“My favourite line in all of literature is Rudyard Kipling’s monkey: ‘My people are the wisest people in the jungle, my people have always said so.’” Joni Mitchell
For the past few days I’ve been rereading Joan Didion. The White Album, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and Where I Was From represent, among other works, Didion’s reporting on California during the sixties and seventies and her retrospective views about California later in life. The book and essays hold up well and remain useful for anyone curious about what happened and what is still happening as California recreates itself over time. For Didion enthusiasts I would also recommend Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold on Netflix.
It’s easy to see the beginning of things, harder to see the ends Joan Didion
I was born in California, have lived all my life in California, and unless something unforeseen happens I will die in California. I was born in a small town north of Sacramento. Except for about a decade during college when I lived in or around The City (San Francisco), I’ve lived in Mendocino, another small town, all my adult life. I’ve only visited southern California a few times and not found it particularly to my liking although I thoroughly enjoyed palling around with my great uncle who was a famous movie director and whose wife was a famous actress. I also enjoyed palling around with my other great uncle who was not famous but who worked at the Bendix Corporation and showed me how to make intricate model boats and airplanes which, at my young age, were even more interesting than movies. My other uncles, on my father’s side, were involved along with my father in the ski and lodging industry in the Sierras. Thus, I have California roots all over the ground.
I tell you this not to blow my own horn but to show you that I have a great affinity for California. As I grew older, read books, and traveled a bit, it seemed to me that the small town I grew up in was in many ways similar to small towns all over America. I’ve related a few stories about those times on this blog: Women Alone, Bailey, Shy Red, and What A Teacher Can Do. So, I won’t dwell on that in this post.
California has received quite a lot of negative press lately, the premise being that it is heading toward a failed state, that it is falling apart, and that this is the result of liberal politics running amuck. The most recent (but not the most carefully argued) piece is by FOX phenomena Tucker Carlson.
But, it’s not just right-wing talking heads that are concerned. Former Monterey Congressman, Secretary of Defense, White House Chief of Staff and CIA Director Leon Panetta also thinks fundamental changes resulting from the COVID pandemic have changed working conditions. That, combined with a number of other factors (U.S. recession, wildfires, climate change, power outages, congestion and the housing crunch, etc) may have put the California dream in peril.
However, one astute observer has pointed out: “Most of California famously has stable weather, with seasonal changes not nearly as obvious as in parts of America that often spend their autumns coping with hurricanes and winters digging out from under blizzards. But each year this state has a “fire season.” That’s been true for all time.” So, pick your poison, hurricanes, tornadoes, snow and ice or wild fires and earthquakes. Life everywhere has its challenges.
California undoubtedly has problems with poverty, homelessness, housing costs and inequality but so does the rest of the United States in varying degrees. Contrary to the right-wing line, California is not ruled entirely by left-wing kooks. Like most states our population is a mix, a unique mix but a mix never the less. We have conservatives in the South and the inland valleys, moderates and independents everywhere, and with great racial diversity. This can make politics challenging but also more rewarding and forward thinking.
States get into problems just like families by over-promising, over-spending and incurring too much debt. California is not alone in this. Our fiscal position was above average before the current pandemic according to the most recent PEW research. In spite of economic and social problems, California remains a desirable place to live and California’s economy has unique options given our resources and geography. That is not to say that we should take anything for granted. A problem is a problem even if everyone shares it. As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said: Change is the only constant in life.
Intergenerational inequity and conflict is a concern not just in California but all over America. As Leon Panetta said: “It’s a concern because frankly I’ve had the chance to live the California dream as the son of Italian immigrants who worked hard, provided a good education and gave me the opportunity to succeed.” To the extent that we borrow from the future to fund the present, intergenerational inequity is a valid concern. However, borrowing today to fund investments that will create a better and more prosperous future can be justified.
Inequality has increased enormously during the pandemic. With inequality of income and wealth comes inequality of power and influence and that is a serious concern. But, it is a national concern, not just a California concern. Americans believe in a myth that forces them to live inside the hologram. There are solutions, but people who believe in the myth decry the solutions as “too extreme.”
One more thing. The claim that liberal or progressive policies have led to more crime and unrest is not backed up by the facts. Crime in cities has generally been decreasing and to the extent that some crimes have increased recently, the trend is countrywide in both Republican and Democratic states.
If, as a Californian, you’re interested in who you are, where you came from and where you’re going you have several sources to choose from—personal anecdotal experience, history, essays, and fiction. There are many myths about California, not always accurate. Didion in Where I Was From shows how her views changed over time. Some of the myths she grew up with are no longer valid if they ever were.
History of your time through essay reads like fiction Joan Didion
I don’t have the answers folks, but I am a firm believer that California is not done yet. On the other hand …
People East of the Sierra (primarily Texas and the East coast) have been predicting (mostly hoping for) the decline of California for years. This year is nothing new. I’m not sure why. Jealously perhaps. But the predictions never hold and California continues to prosper for all the reasons you mention in addition to the fact California will always attract the innovative and adventurous, the very people required to meet the difficult challenges we face in this beautiful state.
Thanks Craig, Happy New Year to you and Cass.