"We are heading to a nuclear catastrophe, climate change is inevitable, while everyone is hunched over their devices”
On the 100 year anniversary of the United State’s annexation of the Phillipines and Guam, Greater San Francisco historian and geographer Gray Brechin published Imperial San Francisco.
The book was his account of the city that, at the end of the 19th century, staked its reputation and milked the federal purse on the promise of its destiny to inherit the Westward Course of Empire Taking its Way.
At the height of the dot-com bubble, with indigenous digital technology striking out across the globe, Brechin documented that bygone triumphalism, and mapped the deployment of the fortunes of the city’s leading plutocrats toward bringing about that destiny. His book spent 16 weeks on the bestseller list of the San Francisco Chronicle – a publication the history and origins of which the book tells in uncomfortable detail. (The Chronicle panned the book in its review.) It’s been a staple in the San Francisco section of local bookstores since, though now has passed into print-to-order status.
On the hundred year anniversary of the 1906 Earthquake, Brechin added an updated preface, in which he wrote:
“I’d used San Francisco as a case study of how imperial cities parasitize their hinterlands for the benefit of those who own their land and much else besides – especially the channels of information that shape perceived reality for millions. That city’s magnates hoped to make it the new Rome or New York of the Pacific, but San Francisco, of itself and for all its charm, was a failed star, an also-ran in the firmament of truly imperial cities.”
On a recent Wednesday afternoon I caught up with Brechin, 100 years after the Panama Pacific International Exhibition, where the leading capitalists of a rebuilt San Francisco declared Asia their imperial oyster with copious bombast about the city’s endemic entrepreneurship, showcasing the wonders of technology for public consumption (alongside the myth of the impending global conquest of the Aryan American race, an idea which the city’s leaders proudly and frequently extolled, and even engraved into their monuments, many of which remain but carry plaques saying, essentially, sorry).
Today, of course, entrepreneurship and technology are again on local lips and the source of many fortunes. Asian markets for Bay Area pursuits captivate the imagination of adventurous capital. The grandson and heir of William Randolph Hearst – the man many credit or blame for starting the Spanish-American War with the power of journalism; who ingeniously but unsuccessfully used his media empire to convince the United States to annex all of Mexico, where he owned mines and vast amounts of real estate; who published a recurring column from the pen of Hermann Goering…William R. Hearst’s grandson, the great grandson of George Hearst –who insured the family’s future with a one-sixth stake in the first silver bonanza of the Comstock Lode, and became U.S. Senator...that heir, William Randolph Hearst III, left publishing in 1995 to become a partner at Kleiner Perkins Caulfield Byers. One hundred years in the Time of Thought Leadership.
And though public discussion of race by this young century’s bumper crop of rich white demagogues has shifted substantially, that hasn’t kept the city from getting a whole lot whiter, recently and rapidly. Hell, the new San Francisco industrialists are even as enthusiastic as their forbears about the cost of labor in the Phillipines, though, again, they don’t tend to boast about it.
The parallels and continuity between San Francisco then and now are striking –and the more the futurists crow about technological deliverance and the near times of abundance (while lining their pockets in the present), the older they sound. But don't take my word for it.
Brechin arrived at the Jupiter Brew Pub in Berkeley on his bike. Spritely at 68, he laughed easily, often and from the belly over the course of our two-beer lunch. He’s a staunch pessimist.
“I don’t have any hope, that’s just a waste of time, it just causes grief. We are heading to a nuclear catastrophe, climate change is inevitable, while everyone is hunched over their devices,” he said at one point, grinning.
“It’s inevitable that we’ll annihilate ourselves.”
Brechin has spent the majority of the past 50 years as either a student or instructor at UC Berkeley. During the ‘80s he ventured away to “do his journalism thing,” writing an urban design column for KQED’s defunct San Francisco Focus magazine among other things.
“I learned that you can say whatever you want about the aesthetics of a building, but once you start talking about about real estate values and ownership, that’s quicksand. You don’t go there if you know what’s good for you. But not doing so would also just be so boring. That was the education I needed to write Imperial San Francisco,” he said.
Returning to Berkeley in 1992, he started researching his PhD, which yielded Imperial San Francisco and another book, Farewell Promised Land, written with Robert Dawson and also published in 1999.
