COMM-ORG Papers 2005


Book Review

This is the City: Making Model Citizens in Los Angeles. Ronald J. Schmidt Jr. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2005. Paper: ISBN 0-8166-4191-9. 148p. ($18.95)

Reviewed by: Neenah Estrella-Luna

Much of human behavior is learned by imitating or modeling after others. Babies learn to speak by hearing others and copying sounds. Most people learn to cook by watching others. We learn and reproduce social norms in our families, communities, and workplaces by observing and conforming to what others do. Ronald J. Schmidt, Jr. asserts that political behavior is no different. In fact, he says, elites in the US, and particularly Los Angeles, have been pursuing a project of emulatory mimesis as a central tenet of political education since at least the end of the 19th century. The centrality of the mimetic political tradition is the focus of the book, This is the City: Making Model Citizens in Los Angeles.

Mimesis is an ancient Greek concept in art and literature in which a style, theme, or simple way of doing is imitated by others. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, mimesis has also come to denote, "the action, practice, or art of mimicking or closely imitating ... the manner, gesture, speech, or mode of actions and persons, or the superficial characteristics of a thing." Schmidt argues that encouraging imitation has long been used to direct civic energy to maintaining the status quo. The mimetic tradition of political education exhorts citizens to preserve and not to innovate, because with innovation comes uncertainty and change.

Emulation, on the other hand, is imitation but with a competitive element. The imitator is encouraged to imitate and surpass that which he is imitating. Emulation has long roots in American political pedagogy, from appeals to model ancient Romans during the Revolutionary War to Abraham Lincoln's invocations of the founding principles when he emancipated the slaves and pursued a way to keep the nation whole. Emulatory mimesis demands that good citizens both innovate and imitate. Schmidt argues that this creates a paradox: by definition, it is impossible to imitate innovation. Therefore, innovation "must be defined as mirroring preexisting hierarchies." According to Schmidt, whether through mimesis or emulation, this form of political education serves only to encourage a passive civic identity and political disengagement more generally.

The first chapter in the book tells the story of Harrison Gray Otis, the first publisher of the Los Angeles Times. Born in Ohio, Otis eventually landed in Los Angeles and took over as editor of the LA Daily Times and LA Mirror in 1882. He soon found an equal share partner and created the Times-Mirror Company. Within four years, Otis bought him out as well, closed the Mirror, and became sole owner, publisher, and editor of the new LA Times. The new mission of the paper was to promote the principles of the Republican Party, libertarian "public morals," and the development of Southern California.

Schmidt argues that Otis used the Times as the organ through which he promoted his notion of freedom, virtue, and economic success. More importantly, he sold Los Angeles to would-be immigrants from back East. Otis portrayed Los Angeles as a potential model city to the rest of the nation. This model, according to Schmidt, rested on the vision of a colonial citizenry, which Otis learned in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War. Otis' political model was one in which the citizens passively preserved the established hierarchy, one that Otis purportedly created in Los Angeles and maintained through "economic monopoly" and "armed intervention."

Otis is best known in California for his successful campaign against unionization in Southern California. His violent opposition to unions resulted in the bombing of the LA Times building in 1910. The arrest and guilty pleas of two well known union organizers served to demoralize the movement in Southern California. It also reified the political power of Otis and his conservative business allies.

While the analysis of Otis' behavior through the lens of mimesis is interesting, Schmidt fails to persuade that Otis had anything other than capital accumulation and power on his mind. Otis was one of the largest landowners in Southern California at the beginning of the real estate boom he helped create in the late 19th and early 20th century. His real estate investments in the San Fernando Valley were more likely the primary motivation for his support for the LA Aqueduct than concern about the city itself. Back room deals and fake news stories of drought won the passage of the bond measure that funded the LA Aqueduct and resulted in large profits for both Otis and his son-in-law, Harry Chandler.

Otis may have believed that the success of Southern California lay in the successful application of the mimetic project. However, I am not convinced, as Schmidt argues, that Otis was as concerned about creating a particular idyllic political place. Otis' crafty pursuit to accumulate wealth and power, as well as his conservative political beliefs, appear to better explain his opposition to unionization, to the Santa Monica port, and to all forms of left-wing mobilization. Schmidt's own description portrays a megalomaniac whose civic concerns began and ended with Otis himself.

The second chapter tells the story of how Hollywood elites, MGM's Louis B Mayer and Warner Brothers' Harry and Jack specifically, attempted to teach civic virtue through film. Schmidt presents an analysis of MGM and Warner Brothers movies from this framework. Mayer specifically sought to ensure that all MGM movies would teach the lesson of small town virtues. However, small town virtues do not necessarily imply political disengagement.

