by Justin E. H. Smith
“A plain historical account of some of our most fashionable duellists, gamblers, and adulterers (to name no more) would exhibit specimens of brute barbarity, and sottish infatuation, such as might vie with any that ever appeared in Kamschatka, California, or the land of the Hottentots.” —James Beattie, An Essay on the Nature and Immutability of Truth, in Opposition to Sophistry and Skepticism (1770)
“It is difficult to believe what one large speculative farmer has said, that the success of California agriculture requires that we create and maintain a peon class. For if this is true, then California must depart from the semblance of democratic government that remains here.” —John Steinbeck, “The Harvest Gypsies” (1936)
“In fact [this] is what I wanted to tell you about: what it is like to come from a place like Sacramento. If I could make you understand that, I could make you understand California and perhaps something else besides, for Sacramento is California, and California is a place in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension; in which the mind is troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things had better work here, because here, beneath that immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent.” —Joan Didion, “Notes of a Native Daughter” (1968)
Let us, in a Didionic spirit, try out a few irrefutable statements. The Northeast of North America is, for better or worse, the only part of the continent to have been properly settled by Europeans. It became a proper part of the Euro-American North Atlantic cultural sphere some centuries ago, and remains there still.
To be of European descent and from California, by contrast, is somewhat more like being from South Africa. California was simply left blank on early modern maps of the New World, and it remains one of the earth's extremities. Here, just like the Cape, is where one runs out of continent. The fact that the 'Californians' to whom Beattie refers were annihilated, while the 'Hottentots' and other Southern African groups were only subjugated, doesn't make a crucial difference. Like the Boers, most white Californians are descended from people pushed by desperation to the edge of a continent, and, once there, pitted by a white elite against the other races they came across, either as a result of autochthony or through a parallel process of migration.
California generates and sustains its own permanent criminal underclass, largely, it seems, in order to make a perpetual spectacle of cracking down on it, of being tough on it. The criminals are Hispanicized Mestizos, descendants of slaves, and of Dust Bowl migrants (locally dubbed 'Mexican', 'black', and 'white', respectively). The prison system extends far beyond prison walls and into the domestic lives of parolees, of men made to wear signal-transmitting anklets, of everyone whose neighborhood is under constant police supervision not for their own protection but rather in order to keep them thinking of themselves as policed, to keep them conceptualizing themselves in polizeiwissenchaftlich terms as members of a problematic group.
Being policed makes a person into something at once more concrete and abstract: a 'Caucasian individual', a 'black male suspect', and so on. It transforms cars into vehicles and women into females, and generally distorts reality in the name of a supposedly scientific and dispassionate deployment of language. It makes convenient phenotypic identifiers into the outward signs of membership in real kinds: nowhere is race more reified, nowhere is it experienced as more real, than inside a prison, where personal security and survival often can only be assured through membership in a race-based fraternity.
It is true that the California prison system punishes the non-white lower classes with gross disproportion, and even, perhaps, that its very reason for being is to perpetuate, even into the post-Civil Rights era of legal equality, the disenfranchisement and diminished citizenship of African-Americans. But this principal reason has an inseparable corrollary: that it will also perpetuate the perception, among the Harvest Gypsies described by Steinbeck, that they are white and that this comes with certain natural advantages. That these advantages are never quite delivered as promised is the basic betrayal that structures the lives of the Americans I know best.
I would like to like Joan Didion. Who else is prepared to look at anything at all that happens in this secret valley, where the great-grandchildren of the Dust Bowl migrants now tow their jet-skis to manmade lakes, and give their daughters names like 'Krystal', names that virtually predestine them to perish in high-school drunk-driving tragedies: who else is prepared to survey all this and describe it as 'Chekhovian'? But still, I'm not sure we're surveying the same thing at all. Didion bemoans the demise of the values that once animated the Sacramento patricians; I had no idea Sacramento had patricians until I read Didion. I went to high school with Krystal (or maybe her aunt); I dropped out of high school along with kids with misspelled names. I left the Valley because there was nothing the loss of which could possibly be mourned.
