California’s public education curriculum is medieval. There are certain religious tenets that are sacrosanct and indoctrinate the young. A grasping white male Christian culture gave us a burdensome legacy of racism, sexism, homophobia, and nativism. Courageous Latino, black, gay, and female heroes fought on the barricades to ensure us the present utopia. We name new schools after 19th Century Mexican bandits who were hung for murder, not any longer after Father Serra or Luther Burbank.

To the degree there is a Stanford University, or Southern California Edison, or a California oil or farming industry, it was due not to those who designed or invented such institutions, but to the unsung heroes who did the actual manual labor of laying cement and hammering nails. Fossil fuels and nuclear power are largely a curse; wind, solar, and biofuel are our future. Only heretics and reactionary witches doubt the sanctity of gay marriage, or pine for anti-abortion legislation and capital punishment — leftover prejudices from our pre-green government past. When we say “celebrate diversity” at our universities, we do not mean celebrate all sorts of thinking, from radical left to reactionary right, from the atheist mind to the Church of Christ zealot, from the capitalist to the socialist, but rather we define diversity as superficial appearance, and the degree to which different races and genders march in lockstep to a uniform ideological drummer. In medieval California there is no empiricism: the public schools are successful, the CSU system is reaching new academic heights, and high-speed rail is shortly to replace our crowded freeways.

Extra Moenia

Finally, the medieval world was less secure than that of the Renaissance and Enlightenment that followed. It was feudal in the sense of walled cities and castles, and a lack of easy, safe, and cheap transportation that had once been assured in Roman times. When I drive down to Malibu or over to Palo Alto, it can be a feudal experience, even though contemporary cars are safer and more dependable. But the problem is not the machine, but the increasingly medieval mind that pilots it.

Huge trucks stay in the middle lane of the rare three-lane freeway, and often hog the fast lane when there are only two. I count dozens of Highway Patrol officers lasering cars. They seem less interested in the flatbed trucks that have no tarps over their green cuttings, lumber, mattresses, and scrap iron. Every tenth car is weaving, due not to drink but texting.

Some stretches — the 99 south of Visalia, the 101 south of Gilroy, the 152 a mile after Casa de Fruta, the convergence of the 405 and 101 — are truly scary driving experiences. At night on the way home I make it a point not to get gas on the west side of the 99 as it bisects Fresno. I don’t stop in an Inglewood or even Delano at dark. Driving Manning Avenue or Nees Avenue out to I-5 is a sort of Russian Roulette: at which intersection will the cross-traffic driver run the stop sign? I avoid 4-6 p.m., when too many have too many alcoholic beverages on their way home. In feudal California we may liken a drive to Napa or Newport to a sort of medieval pilgrimage to the Middle East, a trip sometimes fraught with danger, in need of careful planning and enormous patience. Some days 180 miles is less than three hours and we are in Renaissance times; at others it is six hours and we are back to the byways of medieval Italy.

Of course, there is an excitement in the medieval World: the clash of a postmodern Palo Alto with premodern Parlier three hours away, or consider the notion of the Stanford legacy student on the I-5 passing the van of the meth lab operator. I never know quite what I’ll see when I go into Selma, only that it will be unexpected, sometimes bizarre, and require all my sensatory talents to make sense of or avoid it. My grandparents talked of their grandparents coming out west to California in the 1870s. I may one day tell my grandkids that I made it to Los Angeles safely and back!

Related: California at Twilight

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