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Notes From the Edge 

The choices are dark and dreary, but the only candidate for governor is (be still, pounding heart) Gray Davis

Wednesday, Oct 23 2002
As any far-flung news correspondent knows, the remote bureau has clear advantages over the home office. The poor main-newsroom hacks in New York (or London, or wherever the case may be) slog away 9 to 7, embittered editors breathing down their necks. The boys in the bureaus, meanwhile, explore exotic locales and learn fascinating local customs. They spend mornings in cafes with misunderstood poets, and enjoy afternoon comidas with blustering potentates. They take siestas with gossipy marquesas under the pretense of finding scoops, and at around 4:35 p.m. they roll into the office, spend a few minutes translating a story from Le Monde or the Noe Valley Voice, then head for the cantinas.

It's a good life. But there's a downside. Occasionally overseers in the main office get the notion that bureau coverage might contradict their 1950s National Geographic view of the world. The main-office bosses lose interest. They consider shuttering a bureau or two.

By the fall of 2002 my bosses seemed to be losing interest in San Francisco. One sent a notice, couched as a matter of philosophical disagreement. Yet I cleverly divined its true meaning: They'd recently closed the Los Angeles office; I feared I might not be too far behind.

Unless I proved how relevant, vital, indispensable San Francisco is, it seemed apparent, I, too, would be packing for Phoenix. Oh mortal terror, oh grievous sea of asphalt; would that I never, ever, ever be condemned to Phoenix, desert of sprawl.

The fragility of my San Francisco perch made me very, very, dreadfully nervous. But you could never say I'd become mad.1 My newfound sense of peril sharpened my senses, not dulled them. Anxiety focused my ideas; it distilled them, synthesized them, and infused them until they were so acute they penetrated stone.

With cleverness fueled by the fires of preoccupation, I vowed to keep my dreary bosses at bay. With sophistry worthy of Gorgias I argued they should retain me in my bureau post. Observe how healthily, how calmly I can relate the whole story. Like a good reporter, and a great bureau correspondent, I'll show you, dear reader, documents, original sources, and scintillating quotes. This is how I foiled my Phoenix bosses, then continued breakfasting with poets, lunching with shahs, and hosting marquesas for tea.

It began with a letter I received from one of the desert lords, regarding the governor's race ...

Mr. Smith,

I understand, from word-of-mouth around town, that you expect to advocate the re-election of Gray Davis, chief fiscal whore and policy hey-boy of California, in the pages of SF Weekly. Therefore, I have to wonder if you have taken ill, or simply need a vacation.

Please, take the vacation, and let California be rid of Gov. Davis.

His "policy-making" seems, to us, to be no more than a balancing of the interests of his $100,000-plus campaign contributors. No one who is unrich in California can afford to buy a house. No one but an ogre would send his child to the charnel houses known as California public schools. You can't get anywhere because the traffic is horrible and the public transit inadequate and getting worse.

These ills spring from the long-term rule in Sacramento of the Northern California Democratic Party. Gray Davis is one who could and should be sent to history's dustbin right now. We are not insisting on a pro-Simon column; but a Davis endorsement is unacceptable, especially given the contract you've signed eschewing all endorsement rights.

John Mecklin

Bureau Chief/Factotum

SF Weekly Enterprises, a division of NT Worldwide

The missive's San Francisco origin didn't fool me; clearly the ground was shifting under our Phoenix home office. My desert lords wished to send me indirect messages, and they pressed an unknown functionary named Mecklin into corporate service. Gray Davis was the only California news they knew to comment upon.

Immediately, my mind jumped. I realized the desert lords needed to know, to truly understand, that events of great importance were unfolding in San Francisco, and that I was uniquely equipped to convey them.

First, though, I needed to change the subject.

Dear Chief Mecklin,

Word-of-mouth? Gray Davis??

No, no, no, no! I didn't say "advocate the re-election of Davis." What I said (and your informant must have overheard) was, "Egad: $212,426,928 on drapes for Davies?"

Proposition C on next month's ballot is a mammoth bond measure purportedly aimed at repairing earthquake damage at the city's War Memorial Veterans Building. It creates a massive and largely unconstrained slush fund to be administered by the city's War Memorial Department, which runs the Opera House, the Veterans Building, and Davies Symphony Hall. Can you imagine -- a quarter-billion in drape-hanging debt, in the middle of a city budget crisis?

The measure's a perfect poster child for this fall's government-train-wreck-cum-city-election, which documents in detail this fact: Every S.F. citizen, every S.F. branch of government, and every wheedling S.F. interest group has abandoned all belief in civil society. They have discarded all faith in social institutions and decided to go it alone, grabbing whatever they can from the public trough.

