The Myth of the California Dream

This weekend brought me two works that may not seem to be related, but cover with the same themes.
The first is Where I Was From, by Joan Didion. This book is basically an extended essay dealing with the author’s struggles to understand her heritage as a member of an old California family and the way that the land still affects her, even though she has spent her entire professional life in the East. While examining such things as how the Donner party affected racism in early California, how the implosion of the aerospace industry in Southern California gace rise to the infamous “Spur Posse” of Lakewood California, and the enormous influence of the California Prison Guards Union,  Didion circles back to a fundamental truth; many of the self-perceptions and myths that Californians believe are completely incompatible with the actual history of the land. Paraphrasing Didion, “The entire state has been shaped by people mortgaging their future for immediate monetary gain.”
The second work is Robert Towne’s 1974 film, Chinatown. Chinatown follows Jake Gittes, a Los Angeles private detective working in the 1930’s. An innocent job following a man suspected of adultery leads to a dizzying maze of murder, power and secrets that leads right to the most powerful men in the city.
Both works are peopled with independent, hungry men looking for the magic way to get wealthy. They fancy themselves pioneers, in Didion’s case literally scratching a living from a newly opened land. In Chinatown everybody is trying to pretend that their desert is a tropical paradise.

When he first come out here, he figured if you dumped water into the desert sand and let it percolate down to the bedrock, it would stay there instead of evaporate the way it does in most reservoirs. You only lose 20% instead of 70 or 80. He made this city.

Noah Cross and his Department of Water may believe that they have transformed the desert with the blood of the Owens Valley, but as Hollis Mulwray himself says, “You dig beneath the buildings, beneath the streets and you get hot dry desert sand.”
But Hollis and Noah are not thinking about the desert. They have out-engineered it. They have mastered the land. They have sold precious water to fuel an unsustainable desert Xanadu. And this short term thinking, trading planning for temporary riches has been a facet of California life for as long as there have been settlers.
In the beginning of California’s history, the state used to be attractive to only a certain type of person: one who was willing to uproot his family, travel with only what they could carry, and ultimately one who was willing to change his trade at the drop of a hat. This sets up a curious xenophobia; all Old California families are suspicious of “new” people who came in the postwar boom. And of course, Chinese, Mexican, or Indians could never be “old,” regardless of how long they have lived here. In reality, all of these immigrant groups (except, of course, the Native Americans) were in the state for the same reason as the old settlers.
Even more interesting is the story of those who actually ended up wealthy. From the beginning, California’s economic growth has been fueled by handouts from the Federal government. In the last century, that came in the form of land grants, railroad expansion, and vast public works projects in the state, in this century it came in the form of the defense industry that employed much of Southern California from the airplane manufacturers in Burbank to the shipyards of Long Beach to the unbelievably large California penal system. And yet all of those workers would claim a California heritage of hard-working individualism.
That’s the big irony: a state that prides itself on its independence has always been completely dependent on the federal government to finance an overly large artificial middle class. The history of the state is a repeating cycle of decisions made for quick gain leading to problems fixed by the federal government setting up other problems. It’s why it appears backwards to many visitors. It’s why we have a budget crisis today. The future…

Cross: You see, Mr. Gits; Either you bring the water to LA or you bring LA to the water.
Gittes: How you gonna do that?
Cross: By incorporating the valley into the city. Simple as that.
Gittes: How much are you worth?
Cross: I’ve no idea. How much do you want?
Gittes: I just want to know what you’re worth. Over ten million?
Cross: Oh my, yes!
Gittes: Why are you doing it? How much better can you eat? What can you buy that you can’t already afford?
Cross: The future, Mr. Gits – the future!

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