This year, he left his teaching position at the school. He said he did so in protest over the continued (and undisclosed) presence on campus of John Yoo – author of the “torture memos” – who holds an Endowed Chair and teaches constitutional law. Brechin organized protests and vigils at the law school, but said only the Communists from Berkeley’s long-running Revolution Books could be counted on to show up.
“I’m ashamed of the institution that I love,” he said. “I can’t teach anymore, because I don’t know what I could tell graduating students about what’s in store for them.”
These days he keeps busy with a consistent battery of public speaking in town, from the Bohemian Club to the labor halls, and around the country. He’s researching first book in 16 years. And emailing.
“I haven’t been able to write since email,” he said. “I’m planning to just unplug.”
Brechin splits his time between Berkeley and the former Marin county summer resort of Inverness, where he hopes to hunker down and escape the net of distraction.
At one point in our conversation he pulled his iPhone from his pocket, slapping it on the table-top.
“I think this is one of the most diabolical things ever,” said the author of a book about popular plots of racial conquest and the early years of the atomic bomb. “They shouldn’t be sold without a prescription. At the Berkeley gym I feel like Donald Sutherland in the Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake [DR –a San Francisco classic].”
Brecher has a long acquaintance with Silicon Valley, growing up in postwar Los Altos. He was a childhood friend of Dick Shockley, son of William Shockley, inventor of the transistor and founder of the original Pentagon spinoff that gave Silicon Valley its name.
“Dick was very good looking, so I kind of zoomed in, you know?” Brechin said, laughing. “Bill Shockley was into that eugenics stuff. He actually told a reporter that his wife was of inferior breeding stock. It drove Dick crazy.”
Imperial San Francisco leaves off at the outset of Silicon Valley proper. But Brechin believes the intervening decades only bear out his thesis.
“Silicon Valley is probably the world’s greatest hi-tech arsenal. Behind it all is war. It’s a continuation of the Union Iron Works [DR – which built a significant portion of the Pacific U.S. and Japanese naval fleets. More recently, Salesforce held a Foo Fighters concert in the hulking ruins of its former Potrero Hill factory] and the Berkeley Radiation Lab, but much more effective. It’s “Total Information Awareness” and “Full Spectrum Dominance,” with these neat narcotic gadgets as a side products along with enormous fortunes for a very small group of people.”
He doesn’t think the tech industrialists are evil. “They’re brilliant idiots,” he said.
Recent history has changed his mind on certain points.
“I’ve been reconsidering the idea that San Francisco failed in its imperial ambitions. The agglomeration of wealth extracted from other places driving up real estate prices...I think the fundamental thesis remains the same. But I don’t think any longer that San Francisco is a failed star, I think it is one of an imperial constellation that includes London and New York, and other desirable cities for the ultra-wealthy to live in.”
“People who live around here haven’t a clue how devastated much of the country has been, in many ways shaped by technologies developed right here. I was in Milwaukee last week, I had no idea how bad it was. It’s full blown fascism, it’s astounding. American capital is eating itself, because the vast majority of Americans have less and less purchasing power.”
Lately, Brechin has shifted his focus to the New Deal, founding the Living New Deal Project at Berkeley and researching a new book about “the lost ethical language of public works.”
“I had to shift course, I didn’t want to be on that terrible bummer forever,” he said. In the New Deal, the hopeless historian finds a glimmer of hope.
“Oh, there is so much work to be done. God I would love to build a Museum of the New Deal, to show what we once had, that not so long ago we were on our way to a much more decent society than the one we take for granted, and the streets weren’t full of homeless and the mentally ill. That we once had a civilization worth the name. It’s possible but it’s going to take millions,” he said. He's feeling out potentential donors.
Brechin wrote a digestible, well-indexed and deeply sourced book on the genealogy of Greater San Francisco’s wealth over the city’s first hundred years of Yankee-powered growth. It’s readily available (there’s an ebook), but judging by the apparent repetition, not enough current San Franciscans are aware of the history the book contains. Maybe, if we remain unaware of the how’s and why’s of the New Deal, we’ll be bound to repeat it too.