As you suggest in your generous letter of insightful advice, this amoral grasping is going on at a state level as well. But just as San Francisco has led California and the nation in other trends, this city is also pioneering a return to man's brutish natural state.

You say people here can't afford a house? Both the state government and the Association of Bay Area Governments are chockablock with laws, rules, and programs that would seem to require Bay Area cities, including San Francisco, to build, or allow the building of, the thousands of homes that would bring prices into the range of middle-class incomes. Every year, though, our city fathers, egged on by solitary, nasty neighborhood groups, skirt these laws, refusing to build the thousands of housing units necessary to alleviate the current shortage. Instead of allowing private developers to erect sufficient housing for the populace, our local government and the local 2002 ballot focus on bread-and-circus non-solutions: a largely meaningless condo-conversion measure and half a billion dollars of affordable housing bonds that, if history is any guide, will produce a tiny number of homes at huge public expense.

People afraid to send their kids to school? It's easy to see why. Residents of the city's family-rich western neighborhoods should be natural advocates for improved schools -- but in brutish San Francisco, they've become advocates of segregating schools into elite, flush academies for some, and dilapidated charnel houses (where the hell did you find that word, by the way?) for the rest. Hispanics, another seemingly natural ally of education, have treated the S.F. school system as a political fiefdom, rather than the sinking lifeboat it is. And in this city's identity-politics world, it's quite natural for young, white, childless progressives -- the people who control the Board of Supervisors -- to ignore children's issues.

As bread and circuses for those poor souls who must put their children in these frightful schools, the November ballot includes this palliative: Measure I, which extends paid parental leave for new parents.

You say it's more difficult to get around? Could there be a greater testament to the death of S.F. civic culture than this city's ever more chaotic streets and increasingly ineffective transit system? A bike-lane network could remove thousands of cars from the streets -- yet motorists consider cyclists enemies, and the network's completion is eternally delayed. An effective system of taxi management would make transit twice as usable, but permit-holding taxicab owners bitterly fight reform, without the public seeming to mind. Strictly enforced bus lanes would put drivers into energy-saving and pollution-reducing transit, but the likelihood of motorist opposition to bus-only lanes means they are a political third rail.

Gray Davis and his political party may be a convenient symbol of Northern California's long-term problems. But the terrible reality cannot be blamed on the supposed abuses of a political party that, actually, has only a tenuous grip on power.

San Francisco is a bellwether announcing the death of civic culture in California. Decrepit schools, out-of-reach housing, worthless transit, expanding poverty, and incompetent law enforcement are driving the city to ruin. Our local politicians don't wish to go on the record addressing city problems, so they put mind-bendingly complex issues to voters. San Franciscans, who expect nothing but the worst from their politicians, fail to express outrage -- or even to take active interest in the billions of dollars of initiatives on their ballots. In the end, few expect more than a fifth of registered voters to make it to the polls.

These are the dark times about which I must continue writing.

Your loyal correspondent,

Matt Smith

I had spoken fluently, buoyed by great insight. Yet "Mr. Mecklin" continued his unsavory rant.

Dear Mr. Smith

In your usual, "engaging" way, you have dodged the question of whether you actually will advocate, in print and in violation of the "no endorsement" clause of your contract, a vote for Gray "Dollar" Davis for governor, opting, as a diversionary tactic, to argue that the blizzard of city initiatives on the November ballot indicates a breakdown of civic culture. We, too, have read the book Bowling Alone, but are not sure that this election's astonishing initiative list threatens American civilization.

All the same, there must be something worth voting for besides Mr. Davis. The shrinking leftist pamphlet that fancies itself our competition has bludgeoned its few readers senseless about Prop. D, the public power cure-all for every problem afflicting San Franciscans, and the related Prop. A. Surely, any take on either one or both of these measures would make more interesting reading than a strained attempt to justify support for the insupportable Mr. Davis.

Do you not agree?


SF Weekly Enterprises

Did they have no eyes with which to see? Had the heat of the desert sun so wrinkled their minds that truth became lost in the crevices? It seemed time to go for broke: I would enlist dead German philosophers.

Dear Chief Mecklin,

Bowling Alone? Posh. Robert Putnam's book on the vanishing accouterments of public life is far too mild; I had something more serious in mind. In "On Humanity in Dark Times," from her 1968 collection of essays, Men in Dark Times, political philosopher Hannah Arendt describes historical moments when people don't merely abandon bowling leagues, but cease all meaningful engagement in the public sphere. "History knows many periods of dark times in which the public realm has been obscured and the world becomes so dubious that people have ceased to ask any more of politics than that it show due consideration for their vital interests and personal liberty," she writes.

