Beautifully Medieval California
Gates Close at Dusk
At about dusk, I close two large metal gates to my driveways. The security lights come on, and I enjoy intramural life. I am not protecting my dogs from coyotes, although there are many in the vineyard, but rather the farmhouse from the odd array of visitors, the lost, and criminals that can make up the now normal nighttime world of central California. If you doubt me, just peruse the Fresno Bee for the sort of things that occur nightly.
From the past year I offer the following catalogue of those who have visited the farm from dusk to dawn outside the walls: A half-dozen noble caballeros riding down the road on magnificent steeds, outfitted in satin and silver with majestic sombreros, who unfortunately timed their ride a bit late and found themselves in the dark, and in need of stables (my lawn had to do). Some female text-messagers sitting in the car presumably giving directions to thieves -- perhaps those who on three occasions last year stole copper wire from pumps. A decent enough soul, presumably from Mexico, broke and out of gas, who spoke neither English nor Spanish; a would-be “scavenger” who had all sorts of stolen items in his new truck, seeking cash customers for his wares; and dozens more. A sort of California Canterbury Tales of nocturnal pilgrims, interesting in retrospect, a bit scarifying at 11 p.m. honking or yelling at the closed gate. Sorry, folks, the compound gates close at 9 p.m.
The surrounding landscape was once a checkerboard of small 60-200 acre family farms. The house I live in never had a lock for its seven outside doors. Weeknights were spent in local get-togethers -- the Walnut Improvement Club, Eastern Star, the Odd Fellows, the Masons, the Grange, Farm Bureau -- exotic names long gone with the breezes. In most cases, the children of the neighboring dead yeomen have long left, and the parcels conglomerated by larger corporations or purchased by absentee owners, or leased. The old farmhouses are mostly rented out to immigrants. Agriculture is booming; but farming is long dead. The land grows food as never before, but no longer families.
The Feudal Pyramid
A medieval society can be defined in a variety of ways. In terms of class, there is more a pyramidal culture. A vast peasantry sits below an elite of clergy and lords above -- but with little or no independent middle class in-between.
I think California is getting there quickly -- with the U.S. soon to follow.
For our version of the clergy, think public employees, whose salary and benefits are anywhere from 30-40% higher than their counterparts in the private sector. In California, the security guard in the symphony parking lot makes minimum wage and has no pension, even as he faces as much danger as his counterpart in the state police. And like medieval churchmen, our public-employee clergy positions are often nepotic. Families focus on getting the next generation a coveted spot at the DMV, the county assessor’s office, or the local high school. Like the vast tax-free estate of the clergy that both nearly broke feudalism and yet was beyond reproach, so too California’s half-trillion-dollar unfunded pensions and bond liabilities are considered sacrosanct. To question the pay or the performance of a California teacher or prison guard is to win the same scorn that was once earned from ridiculing the local friar. If suggesting that the man of god who was too rotund as a result of living freely on his tax-exempt church land was worthy of stoning, then so too suggesting that our teachers or highway-patrol officers are paid incommensurately with the quality of students in our schools or the safety on our roads is likewise politically incorrect right-wing heresy.
The aristocracy is, of course, our coastal elite, the five or six million high earners who live near the Pacific Ocean from the Bay Area to San Diego. They are more likely to administer both our inherited and natural wealth, symbolized by everything from top universities, Hollywood, and state government to Silicon Valley, Napa Valley, and California finance and natural resources. Their children, if industrious and motivated, are prepped at Stanford and Berkeley, interned at proper law firms and government bureaus, and usually inherit enough of their patrimony and early enough to afford the $1,000 per square foot price that a Newport or Atherton keep costs -- along with its flocks of attendant nannies, gardeners, neighborhood security guards, and maintenance people.
The middle is still shrinking. They are mostly the over three million who have left California for no-tax Nevada or Texas, or crime-free Idaho, or sane Wyoming and Utah. High-paying jobs in manufacturing, construction, and energy are disappearing. The aristocracy, whose religion is the green government, believes that to extend the conditions of its own privilege to millions of less well-educated and less correct-thinking others (e.g., build new affordable condos alongside interstate 280, open up the Malibu hills to low-income development, start drilling for oil and gas in the Monterey Shale formation, build some more dams to ensure irrigation water, widen the 99 and 101 to three lanes from northern to southern California) is to destroy the hallowed lord-serf system altogether.
The aristocracy sails in the summer, not powerboats. In winter, it tends to ski, not use snowmobiles. Its SUVs are Volvo and Mercedes, not second-hand Tahoes and Yukons. Ideally, its kids go to UC, Stanford, or USC, not to CSU campuses in Turlock, Fresno, or Bakersfield. The aristocracy believes in noblesse oblige, but it is a funny sort of one: shutting down a quarter-million acres of farmland is good for all of us, especially for a three-inch bait fish, and even for the farmworkers and managers who must lose their jobs for a just cause. Keeping derricks out of the coastal panorama is wonderful for rich and poor -- and really, who would want a smelly job anyway out on a nauseous oil platform? To paraphrase Steven Chu, European-priced gas is the goal: $10 a gallon would thin out the traffic, keep the right people on the roads, clean up the air, and make high-speed rail economical.
