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 Friday, July 11, 2014

California, the Beta Test State, Part Five: Putting It All Together

A photo of L.A. I did not personally take.

Though I had been to Los Angeles twice before, it was on this trip I felt I finally understood why so many pop cultural and social phenomenons start in California.

Perhaps chiefly, the state attracts a different make of people. At home I was reading a page of people thinking of moving there and looking for tips on neighborhoods. One person posted they were thinking of moving there without even a job, "just to live a little." Another poster responded, "'Live a little' is the worst reasoning in the world. Making sure you have a job first is the adult thing to do." A third person claiming to be an actual California resident responded, "We moved here the same way. What's wrong with living a little? Your idea of adult sounds boring, and I wouldn't want you for a neighbor."

Jumping in without a plan or net (not my personal style) is a personality trait of entrepreneurs. The Europeans who landed on the East coast had already taken the biggest leap, and the Western pioneers could have stopped in Nebraska. Anyone who would persevere through hundreds of miles of what, from an airplane, looks like an ash tray, cheerily passing the bones of the Donner Party, certain there was something grand on the other side, is made of something else. This is the instinct that also exists in people who will throw themselves behind something like the personal computer, originally perceived as a Radio Shack toy for hobbyists, or think that there could be billions of dollars in nickelodeons. More often they probably fail, but the few times they succeed, they change the world.

Conservative cities like Dallas and St. Louis pride themselves on being business-friendly, low regulation, low tax states (the term "conservative" isn't being used in a political sense here, but to describe a mindset). So why is it the most tranformative technologies of our time have come from San Francisco, where the taxes and regulations are highest? Because the conservative mindset says, "Let's save money by letting someone else do the research and development. Let's see how this idea pans out. Let's be adults." Therefore, no one is looking toward Dallas or St. Louis for the next big thing, no matter how low their taxes are. The city that attracts the most dreamers wins.

It plays out in every sense: the middle of the road become the middle class in the middle of the country.

(As an aside, the impression I got was that while the white people between the Hollywood Hills and Beverly Hills were doing great, Mexican families were working for $8 an hour making beds, attending parking lots, and waiting tables at Denny's, cramming themselves into small houses in the valley. I was only there five days, but it didn't seem like there was a middle class.)

You can hear bands that sound like Slayer all day long in Georgia, but Slayer could not have started in Georgia. If it was 1979 and a bunch of shaggy Georgia guys were practicing their Foghat covers, then one of them said, "Guys, I've written a song for us. It's called 'Angel of Death.' It's about Auschwitz. It goes like this: AAAAAIIIIIIEEEEAAAAUUGH!!!," they would've been worse than laughed out of the room, they would've been social pariahs. But since Slayer is a success, Slayer-ish bands can be found anywhere.

An Atlanta friend of mine, who's always envisioned herself as part of the New York art set, says she's going insane from her co-workers' conversations. She says they're without exception about their kids, what's for dinner, and football. These are middle class concerns, and they're fine. But this is also why the Hula hoop didn't come from Stockbridge.

Mark Twain explained it all in "Corn Pone Opinions." He said anyone of high profile and social status -- in Twain's time European royalty, today a Hollywood celebrity* -- can introduce most any new concept in fashion or culture, and the masses, who have "a natural instinct to passively yield to that vague something recognized as authority," will follow. Twain gives the example of the hoop skirt: When someone from European royalty introduced the hoop skirt, it was radical. Only the fringe would dare wear one, and when the hausfrau who had sworn she would never wear such a thing finally caved in and put one on, the hoop skirt was suddenly over. And that's why, though my friend's co-workers may be primarily concerned with their kids, dinner, and football, if someone on Oprah mentions gluten-free diets, iPads, or the Church of Satan, they'll give them a try.

Maybe readers in other states will be offended by this characterization, but I ask you to put down the sushi, step out of the hot tub, bookmark your L. Ron Hubbard novel, and look around!

During my stay in California as much food for thought had been consumed as sausages and pancakes at Denny's (the finest of L.A. eateries, for my money). Now it was time to return to my hometown of Atlanta with fresh eyes.

* But how about a congressman or senator? I'll have to think about it.

Posted by Art | 6:36 PM EST | 0 comments |


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