Sunday, March 06, 2005

Is It Apathy If We Just Don't Care?

Gregory Rodriguez addresses the notion of apathy in Los Angeles politics, arguing, along the lines that we have, that it's not so much a problem as the status quo. In a good way:

Political scientists blame L.A.'s sprawl and fragmented political institutions for much of our municipal apathy. The county provides social services; the city polices the streets and fills potholes. All this leaves some residents confused about which local political jurisdiction they live in.

San Francisco is the antithesis of Los Angeles. Relatively small, dense and with city and county boundaries the same, it has remarkably high rates of civic engagement, according to Richard DeLeon, a professor of political science at San Francisco State University. The City by the Bay is a caldron of social movements, a magnet for migrants eager to be part of the city's political mix.

By contrast, people don't generally come to L.A. to join a civic enterprise. Since the early 20th century, they have come to realize suburban, not urban, dreams. Migrants from the Midwest sought health and happiness in the sunshine. Civic activism wasn't on their minds. . . .

Defying the fantasies of civic activists, L.A.'s Mexican immigrants haven't much changed our political culture. The iron gates and fences that enclose the front yards of so many of their homes testify to the Mexican idea of the relationship between family and civic life. The immigrant group with one of the lowest rates of civic engagement is perfectly suited for L.A.
I'd certainly take exception to one quoted website's endorsement of The Industry-created notion that L.A. a city of disproportionatly distrustful, disloyal sorts; as well as his assertion that we "just haven't resolved the tension between our fundamentally suburban lifestyle and our aspirations to be a great city." To that, I say, where's the tension?

What makes L.A. fantastically separate from every other city in the world - what makes it New York City's peer and not its competitor (as San Francisco, I would argue, so desperately wants to be) - is its historic refusal to be a city in the commonly understood meaning of the word. Rodriguez, in fact, agrees with this idea as he argues for acceptance of this duality instead of an artificial push for pan-basin cohesion:

Ray Bradbury called L.A. a town with no elbows, "where you pick your neighbors 10 miles off and ignore those across the fence." In our city, alienation is not just a dirty word; it's another way to say freedom.

If huge numbers of Angelenos stay away from the polls Tuesday, it doesn't mean they don't care about their city. It may be that they're busy enjoying the openness and margin of safety this sprawling city still provides.
I've read that California is home to two kinds of liberals living along the coast. The southerners are more libertarian, freer even, than their northern cousins. Little proves that as easily as Angelenos' voluntarily divorcing themselves from traditional notions of civic activism. It's an odd line for me to argue, given that I love L.A. politics - hell, I grew up running around City Hall as a child, looking forward each Christmas to our family photo with Mayor Bradley. The Council was right up there with the Dodgers - in fact, to this day, I could likely spout more Council stats than Dodger stats. If only Vin Scully could call a close vote . . . .

I care vehemently about who wins on Tuesday. But if my L.A. neighbors don't, it doesn't anger me as much as their lack of attention to the Presidential election would. More of that Angeleno duality: ocean and mountain, sea and sky, Hollywood and bustling port. It's not hard to find a reason to love a city such as this one, its only truths in its contradictions; its only loyalty to those truths.

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