Thursday, October 25, 2012

Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror and Deliverance in the City of Love, by David Talbot

In Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror and Deliverance in the City of Love (Free Press, 2012), David Talbot reviews the history of San Francisco, that iconic American city, from its beginnings to the present day.  His main focus falls on the last 110 years, and most of the book is devoted to the 1960s, 70s, and (to an extent) the 80s.  Talbot focuses on the prominent personalities of the city, ranging from Janis Joplin and Jim Jones to Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, assassinated by White in 1978.  The traces the rise of the counterculture, which has roots way back in the early parts of the century, the origins of the city as an attractive community for gays, and the impact of the AIDS epidemic.  Talbot writes in the style of a newspaper feature writer.  He talks about the big points, never fails to drop a name or to emphasize the salacious or scandalous nature of some person or event. The San Francisco he describes is one of tradition and revolution in conflict, of whites vs. blacks, of tradition-bound conservatives against well-intentioned reformers, of hippies vs. the police, of gays against straights.  His is a world of good vs. bad, and for him the good is the liberal side, the reformers, hippies, gays, and so on.  The bad are conservatives, policemen, mainstream politicians, the city power structure.  He pays a lot of attention to San Francisco’s mayors over the years, from Joe Alioto to Dianne Feinstein. This is not a bad way of organizing the narrative, but it leads to a focus on exteriors, on major figures, and except in discussions where he writes about a movement or phenomenon in general terms, such as the Jim Jones cult or the counter culture or the AIDs epidemic, we do not get much analysis.  Either we return to commonly held ideas—for instance, that the murders of Harvey Milk and Mayor Moscone were a tragic turning point in the city’s modern history—or to superficial contentions—that the victory of the San Francisco 49ers in the Super Bowl of 1981 helped bring about the city’s recovery from the assassinations.  He is capable of nuance, especially in his accounts of the mayors of the city.  The uneasy relationship that developed between Jim Jones and various city politicians, including Mayor Moscone, makes a story I’ve heard only in rumors.  With a few exceptions, the city political structure was in thrall to Jones, and as his behavior and the nature of his Temple grew increasingly ominous, city leaders either ignored it or benefited from it.  Even Dianne Feinstein fell under Jones’ influence.

One contention I’d dispute is that in the 1960s and 70s San Francisco was the crest of the American wave. No doubt San Francisco was an interesting city, and that several major national social movements had beginnings there, but certainly one could find America in other locations—New York, Chicago, the Midwest, the Southern coastal regions.  In these and other places Americans were living and struggling and experiencing their own version of the times.  It’s not as if those Americans who didn’t reside in San Francisco during the two decades somehow didn’t matter.

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