Under the Perfect Sun:
The San Diego Tourists Never See
By Mike Davis, Kelly Mayhew and Jim Miller
The New Press, 2003
Hardcover, 304 pp., $25.95

If you think you can escape to San Diego vacationland this summer, read this book. The authors hammer out a triptych of perspectives that highlight an ominous shadow otherwise invisible under the Perfect Sun. San Diego, often called “America’s finest city,” is a slick billboard for the corporate-sponsored greed that is rotting our civil society to its foundation.

If you think local politics is like a funhouse on the beach, you should read this book. Radical urban theorist Mike Davis (“City of Quartz,” “Ecology of Fear”) puts down the keel by laying out a history and structure of private governments in San Diego. By casting his bait at individuals, he catches an entire class of exploiters very much like Richard Boyer and Herbert Morais did in “Labor’s Untold Story.” Over time we see this mass of individualists set up and cure into informal alliances, interlocking directorships, speculative syndicates, secret partnerships and outright criminal conspiracies.

These “capitalist insiders” build an assembly-line for profit by engineering the central government and employing force of arms to squelch dissent. In addition the media monopoly, as the voice of enterprise, manufactures consent to the policies of its secret proceedings.

So you think there’s no tradition of fightback in these cities of the Sunbelt? You should read this book. You’ll discover Jim Miller’s “episodic history” counters the top-down approach of Mike Davis. As a professor of labor studies at San Diego Community College, Miller knows well to open with the immigrants and oppressed peoples who are the pillars of our working class.

Like Boyer and Morais, he chronicles our organizational developments and the sanctioned attempts at dismantling them. From the Wobblies’ free speech fight and the Mexican revolution of the early 20th century, to the role of the Communist Party in the labor movement, he navigates past land speculators, military complexes, the tourist industry and civic boosters cheering from the sidelines and press boxes. This heroic topography gets an additional seismic lift from the emergence of the civil rights, peace and environmental movements as well as the rise of the “New Left” and anti-globalization trends amongst the youth.

And if you think that you can be a progressive independent of class, you should read this book. Author Kelly Mayhew rounds out the trio by extracting contemporary human gems from Miller’s rich vein of history. Out of the vast wasteland of popular culture she dials us in to our co-workers, friends, neighbors and comrades.

Using a narrative style popularized by Studs Terkel she has us touch the face of those who might otherwise escape our attention. Perhaps because of our familiarity with these people and the mainstream they swim in, the weight of our oppression seems borne lightly between the lines. At a time of unchecked militarism, in a spectacular place of limited resources amongst circumstances of grave economic injustice, Mayhew brings us all a little bit closer to our class.

Regrettably there are no conclusions to the “Perfect Sun” and the book ends with only a glimmer of hope from the political action director of the local labor federation. However if you ignore the inconsistencies of style and the intended local focus you can draw object lessons from it. So go ahead, read this book … and enjoy your vacation.

The author can be reached at