It feels a little strange to be reading a book about the history of California when an initiative to break up the state looks like it will make it to the 2016 ballot. There’s always been an end of the world edge to California, see previous post, but reading about the state’s history while the people consider breaking the state up left me a little queasy.
I shouldn’t say “the people” yet. Last poll I heard about had the initiative going down to defeat 59% to 41%. I’ve only heard the one tech-billionaire-d****e-bag on the radio advocating for the break-up of the state at this point. Supporters are not coming out of the woodwork as far as I can tell. (I should state that I do not watch television news, listen only to public radio and follow politics on just a few, generally left-leaning websites, so what do I know? And that I think the tech-billionaire-d****e-bag behind the initiative is a d****e-bag and I’ll stand by my use of the term.) Add to this the big book right now California by Edan Lepucki is about the end of the world and takes place in California and while I haven’t seen them, I’m pretty sure the apes in the Planet of the Apes movies take over Marin County, California.
But, we’ve faced the end of the world before, in fiction and in reality, and we’ve rebuilt more than once. Currently our job growth rate is one percent higher than the national average.
The penultimate (second to the last–I recently learned this word.) chapter of California focuses on race. The character of California, like the United States has been largely determined by race, perhaps we should say determined by racism. As early as 1900 San Francisco was already the most racially diverse city in the country, more diverse than even New York City. The Korean population of Los Angeles would make it the third largest city in Korea, the Mexican population would do about the same in Mexico. The economy of California depends on the existence of a cheap, largely undocumented, labor force, but we’ve long tried to keep these millions of workers in pariah status. Kevin Starr deals with this in the last chapter of his book as he covers Gray Davis’s defeat in a recall election to Arnold Schwarzenegger. Granting drivers licenses to undocumented workers was one reason why Davis was recalled.
The Progressive Movement which produced so much of the infrastructure that made California a success, such as the University of California and the State College system, both of which used to be basically free to California residents, was so anti-immigrant, especially anti-Japanese, that its difficult to determine if it was a liberal or a conservative movement at heart.
The California Progressives distrusted big government, big corporations, and big labor. They preferred to see a reforming elite, namely themselves–professional men of the upper middle class, a kind of nobility of the robe–in authority. They were ardent conservationists, yet they also believed in public works: the dams and reservoirs that made modern California possible, even at the loss of the Hetch Hetchy Valley. They were distrustful of partisan politics and put in place a system of appointive commissions to oversee water and power, harbors, and other on-going functions of government. They also mandated nonpartisanship in local elections and an open primary system that allowed candidates to enter party primaries regardless of their own political affiliations. (In 1946 Earl Warren would win both the Republican and Democratic nominations for governor.) Yet they also sponsored the initiative, the referendum, and the recall, which placed in the hands of the voters an extraordinary ability to make an end run around representative government.
These reforms allowed the voters of California to gut the state’s income through unprecedented tax cuts that years later have made college education unaffordable for many residents, pass laws that ended affirmative action, make English the official language of the state, take marriage rights away from gay and lesbian Californians and to make what may be the first step in breaking the state itself up into six smaller states.
The same process also allowed the voters to raise their own taxes which has helped get the state back in nearly full working order and devote funds to stem cell research which has made California a world leader in what may well become a key industry.
I will be reading more of Mr. Starr’s books. While I did not find the final sections of California that dealt with more current times to be nearly as fascinating as the earlier ones that dealt with more historical topics, it was an interesting book. I certainly learned a lot about my home state.