The disappearing middle-class worker in California, who is not connected to the aristocracy or part of the clergy, gets up to work in places like insolvent Stockton, Modesto, or San Bernardino. He drives on substandard roads to a job that does not quite pay for his once overpriced but now underwater house, or the most expensive and highly taxed gas in the nation. Yet he shrugs that he cannot so easily leave a state, with a house without equity, and yet cannot quite stay either -- when the nation’s highest sales and income taxes lead to the nation’s nearly worst schools and infrastructure.
If he whines, he is told that he is lucky to live in California with its climate, weather, and culture -- and so must pay a premium in taxes, regulations, and high costs, despite receiving very little in return in the form of state services. So without a vibrant middle class, the medieval world thrives.
In medieval California, the elderly and retired sometimes head to the foothills, a poorer man’s coast, where there is less crime and less worry over what California has become. I never quite fathomed fully why a classical Greece of city-states on the plains became an Ottoman Greece of villages perched on mountain slopes. I knew, of course, in the abstract that Greeks fled Turks to escape the taxman, conversion to Islam, and the Janissaries, but I can now appreciate that maybe such a sense of impending dread is real in interior California, as valley towns become darker at night from lights that no longer work, and streets that are no longer safe and assumptions that are no longer familiar. Even the most liberal retired professor seems to head for the hills once his thirty years at CSU are up.
The peasantry -- one third of the nation’s welfare recipients, in a state in which almost a quarter of the population is officially “poor” -- lives mostly in the central interior, or in the vast Los Angeles basin, or in small-service enclaves along the coasts -- a Redwood City or Seaside, where they tend to the aristocracy’s daily needs. The aristocracy makes enough not to mind high taxes, and takes care of the tax-freed peasantry by offering the nation’s highest public benefits, including generous EBD and WIC cards, Section 8 housing, daycare help, education supplements, legal assistance, and cash grants.
Those in Old Pasadena, Pacific Palisades, Montecito, Pacific Grove, Menlo Park, Hillsborough, Piedmont, and Pacific Heights mostly avoid the peasantry in Merced and Tulare. That many of their tax dollars end up there and that billions of their state’s earnings go out of state as remittances to Latin America mean little. There is so much good weather, high life, and money in coastal California that the expense to keep the peasantry content is simply a small cost of being an aristocrat in paradise. Indeed they romanticize the peasantry in a way that they most surely do not the embattled middle class.
The Medieval Mind
But feudal California is more than a sense of bifurcated classes and locations. It adopts a closed medieval state of mind too. The Renaissance marked a lessening of the intolerance and censorship of the medieval clergy. Art, literature, science, and philosophy were freed from shibboleths of Aristotle, Church doctrine, and formalistic conventions. But California has of yet had no such renaissance. In our closed, anti-scientific, and deductive way of thinking, Solyndra was a success. Drilling for cheap natural gas in the Monterey Shale formation would be seen as failure. When our governor told Rick Perry that Californians did not need to cool off in 110 degree heat through “fossil fuel”-fed air conditioning, he did not mean that solar panels were energizing green air conditioners in Barstow, but rather that our elites on the coast have natural air conditioning; it’s called the Pacific Ocean. And although wind and solar provide miniscule amounts of California energy, it matters little, given that coastal elites enjoy 70 degree weather year-round and keep their power bills low. PG&E’s and Southern California Edison’s astronomical energy costs are for “little people,” the middle classes in the hot and cold interior and mountains. The aristocracy sets the regulations that make power soar, and the interior pays far more of the costs.
In medieval California, certain thinking is off-limits, just as during the tenth century in France or in the eighth century in Constantinople. I once wrote, on these pages, that one could not any more determine exactly the racial and ethnic heritage of millions of intermarried and integrated Californians, much less could universities easily determine why particular California ancestries qualified for affirmative action and others did not (e.g., was it due to ongoing racism, skin color, historical claims against the majority culture, purposes of “diversity”? etc.). The next thing I knew the Stanford Daily was calling for me to be disciplined by the Hoover Institution. Indeed, these monthly reflections on California earn on occasion an angry op-ed in a California paper, dozens of hate emails -- and even now and then a phone call from an irate state official.
You see, in medieval California the orthodoxy of the clergy and aristocracy must remain unquestioned. Wind and solar are superior energy sources to natural gas or other fossil fuels. The blue-state model of high taxes and big government has been redeemed by the public-approved tax hikes of 2012.
Acres of huge windmills or vast solar-panel farms do not cause as many environmental or aesthetic problems as does a confined natural gas-fed power plant. The degree to which we are not entirely green is due not to science, but to the greed of private enterprise. The problem with illegal immigration is not that it is illegal, much less that the state is overwhelmed in its idealistic mission to provide near instant parity to millions who arrived without legality, capital, education, or English from the abject poverty of central Mexico, but that a largely white, aging, and disappearing nativist class is obstructing multicultural solutions. Our public employees are the most successful and competent in the nation and that is why they make more than others elsewhere, but still not enough to provide a lifestyle commensurate with their talents and industry.
The present baby-boom generation and its offspring are brilliant and are Renaissance figures; they gave us, after all, everything from Facebook to Apple and Google. They are superior moral beings too, and so do not outsource, avoid taxes, bundle campaign donations, seek insider subsidized federal loans, or in general say un-nice things. In contrast, our ancestors were pedestrian and reactionary. After all, they did silly, almost inexplicable things like build Hetch Hetchy, the Big Creek hydroelectric project, the L.A. freeway system, and the California Water Project. We will use these quirky inheritances a bit longer, but would never replicate them.
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.
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
(Thumbnail image on PJM homepage by Shutterstock.com.)