California Dreaming


Paradise Lost: California's Experience, America's Futureby Peter Schrag, New York: The New Press, 344 pages, $25.00

From West to East: California and the Making of the American Mindby Stephen Schwartz, New York: The Free Press, 566 pages, $30.00

In 1993, my wife and I moved from Buffalo, New York, to Los Angeles–a trip that cannot be measured in miles alone. As envious–and horrified–friends and relatives were quick to point out, we were not simply changing an address or time zone. We were going to California, the place that has singularly fired the nation's imagination for decades both as a golden land of hope, growth, and limitless opportunity and as a dark locus of fear, decadence, and broken dreams–a dichotomy perhaps even more descriptive of Los Angeles than the state as a whole.

For every person who regaled us with Beach Boys-inspired reveries of an Endless Summer, someone else held up the Manson family as the true apotheosis of the California lifestyle. (In fact, such extreme fantasies may well be inextricably linked: The Beach Boys, after all, recorded a Manson-penned song under the unlikely title "Never Learn Not to Love.") Surely no piece of American real estate conjures up as many good, bad, and ambivalent images as does California.

That's a major reason why moving to California–immortalized in popular tunes as absurdly different as "California, Here I Come" and Led Zeppelin's "Going to California"–is to participate in a great mythic American adventure, one expansive and resilient enough to encompass the experience of gold miners in the 1840s, movie pioneers in the 1910s, Okies in the Depression, hippies in the '60s, and continual waves of immigrants from all over the world. While it's conventional wisdom to say that California is a political bellwether for the rest of the country, it's less recognized that the state is also a sort of psychic gauge for the nation as well. The way we envision California tells us something larger about who we are and how we feel about the future.

Two recent books by self-consciously Californian writers–Peter Schrag's Paradise Lost: California's Experience, America's Future and Stephen Schwartz's From West to East: California and the Making of the American Mind–do precisely this. In different but related ways, each explores the deep meaning of some aspect of the cult of California. Tellingly, each also suggests that the version of the California dream its author most cherishes is either played out or ruined beyond repair.

Schwartz's From West to East is a long, sweeping history of California–it begins with the 1542 landing of explorer João Rodrigues Cabrillo in what is now Baja California and runs up to the present day–that is consistently engaging and interesting. Schwartz, a staffer at the San Francisco Chronicle and a sharply critical historian of the American left, is interested in what he calls the "hidden" or "secret" history of California's intellectual and cultural identity and its ultimate "conquest of the world."

As his title suggests, Schwartz's provocative thesis is a refutation of Bishop Berkeley's famous phrase that "Westward the course of empire makes it way." Schwartz argues persuasively that, due to a singular confluence of geography, people, and historical providence, California has never been a blank screen upon which Americans projected various manifest destinies. Rather, California colonized those who came to settle it. It was "a mirror for the world that ended up changing the face of human society forever." For Schwartz, the essence of California is "radicality… not based on a radical ideology or ism per se but, experientially rather than conceptually, ever embodying the new." It, he says, "has never really undergone a period of pure stability and institutional conservatism. Of no other human aggregation in history can the same be said."

As the above illustrates, and despite his explicit rejection of "booster" history and "official legends," Schwartz is not at all reserved in his California exceptionalism (which is perhaps the ultimate legend, official or otherwise, about the place). Still, his basic framework allows him to weave interesting threads through centuries of history and to present the reader with a cast of fascinating characters, ranging from Junipero Serra, the 18th-century Spanish missionary who has always been seen as both a beneficent "civilizer" of native Americans and "a tool of pure Spanish imperialism and a brutal enslaver of the Indians"; William Walker, the San Francisco-based "filibuster" who, in the mid- 1800s, launched various attempts to take over Latin American countries, including one that left him, briefly, in charge of Nicaragua; and Jaime de Angulo, the Paris-born ethnographer who helped transform Big Sur into a Bohemian arts center.

