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California Dreamin’

Kevin Starr has an encyclopedic knowledge of California history and a novelist’s gift for writing. He uses both to advantage in Coast of Dreams, a comprehensive and insightful look at California since 1990. This is the seventh and the latest in his series of books focusing on California, in his words, “as an essential and compelling component of the larger American experience.” Like the others in the series, Coast of Dreams can be used as a highly readable but thoroughly scholarly textbook, a neat trick when it can be done. For nearly 15 years while teaching California history at UCLA, I used another book in the series, Inventing the Dream: California Through the Progressive Era, as one of my required readings for the course. Students regularly commented that Starr’s work did not read like a textbook, although it served that purpose. Starr is a first-rate storyteller. He could have been an Irish seanachie of old.

Starr has always been in love with California and its experimental culture. Despite the many problems that beset the Golden State today, he remains optimistic about its future—and that’s not easy to do. But Starr is invested in the state of his birth and of his people for three generations back. Chronicling California has consumed his working years and given meaning to his life. It has also given the rest of us a series of volumes on California that make reading the history of the Golden State an adventure. As another native-born son of California, I only wish I shared his optimism.

With the caution of a trained historian, Starr acknowledges that Coast of Dreams deals with events of such recent vintage that it “should not be seen as history … but as a collection of snapshots and sketches, as notes from the field, as a preliminary effort to sort out a most extraordinary decade and millennial turn.” Starr may not have the comfortable perspective that a half-century or more gives one, but Coast of Dreams is far more than a collection of snapshots and sketches. He manages to put recent events in the context of 150 years of California history—a kind of crucible of American hopes and dreams—and to include nearly everything worth reporting on. The comprehensiveness and depth of his study is extraordinary and can only come from a mature and gifted historian with a passion for his work.

Starr begins Coast of Dreams at my favorite spot—the beach—and discusses my favorite pastime—surfing. For someone whom I suspect has not spent much time at the beach or has ever paddled a surfboard, Starr, in the few pages he devotes to it, does a good job introducing California’s surf culture. Most writers from academe would elicit nothing but well-deserved groans from surfers.

Chapter after chapter, Starr entertains the reader with everything from the state of religion in California, pop culture, and cuisine at upscale restaurants to natural calamities, crime, drugs, and racial conflict. Somehow he fits in politics, the economy, San Francisco and Los Angeles, and environmental issues. I really don’t know what he left out. The kitchen sink might be in there somewhere.

There are some problems with Starr’s approach. By attempting to cover everything, Starr is forced to summarize a number of events, some of which cry out for fuller discussion. Moreover, his omissions when summarizing controversial events are occasionally troubling. For example, when describing the beating of Rodney King by officers from the LAPD, Starr leaves out critical information. He tells us that King was struck 56 times with nightsticks, but he does not tell us that there were two other men in the car with King and that those men complied with the orders of the officers and were taken into custody without incident. Nor does he tell us that the use of the nightsticks did not begin until Officer Stacey Koon had twice fired Taser darts into the wild and bizarrely behaving King. The first 50,000 volt jolt had no apparent effect and the second put the ex-con on the ground for only a few seconds. King’s imperviousness to the Taser caused Koon to yell, “He’s dusted.” Koon and the other cops understood that a man on Angel Dust or PCP was oblivious to pain and had supernormal strength.

Then, too, Starr does not mention that, by LAPD policy, officers were no longer allowed to grapple with a resisting suspect or apply a chokehold to render the suspect unconscious. Policy now dictated that a resisting suspect be struck with the baton until rendered compliant. By not sharing such information with the reader, Starr is able to conclude, “Los Angeles had become the Selma, the Birmingham of the West Coast.”

