City of self-hate

Why Los Angeles elites love being bashed by Mike Davis.

Published December 15, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

It wasn't long ago that Mike Davis was on top of the world. The author of two scathing books about Los Angeles ("City of Quartz" and "The Ecology of Fear"), Davis was not only (predictably) adored by the left, he was also routinely feted by the very "business class" he often condemned. Davis' name graced the literary programs of everything from the Los Angeles Public Library (whose chief benefactor, Arco's Lodwrick Cook, Davis often criticized) to the newly opened J. Paul Getty Museum . Earlier this year he even won a prestigious MacArthur "Genius" Award. The former meat-cutter turned Marxist could apparently do no wrong.

No more. For the past few weeks Davis has suffered a literary drubbing. The reason: A series of penetrating attacks on his scholarship alleging everything from sloppy research (many of the ecological disasters claimed in "Ecology of Fear" never really happened) to outright fabrication (one of which Davis freely admits).

Yet while it is hardly surprising that leftish urbanites would embrace an articulate polemicist like Davis, one question remains unasked -- and unanswered: Why did L.A.'s elite embrace him so? The answer, I think, is this: In the self-proclaimed capital of self-love, Davis is the Proxy of Self-Hate.

With apologies to the great philosopher Al Franken, consider the main elements of this urban "stinkin' thinking":

The seduction of exceptionalism: Part of the perverse pride of elites in L.A. is the belief that their city is more exploitative than any other in the world. This belief is largely grounded in a school of historical thought popularized by the late Carey McWilliams, a brilliant left-wing author and 1930s social activist whose works are still considered sacrosanct by L.A. city fathers -- so much so that his Mencken-like description of the landmark Pershing Square was recently carved into stone at the downtown plaza. McWilliams argued, in essence, that because of its unique geographic, racial and historical circumstances, Los Angeles developed as "the quintessential capitalist town," going from pastoral economy to cottage industry to modern technopolis in the space of less than 70 years. McWilliams later extended this critique to the entire state in his seminal "California: The Great Exception."

Although more recent scholarship has painted a much more nuanced portrait of L.A.'s development (and although McWilliams, who died in 1980, loved the city deeply), Davis has nevertheless claimed the bitterest edge of the old McWilliams legacy as his own. In due course he raised the practice of exceptionalism to a fine art, claiming, at one time or another, that Los Angeles is "more racist," classist and environmentally corrosive than any other city in the nation. For L.A. elites, both liberal and conservative, this strange claim to fame somehow translates into an ironic brand of postmodern chic. You think you know what real people are going through in this country? Well, we do! Because our city really sticks it to 'em!

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The "Internationalization of Workers Rights": Only in L.A. (and, on a very cold day, perhaps Berkeley or Cambridge) would you routinely find elites cornering presidential candidates about human rights in Burma while ignoring workers' rights at home. Davis understands such priorities. In his first book, "City of Quartz," he dedicates a large section to the exploitation of janitorial workers in downtown L.A. high-rises. But instead of an honest accounting of the situation (even labor organizers now admit that a large part of the janitors' woes were due to the fact that traditional African-American service unions ignored Latinos), Davis instead blames what he calls "spatial apartheid," a unique culture of racial separation based on profession. (As in: Lawyers and financial types occupy the spaces in the day, janitors at night -- something unheard of in spatially integrated places like Chicago and Manhattan.) In so doing, Davis transformed an indigenous problem into a safely condemnable "world" problem -- in one breath, L.A. elites could "really relate" to what was going on in South Africa.

The Great Race-Class-Environment Myth, Reaffirmed: Although the city's biggest coteries of pro-growth entrepreneurs are found among its Latino and Asian immigrants, L.A.'s vaunted environmental leaders, largely residents of the Westside, rarely visit anywhere east of the Santa Monica Farmers Market and almost never encounter anyone of color outside their Salvadoran housekeepers. In their minds, they're still living in Jesse Jackson's rainbow coalition of blacks, whites, greens and browns.

Davis knows this too. In perhaps his most hypocritical piece of agitprop, he paints opponents of restoring the Los Angeles River to its "natural" state -- by removing "unnatural" flood-control culverts -- as racists. His reasoning? Simple. As Davis sees it, anyone who thinks that flood control is more important than a new piece of parkland must have something against the Latinos and blacks who he claims need parks the most. Yet Davis never takes on the real issue: the fact that it would be the working class of southern L.A. -- the very working class Davis holds near and dear -- who would be subsidizing the effort through increased flood insurance payments.

Downtown is the source of all evil -- unless you're restoring an old building: Unlike elites in most cities around the world, L.A.'s new elite, particularly those from the Westside, hate their own downtown. This antipathy has its roots in the postwar period, when decision-making was dominated by the so-called Committee of 25, a largely Catholic power clique of downtown developers and attorneys. With the rise of the mayoral reign of Tom Bradley and a 20-year coalition of Westside Jews and African-American leaders from South Central Los Angeles, the Committee of 25 went into eclipse. But with the ascendance of current Mayor Richard Riordan, who was a young member of the committee in the late 1960s, anti-downtown sentiment has been soaring.

Davis has provided the kindling and the fuel. In "City of Quartz," citing Riordan's friendship with Archbishop Roger Mahony, he warns of nothing less than " a Catholic restoration" of the old power structure. In words that weirdly call to mind the old Protocols of the Elders of Zion, he inveighs against a dangerous "traffic in influence between the hierarchy and the city's 'invisible government' of developers and bankers." This renaissance of Westside antipathy to downtown "neo-Committee" politics came full circle a few years ago, when Westsiders led the protest against the Diocese of L.A.'s attempt to tear down its old, seismically unsafe cathedral and build a new one to serve the area's expanding Hispanic and Asian populations. It was one of the few times a contingent of Westside elites traveled downtown at night, although they somehow managed to get their cars valet-parked by young Latino men.

What lies behind such a self-denigrating urban belief system?

Part of the answer surely lies in the city's twisted New York connection. The new Angeleno elite, with its legions of entertainment lawyers and movie financiers, increasingly takes its status cues from the Big Apple, which of course has a vested interest in denigrating Los Angeles. Many L.A. elites would rather put their money into the Met than into a local institution, the better to curry favor with national media and finance types.

Then there is the psychological need for identity -- even a bad one. For the truth about today's L.A. is that it is a city with no precedent in the annals of urbanity. It is a city of many centers instead of one. It is a city of millions of interesting and important points but no one key monument. And, perhaps most importantly, it is a city of anecdote instead of a city of narrative: Its richness lies in the story of eccentric individuality rather than historic repetition.

For elites in search of commonalty with East Coast friends, that's bad for dinner conversation. Over truffled quail at La Cirque, Davis somehow goes down easier than trying to explain that Los Angeles is great for many reasons, the best one being that it isn't New York.

By Greg Critser

Greg Critser writes frequently about the pharmaceutical industry.

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