10/24/2007 01:43 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011


I've spent the past several days stunned by the size of the wildfires consuming much of California. I lived in San Diego during the last bout with disaster, in October 2003, and remember vividly the fear and claustrophobia one senses as the sky turns purple, ash rains down and the air itself turns deadly. It's an awful feeling, and one I wish on no-one.

This time, however, while a fewer number of houses have been consumed statewide than in 2003, the concentration of buildings lost in the San Diego area is higher. The scale of the catastrophe is simply epic. When it's all over, thousands of people will have no houses to return to, and thousands more will be returning to partially destroyed buildings. Wind combined with fire is doing to large swatches of urban southern California what wind combined with water did to Gulf Coast residents two years ago.

I wrote about this for the Guardian online yesterday. In my article I talked about the human dimension of the fires -- the lives lost (thankfully, to date, "only" a few), the property destroyed, the dreams contained within those houses burned, the hundreds of thousands of people fleeing walls of flame. I also said I had a feeling many readers would take it as an ill-founded opportunity to get in some jabs at America. Unfortunately I was right. Several of the comments from readers were not only crass but deeply, perplexingly offensive. Apparently in some circles, it's a form of radical chic to glory in each and every calamity, to strike not the abstract concept of "America" but the real lives of individual Americans.

To my mind there's nothing progressive about such words or thoughts. This is stupidity, pure and simple. It's hatred masquerading as profound politics. Social justice movements need to coalesce around ideas and communal visions, not around competitions as to who can say the nastiest, ugliest words about America and Americans.

My thoughts are with all of my friends in Southern California at the moment. I wish them well and I wish the firefighters and emergency crews tackling the blazes good fortune.

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