LOS ANGELES: CAPITAL
OF THE THIRD WORLD.
Simon & Schuster.
270 pages. $20. There used to be a common expression of disgust toward certain American scenes and climates: "They ought to give this place back to the Indians." As David Rieff points out in this book, Americans have little respect for places as such, except as springboards to newer and presumably better American places.
Mr. Rieff's basic, not always explicit, argument is that America actually is in the process of ceding itself to non-white peoples: not only American Indians but Indian Indians, other Asians and people from all over what we call the Third World.
Further, this apparent defeat, if that's what it is, is the direct result of a success story, a creation of capitalism at the height of its imperially arrogant contempt for natural limits and "undeveloped" environmental beauty as embodied in Los Angeles, the Great Gatsby of American cities.
Until late in the last century, the Los Angeles basin was simply a desert in search of prophets seeking profits -- speculative capitalists like Harrison Otis and Collis Huntington -- a place literally built on sand with stolen water and gushers of hype, famous nationwide before it could be said to exist. Los Angeles is the lie told in the morning that became the truth by dinner, whose last course for Anglos may have been the Reagan years.
Increasingly disgusted by the social and economic unraveling of the Northeast, and by the reflexive put-downs of Los Angeles by people living, like him, in the dangerous squalor of Manhattan, Mr. Rieff decided to explore Los Angeles as the last bastion of American energy, optimism and the ability to dream big. What he found there was the prevalent but "inchoate sense that . . . the United States had stopped being an extension of Europe and had, for better or worse, struck out on its own, an increasingly nonwhite country adrift . . . in a nonwhite world" whose paradigm is present-day Los Angeles.
Mr. Rieff is an especially good guide to the paradoxes of the place because he was so willing to be seduced by the amenities of this artificial paradise, "this illusion that is no illusion." The amenities are there, though increasingly eroded by auto gridlock, pollution and water short age.
Mr. Rieff's most illuminating discovery was twofold: the prosperity-induced blindness to such looming realities on the part of his Anglo hosts, the least affluent of whom lived rich while thinking middle-class at the expense of their Latino maids and gardeners; and the rapid mental absorption of the Third World immigrants, especially their children, into the Los Angeles ideology of disjunction from reality and from the past.
Because of the Green Revolution in the Third World, and American TV's global impact, "for the first time since the Stone Age, the peasantry was beginning to disappear from large parts of the earth" and end up working in Los Angeles -- and, eventually, throughout the Western world, Mr. Rieff says. And for him, the shape of America to come is epitomized by the Pakistani convenience-store owner dealing with his Guatemalan stock boy in pidgin Spanish, a language he didn't know existed when he left Karachi.
As a prophet, Mr. Rieff goes no further than to quote Salman Rushdie's prediction that the new global civilization will probably be a matter of host and immigrant cultures "leaking into one another, like flavors when you cook." Whatever, it promises to be interesting -- fer sure, as they say in L.A.