Moreover, by not informing the reader of these relevant facts Starr makes the not guilty verdict of the Simi Valley jury in the trial of the four officers involved unfathomable and allows him to argue, “For whatever reasons—their backgrounds, the stress of their jobs, the streaks of violence and racism in their nature—the four white cops had lost their minds—or at least their control—completely in the early-morning hours of March 3, 1991; yet their Simi Valley jury, made up of white, middle-class, suburban men and women, found it difficult to convince themselves, individually or collectively, that the four officers had acted with criminal intent.” Actually, one of the cops, Theodore Briseno, was Hispanic and the jury included a Filipino, but more importantly Starr seems to have no problem claiming that the cops had “streaks of violence and racism in their nature” and “had lost their minds.” Moreover, he suggests that the members of the jury were supposed “to convince themselves” of the officers’ guilt. Isn’t that the prosecutor’s job? But it gets better. “Not guilty despite the videotapes,” declaims Starr. “Not guilty despite the medical reports of King’s post-beating condition. Not guilty.”

The videotape is not as conclusive as Starr, and most others, think. Most people do not realize that television stations did not air the entire videotape, which the jury saw, and that the video camera did not begin to roll until after King had shaken off an officer trying to cuff him, had been hit by two Taser darts, and had lunged at Officer Laurence Powell. Stacey Koon’s book, Presumed Guilty, is essential to understanding what occurred that fateful night.

Starr characterizes attempts to control illegal immigration, such as Proposition 187, as “draconian” and reforms of the welfare system and affirmative action as political “wedge issues” and “divisive.” Why are not welfare and affirmative action themselves wedge issues and divisive? Somehow only reform or abolition of these failed programs is. Nonetheless, Starr fairly discusses racial preferences in the University of California system, although he does say that the passage of Proposition 209 sent a message that blacks “would not be welcomed at UC …” Proposition 209 suggested no such thing. It merely prohibited admission criteria based on race.

Starr looks at the Hispanicization of California through the rosiest lenses imaginable. He wants the reader to believe that the mostly illegal immigrants from Mexico and Central America are little different from earlier waves of Europeans and that they are rapidly becoming middle-class Californians. He uses Richard Rodriquez as an example. With a Ph.D. in Renaissance literature from UC Berkeley and having authored three well-received books, Rodriquez is stunningly atypical. Less anomalous examples and statistical data that paint a bleak picture of the invasion of California from south of the border are available in Victor Davis Hanson’s Mexifornia. Racial and cultural diversity is clearly not California’s strength.

On the other hand, growing economic diversity has helped California recover from recession. Once dominated by agriculture, national defense, and aerospace, California’s economy is now so diversified that it can absorb many blows and come roaring back. Starr aptly describes the powerful economic engine that propels California. It is one reason to remain optimistic about the future of the Golden State. At the same time, I would suggest that it has allowed more prosperous Californians to pretend such problems as illegal immigration and crime are of little consequence. Most native-born whites, and others, for that matter, with some education, talent, and drive, can make enough money to flee to far-flung suburbs and live well. In a way, California is beginning to resemble Mexico—but not in the way most would presume. California is, of course, becoming brown, but it is also becoming divided into aristocrats and peasants. There is now a huge underclass that serves the needs of the wealthy, washing their cars, cooking their food, cleaning their houses, mowing their lawns, baby-sitting their children.

Starr concludes his impressive tome with a sharp and insightful analysis of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s successful run for governor of California. For Starr, the Austrian immigrant is emblematic of the possibilities that California offers. It was Gov. Gray Davis’s mismanagement of California’s finances that created the fiscal crisis that inspired the recall election. But it was Schwarzenegger “who had assembled a big-time life from small-time beginnings, an immigrant who could now drive his Hummer straight down the highway to Sacramento” who emerged victorious from a large field of candidates. Schwarzenegger, who grew up in the confines of predictable Austria, spent his life in California “on the edge, pushing the limits, defying the odds, making an end run around his formative circumstances.”

Schwarzenegger represents a dream that is becoming ever more elusive in California, says Starr. Once people retired to California—the neighbor who owned the house next door to us when I was a child was a retired farmer from the Midwest—but now they are retiring from California, “selling their homes at inflated prices, taking their money, and going to kinder, gentler places.” Nonetheless, people continue to immigrate, whether legally or illegally, to California because the dream has persisted. Starr even suggests that California is practicing an “effective ecumenism” and can be used as an example of a successful commonwealth of the world’s people. Perhaps so, but to me, California is looking more and more like the Balkans.

Roger D. McGrath is an historian and the author of Gunfighters, Highwaymen and Vigilantes.

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