According to Schwartz, California history, especially in the 20th century, is ultimately a story about the melding of radical politics and radical aesthetics–and the failure of both to sustain themselves. He details the multiple and often-tortured relationships between groups such as the Wobblies, the Communist Party, and EPIC (End Poverty in California) and artists such as Jack London, John Steinbeck, and Upton Sinclair.

Schwartz ultimately–and interestingly–presents the poet Kenneth Rexroth as the exemplar of the California culture that would win over the world. A Midwestern transplant to the Bay Area, Rexroth "was equally a social revolutionary and a mystic, deeply curious about nature and an exceptionally acute observer of people and trends," writes Schwartz. A Communist Party member in the '30s and a co-founder of the first John Reed Club in California, Rexroth became disillusioned with Stalinism and turned instead toward an anarchistic, anti-statist pacifism. As an early translator of Japanese and Chinese works, he was instrumental in introducing Buddhism into American culture and absolutely central in building the exceptionally fecund arts community in northern California.

Schwartz reads in the arc of Rexroth's life–he would eventually leave the politically charged Bay Area for "hedonistic" Santa Barbara and an easy university post–the apparent end of radical California. When Rexroth died in 1982, writes Schwartz, "Octavio Paz, who had long admired him noted that near his end Rexroth had described the main characteristic of the twentieth century as the loss of revolutionary hopes."

So it goes with California, suggests Schwartz. In the wake of the 1960s, he says, "California swept the world with its radical culture. But it had produced no new idea, no new movement; rather, it evinced an innovation that was radical, but on a wholly different level: the transformation of social revolt into aesthetic style….This was California's great invention, and it explained both the suddenness with which it triumphed and the equal abruptness with which, intellectually at least, it declined." Schwartz undercuts such pessimism with a last-page invocation of the "`information revolution' in which Silicon Valley plays so large a role….and in which we may see the ultimate Californian idea" but seems unable or unwilling to grapple extensively with a radicalism not based in explicitly political movements.

That's a shame–not only would a reader benefit from an account of such developments by someone with Schwartz's great ability to mine mountains of material, but it seems clear that activities rooted in Silicon Valley–ranging from novel ways of structuring corporate environments to the creation of the truly personal computer–have already transformed our daily lives far more profoundly than the activities of the Wobblies or the Communist Party ever did.

If Stephen Schwartz worries that California is no longer a truly radical place, then Peter Schrag frets that it is no longer a truly livable place. His book's title–Paradise Lost: California's Experience, America's Future–lays out a different variation on the west-to-east theme. The Golden State, argues Schrag, a former editorial page editor for the Sacramento Bee, was once a "model and magnet for the nation–in its economic opportunities, its social outlook, and its high-quality public services and institutions."

Now, he submits in alternately wistful and angry tones, California "is no longer the progressive model in its public institutions and services, or in its social ethic, that it once was." Indeed, the situation is so extreme that Schrag creates a readily understood, if overblown, neologism–"Mississippification"–to describe the process that he believes is taking place.

For Schrag, California's demise is identical to what he considers the ruin of its public sector. He quotes a 1939 WPA Guide (of all sources) to the effect that once residents felt a "personal pride in the State's gargantuan public works: highways, bridges, dams and aqueducts" and points to the 1959-67 reign of Gov. Edmund (Pat) Brown as the "high point" and "Golden Moment" of the place–a "stunning run" when the government literally moved mountains, built one college campus after another, and never let a lack of funds stop it from writing a check.

Now, says Schrag, Californians have been evicted from Eden. The underfunded public schools are no good anymore; the freeways are in disrepair; public libraries have shortened their hours if not shut their doors altogether; and "the state's social benefits, once among the nation's most generous, have been cut, and cut again, and then cut again."

