“Kate,” having duly complained about the cold in New York, hastily adds:
“On the other hand, I would still rather be in good ol’ NYC than in the armpit of the world known as LA.”
“Eric,” aiming lower than “Kate” both anatomically and rhetorically, adds the following quote from H.L. Mencken:
“If Los Angeles is not the one authentic rectum of civilization, then I am no anatomist. Any time you want to go out again and burn it down, count me in.”
As a transplant, I don’t take any of this very personally. One of my colleagues, however, a native Angeleno who spent some years in Bostonian exile, quickly wearied of the assumption that anyone born where he was born must be an airhead. (That view, he reports, was often voiced by people who considered themselves cosmopolitan but had never been west of Pennsylvania.)
The rules of the regional-abuse game are quite complex: saying nasty things about New York picks you out as a rube and a bigot, while dumping on Los Angeles establishes your sophistication. (I will need to have someone explain to me slowly why Mencken’s opinions about L.A., based presumably on his observations in the Raymond Chandler era, have any relevance to the city as it now is. In any case, as a Baltimore boy myself, it seems to me that the Baltimore-based Mencken might have done well to reflect on stones and glass houses before criticizing anyplace else.)
The convention seems to be that the horrid weather on the East Coast builds character, while the excellent weather here leads to moral and intellectual degeneration. The connection of harsh climate with human flourishing is an idea at least as old as Machiavelli (see Discourses, I, 1). I’m told that Montesquieu said similar things, though Hume dissented. William McNeill in Plagues and Peoples attributes the prejudice to the fact that, in era before sewers, vaccinations, and antibiotics, people in warm climates were at greater risk of infectious disease.
My colleague attributes part of it to sheer Nietzschean ressentiment and sour grapes: if you have to live with miserable weather, it helps if you convince yourself that miserable weather is a benefit rather than a cost. No doubt cognitive dissonance also plays a role: people who have decided to live outside of Paradise need to justify their choice to themselves. And the nice-weather-makes-you-dumb idea is fully consistent with the basic Puritan notion that anything good for you must feel bad, and vice versa.
Now I’m no Angeleno triumphalist: the complete absence of civic pride, as expressed by the architecture and condition of our public buildings and the scandalous shabbiness of major cultural institutions such as the L.A. County Museum of Second-Rate Art, really gets me down sometimes. I miss deciduous trees and second-hand bookstores. The state of the Los Angeles Mummified School District is a source of constant outrage.
But the notion that no real work gets done here because everyone’s at the beach, and that everyone in L.A. is concerned mostly with his muscle tone and his sign of the Zodiac, is really fairly silly. As a stereotype it lacks even the modicum of truth required for a good joke.
I remember being told, before I left Boston, “Every year you live in L.A. takes a point off your I.Q.” Perhaps that’s true. But then those of us clever enough to move here presumably had some points to spare, compared to those dull enough to continue to suffer Northeastern summers and winters, and Northeastern manners.