protests.
(Excerpted from an interview taped on February 24, 2003 with Subversity host Daniel C. Tsang on KUCI, broadcast on February 25, 2003. Audio of the complete Subversity show is here. Audio of these excerpts begins around the 38.27 mark.)
The 2003 Subversity interview: “The Real Truth Lies in Life Itself and in Struggle.”
Daniel C. Tsang: Today we have a special guest with us on the show, Mike Davis, who's a historian, recently hired to work and teach at UC Irvine, an intellectual with many, many books to his name and also a labor activist, as well as an anti-war activist.... You know, in terms of what's happening in the Philippines, do you see parallels with the beginning of U.S. involvement in Vietnam?
Mike Davis: Well, I'm going to be teaching the
introductory sequence, “20th Century US History” survey sequence in the spring, and I'm actually going to begin it in Mindanao in 1901, I mean, with elite American troops. The 1901 or 1903, and then a hundred years later in
the same place, fighting the same almost the, you know, the same people for the same cause. The Philippines, of course, was the United States' first sustained overseas colonial war. It was the template for everything that followed. The United States adopted this policy, the
very policies we had denounced as barbaric and inhuman when they were used by the Spanish of concentration camps, of economic warfare, of famine as a tool of war. And over a million Filipinos died at the turn of the century in a war that was also to some respect an Indian
War, a frontier war now transferred overseas. And I don't think anybody with any understanding of this history and above all, of course, you know, Filipinos, you know, Philippine Americans, can't that be haunted, you know, by the you know, you know, the huge irony that here the U.S. is, you know, again, back in the southern Philippines
battling, you know, Islamic rebels.
Mike Davis at a 2002 rally at UCI supporting Lecturers and Librarians. Photo credit: Daniel C. Tsang
Tsang: Well, that's why they coined the term "gooks" to use against the Filipinos. The US used it and of course Mark Twain spoke out against the war, you know, the US imperialism there. There's a whole history of resistance, actually. And also there's now a big campaign to get. There was a big massacre and there's a film going to be made about this
whole U.S. soldiers’ massacre of Filipinos at this place. And it's called “the bells of something,” I can't remember…[Bells of Balangiga]. But there's a filmmaker [Gil M. Portes] from the Philippines doing a film about this massacre in the Philippines when the Navy, I guess, of Marines took back the seas, the bells of this church there. And now there's a demand from Filipinos to get it back. [Funding woes forestalled Portes being able to make this movie.]
Davis: Well, I'm actually going to read my students a letter which I bought over eBay in an auction. And it's a letter written by a young farm boy, he's in the Kansas Volunteers. The Kansas Volunteers were one of the units that stayed in the field the longest in the Philippines. And it's written in 1900 to his sister back in Topeka. And he's telling her
in a kind of matter-of-fact way, how his company has just massacred a village in the Philippines and shot all the prisoners, which is both kind of My Lai before its time but it's also a continuation of the same policies that would have been applied to village of Lakota people on the Great Plains of the United States. Americans, white Americans, at least I think don't understand how important the US involvement you know was in the Philippines its initial overseas colonial experience in shaping American foreign policy, in shaping our attitudes toward East Asia. And of course, I think we all need to be keep an awareness that before the Second Iraq Crisis, before 9/11, this administration seemed, for whatever reasons, hellbent on confrontation with the People's Republic of China and that the major theater where American geopolitical and imperial ambitions will ultimately be most contested is not the Middle
East or even the Western Hemisphere. It will be in East Asia, it will be with North Korea, but it eventually be with China. And this is, of course, one of the deepest splits amongst American elites, one of the deepest differences between the kind of “new economy” forces represented in the Clinton administration and the constellation of old economy and Likud Party supporters in the Bush administration. They seem to have a singularly mad idea about how to deal with China. China will become a great military power. The root notion of this administration; if you were
to condense its foreign policy and invasions into just one sentence is to prevent any other superpower from ever emerging in the whole future course of world history. This can't possibly be the case. And by adopting this as the consensus or the foundation principle of American policy is just a recipe for the unthinkable.
Stefano Sensi: You actually describe very grim scenarios. And on the other end, there is something to be considered, I guess there is this incredible flux of people all around the planet. And, for instance, the United States are something a little bit more than just white Americans. There are many Latinos, there are many Chinese, for instance. And that
actually may play a big role in future situations.
Davis: I suppose I always do sound more pessimistic than I really am. I guess I believe in the old revolutionary dictum of "pessimism of the intelligence and optimism of the will." But we clearly saw a new world born with the
demonstrations of the fifteenth, and it really is a new kind of global commons. But what this global commons needs to irrigate it and to make it grow and thrive is the rebirth of belief that there is truly an alternative civilization possible, one based on social justice and an equal sharing of the world's resources. We need that like we need oxygen to believe. It can't just stop by a victory that returns us to the status quo ante, which is the world as it was regulated during the Clinton years on behalf of the world's most advanced corporations. Now we have the old dinosaur corporations in power. But we have to seize the opportunity to go beyond that. And we have to resurrect all the dreams of the last two hundred years. We have to be able to think afresh and above all, we have to believe, and hope.