The snake in the grass of Schrag's paradise is the ballot initiative process. This is no easy admission for the author, who, as a professed admirer of populist reformers, notes in passing that California's initiative law, passed in 1911, is itself "a Progressive Era instrument whereby `the people' could from time to time check the excesses of a state government." For Schrag, the fall from grace began in earnest with the 1978 passage of Proposition 13, which capped property tax rates at 1 percent of assessed valuation, stipulated that assessed valuation can rise no more than 2 percent annually, and mandated that local special taxes and bond measures need a two-thirds vote to pass.

Prop. 13, writes Schrag, "set in motion not merely the holy crusade against taxes in which much of the country now seems irretrievably stuck, but a condition of permanent neopopulism in California…. California has been in nearly constant revolt against representative government. [Since Prop. 13], voters have passed one initiative after another–tax limitation initiatives; initiatives capping state and local spending; measures imposing specified minimum spending formulas for schools; term limits for legislative and statewide offices; three-strikes sentencing laws; land conservation measures; the measures abolishing affirmative action in public education, contracting, and employment, and seeking to deny public schooling and other services to illegal immigrants, and dozens of others–each of them mandating or prohibiting major programs and policies, or imposing supermajority requirements."

While Schrag is correct to note that ballot initiatives are an extremely blunt political instrument–and that some of the campaigns have appealed to voters' baser instincts–he never convincingly demonstrates why initiatives are somehow less representative of the voters' will than a state legislature that he himself recognizes is just as easily captured by special interests. Similarly, he doesn't bother to explain why requiring a two-thirds majority for tax increases is a bad thing.

More specifically, his condemnation of Prop. 13 for killing public-sector spending is not particularly convincing: In fact, the total state tax burden has more than doubled since the early '60s and state per-capita spending in real dollars has more than tripled. Between 1991 and 1996 alone, state spending rose from $38 billion to $50 billion in constant dollars. And, as Schrag points out, in 1997, 26 of 38 school bond measures passed the two-thirds standard enacted by Prop. 13. That such spoils are not spent wisely or efficiently is an argument against public-sector spending, not evidence that it does not exist.

In the end, Schrag is railing against the end of the Big Government era, against the recognition that governments cannot indefinitely tax and spend without destroying their economies. This is, of course, a development that ranges far beyond California's borders (debates about the need to reduce the social-welfare state have even emerged in such Old World strongholds as France and Germany). But Schrag seems manifestly uninterested in doping out the long-term connection between public spending and the private sector that ultimately pays for such largess, other than to assert that Californians are not now and have never been "overtaxed." (He is similarly uninterested in considering the ways the welfare state intensifies social fragmentation by pitting special interest groups, often constituted along racial, ethnic, and class lines, against one another in a struggle for tax money and special treatment.)

Schrag's virtually complete lack of interest in California's private sector is perhaps the ultimate failing of Paradise Lost. His Eden, it seems, is purely a public-works project. Such an emphasis is more than a little misguided, for it has always been the jobs and work opportunities California offered that, at rock bottom, drew people West and fired their imaginations.

Certainly, that was the case with my wife and me back in the early '90s–a time Schrag describes so despairingly–when we migrated to Los Angeles so I could take a job with REASON. A similar motive also spurred most of the people who lived in our modest and mixed apartment complex, where the other renters included an extended family of eight Mexican immigrants who shared a one-bedroom apartment (the men saved money from day-labor jobs and the women collected bottles and cans for deposits); a Salvadoran couple who cleaned offices at night and who had three children between the ages of 6 and 11; an ethnic Hawaiian trying to learn the hotel business; and a young, aspiring architect from Mexico City.

If it is true that America is a country not defined for immigrants but by them, then the same holds true for California. Although there were, of course, vast differences among us, we all had moved to California in pursuit of the same thing–a better situation in the present and increased options for the future. That is, to be sure, something far more modest than Schwartz's utopian "radicality" and it is also distinct from Schrag's vision of paradise. But it is a potent version of the California dream–and the larger American dream of which it is a subset–that not only remains alive, but well.