“California” first appeared as a place name in the 16th century romance novel Las Sergas de Esplandián, where it was used to describe a fantastic island off the west coast of North America. In the novel, Queen Califia of California ran her isle of black women as a misandrist utopia, knowing war but not men and fighting on the backs of tame beasts with weapons made of gold, the only metal on the island.
When Spanish mercenaries sent by Cortés first set foot on what is now Baja California Sur, they had a ready name, and a ready fantasy. The region, one of the most densely and diversely populated in the pre-conquest Americas, was swiftly overrun by bloodthirsty Franciscans, the name of its murders’ delusion entombing the many names local people had for their own home.
California has long been the basis of such real-estate bait-and-switches. People elsewhere are heavily invested in how the state appears, its lucrative fantasy coming to dominate and determine conditions on the ground. But the best real estate scams are the ones that work well enough for you to forget what was supposed to be there in the first place, and California, for all its recent crisis and dysfunction, still identifies the horizon of America. It promised the best soil in which to grow middle-class homeowners, where post-war subsidies for white families allowed them to pioneer new forms of consumption.
California was most of what was dynamic about white America for the past century into the new one, as well as non-white invention and resistance, too. Other parts further east can electrify, but nowhere else does American hegemony seem so radiant. Admitted to the U.S. as a free state just prior to the Civil War, California was afforded the fiction of racial innocence. But even the briefest glance at the historical record shows California’s violent fidelity to preserving white hegemony.
Recent history has been no different. On New Year’s Day, 2009, transit cop Johannes Mehserle shot dead Oscar Grant, 25, an unarmed reveler, setting off unrest that smolders still. When Occupy Oakland took its black flags to Frank Ogawa Plaza they renamed it after Grant, a tribute and an accurate prediction of the police violence that would follow. Scott Olsen, in his veterans for peace T-shirt, nearly became Occupy’s first casualty when riot police shot him in the face with a “less lethal” beanbag round. In the summer of 2012, Anaheim police officer Nick Bennallack shot down unarmed Manuel Diaz, also 25. When the community came out to protest Diaz’s murder, the police sicced dogs on them. The first sultanate of SWAT, California is ready for riots and social disruption in so many different ways. This issue addresses a few of them.
In Silicon Valley, disruption brews and New York financiers feel overdressed and behind the times. But the new boss looks a lot like the old one in a hoodie. In “Not All Nerds,” Chris Fan assails the racist tech industry, which has picked up the old Californian tool of East Asian labor. The vengeful nerds that fill the Valley’s boardrooms aren’t so different from the railroad barons of yesteryear, and the Bay’s racialized labor hierarchies still have a 19th century flavor.
As Michael Andrews notes in his elegy for Needles, in small-town California you can’t find the remnants of precapitalist relations of production to fall back on if the market wants to move. He recounts seeing the few jobs and meeting-places wither up not from the scorching Mojave heat but from waning profit margins. His father’s union job is sped up until he’s covering the work of fired co-workers, the polarization of the economy diminishing Needles’s viability as a livable place altogether. Further north along the Sierra Nevada, the state park and Gold Rush ghost town Bodie stands as a talisman of how Californian settlement can fall, hurtling toward booms and leaving a trail of wreckage along the state. As Meagan Day writes of the unwitting memento mori, Bodie provides white Californians with a sense of belonging, although it functions just as well as a cautionary tale about the temporary nature of their hold on the land.
In Los Angeles’s Skid Row, developers can’t decide if the homeless are good props to give urban renewal a bit of edge or a nuisance to be exported. In Aaron Cantú’s “Haven in a Homeless World,” he gives us a tour of the politics of downtown Los Angeles, America’s largest homeless encampment in the heart of a major metropolitan downtown area. How these dispossessed people will be treated depends, like so much in this state, on what property developers and their financiers think will look best. We know for certain that despite the development, the homeless will not be getting homes.
In “Walking in L.A.,” Patrick Disselhorst considers Thom Andersen’s Get Out of the Car as a “city symphony” film about Los Angeles, attending to the ways that Los Angeles is and is not best experienced behind the wheel. The freeway system imposes a homogeneous cultural symbol on a diverse terrain, but the actual city transcends the median strip. And down the 5, Chris Lee peers up the driveways and in the windows of the cozy 4,000-square- foot homes along the Orange County coastline, detecting in their stucco right angles and overstuffed pillows the glimmerings of a queer suburban culture. Holding down the fort are drag culture’s estranged sellout stepchildren: The Real Housewives. The suburban realness of reality television reveals even hetero designs like master-planned subdivisions as forms of bourgeois drag.
Each decade gets the California it needs, or is it the California it deserves? In Jesse Barron’s review of Inherent Vice (The book or the movie? A very Californian question), the ’50s duke it out with the ’60s for the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. The Thomas Pynchon/P.T. Anderson collaboration is a stoner noir mashup about land because in California it’s always about land. Inherent Vice is a counter-history of the ’70s where “the bungalows are left standing and the suburbs taken under,” but it wasn’t to be. Even though Governor Moonbeam and the Brown family are back in Sacramento, Reagan still won the war, and the state exported its governmental model of intentional incapacity nationwide.
California as a failed state has been a cherished trope of reactionary politics for a long time, but only recently has it really threatened to come up for a vote. Its proposition system, whereby legislation can be passed by direct plebiscite, is an equally cherished sin in the liberal Californian catechism (along with the infamous Prop 13), and in the last election, Silicon Valley billionaire Tim Draper bankrolled an initiative that would break the state up in to six sub-Californias. As Lauren O’Neal explains in “Thirst Trap,” this stunt ignored the hydrological realities these fledgling states would face, especially if they were born in a drought. But it also drew on actually existing social divisions between the well-irrigated and the parched parts of the state. Water politics in California mirrors the drier political dynamics emanating from Sacramento and L.A., where the riches of this golden state are hoarded by brittle speculators.
To maintain lines between owners and others in the most populous state, California locks up the most people, too, if you count state and county-level prisoners. Kameelah Janan Rasheed interviews Eric A. Stanley, a longtime prison abolitionist and filmmaker, who argues that California is still able to enjoy its reputation as “progressive” while simultaneously operating one of the largest gulags in history through an insidious logic of reform which promises to free the souls it holds behind bars while actually expanding its reach.
The long con of California plays out over hella contradictions. California is America’s Idea of itself that America is still able to export. Despite being the site of environmental crisis and government dysfunction, it is also, as any “Visit California” ad insists, a lifestyle brand with global recognition. Yet it rests on an active fault of mass incarceration and illegal day labor, of drained water tables and foreclosed earthquake-compliant properties. And as everyone in California knows, the next Big One is right around the corner.