California dream-makers in the driver’s seat

by Tom Plate

LOS ANGELES — Sometimes it’s not that easy living in Los Angeles. Despite splendid weather, sprawling beaches and gorgeous mountain ranges — not to mention the well-tanned Hollywood stars — you face the unrelenting, withering scorn of smug colleagues long established in New York and Washington.

East Coasters, you see, believe that anyone choosing to live here must be more or less brain-dead. They absolutely believe and know that their coast is far superior to any. Somehow we struggle along — while praying they never discover the truth.

This is why I hope they never hear about a pair of brilliant new books by colleagues of mine that illuminate the eminence of California, in particular, and penetrate so unerringly the historic inevitability of the West Coast’s continued historical upsurge. There are more than enough people out here already.

The first exceptional new book comes from the fine scholarly and policy mind of Abraham F. Lowenthal, an international relations professor at the University of Southern California (USC). Though a Latin American specialist, his encompassing vision enables the book to peer well across and deeply into Asia, too.

“Global California: Rising to the Cosmopolitan Challenge” (Stanford University Press) is, as the title suggests, a short brief for the proposition that California is something of its own nation — and something amazingly special needing special attention and care.

Lucidly and authoritatively, it draws our attention to the character of Southern California as the “eastern” capital of the Pacific Rim, with New Delhi and perhaps Dubai over at the other, far “western” end. Read professor Lowenthal for insight about our jampacked Asian communities that you never see in television series like “The O.C.,” about the huge import-export port of Long Beach/Los Angeles, about thriving Koreatown and other local Asian communities (one local freeway exit actually reads: LITTLE SAIGON), about LAX, perhaps the largest and most inefficient international airport in the industrialized world, and on and on.

It would push the Lowenthalean vision too far to argue that, by contrast, the East Coast can look downright provincial, Europe-obsessed, and rather senior- citizen-slow to sense the new spirit of our times and their decreasing relevance to it.

The second exceptional new book arises out of the cosmopolitan vision of two globe-trotting Angelenos: international journalist and career policy wonk Nathan Gardels and his Hollywood buddy Mike Medavoy, chairman of Phoenix Pictures and proud parent to legendary films such as “Rocky,” “Raging Bull,” “Annie Hall” and “Apocalypse Now.”

Their book is titled “American Idol After Iraq: Competing for Hearts and Minds in the Global Media Age” (Wiley-Blackwell). Like Lowenthal’s, it is comparatively short and a delight to read, focusing, not surprisingly, on the power of the West Coast to project American “soft power” almost everywhere through the pervasive and alluring imagery of mass entertainment.

From the team of Gardels and Medavoy, the reader gets the sense that if a nation had to choose between a nuclear arsenal and an image-factory like Hollywood — and this was its only choice — and where the goal was to maintain a dominant role in the world — they would say: Take movies over nukes, they’re more potent, they’re virtually failproof and they generally offer a happy ending.

“The reasons for Hollywood’s power over the last 100 years are clear,” they write. “Long before celluloid or pixels were invented, Plato understood that those who tell the stories also rule.”

America’s global heft rests not on megatons of weaponry but on decades and decades of successful mass-market storytelling: “Images — the currency of Hollywood — rule dreams and dreams rule actions.” These days, in fact, Hollywood rakes in more money from foreign markets than the domestic. That is the globalized 21st century bottom line.

For this reason, reading “American Idol After Iraq” can give a West Coaster the ultimate high. It is very hard to see how narrow and antediluvian religious views and political philosophies can compete against the carefree joy of a “Singin’ in the Rain,” the enduring tinsel-town glamour of a Julia Roberts or the sheer storytelling genius of a Steven Spielberg.

Hollywood thus produces the kind of contemporary currency that at least equals anything produced by Wall Street back East: “The biggest projector of image in human history, of course, has been Hollywood,” they argue. The assertion is beyond argument.

And so when you combine the fact-rich approach of a superbly informed Lowenthal, depicting California as the new global cosmopolitan republic, with the glitz image-laden approach of Gardels/Medavoy, elevating Los Angeles to something of a Rome/Vatican analogue in the secular-values department, you can easily see why the West Coast is absolutely the avant-garde leading edge of our 21st Century America.

No disrespect to our East Coast colleagues is intended, of course.

Career journalist Tom Plate, an American university professor for 14 years and author of “Confessions of an American Media Man,” was editor of the editorial pages for the Los Angeles Times from 1989 to 1995. © 2009 Pacific Perspectives Media Center