What makes us Cal­i­for­ni­ans

With hu­man as­pi­ra­tions un­der at­tack, the state is a coun­ter­weight

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION - ceased to David L. Ulin is a con­tribut­ing writer to Opin­ion.

Ibe a New Yorker on Sept. 11, 2001. Un­til that point — al­though I had lived in Los An­ge­les for nearly a decade — it seemed pos­si­ble to main­tain the il­lu­sion that I was con­nected to both places: split loy­alty. Then the twin tow­ers fell while I re­mained safely at a dis­tance, and my re­la­tion­ship to the city in which I was raised, in which I had forged my iden­tity, ir­re­vo­ca­bly changed.

It’s not as sim­ple to pin­point the mo­ment I be­came a Cal­i­for­nian. Since I’m not a na­tive, I’ve long re­ferred to my­self as a lifer, as if I were rid­ing out a sen­tence of some kind. Call it re­luc­tance, call it the trans­plant’s sense of ex­ile, of hav­ing one foot in the present and the other in the past.

Lately, how­ever, I’ve been aware of a shift in my think­ing, as if my iden­tity had been in­fil­trated, trans­formed. When a friend emailed re­cently to let me know about a job pos­si­bil­ity in Man­hat­tan, I wrote back, echo­ing Capt. Colby’s fi­nal mis­sive in “Apoca­lypse Now”: “Find some­one else. For­get it. I’m never com­ing back.”

Partly, this is a mat­ter of time: I’ve lived in Cal­i­for­nia for more than 25 years now, built a life and raised a fam­ily here. But even more it has to do with the state it­self. For all its prob­lems — its un­sta­ble ground and its tan­gled his­tory of race and ex­ploita­tion — Cal­i­for­nia still speaks to some­thing, a kind of prom­ise that con­nects me to it — and per­haps never so much as now.

“Like the rest of Amer­ica,” Wal­lace Steg­ner fa­mously wrote, “Cal­i­for­nia is un­formed, in­no­va­tive, ahis­tor­i­cal, he­do­nis­tic, ac­quis­i­tive, and en­er­getic — only more so.” The line is of­ten mis­read, or para­phrased, as if to set Cal­i­for­nia apart from the re­main­der of the na­tion, when in fact what it’s sug­gest­ing is the op­po­site.

And yet that “only more so” is the key idea. Cal­i­for­nia is a height­ened land­scape, where the po­lar­i­ties tend to be larger than life. On the one hand, we have given the coun­try Richard Nixon and Ron­ald Rea­gan, not to men­tion the John Birch So­ci­ety. On the other, Up­ton Sin­clair’s 1934 End Poverty in Cal­i­for­nia cam­paign for gov­er­nor, the Black Pan­thers and Brown Power, Haight-Ash­bury and Har­vey Milk.

You could ar­gue — as politi­cians and ac­tivists have for decades — that there is no sin­gle Cal­i­for­nia, that it should be di­vided north and south or east and west. “The seven states of Cal­i­for­nia,” his­to­rian Philip L. Frad­kin called it in his 1995 book of the same name. Bay Area fi­nancier Tim Draper pro­posed a bal­lot mea­sure in 2013 (it failed to get suf­fi­cient sig­na­tures) to di­vide Cal­i­for­nia into six parts, and a sim­i­lar logic helped fuel the now­stalled “Calexit” se­ces­sion move­ment, which gained trac­tion briefly in the wake of the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.

Of course, Cal­i­for­nia’s un­govern­abil­ity is part of its iden­tity — and part of ours. It’s a young state, a young cul­ture, very much a work-in-progress, a place we must con­tin­u­ally re­shape. Rad­i­cally trans­for­ma­tive events have taken place within liv­ing mem­ory, from the build­ing of the free­ways to the re­peal of anti-mis­ce­gena­tion laws, from the first paid-fam­ily-leave poli­cies to clean-air statutes, from the Free Speech Move­ment to “sanc­tu­ary” cities.

Such for­ward think­ing gets our state stereo­typed as the fringe, the far edge.

Con­sider the ideal of Cal­i­for­nia as Land’s End, the apoth­e­o­sis of the last chance, a place to run to rather than to come from. That’s a myth that lingers, even though it’s no longer ap­pro­pri­ate, if it ever was. To think in such terms, as Richard Ro­driguez in­sists in his es­say “Late Vic­to­ri­ans,” is “to read the map from one di­rec­tion only — as Euro­peans would read it or as the East Coast has.” As of 2000 (and for the first time since the Gold Rush), the ma­jor­ity of the state’s res­i­dents are na­tive born, not new­com­ers or trans­plants.

I don’t mean to come off as a Cal­i­for­nia booster; I’m well aware of the ways the state dis­ap­points. But now that so many essen­tial hu­man as­pi­ra­tions have come un­der at­tack in the broader cul­ture, Cal­i­for­nia func­tions as a coun­ter­weight — or even fi­nally, as a cen­ter, a norm of its own.

When I was 13 or so, I had a dream in which I was rid­ing on a bed, rolling down the cen­ter of a boule­vard with sky­scrapers on ei­ther side. This, I imag­ined, was New York, de­spite the fact that it was un­like any New York I knew. Then I moved to Los An­ge­les, where, on one of my first week­ends in the city, I went for a drive down Wil­shire Boule­vard in West­wood and rec­og­nized the set­ting of my dream.

I don’t claim a mys­ti­cal con­nec­tion with the place. But there is a whis­per in that dream of be­long­ing to some­thing rec­og­niz­able, se­cure and right, even though I’d yet to see or ex­pe­ri­ence it.

Cal­i­for­nia has its prob­lems, sure it does; there’s no such thing as utopia. Still, what once seemed to me a place of ex­ile now feels like noth­ing so much as home.

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