A historian's view of the changing 'California dream'

A five-minute conversation with California historian Kevin Starr is likely to include references to ancient Egypt, baseball, jazz, cuisine - and, of course, America's end-of-the-rainbow state, which he now sees as a lab experiment in "global ecumenical civilization."

Philosopher, political scientist, literature professor, theologian - and author of a six-volume series entitled "Americans and the California Dream" - Mr. Starr has long been the go-to grandfather figure for anyone trying to make sense of the country's most populous state.

Now, 30 years after laser focusing his wide-ranging mind to examine California - and the country through its prism - Mr. Starr has concluded a seventh volume, on the state from 1990 to 2003.

About the state and nation he is disturbed yet hopeful. As the Golden State has gone - through the turmoil of suburban sprawl, illegal immigration, social challenges, and environmental stress - so has America. The middle-class dream of worldly wealth, individual pursuit, contentment is by no means dead. But its achievement, as seen here at least, is increasingly a struggle. Like a come-of-age teenager whose years of parental-cocoon entitlement are over, the American dream in California is not attainable simply for the asking, or simple showing up, he says. It must be achieved the old-fashioned way.

"Miguel de Unamuno called it the 'tragic sense of life' - when bounty and beauty no longer come as unearned increment," says Starr, quoting the Spanish philosopher during an interview in his corner office at the University of Southern California. With his characteristically long-range view, he likens today's hardships to those of the state's 1850s pioneers.

"The state is increasingly difficult, competitive, and aware of enormous challenges that are forcing its citizens and institutions to struggle mightily. The typical American dreamer can no longer merely say, as he once did: 'The solution is that I have come to California.' The ante has been upped."

In fashion, food, legal, social, and environmental matters, other states have followed California over the decades. The list is long, from yoga and extreme sports to populist tax rollbacks and three-strikes laws to lock up criminals.

California still wields enormous clout and its trendsetting may not be over. Arnold Schwarzenegger, for example, may offer a model for reviving a politics that bridges deep divides.

Yet Starr now sees two reasons why post-millennial California does not play as pivotal a trend-setting role that it once did. One is a burgeoning US monoculture. The other is the rising sophistication of other American regions from the South to the Midwest. "Whatever California has contributed to other American regions in ideas and styles - from the environment, to fashion, to cuisine - it has done," says Starr. "In a very big sense, the battle is over. The country has been California-ized."

He says the state is still often on the cutting edge of trends, but has been increasingly marginalized by a national life that no longer embraces its regional diversity as it once did. "Now there is a narrowing of the national bandwidth, as fewer people and institutions are interpreting the country as a whole and regions have become the center of their own universes."

With a Harvard doctorate in philosophy, Starr decided in the late 1960s to chronicle California as "an essential and compelling component of the larger American experience." After writing six books on the state through 1950, in 1991 he was commissioned by Alfred Knopf editor Bruce Harris to fast-forward to write on the 1990s. Soon Starr was also state librarian, appointed for a decade by Gov. Pete Wilson in 1994.

"Mr. Harris used to come out and watch the sunset over boats at Marina Del Ray, or the smoky mountains in Santa Barbara, the fog over the Golden Gate Bridge, or groves of Redwoods," recalls Starr. "So I think he wanted a Sunset Magazine view of the state. But when I started writing, I came up with fires, floods, earthquakes, riots, gang warfare ... when I finished I told him this may not be book you commissioned, but it is the only one I could have written."

Indeed, as early as 1989 (Newsweek) and 1991 (Time), magazines did cover stories on the California dream-become-nightmare. They detailed disillusionment regarding sprawl, budget deficits, crime, smog, and traffic. And that was before widespread drought, two major earthquakes, and racial strife after the Rodney King beating and O.J. Simpson murder trial.

"I was beginning to wonder whether I had chosen a dead end," he writes in his just released, "Coast of Dreams: California on the Edge 1990-2003." "Was California an aberration, a sideshow, or worse, a case study in how things could go wrong for the United States?"

Though some sociologists and writers are predicting continued decline for the state in quality of life, Starr says the question remains open. Key to its answer are how residents and political institutions handle increased diversity, the budget squeeze, a global economy, and "tradeoffs between its militant environmentalism [and] its industrial infrastructure." He writes that the state has become "a reality in search of a myth [that was] never fully repudiated."

He sees hope in the fallout from the state's gubernatorial recall election last year. "Basically what the recall stood for and Arnold Schwarzenegger is now standing for are citizen's cries to end the fierce partisan clash that had gridlocked California and is now still engulfing the country."

Schwarzenegger may reflect two other distinctly American trends worth watching: the blur of entertainment with governance and voters' yearnings to undo gridlock with outside help.

In voting for Schwarzenegger, Californians "were voting in one of their own: someone 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."

When asked how Americans should continue to think about California, Starr responds that each American region should look more closely at its own struggles - and parallel them to the regions of the country that have the best answer. Texas has a deeper understanding of Hispanic issues, for instance, the South of the black experience.

"We should look to all regions for answers, not just California."

Still, he writes that "By 2003, if and when the US wanted to see and know itself as a successful world commonwealth, an ecumenopolis, all it had to do was to look to California as it remained the coast of dreams, even if so many of these dreams were increasingly on the edge."

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