San Francisco politics has descended into fan fiction

You would think that, as a restaurant critic, I wouldn’t hear much from readers about city politics. But you’d be surprised. In response to what might seem like a normal review of a San Francisco restaurant, I often get missives from people who regret not being able to go because they’re terrified of the city that I live and work in. I’ve overheard Palo Alto, Los Gatos and Walnut Creek diners decry former District Attorney Chesa Boudin for doing everything short of personally breaking into houses with a crowbar. God forbid anyone brings up Oakland — it might as well be a bombed-out hole in the ground as far as these fantasies go.

Is there a starker, more dramatic image than French bulldogs gobbling up so much meth-laced fecal matter that they start jonesing for the drug themselves?

It’s too bad that it’s a lie, as poo myth originator and professional ex-San Franciscan Michelle Tandler admitted to San Francisco Examiner columnist Gil Duran: “Engagement is the goal.”

This line of thinking seems to be everywhere in the city these days. It’s less about objective reality and more about vibes. The visibility of homelessness isn’t about the Reagan-era slashing of mental health funding or the housing crisis, but about soft-hearted progressives being soft on crime.

Swap San Francisco for something else — let’s say, “The Lord of the Rings” — and this tendency would be what fans call a “head canon.” It’s the practice of reading into a work, usually a fictional one, to come up with a narrative that fits a given worldview or desire. For instance, even though (spoiler alert) the hobbits Frodo and Sam don’t kiss in the text, some queer “Rings” fans might construct a relationship out of tiny moments in the books to edify their desire for it to be seen in a story they love.

Head canon is the stone soup of textual reading: a recipe cobbled from the crafter’s deep, existential hunger.

Contrast this with the idea of the canon, a term once exclusively used in reference to ideas and practices supported by religious texts. In discussing the Bible or “The Lord of the Rings,” readers use canon as a mutually agreed-upon floor for theorizing and analysis.

Head canon debates, on the other hand, can result in toxic, conspiracy-level conflicts.

In many ways, I see all the slavering about hellhole San Francisco to be another form of this fan fiction.

It’s become an established game among conservatives — like Tucker Carlson, billionaire venture capitalist Peter Thiel and Florida Gov. (and presidential hopeful) Ron DeSantis — to use San Francisco as a rhetorical punching bag: a dramatic representation of leftism gone amok and an argument for conservatism as the cure. Vote red or your town will become the next San Francisco.

The city’s woes are a supposed warning that liberal policies don’t work and that only right-wing law-and-order politics will save us. Of course, according to national data compiled by center-left think tank Third Way, San Francisco’s 2020 homicide rate was just half that of Bakersfield, a stronghold of Republicanism and tough-on-crime policies. In Jacksonville, Fla., meanwhile, a San Francisco-size city, the homicide rate under its Republican mayor has actually increased by 28% during his seven-year tenure. Jacksonville had 128 more homicides in 2020 than San Francisco.

In a speech given at the National Conservatism Conference in Miami on Sept. 11, Thiel, a major donor to right-wing causes and candidates, actually criticized the GOP for leaning too hard onto what he called “nihilistic negation” or the sensational kind of rhetoric that San Francisco’s detractors revel in. Instead of talking about what progressive cities are doing wrong, let’s talk about what the GOP can offer, he suggested.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the conference concluded with DeSantis rallying the crowd with rhetoric about the “woke mind virus” infecting his political enemies.

Disproving lies takes much more work than making them up.

There will be more nihilistic negation to come, including here in San Francisco. The head canon of urban pessimism comes too easily on social media. And it will surely only get worse on Elon Musk’s Twitter, which the billionaire promises will be a mostly unmoderated “free speech” zone.

Nor will this mindset stop with rhetoric, as the recent assault of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband in their Pacific Heights home shows. The suspect in the attack, David DePape, maintained several blogs that were consumed with extreme right-wing conspiracy theories — about “satanic pedophile” communists, the Holocaust and the destruction of white society by an elite government cabal led by antifa and progressives.

In a piece for the New York Post that was circulated widely among conservative commentators, Michael Shellenberger, author of “San Fransicko: Why Progressives Ruins Cities,” used the incident to lay blame on “psychotic homeless people” and the “drug-induced psychosis gripping the West Coast.” And in one Fox News segment, host Jesse Watters blamed the attack on an alleged crime wave, painting a picture of a city where “people are being hit with hammers every day.”

That’s the head canon talking.

Despite how it’s used in political discourse, San Francisco is a real place — not progressive Mount Doom. This election day, and really, every day, it behooves us to tune out those who want or even need it to be a hopeless pit.

Soleil Ho (they/them) is a critic at The San Francisco Chronicle.

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