In the Central Valley of California, from where I am writing now and on which I would like to focus, all three of the ethnic groups I have mentioned, conventionally distinguished from one another in terms of race, might best be described as a proletarianized peasantry. For the most part, the Harvest Gypsies, the white peon class of Californians, do not work the land at all anymore, having been in their turn replaced by Mexican farmworkers and by machines. They do not work the land, but no discernibly meaningful way of life has moved in to replace agriculture. They can therefore be seen at Goodwill, or drifting outside the city limits collecting aluminum cans. They might be found collecting welfare, even as they abet the dismantling of what little remains of the welfare state. Their youth mirror in their style the gang culture of the race that they simultaneously consider absolutely, inassimilably other: iron-cross tattoos co-exist on necks and forearms alongside the old English script that long ago switched sides with respect to racial coding.
The newly sedentarized Harvest Gypsies are automatically targets of police suspicion when they are spotted walking along streets with no sidewalks, walking along streets that were built only for driving. They must have had their licenses suspended for DUI, the thinking goes, or for driving without insurance; for something, anyway, associated with the criminally poor. They are constantly policed and surveilled, if not quite as extensively as their black counterparts. They show up on COPS and its even more vulgar descendants with their faces blurred. Unlike the East Coast poor, they appear feral, premodern and post-apocalyptic at once. They are born into it, to the extent that by the time their first proper thoughts are had, there is already a fact of the matter as to who they are, and the prospect of social mobility, of becoming anything different, is already ruled out.
Driving up from Los Angeles to the state's modest capital, up Route 99, through towns that “hint at evenings spent hanging around gas stations, and suicide pacts sealed in drive-ins” (says the Native Daughter), one notices, on handmade signs and on the mudflaps of trucks, on t-shirts and caps for sale at the Flying J Travel Plaza, a proliferation of degenerate memes. A boy who was originally Calvin, best friend to the tiger Hobbes, can now be spotted in the tinted back windows of Chevys, urinating on Ford logos, or, vice versa, Calvin as Ford partisan, desecrating the Chevrolet. An advertising campaign once intended to sell milk now asks if you've 'got God'. Some pop song on the Focus on the Family Radio Network can be heard, in its castrated, devitalized, derivative way, to rely upon the sound of turntable scratching. Everything's a knock-off, an uncosncious after-echo, of a world whose values the Central Valley abhors.
There are attempts to be funny, but the humor is too angry, too charged with ressentiment, to succeed. An 18-wheeler has, on its rear, the smudged make-up of Heath Ledger's Joker superimposed upon the face of Barack Obama. Underneath there is a word, 'socialism', evidently meant to explain the enigma of the image. A roadside sign, too flimsy to be a billboard, says: 'Go to Hell!!! Please Don't!!', and then gives the name of some clapboard church's website. Do they want me to go to hell, or don't they? They want to be able to say it, at least, just as those who don't believe in hell are able to do with such insouciance.
There is another sign along 99, which I first noticed near the exit for Merle Haggard Drive, just north of Bakersfield. It says: 'Congress Created the Dust Bowl!' At first I took this to show that the causes of the great Okie migration to California eighty years ago were still being debated as a live issue, but then I noticed, on a variation of the sign near Tulare, or Selma, or Madera or Turlock, the names of Pelosi, Boxer, and various other local representatives, with the diagonal red line through them that I will always think of as 'the Ghostbusters slash' (another degenerate meme). There is a new Dust Bowl underway, the sign means to say, one caused by government failure to aid Central Valley farmers (farmers who no doubt otherwise despise big government), and one that ties their plight to that of the migrants of the 1930s.
In its new incarnation, the Dust Bowl is understood to be, literally, a topographical bowl upon the surface of the earth, the Valley itself, formed by the Sierra Nevada to the east, the coastal ranges to the west, the Grapevine to the south, and the Klamath Mountains to the north (I would swear I knew these proper names in utero). From its original location in the Great Plains, the Dust Bowl is now something indigenous to California, formed by its very geology. The legacy of migration has been forgotten, and what remains is only the name that was first given to their ancestors' various migratory hardships, along with a diffuse, existential sense of having been given the shaft by 'Washington' and by the powerful Californians who know how to communicate with that distant city.
When I was a kid, Frank Zappa's novelty daughter Moon Unit came out with a novelty song describing the qualities of the 'Valley Girl'. I could not for the life of me figure out what this character had to do with the people who surrounded me. It turns out she meant the San Fernando Valley, not the great Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley, the Central Valley, which dwarfs all of the L.A. greater metropolitan region both in terms of size and in terms of agricultural output. But these don't matter much to the rest of the world, which follows Moon Unit in taking 'California' to mean 'L.A. and thereabouts', and in supposing that whatever is absurd about California is something quite distinct from whatever is absurd about Texas, Oklahoma, or the Ozarks.