Sensi: Do you think that actually a revolution could be possible?
Davis: I don't think revolution is possible, but I think it's a necessity. I think that at the end of the day, you really have no choices, no other way to visualize or understand a world that's at peace and where life has centered around deepening equality of human affection and experience except by the democratic social control of the largest
corporations, the world's resources. So ultimately, the only way we can address what is the most frightening ultimate problem of all, which is the growing divide between two halves of humanity or one third of humanity and the other two thirds --- the great ideas of the Enlightenment, the 19th century of the labor and national liberation movements of socialism are the heritage that we have to reclaim and again, make urgent and relevant to today's struggles. And in fact, I think this is exactly what's happening. And certainly my generation, the Sixties generation, will play a very, very small part in this....
New generations will show us the way. And frankly, for someone my age and political experience, nothing could be more exciting than that. And I must brag that both of my children, who live in Ireland, marched in antiwar
demonstrations two weeks ago.
Tsang: Do you see this? Some of my friends, my anarchist friends see going back to like a hunter, feral kind of society, the hunting gathering society without any kind of, you know, industry.
Davis: No, no! I mean, I know a lot of people believe this because their problem is they can't see how we are going to square a decent, egalitarian standard of living for everybody on this planet with a sustainable relationship to the world ecosystem and its resources. You know, if we simply raised everyone to an Orange County standard of
living, we would destroy the planet. So the answer has to be either to reduce the number of human beings and their pressure on the resources to accept growing inequalities or accept some kind of spartan egalitarianism. We'll all be, you know, hunter gatherers. And in fact, none of this is necessary. It's all a bit of nonsense. I think the secret of
sustainability and social justice, together, lies in making cities act more like cities. We're in the age where the first time in the history of the world a majority of human beings live in super-large cities. These cities are both the problem and the solution. The solution, in the sense of what cities can do is create public and collective forms of consumption
that are so much more satisfying in every way than private consumption and collective consumption. Public luxury is incredibly efficient. Environmentally, it can massively reduce the resources needed.
What I'm thinking about is looking at cities much like the way college campuses work. You don't have to have a huge library in your dorm room. You can go to the magnificent library. You don't have to have a private swimming pool. You have a great swimming pool on campus. Many college campuses are some of the best examples of what an
environmentally successful but luxurious society could look like because it's not based just on private consumption and accumulation but allowing cities to do what they do best: The genius of bringing immense numbers of people together to create and generate new needs and to satisfy those new needs with public luxury in public space.
Unfortunately, the direction in American cities, particularly in the environmentally sensitive and vulnerable Southwest, is going the opposite direction --- to strip cities of their truly urban qualities, to make everything suburban, to center everything around, you excessive private consumption and physical obesity and little pods of affluence while other people are left in slums. But I don't believe there's any contradiction at all between the historic ideals of socialism and those of environmentalism. I think red-green politics will show the way, but it has to become a politics of urbanism more than anything else.
Tsang: How about in terms of what would you tell
students that "I want to drop out because they can't stand going to school here?" That, it sounds like academia is preparing you to be a corporate citizen and, you know, a good corporate citizen. And so they get sick of it and they drop out of grad school. They drop out of undergrad school, whatever.
Davis: Well, I frequently get in trouble because I'm not ashamed of urging students to drop out of school. I don't think following a set career path that your parents or your peers have laid out in front of you at the highest speed possible is any definition of how you should lead a
Dan Tsang in studio.
I think life involves adventure. It involves experience and involves, amongst other things, the skill of being able to get by on very little. This applies more, I think, to graduate students than undergraduates. In my teaching career, which is limited, I've often found undergraduates that have kind of rich character-building life experiences, but not so much my graduate students. I think that many of them would benefit by joining a band of gypsies or a circus or hitching a ride, working in construction, going to Alaska, fishing, anything but spending the first twenty-six or twenty-seven years of their life continuously in a school environment. The other thing is that today, particularly in the culture of academia, we radically devaluate experience and the knowledge that's won through labor struggle and just life experience. Everything is credentialed, everything is artificial, everything is only meaningful if some French theorist wrote it or some aged authority on American history. I mean, the real truth lies in life itself and in struggle. And this was really I mean, the idea that --- I'm not speaking even as a radical ---
I mean, this was the insistence of John Dewey and the pragmatists, the people who created the idea of a liberal education, was to overcome the rift between knowledge and life, between productive labor and the life of thought. And quite frankly, right now, given both the dangers and hopes in the world, this is a wonderful time to quit school and to become an activist or to join a union or even just to go out and get a job for a while. It depends on the student. But I've never seen my role as, for instance, the most valuable and personally important thing
anyone can do is to sit in one of my classes or to attend UC Irvine.
