American Dream or nightmare
|By: Evangeline Selden | Oct 5 2011 | 695 words | 1056 hits|
Classic history of the state, which allows Americans see their future
If it were a country, California would be one with more people than Canada and an economy the size of China. Scientists shoot, with their rockets to the moon, movies, dissemination of the culture of Hollywood in the world, its athletes break world records, though his position with the best wines of France. In a way it's always at the forefront, both in the days of flower power of 1960 or the dotcom bubble of the 1990s. As Kevin Starr points out in his history of the state, California has long been "one of the prisms through which the American people, for better or for worse, could glimpse their future."
Mr Starr is too good a historian to offer any pat explanation, but instead, it focuses on the extraordinary range of people and events that led to the mythical land of Queen Calafia, through the rule of Spain and Mexico, and management of Arnold Schwarzenegger (what other state in America would have chosen a movie star pumping iron with an Austrian accent?). Moreover, it does so with such elegance and humor that his book is a pleasure to read.
What emerges is not all Californian sunshine and light. Think back to the savage violence that accompanied the gold rush of 1849, or the exclusion orders against the Chinese or the riots that regularly marked industrial and social relations in San Francisco (though dictionaries prefer Bavaria as the origin of "thug", Mr Starr believes that youth is derived from invading Chinatown with the war cry of "caucus"). California, it must be remembered, was very wild west, having to wait until 1850 before they can make their way to statehood.
So what is tame? Response from Mr. Starr is a combination of great men, great ideas and great projects. The emphasis on infrastructure development in California: the extraordinary system of aqueducts and canals that transferred water from upstate to the arid south, the development of agriculture, pathways rail and road, and perhaps the factor more important to California's high tech today, creating a superb set of public universities.
All this, he writes, "began with water, the sine qua non of any civilization." He goes cheerfully to note the "monumental damage to the environment" caused by irrigation projects that were "plagued by claims of deception, deceit and conflict of interest" means a situation that was fodder for Hollywood movies such as Roman Polanski's "Chinatown."
A virtue of this book is its structure. Mr. Starr is never trapped in his chronologicalframework. On the other hand, when the subject requires it, can shoot and fly back and forth among the decades (throughout the book is particularly good for regular outbreaks labor unrest, both in the yards or fields of San Francisco's Central Valley ). Less satisfying is his account of the cultural development of California, 19 and 20 centuries: he really need to invoke so many long-forgotten writers included such names as Jack London, Frank Norris, Mark Twain or Raymond Chandler?
But this is a minor criticism for a book that became a classic in California. The regret is that Mr Starr, doubtless pressed for space, leaves very little, just a short final chapter for the participation of the past to the future of California. The question that most Americans prefer to ignore California is governable? "Despite its impressive growth, there is still instability in politics and government of California, which became perfectly clear to the rest of the nation in the fall of 2003 when California voters recalled a governor-elect and one the others. "
Indeed so, and Mr. Starr wisely avoids making premature judgments on their choices. Ailments such as soaring house prices, congested highways and "besieged" public schools, combined with budgetary problems resulting from the tax revolt of 1978 would test to the limit any governor, even the Terminator. As noted by Mr. Starr, no one should talk about California as an unambiguous triumph: "It has always been something slightly bipolar disorder California was utopiaor or dystopia, a dream or a nightmare, a hope or a broken promises and too rarely something. between the two. "
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