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Sean Dempsey, S.J.April 26, 2020
Several hundred people affiliated with the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) race through the Los Angeles Civic Center in a demonstration against the Vietnam War, Jan. 12, 1968. (AP Photo/Harold Filan)

One of the pleasures of the recent film “Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood” is its tour of late-1960s Los Angeles, as Quentin Tarantino, the director, takes viewers on a journey from classic restaurants like Musso & Frank and El Coyote to the backlots of a declining studio system to the city’s streets filled with the children of the counterculture. While attending to historical detail, the film works more as a myth or, as its title implies, a fairy tale about a city on the brink of a new, but not necessarily better, era.

Set the Night on Fireby Mike Davis and Jon Wiener

Verso Books

800p, $34.95

The new book by the historians Mike Davis and Jon Wiener, Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties, similarly takes readers on a picaresque voyage around Los Angeles during the “long sixties” (1960-1973). But instead of watering holes and and the Playboy Mansion, our guides to the city take us to college campuses at the height of the antiwar movement, to the streets of Watts on the brink of uprising, and to the churches and meeting halls where the fight for gay rights began.

In propulsive prose and vivid historical vignettes, Davis and Wiener narrate a near-mythic history of radical Los Angeles, a movement that they contend planted the seeds for an as-yet-unrealized revolution. Where Tarantino’s film represents an elegy for the passing of an older, more conservative version of Los Angeles, Davis and Wiener see in the same decade a promise to be fulfilled.

Instead of watering holes and and the Playboy Mansion, our guides to the city take us to college campuses at the height of the antiwar movement, to the streets of Watts on the brink of uprising, and to the churches and meeting halls where the fight for gay rights began.

Readers would be hard-pressed to find better guides for a tour of leftist Los Angeles. City of Quartz, Mike Davis’s classic (if unclassifiable) history of Los Angeles, first published three decades ago, reads like social history filtered through the febrile imagination of a sci-fi novelist. This was clearly no accident, as two of Davis’s subjects, Carey McWilliams, the leftist author of several works of Southern California history, and Philip K. Dick, the Los Angeles-based writer who is most remembered for his dystopian visions of the city in the film “Blade Runner” (1982), were also clear inspirations.

Jon Wiener, an emeritus professor of history at U.C. Irvine and host of the podcast “Start Making Sense,” has written recently about our collective historical amnesia surrounding the Cold War, and there is clearly a similar call in this work to remember the witness of the radicals and other “working class heroes” that inhabit the pages of Set the Night on Fire. Together, Davis and Wiener have crafted a book that is both encyclopedic and prophetic, scholarly and polemical. The omnivorous quality of the book makes it the most complete single volume on the history of radical politics in the city in any time period. But this very drive for a totalizing narrative comes at some cost.

Davis and Wiener’s focus on the headlines of “the movement” means that they tread on some familiar historical ground. The 1965 Watts Uprising and the subsequent McCone Commission, as well as the Chicano Blowouts (1966-1968), in which student activists in East L.A. high schools walked out to protest discrimination in the Los Angeles Unified School District, have all been the subjects of numerous historical works over the years. In these and many other discussions, Davis and Wiener do not add anything new to these important histories beyond the power of polemic and creative juxtaposition.

This attention to “above the fold” history also informs the book’s treatment of religion. Catholic Los Angeles appears only fleetingly, and somewhat predictably, in Set the Night on Fire. Davis and Wiener devote an entire chapter to the now-iconic controversy surrounding Cardinal James Francis McIntyre, the long-serving (1948-1970) archbishop of Los Angeles, and Sister Corita Kent of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (I.H.M.). For the uninitiated, a brief recap: In 1967, the I.H.M. sisters, a community of Catholic religious women known especially for their work in education, most notably at Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles, responded to a mandate of the Second Vatican Council for renewal and modernization by proposing a series of reforms that quickly drew McIntyre’s ire.

Among these reforms were the abandonment of the traditional habit, a relaxation of communal prayer, and a new emphasis on work outside of Catholic institutions. McIntyre, already vehemently opposed to the scope and speed of the council’s changes to the liturgy and religious life, ordered the sisters to cease and desist, invoking his authority as bishop and relying on his considerable influence in the Catholic hierarchy in the United States. For Davis and Wiener, little has changed, and their analysis would have benefited from finding a fresh angle on a well-worn tale.

Set the Night on Fire will be an indispensable resource for scholars and activists interested in radical politics in Los Angeles for years to come.

Set the Night on Fire also raises questions due to its rather rigid focus on Los Angeles as the setting of its dramatic action. In recent years, urban historians have become increasingly interested in cities not so much as the site of historical events, but as contested places where political, cultural and economic forces collide. Davis himself has contributed to the rich vein of inquiry in Magical Urbanism (2001) and Planet of Slums (2005), but a strong sense of the international dimensions of the movements described in Set the Night on Fire is largely lacking.

Davis and Wiener’s attention to the movement’s public actions, from street protests and civil violence to school walkouts and radical political advocacy, also runs the risk of erasing quieter forms of resistance and struggle. My own research on Los Angeles has revealed that the city’s many churches and other faith communities were also centers of these less obvious, but no less vital, struggles for dignity and equality among the city’s most marginalized citizens.

There is also the crucial question of whether or not what Davis and Wiener describe over the course of more than 800 pages was a “movement” at all. The U.C. Berkeley historian Mark Brilliant has argued that the civil rights movement in California, especially in Los Angeles, was broad and multifaceted, encompassing not only African Americans, but Chinese Americans, Japanese Americans and Mexican Americans (among many others). But efforts to dismantle legalized racism often ran on parallel tracks, says Brilliant, as each group faced distinctive challenges in their struggle for equality. For reasons ranging from the logistical to the cultural and historical, solidarity across communities of color and with progressive whites has often proven to be more of an aspiration than a reality in Los Angeles.

Despite these flaws, Set the Night on Fire will be an indispensable resource for scholars and activists interested in radical politics in Los Angeles for years to come. Indeed, Davis and Wiener call for a new generation to “enlarge and revise” the histories recounted in the book and, in the process, bring a new, more just Los Angeles into being.

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