The Central Valley is close enough to L.A. to get some cultural run-off (even Midwestern evangelical pop incorporates sounds first heard in the Bronx), and generally with less delay than the rest of the country. Thus there is a scattering of frozen yogurt and Wolfgang Puck's and other coastal frivolities, in Valley towns of sufficient magnitude. There is more of an echo of the ethos of recycling and alternative energy than what one would find today among the descendants of the Dust Bowl migrants who stuck it out in Tulsa or Abilene. And of course there are the water-conserving toilets, down which one cannot be sure to flush even a perfectly moderate deposit. These co-exist with horrendously unnatural golf courses and manicured front lawns, which one finds in abundance even in the great desert to the east of Los Angeles.
It is their etiolated flush, in fact, that has come to stand for me as a summary of all that is wrong with California, and as a reminder of why it cannot last. California is a place that is fundamentally out of balance, whether in respect of the prison budget and its proportion to the education budget, or in respect of the allocation of natural resources. All along it has been a matter of making nature do what it doesn't want to do by making countless unfortunate souls work far too hard. Eventually, these souls were able to trade their temporary encampments for tract houses with feeble plumbing, houses that were thrown up too fast to be of any enduring value, and that were sold too hastily for their mortgages to remain believable all that long. And meanwhile, enough water is diverted to make the desert into a verdant paradise.
Roman Polanski's 1974 Chinatown is in many respects an allegory of California, and it is not incidental that water (or, more precisely, moving water to L.A. for human profit and greed) serves as the primary dramatic motor. The film somehow uses this plot element as a sort of macrocosmic foundation on which to unfold the human drama of father-daughter incest. I've often wondered whether these two elements were not meant to be the expression at different levels of one and the same transgression.
In any case, the Central Valley farmers believe that they are getting agronomically fucked, though it's a strange sort of fucking that consists in a refusal to keep the soil fertile. Their resentment of the far-away government, their belief in their own whiteness, their unhinged brimstone-and-treacle theology, their horrible music and their aspiration to recreational boating –in short, their culture–, all this strikes me now, after some years away, as issuing directly from the sustained transgression, against nature and people, that keeps California going.
When I was a teenager in the Central Valley my principal ground for wanting to get out was that it, so I thought, was a place with no history. I could not have been more wrong. In fact it is still living its history. Who gets policed, who gets imprisoned; who ends up in a Manteca trailer park and who ends up 'at Cal': all this is more or less determined by forces already known to Steinbeck, forces that have been forgotten as a result of superficial changes: the erection of tract houses and the transformation of paupers into what Didion called a 'false ownership class', the replacement of general stores by Targets, which seem kind of clean and modern and which permit their customers to tell themselves that at least they are not at Wal-Mart.
So there is a history, even if it is occluded by the illusion of post-historical eternity so effectively sustained by box stores and housing developments, by twelve-lane highways and 'new country' (which is to say right-wing pop) on the radio. It is a history that has been most successfully occluded in Sacramento, which is the only Valley town of sufficient size to convince itself that it is not a Valley town, that it is not principally an agricultural settlement (at least since the end of the Gold Rush). It throws up its own patricians, who seek to enrich it with an art gallery or two and some French restaurants; it produces people who take it seriously, deadly seriously, like Joan Didion, who, however icily analytical in her temperament, buys in entirely to the mythology of the Donner Party, of men of superior stock battling against nature to arrive here and to transform this edge-of-the-earth into something liveable.
Didion despises the people who arrived out of desperation rather than courage, and believes that even in the fully sedentarized chapter of California's history these differences of character continue to mark off the state's castes from one another. She has spent much of her life bemoaning, from New York, the demise of her own caste in Sacramento, the demise of the legacy of the courageous settlers who built up that Valley town and imparted to it their character.
As I've said, I never much identified with that caste, and I certainly don't think it had much to do with the forging of this town's identity. If such things could be precisely measured, I am fairly certain I could prove that desperation has played a far greater role in California history than courage. In any case it's the life predicament I know best; it's the one that hangs heavy in the hot blue air when I come back here for a rare visit; and it, more than anything, is what has me fondling, at this very moment, the print-out of my June 20th e-ticket back to JFK.
Sacramento, California, June 19, 2011
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