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The Lure of Politics as Therapy

October 25, 1998|Kevin Starr | Kevin Starr, a contributing editor to Opinion, is State Librarian of California and a faculty member at USC. The latest volume of his history of California is "The Dream Endures: California Enters the 1940s."

SAN FRANCISCO — Why this rage to deconstruct Los Angeles? That still remains the question, despite the 4-10 decision last Monday by the elected charter-reform commission to reject the proposal to create 40 elected neighborhood councils with decision-making power.

The argument against such councils seems obvious. Does Los Angeles really need 280 more elected officials, together with the burdensome bureaucracy they would inevitably bring with them? Would not such a new level of government soon evolve into a Monty Python circus of obstructionism and political posturing in the governance of the city?

The deconstruction of Los Angeles--and that is exactly what these neighborhood councils would mean: the permanent fragmenting of the city--is not a marginal opinion. Indeed, the elected commission remains committed to the principle, voted last June. The debate is over what form it will take. The idea is also a deeply held conviction of many citizens: Just last week, for example, former ARCO Chairman Lodwrick Cook came out in favor of disestablishing the city as a unified political entity.

Cook was talking in favor of San Fernando Valley secession. But the San Fernando Valley secessionist impulse is only one aspect of the deconstructionist drive. The proposal to create 40 elected neighborhood councils, each with seven members, goes even farther than the proposal to detach the San Fernando Valley from Los Angeles. It proposes, rather, the de facto deconstruction of the city into a loose federation of highly autonomous political units.

This is a startling idea, a revolutionary idea, a momentous idea: the voluntary deconstruction of the nation's second-largest city, one of the international crossroads of the planet, into localized units. Does anyone truly believe that hundreds of newly elected local officials, possessed of their own staffs and decision-making authority, would not at once become supreme in their own districts? Under such a system, Los Angeles might remain technically intact; it might even keep the San Fernando Valley; but it would become a federation of autonomies, not a unified city.

Is this a bad idea in a moral sense? Is it an intrinsically evil idea? Of course not. It may be an inefficient, ill-considered, idea; but it is not an immoral one, nor should it be demonized, even by those of us who feel that it is a self-evident absurdity.

The challenge, then, becomes to understand from whence the idea, however wrongheaded, springs. Certainly, across the entire First World, the deconstruction of previously existent political polities is underway. Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union are history. Scotland has achieved its own quasi-autonomous parliament, albeit without the authority to conduct foreign affairs. (Can Wales be far behind?) The Kingdom of Spain enters the new millennium as a federation of highly localized autonomies.

Here in California, the very survival of the state as a significant matrix of political identity is an open question. In the current gubernatorial election, for example, we have two highly qualified candidates, each an expert in state government. Yet, we are not asking them to talk much about such statewide issues as the water future, our embattled highway and public-works infrastructure, the growing state role in land-use planning, the reform of K-12 education, the need to renegotiate the master plan for higher education, patterns of local-state funding, or, if our current prosperity should continue, the allocation of future state surpluses. Each of our statewide candidates is capable of answering these questions; but voters' attention is not upon statewide issues. This is not the fault of the candidates. Having raised millions of dollars, the statewide candidates are entitled to try to win by addressing issues that press on the minds of the citizenry. These are, by and large, not California issues. It is as if Californians had already deconstructed California in their minds into, if not the proposed 40 units of Los Angeles, at least five or six substate regions.

Hence: It is not surprising, on one level, that this First World rage for deconstruction should come to Los Angeles. At least Los Angeles, in contrast to the state of California, is close enough and relevant enough to its residents to offer an adequate object for political deconstruction. From this perspective, the secessionist and deconstructionist ideas dividing the elected charter-reform commission, to judge by the recent vote, are part of an international pattern.

More locally, the deconstruction of Los Angeles offers increased opportunities for multiple agendas. Aspiring politicians would have hundreds of new offices to seek. Aspiring staffers would have hundreds of elected officials to look to for employment. Homeowners' associations would have many more elected bodies to dominate.

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