Golden California

The Times Literary Supplement has a nice cover review-essay on California – Golden California – and it is, happy to say, open access.  It’s by Michael Saler and reviews two books, Imperial (on the Imperial Valley, by William Vollman) and Golden Dreams (part of California historian Kevin Starr’s multivolume series on California history).  Although agreeing (as everyone does, of course) with Saler that California is a disaster, I probably wouldn’t agree with him as to the priority of causes, though there are surely enough to go around.  It is a finely written, graceful essay on a place I love, and wish I still lived.  (Well, maybe today I would prefer the Nevada side of the border on the Eastern Sierra, but still, Not Here in the Mid-Atlantic. [Or do  you mean “Middle Atlantic”?  ed.]  Hmm.)

The novelist Wallace Stegner once defined California as America, “only more so”, a statement whose restraint better expresses his own roots in Iowa than it does the seismic character of the Golden State. Its dynamism, whether in the direction of boom or bust, has commandeered the world’s attention for at least a century: more than any Hollywood epic, California is its own best box office. From the singular plenitude of its Native American cultures, to the extravagant dysfunction of its current government, California residents like to vie with the sublimity of their natural surroundings, doing nothing by halves.

Writers hoping to uncover the state’s essence are more likely to strike quicksilver than gold. Yet commentators continue to see California as a beacon, for better or for worse, of the future, even as it remains stubbornly sui generis. When it became the most populous state in the nation in 1962, the media celebrated it as a global bellwether. Like the hot rods roaring out of the Mojave desert, however, California left others in the dust as it enacted three ambitious plans that saw fruition in the next two decades. The California Water Plan (1957) initiated the greatest water storage and distribution system in human history; the California Freeway System (1958) extended a massive freeway construction programme across the state; and the Master Plan for Higher Education (1960) ensured that all citizens had access to higher education whose sterling quality was in inverse proportion to the negligible fees students paid. The multi-campus University of California soon became the finest public university in the world.

The immediate post-war years were California’s best of times. Now, as it faces perhaps its worst of times, the state continues to be cited as a symbol for the nation and the world, albeit in less complimentary terms. Its political gridlock appears to be replicated by divisive partisanship at a national level, leading the economist Paul Krugman to wonder “if California’s political paralysis foreshadows the future of the nation as a whole”. Its budgetary deficits (currently projected at 21 billion dollars), decaying infrastructure, high unemployment and cuts to public services are often interpreted as the unfortunate but widely shared fallout of the global recession.

Even in its misery, however, California hates company. It is true that its budgetary woes and political paralysis have been exacerbated by the contemporary financial crisis, but the state has been increasingly difficult to govern for the past three decades because of its unique political structure.