Tsang: But what are your impressions of Orange County now that you actually work here?
Davis: Well, of course, Orange County's two completely different societies. Central and northern Orange County are the same social, physical fabric as southern and eastern Los Angeles County. It's older, 1940s, fifties suburbia, overwhelmingly blue-collar with, increasingly, a Latino majority and important, of course, enclaves of Asian immigrants. Southern Orange County, where Irvine is located, is the same social fabric as northern San Diego County. Planned, massive, affluent communities with plug-in parts and a frightening lack of individuality and heterogeneity. Oddly enough, here, in a society that imagines itself the kind of world capital of Republican individualism and has an airport named after John Wayne, you're not allowed to leave your garage door
open more than a half hour or paint your home a different color. It is one of the most conformist societies of all. But it produces, because of this, very, very interesting kinds of rebels. It has also produced very interesting literature. To be honest with you, I stand in utter awe of the trilogy of novels written, or is it a quartet, by Kim Stanley Robinson. I don't know how many of you know his Orange County novel, the famous sci-fi writer, but from Orange County. And he begins in the novel The Orange [sic] Coast [The Gold Coast from the Three Californias
Trilogy] with a dystopia, kids trying to break up the concrete to find where the last orange tree is. It's all been destroyed and lost, the whole relationship of nature. But it ends a couple of novels later with a hippie
communist commune in San Onofre, of all places, and the beginning of a brave new age of personal liberty in Orange County. So to the extent that I find southern Orange County at times a little suffocating and conformist and frightening, it's balanced by the fact that it produces some magnificent free spirits and anarchists and rebels, some of whom write for the Orange County Weekly, which is a paper I've come to read regularly with great appreciation.
Tsang: So are you planning to teach here forever? What's the deal?
Davis: No, I'm extremely grateful to the history department here for the job they've offered me. But I'm a bit of a misfit I think probably in the UC system, which is, of course, a culture of the most arrogant elitism on the part of the professors. You know, at a time when junior college budgets are now going to be slashed by ten percent and throw as many junior college students out of the system as are students enrolled in the U.S. system, we're a little garden of luxury. And privileged here because of the principal service which we perform, which is not to educate the children of the majority of taxpayers of the state of California --- they don't go to this system --- but to generate cutting-edge technology and human skills for a high-tech economy, the public production of private
knowledge. And we'll just have to see how long I manage to stay in the system, or it manages to deal with me without ejecting me at some point. The most important event in my life --- well, together with having my children ---was joining the mass civil rights movement when I was sixteen years old in San Diego in 1963. And you can't ever look back after you've been through experiences like this. And I’d still like to see myself not as just some overpaid professor worried about his book reviews but, even at my advanced age, as a political activist and militant first.
Tsang: You did take on the chancellor during the Lecturers' strike. Was there any repercussion?
Davis: No, no. I got a kind of arch note from the chancellor whose feelings were hurt, but at the same time still welcomed me into the system. No, this isn't like teaching as a part-timer or Lecturer where the bosses can come down hard on you any time they want. You have a little protection from your status. Above all, the university has to maintain what Herbert Marcuse called “the culture of repressive tolerance.”
Davis: And it needs to have some of us "wild" people around to create the illusion that there is actually a real debate amongst ideas and a real diversity that exist here. We’re essential to the maintenance of the system; we create and maintain the illusions. And, of course, one of the things you have to do when you try and build a movement within the university system like this is you have to push that to its limits. You have to make the system show its real face, which hasn't, I think, changed significantly since the days of the Free Speech Movement in 1964, when tens of thousands of students, impelled in the first place by their commitment to the civil rights struggle, really exposed how the university worked, really challenged it and tore off the benevolent face
of the administrators to show what they really are: pawns of the billionaires who dominate the Board of Regents.
Now, I have nothing personal against the chancellor here. From what I know, he's a very distinguished scientist and may be in an absolutely wonderful position, but he has made the choice to become chancellor. And the buck does stop with him. And there are intolerable working conditions on this campus and intolerable inequalities. And above all, an intolerable disjuncture between what this university does, who it serves and who actually pays for it. This university is so disconnected from the majority of working lives in Orange County...
Daniel C. Tsang is Librarian Emeritus at University of California, Irvine, where he was a social sciences bibliographer for 30 years, and a union activist on campus. With decades of activism in queer, academic labor organizing, police watch, and alternative media, he was twice a Fulbright Research Scholar, in Hanoi and Hong Kong, where he was born and grew up. His reportage, op-eds or interviews have appeared in Hong Kong Free Press, South China Morning Post, Los Angeles Times, Critical Asian Studies, Subversity on KUCI, Far Eastern Economic Review, Michigan Free Press, OC Weekly, Fusion (Toronto), Covert Action Quarterly, Asian Week, AMASS, and Gay Community News. He blogs at Medium: https://medium.com/@dancal04. Past profile: https://www.faculty.uci.edu/profile.cfm?faculty_id=5142. Email: email@example.com.