Keep That California Dream
Rejecting dire forecasts, scholar Starr sees state surviving boom-and-bust cycles. HISTORIAN KEVIN STARR
LOS ANGELES — TRAFFIC-CHOKED freeways, forbidding real estate prices, a stalled economy, unchecked immigration: None of it bursts the California dream, as far as the state's scholar laureate Kevin Starr is concerned.The Golden State is still that, says the historian, placing California civilization in the larger sweep of world history. From his University of Southern California (USC) office with its downtown skyline view framed by a parking lot and palm trees, Professor Starr says he is convinced that the "American moment" is equal to any moment in history. And as one of the strongest expressions of American civilization, the California dream will survive boom-and-bust cycles. If California - or the United States, for that matter - is suffering a sense of decline, he says, nothing yet suggests it is anything but an element of what it is to be a great culture. "American civilization is not lacking in any of the features of a high civilization," says Starr. "It's not lacking in writers, in painters, engineering, science, religious vitality ... it's all there. It doesn't mean it doesn't have dark, tragic, and terrible sides ... that's also part of a vital civilization - the great mistakes, et cetera." (Starr ends most paragraphs with "et cetera," the conversational equivalent of footnotes.) California is reaching its "tragic limits," he says. "I think it's good for the state ... a sense of limits ... but that doesn't mean that the thing is over with." Starr possesses the intellectual license to unapologetically revel in the American - and, specifically, the Californian - in the way scholars traditionally admire what are considered more classic civilizations. He is a Renaissance man if California ever produced one. In addition to writing a series of books on California history, the San Francisco native has taught literature at Harvard, library science, history, and political science in the University of California system, and now urban and regional studies at USC. Asked in a Monitor interview to expound on the state of the state, Starr, bow tie unstrung from a day in 100-degree October temperatures, offers a freeway-speed commentary that, like his books and college classroom offerings, is engaging. Though stressing he is not an economist, Starr says there are clearly global economic factors that may be having a leveling effect among nations. He was surprised on a recent visit to Spain to find prices equivalent to those in the US, and observes that Americans are "slightly affronted" when they travel and find other economies on a par with theirs. "We tend to think there's some divine right for Americans to always have this and always have that," Starr says. "And I think that anxiety projects itself on California a lot." So, he concludes, just as California has always been a symbol of America's cutting edge, it becomes a symbol for the sense of a declining America, whether there is in fact a decline or not. California, he says, is still a place of the "exuberance" his books about early California talk so much about. "Action becomes the probe that you're after, and talking about it in ratiocinative forms is something that's done later," he says, noting that such action is characterized in the steady wave of immigration here. Growing cultural diversity, strained public coffers, crime, and congestion have all inspired dire predictions that the California dream is decaying into a futuristic nightmare. But these challenges, Starr says, are not peculiar to the state, nor necessarily even to this era. Starr's perspective is criticized as a "feel-good" California vision by those who see a gloomy future. For example, two important recent books City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles," by Mike Davis and "Los Angeles: Capital of the Third World," by David Rieff - foresee problems in the booming California polyglot. They suggest that rather than assimilating, immigrant society will be separate and, in some cases, suppressed. Starr is magnanimous about criticism of his optimism, praising the efforts in these books but immediately offering his own take on the symbol of opportunity California historically has been. "The Okies didn't stay poor long. Mexican-Americans of any standing in the United States have not stayed poor long. Asians didn't stay poor for 10 seconds ... that's a long line of people coming in that way. There's no evidence that the [immigrants] who are poor now are going to stay poor. There's contrary evidence from the past of [the poor] getting very quickly off the bottom rung of the ladder. "I have to have an almost Darwinian view of the best struggling to come to the US. They're not going to be Ozzie and Harriet in their first American manifestation and will have a predisposition to be oppressed until they organize themselves, empowering themselves through the Constitution, through labor unions, through all the things that people in the United State do ... and they do that very quickly. "There's been no [precedent of] permanent debilitation. So the burden of proof is on people like Davis to say the Mexican-Americans are going to be kept in a condition of permanent debilitation. I don't believe it." Starr notes that native Californians typically don't identify themselves ethnically and says that exposure to the ethnic enclaves of the East (like Italian, Irish, Eastern European, Jewish) is always unsettling for them. Starr, an Irish Catholic raised in California, says it wasn't until he went to Harvard as a graduate student that he was aware that Irish-Americans felt discriminated against. Even then, he felt it was their sense of "institutional victimhood" based on history - not any current reality - that haunted them. "California is disturbing to a lot of people who like to see permanent victims because people don't stay that way very long here," he says. But how does this all fit with this year's ugly racial incident in which white Los Angeles police were captured on videotape beating Rodney King, a black man? This, suggests Starr, is perhaps less about any regional racism than about the Los Angeles Police Department's own checkered history (though he does allow that racial bias in the LAPD played into the Watts riots and incidents in the 1940s). Since 1920, he explains, Los Angeles has had fewer officers relative to the population than any city. This, combined with the geographic size of the city, has meant a police force detached from the community. Historically, too, police chiefs have "cultivated a constabulary, militaristic attitude toward the population, and a certain bonding did not occur." "The cops in New York, in Boston and Chicago and San Francisco participate in the life of the people.... Cops in New York look like New York people ... a lot of the guys have a slight gut. Cops in LA look like an elite unit for the Marine Corps."