During times like these, free-thinking public discussion is replaced by meaningless cant characterized by "exhortations, moral and otherwise, that under the pretext of upholding old truths, degrade all truth to meaningless triviality."

San Francisco's fat fall 2002 election guidebook represents a far graver ill than the timidity of a few supervisors; it's the official chronicle of San Franciscans' lack of interest in San Francisco. And as history has shown, as goes San Francisco, so goes the world.

A teaser to this saga of civic death: The November ballot contains a manifesto of open misanthropy in the form of Proposition N, known unironically to its supporters as "Care Not Cash." The measure would rescind cash payments to the poorest, offering instead an endless trek to remote shelters-for-the-poor that the measure vaguely promises to someday build.

And I'm glad you mentioned Prop. A, the $2.5 billion-plus-interest initiative to repair the Hetch Hetchy water system. It's the purest possible example of political venality joined with public indifference, the defining characteristic of our dark times.

For years San Francisco city fathers looted their own water-delivery system, refusing to maintain it while selling water at bargain-basement rates to suburban communities, car factories, and other such environmentally dubious enterprises. The system now needs billions of dollars in safety upgrades.

This fall, two self-interested business groups are battling it out at the ballot box: The S.F. Chamber of Commerce, made up of midsize employers, fears the city might lose control of its water system entirely and wants to raise money to repair the Hetch Hetchy system by raising water rates paid by San Franciscans and suburban water users. Hotel and office-building owners, meanwhile, seem determined to continue profiting from artificially low water rates and are spending buckets of money to defeat the measure.

Prop. A is a campaign spending battle between one class of cynical business (S.F. employers who'd love suburbanites to pay for at least a part of decades of San Francisco profligacy) and another (water-dependent firms that want to keep water rates artificially low, consequences be damned) that's even more cynical. Through it all, ordinary San Franciscans seem indifferent.

The other ballot measure you mention -- the latest convulsion in local pamphleteer Bruce Brugmann's quarter-century public power crusade, Prop. D -- also contains ample evidence that a polity has died.

In dark times, Arendt writes, the most pressing public issues cease to become matters of discourse. Instead, people '"shift from the world and its public space to an interior life, or else simply ignore that world in favor of an imaginary world "as it ought to be,' or as it once upon a time had been."

M. Brugmann, bless his soul, has based his career as a public ideologue on parsing the meaning of turn-of-the-century laws governing the Hetch Hetchy electric system. During the past decade he has sent thousands of "information" packets to reporters in San Francisco and elsewhere, upbraiding them (sometimes as many as a dozen times a year) for failing to jump into his crusade for public power. He has ordered his own writers, meanwhile, to pen hundreds of articles about PG&E's supposed usurpation of the intent of 1920s legislators.

If ever a life could be said to have been spent emitting Arendt's "exhortations, moral and otherwise, that under the pretext of upholding old truths, degrade all truth to meaningless triviality," it would be this man's. Any community with a thriving civic life would have no place for such a scourge. San Francisco voters, on the other hand, indulge Brugmann's fetishes.

Clearly, our city is descending into an age of misanthropy, and the citizens of the world ignore her trajectory at their peril. If humanity is to apprehend the awful civic path that looms before it, it is necessary to maintain a bureau in San Francisco.

Your unworthy acolyte,

Matt Smith

For a few days, I was despondent and gave up all hope of diverting my superiors' gaze from Gray Davis. Then a source who must remain anonymous sent me an internal memorandum.

From: John Mecklin, bureau chief/factotum

To: All NTW executives

Re: Success

Cloud: It appears that our man in San Francisco has had a nervous breakdown, or worse; he's writing tripe about German philosophers. Silver lining: He is in no condition to endorse Gray Davis, or anyone else, in any convincing fashion. Will advise of further developments.

As I read the words, my skin grew cold. I closed my trembling eyes, yet the glaring words wouldn't dim. What could those philistines possibly know about my nerves? Did they not detect the fluency of my voice? Could they not perceive how lucidly I proceeded through my argument? Had they no light with which to see in that city of eternal blazing sun?

Surely they understood that we live at the edge of a dark future. They must know we're courting social chaos; we're welcoming civic decay.

I had to tell them; I couldn't resist another moment. Dearest editors, I was bound to say, unless all thinking Californians vote for Gray Davis, our future will consist of dark, dark, Republican times.

1 Apologies to Edgar Allan Poe.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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