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CALIFORNIA: It Is Still America’s Promised Land —

7 minute read

If America is the land where the world goes in search of miracles and redemption, California is the land where Americans go. It is America’s America, the symbol of raw hope and brave (even foolish) invention, where ancient traditions and inhibitions are abandoned at the border. Its peculiar culture squirts out — on film and menus and pages and television beams — the trends and tastes that sweep the rest of the country, and then the rest of the world. If California broke off and dissolved in salt water, America would lose its seasoning.

And so the rough awakening is more painful as California confronts the crumbling of its cities, the clashing of its citizens, the glaring challenge to its assumption of uniqueness and special promise — in short, the possible implosion of its dream. California’s woes suit the scale of its mythology; when things go wrong there, they go deeply, harshly, frighteningly wrong. The crimes seem more vicious, the smog more choking, the poor more sorrowful in the light of fluorescent disillusionment. The mad, fit joggers must run at night if they hope to breathe freely, and in some areas a television glowing dimly through a window can become a target for a drive-by shooter. In Northern California’s ancient forests, loggers fell trees that sprouted 10 centuries ago, and elsewhere in the state, some rural neighborhoods are raising their ^ taxes to buy the surrounding hills before they too are buried beneath the tract houses of yet another tacky instant city. California’s myriad of problems are measured in superlatives: the state has more convicts than Tallahassee has residents; the $14 billion budget deficit California wrestled with this year was by far the largest ever faced by any state. Ethnicity comes in mind-boggling variety: Los Angeles has more Mexicans than any other city but Mexico City, more Koreans than any other city outside Seoul, more Filipinos than any other city outside the Philippines, and, some experts claim, more Druze than any other place but Lebanon.

The classic formula says California, the richest and most populous state, is the future. California is America’s bright, strange cultural outrider: whatever happens now in California, or to California, will be happening to America before long, and to the entire world a little while after that. If you want to know whether America still works, then ask whether California still works. Does the reckless American hospitality to immigrants still accomplish its transformations and synergies? Can America still absorb so many disparate values and traditions and form them into a successful society? Or will the nation vanish into an incoherent future? Consult California.

In Los Angeles: Capital of the Third World, David Rieff says the U.S. has “stopped being an extension of Europe, and has, for better or worse, struck out on its own, an increasingly nonwhite country adrift, however majestically and powerfully, in an increasingly nonwhite world.” Perhaps. Native Americans inhabited California before the European-Americans arrived, and the white civilization could prove evanescent. Maybe white Americans are simply redrawing their absolute perspectives. What the TV weather forecasters in Los Angeles call the “southland” is El Norte to Latin Americans. America’s Far West is Japan’s Far East.

California has always functioned in the American imagination as a sort of floating state of mind, a golden land unanchored in tradition or guilt. A fresh start: no corpse of the past, no tragedy. Gravity feels different in California — life there sometimes has the weightlessness of a dream. What feels morally heavy Back East may dissolve into inconsequence in the delicious sunshine off Monterey. A State Department analyst may move to Huntington Beach and with intense focus take up competitive Frisbee. Recreation has the significance in California of a big idea.

Other states have identities. California has a metaphysic. Americans do not refer to the Pennsylvania Dream or the Missouri Dream. California has always been an immaterial, shimmering thing in the imagination, the golden exception, the California Dream. California is where the Europeans’ westward trajectory ended. Americans become metaphysical about the place because when they run out of continent, they start to review the entire national experience and try to add up its meaning.

The world may come to California thinking it is a magnificent playground, which it is. “Eureka,” says the state’s motto: “I have found it.” Gold is the color of the Forty-Niners’ wealth and of white skin set to glowing in the California sun. But nature may object to the uses to which it is put. The hills may go off like a fire bomb, as they did in Oakland a few weeks ago. Or the solid earth may abruptly rumble and break in devastating earthquakes.

A few weeks ago, the environmental artist Christo, wrapper of seacoasts, had 1,760 giant umbrellas implanted and opened in the bald, dun landscape of the Tejon Pass in the Tehachapi Mountains north of Los Angeles (1,340 more were simultaneously opened in Japan). The art seemed very California, surreal, whimsical, harmlessly airheaded, vaguely haunting — the umbrellas disconnected from practical function and somehow mocking the grand scenery: a conceptual joke. But then high winds rose. By a kind of sinister telekinesis, one of the giant umbrellas lifted out of the earth, flew across the landscape and crushed a woman to death.

There are many Californias. Northern and Southern California, split from each other by the mountains east of Santa Barbara, are the notorious yin and yang, Hatfields and McCoys, of California geography and culture. But the state is dividing and subdividing now along a thousand new fault lines of language and identity. Perhaps anticipating a pattern elsewhere in the world (the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, possibly fracturing Canada?), the cultures of California seem to fragment into their constituent parts.

Los Angeles, for example, is one of the most segregated cities in the world — a horizontal automobile culture sectioned off into a patchwork of ethnic and racial enclaves, all almost self-sufficient, inward turning and immiscible. The middle- and upper-middle-class whites of West Los Angeles, of Hollywood and Beverly Hills and Westwood and Brentwood and Bel-Air, drift dreamily along in the illusion that the society still belongs to them. In important ways, it does, of course. But out across the city grids lie Koreatown and Chinatown; and Watts, for so long a black enclave, is changing into a barrio. Up north on the Berkeley campus, Sproul plaza has a line of desks arrayed for the recruitment of Armenian students, South Asian students, Japanese-American students, Vietnamese students, Thai students, multicultural gay and lesbian students, Korean-American students, Native American students. And so on.

O. Henry once observed that Californians are not merely inhabitants of a state; they are a race of people. But at this moment of blinding change, Californians are defined by their differences, and their uncertainties. The Japanese quarrel with the Koreans, the blacks and Anglos with each other, and with the Mexicans, and with all the other new immigrants flocking in from everywhere. How can all these quarrels be sorted out when the economy is faltering, wildfires rage, water is scarce and the very ground beneath your feet trembles and threatens to fall away? The whole world would be wise to pay close attention to the drama of incipient decline and resistance now unfolding in California, for the future that begins there tends to spread across the world.

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