Schmidt's analysis of such American favorites as The Wizard of Oz and Casablanca is an interesting read. Schmidt deconstructs the political messages in the movies and argues that these signify the studio head's efforts to instruct the citizens of Los Angeles to adopt a passive civic identity. Unfortunately, he does not provide any evidence, beyond Mayer's insistence on teaching small town virtues, that political disengagement was intended, nor does he show how the messages in nationally distributed films would be localized to Los Angeles.

In the third chapter, Schmidt demonstrates that, under Police Chief William Parker, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) established policies and practices premised on a vision of Los Angeles as a chaotic city that required order. When Parker took over the LAPD in the 1950s, his goal was to move it away from its corrupt past and shape it into a model for other police departments, and, more importantly, for the citizens of Los Angeles. LAPD officers were going to provide an "exemplar" of civic virtue that the citizens would have to emulate. According to Schmidt, Parker initially believed that the city could be made virtuous if its elites provided the right models. If the non-elites could not emulate, at least they could learn to "act" like citizens. Parker collaborated closely with Jack Webb in producing the hit show Dragnet. Schmidt argues that Parker pursued this collaboration with the intention of portraying LAPD officers as model citizens to be imitated by real citizens. But he does not provide any evidence that Parker's goal was anything other than burnishing the image of the LAPD.

Ironically, Parker's explicitly racist policies and efforts to suppress any form of "radical" mobilization created a department that would be widely criticized rather than emulated. His protege and successor, Darryl Gates, certainly did not believe in the virtuousness of the city of Los Angeles. Continuing the racist policies of his predecessor, Gates pursued a policy of active containment. He saw the LAPD more as an "occupying force in an ungrateful city." He was not interested in building the virtue of the citizens of Los Angeles, but rather the passive submission to the authority of the LAPD.

The final chapter begins by describing the dystopia that is Los Angeles in Ridley Scott's film, Blade Runner. However, Schmidt quickly weaves in a discussion about former Mayor Tom Bradley's coalition, as well as summaries of the three previous chapters, which only serves to confuse the reader about his message. Bradley's progressive coalition is presented as a break from the historical political culture of the past. Elected in 1973 through an alliance of African Americans, liberal Jews, and "WASPs," Schmidt describes Bradley as successfully curbing some of the excesses of "political imitation." He bolstered the independence of the Police Commission, successfully passed a proposition that limited the terms of the LAPD chief, increased access to city politics among ethnic minorities, and brought in large amounts of federal money. But, Schmidt argues, "he did not use his public position to provide a different model of political life."

And herein lies the weakest point of the book: Schmidt never provides a description of this alternate civic model. As a former Angelina, I personally don't recognize the city Schmidt describes. I do not dispute the stories of repression of unions, ethnic/ racial minorities, and progressive movements. However, I do not see the emulatory project Schmidt describes. As a resident of the city and region during part of the period Schmidt covers, I dispute the characterization of the non-elite citizenry as politically inactive or civically disengaged. That was not true when I lived there, nor does it match the stories among residents and academics who have been politically active since at least the 1940s in efforts to unionize, open up unions to ethnic minorities, seek and win election and appointment to political offices, monitor and challenge the LAPD, and basically challenge the status quo.

Schmidt attempts to do two very interesting analyses in this book. First, he focuses on the influence of the city's elite in shaping the structure of political life. The perspectives, motivations, and machinations of elites is a story that has been neglected by historians of late, and so is a worthwhile project. Second, he attempts to show how mass media, in the form of the LA Times, Hollywood, and television, have all provided common models of civic virtue.

Unfortunately, Schmidt does not provide enough support for his core theoretical argument. The excessive use of jargon makes the book inaccessible to most readers and at times serves only to confuse. The story of the use of authority to suppress certain forms of politics, to oppress certain groups, and reify existing hierarchies is certainly not new. It remains to be seen whether the tradition of political imitation, if there is such a thing, has been an important factor in this. The test of a good theory is whether and how much of a phenomenon it explains. So far, the tried and true explanations of greed, power hunger, and racism seem to explain better Otis' LA Times, Parker and Gates' LAPD, and even the rise and fall of Bradley's progressive alliance than Schmidt's political mimesis.

About the Reviewer:

Neenah Estrella-Luna is a public health professional and social justice activist currently working on her Ph.D. in Law, Policy and Society at Northeastern University. She has worked in numerous positions in health care, public health research, community health, and community building and development in Los Angeles, Boston, and Wilmington, DE.