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Preston Jones

California Haze

In his travel guide, San Bernardino Mountain Trails: 100 Hikes in Southern California, John W. Robinson notes that on "clear days" travelers who get a glimpse of the San Bernardino Valley from the heights of San Gorgonio Mountain will be "treated to an awesome panorama." He is right. It isn't for nothing that Joyce Carter Vickery's history of the San Bernardino area in the nineteenth century is titled Defending Eden or that the cover photo on Richard B. Rice's standard textbook on California history, The Elusive Eden, is of the San Bernardino Mountains' snow-capped peaks standing watch over lush orange groves in the vale below. Nor is it for nothing that Arrowhead Springs Christian Conference Center, in the foothills just above north San Bernardino, was originally a resort for Hollywood stars. On clear spring days those foothills are stunning.

But what does Robinson mean by "clear days"? A smog-free day, of course; a day without "hazy sunshine"—another euphemism employed by Southern Californian weather men whose job it is to instruct parents on how, if their kids play too hard on certain days, the prevailing smog could land them in an emergency room. To be five miles from an 8,000-foot mountain and yet to be unable to see it—a common phenomenon in San Bernardino since the 1950s—is to realize that, for many Americans, the times of California dreamin' have been over for a while.

Nowadays one is hard-pressed to come across kind words for Southern California's Inland Empire, of which San Bernardino is the heart. In Paradise Lost, political columnist Peter Schrag sums it up as an economically troubled, overcrowded region that "stretches from the eastern suburbs of Los Angeles through the desert to the Arizona line." In his book An Empire Wilderness, Atlantic Monthly contributing editor Robert D. Kaplan calls it a collection of "inexpensive suburbs east of greater Los Angeles" and drops the subject. Meanwhile, none of the authors whose work is collected by David Colbert in Eyewitness to the American West mentions the region, save in passing. From Eden to outer darkness, San Bernardino's come a long way, baby.

Crime, fear, poverty, pollution, 90-minute commutes, middle-class flight to contrived "communities," inept politicians, a lazy electorate, the obfuscations of left- and right-wing racialists, the elimination of small farms and town centers for the sake of World Wal-Mart, urban anonymity, television addiction, drug addiction, the destruction of wild life habitat—it's all happening out West, and not just in California's Inland Empire. Indeed, what prevails in Paradise Lost, An Empire Wilderness, and a number of the documents included in Eyewitness to the American West, is a sense that the promise of the West in general and of California in particular is in peril—the region's current economic boom notwithstanding.

For Peter Schrag, the beginning of the end was California's Proposition 13, the antitax initiative that set off a nationwide tax revolt in the late 1970s and thus, in Schrag's view, set the economically comfortable against the lower classes. That politically successful initiative also set a precedent California activists have followed ever since: bypass the state legislature and have the people vote directly on matters about which they know very little. California's initiative and proposition system, first set up by Progressives in the early twentieth century, has all the marks of popular democracy; and to the extent that Californians are able to think and make decisions about political issues for themselves, it is that. But whether the average Californian is really capable of or interested in doing that is unclear. "California is a capital-letter cautionary tale," Schrag writes; "the process of bedazzling voters with sound bites, slogans, and nuanced bias works as handsomely in the initiative process as it does in electoral politics."

In recent propositions aimed at ending social assistance for the children of undocumented workers and the elimination of affirmative-action programs in state institutions, Schrag also detects racial and class divisions that could, he thinks, tear California asunder. One wonders if Schrag is able to recognize that his own apparent unwillingness or inability to find racist tendencies in any but conservative white Americans might contribute to the racial animosity over which he frets. Given the fact that each month some 60,000 men and women are stopped from crossing illegally into the United States from Mexico and that 6 percent of California's population resides there illegally, it's hard to see how concerns about immigration in the Golden State can be regarded as being driven only by racism. And, depending on the neighborhood, in California one finds Cambodians pitted against Mexicans, blacks pitted against Koreans, and, it sometimes seems, everyone against everyone.

Still, Schrag is right to observe that matters racial are of especial concern in late twentieth-century California. As Dale Maharidge starkly announced in an op-ed piece published in the New York Times earlier this year, "Whites are now a minority in California." Whether Californians of all stripes will be able to get along in the future is an open question. For his part, Schrag is not optimistic.

As the worried face captured in the photo on the dust jacket of An Empire Wilderness suggests, Robert Kaplan, like Schrag, has seen the future of the West (and thus of America), and he isn't happy about it. Envision the southwest drifting off into Mexico; British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon drifting off into a separate state called Cascadia; electronically mesmerized lower-class kids who munch candy for breakfast drifting off, en masse, into street gangs; parents who are too poor to eat well but not too poor to own a satellite dish, drifting off to sleep in front of their televisions, unconcerned about their kids' reading abilities; the upper-middle class of all ethnicities drifting off to gated, guarded neighborhoods and "private health clubs rather than public playgrounds"—imagine all that and you have a decent handle on Kaplan's vision. "These people were fat for the same desperate reason they gambled," Kaplan says of Mr. and Mrs. Westerner playing slot machines in New Mexico: "the hopeless quest to satisfy gross material desires."

As if the portrait of the West drawn here weren't bleak enough, let us turn to David Colbert's edited texts, which remind us, among many other things, of the disastrous oil spill at Valdez, Alaska, in 1989, when "Millions of gallons of crude oil gushed into Prince William Sound." And how about those Los Angeles riots? Edition 1964: "Little kids was all out on the streets. People were shooting guns, and the sky was just black, like the world was going to come to an end." Edition 1992: "Prosecutors have contended that [police officer Laurence] Powell can be heard on a police radio tape laughing about the beating, and that he mocked [Rodney] King in a hospital emergency room after the incident."

There's lots more. The Oklahoma City bombing and Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas; space aliens in New Mexico and Bill Gates in Seattle; Quetzalcoatl and the Zimmermann telegram; Booker T. Washington and Harold Ickes; Clarence Darrow and Mark Twain—Corbett includes them all and thus provides proof that, for most people, the West has never really been a paradise but more an ever competitive, rowdy, individualistic, and demanding place. When the Okies went to California during the Great Depression, they weren't looking for heaven but only a job and a little property. "The Californian doesn't know what he wants," John Steinbeck wrote in 1936. "The Oklahoman knows exactly what he wants. He wants a piece of land. And he goes after it and gets it."

Of course, despite all that has conspired against it, the West, and especially California, has thrived. Maybe it will keep on thriving. Maybe 30 years from now we'll look back on books such as Kaplan's and Schrag's and shake our heads at what we will conclude was their unfounded, if considered, pessimism.

We'll see.

Preston Jones has recently finished a Ph.D. in history at the University of Ottawa (Canada) and is now cowriting, with Charles Palmer, a history of San Bernardino, California, since World War II.

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