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Almost Oriental Politeness

I always keep tabs on Gregory Rodriguez, for both his Zocalo lecture series and his L.A. Times opinion pieces. His book from a couple years back, Mongrels, Bastards, Orphans, and Vagabonds: Mexican Immigration and the Future of Race in America, is a welcome and balanced perspective on the history of Mexican immigration. Plus, he’s a rare critical voice examining the shape of urban and cultural space in Los Angeles in a way that tries to contend with the city without indulging in the tired cliches that dog most of the discussion about the city. Despite the fact that he hangs a little too heavily on a PR release/magazine puff piece about Los Angeles assuming the title of America’s rudest city, his recent article nicely positions an issue that has always plagued the city: “a fundamental lack of a shared civic culture in Los Angeles.”

Like New Yorkers we are mostly transplants, but there’s a difference. People tend to move to the Big Apple expressly to make themselves part of a famous, ongoing civic enterprise. By contrast, I think what our late Mayor Tom Bradley once said is still true: People who come to L.A. “are looking for a place where they can be free” — from tradition, the past, even from community. More than NYC, L.A. is a city of disconnected exiles.

I like the way Rodriguez uses Bradley’s apt characterization of the city to show that such partitions are well-embedded in its cultural and civic fabric, as well as his inclusion of critic/author’s Edmund White’s description of West Coast manners as Asian detachment: “’The almost Oriental politeness of the West Coast,’ he wrote, ‘is one of its distinctive regional features, in marked contrast to the contentiousness of the East Coast…. So few human contacts in Los Angeles go unmediated by glass (either a TV screen or an automobile windshield) that the direct confrontation renders the participants docile, stunned, sweet.’” Docile and sweet: if that were only the case!

Categories: Los Angeles
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