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JAMES RICCI

Welcome to Our 51st State--South California

October 29, 2000|JAMES RICCI

A HARDHEADED OBSERVER TAKING A LONG LOOK AT CALIFORNIA, WITH its 35 million people and countless separate high school football championships, might wonder how anyone can call it a "state" anymore.

In the traditional American sense, the concept of a state implies a certain compactness, a certain manageability, a certain commonality of interests among its residents.

Until about a century ago, state patriotism was an important sentiment on the American emotional landscape. Until World War I, military units were raised on a state-by-state basis. Americans proudly proclaimed their loyalty to "the Buckeye State" (Ohio) or "the Wolverine State" (Michigan) or "the Nutmeg State" (any guesses?).

The concept of California as one big state has never rested easy here. For a quarter-century after the discovery of gold and the hurry-up statehood that followed in 1850, northerners scorned the sleepy, Spanish-speaking "Cow Counties" south of the Tehachapi Mountains. Southern Californians, meanwhile, harbored secessionist feelings; many even looked with a certain favor on the Confederacy during the Civil War.

Ever since, proposals for segmenting California have surfaced regularly, as citizens of various eras have taken turns despairing that such an immensity could be confined in a conceptual box originally meant for the likes of Rhode Island and Connecticut . . . "the Nutmeg State!"

In the most recent attempt, in 1994, then-Assemblyman Stan Statham, a Republican from Shasta County, sponsored a bill to put on the statewide ballot an advisory measure for sectioning California into three states. The measure, born of disgruntlement in the extreme north over the power wielded by San Francisco and Los Angeles, cleared the Assembly but perished in the state Senate.

Statham, a former newscaster who still haunts Sacramento, reports that secessionist sentiment currently is quiescent, although curiosity about it continues.

"Two weeks don't go by that I don't get a call from somebody wanting to know what's happening now, and I'm not aware of anything," he says. "At the moment, nobody I know of is trying to make L.A. its own state. They would have contacted me. Everybody does."

Maybe it's time to approach this issue again.

Consider: There are now more people in California than there were in the entire United States at the time of the Civil War. What's more, demographers project that in the next 20 years the population of the six counties of Southern California will reach 22.35 million--about as many people as were in all of California as recently as 1980.

Besides, it might be a lot of fun establishing a brand-new state of South California. If we went about it in the right, lighthearted way, we'd free ourselves from a lot of claptrap that attended the old state of California.

Take, for instance, the state motto, Eureka, I have found it. It sounds so outdated and is hard not to associate with the capital of Humboldt County in the far north. The motto of South California, in clever reference to the original, might be Temecula, I have lost it ("losing it" being post-modern for "out of control," a fairly apt characterization of life here).

Also, the current official state song, composed, fittingly, by one A.F. Frankenstein, is a monstrous inanity titled "I Love You, California." It begins (before going lyrically downhill):

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I love you, California, you're the greatest state of all.

I love you in the winter, summer, spring, and in the fall.

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How Southern California, a world center of popular songwriting, has put up with such a ditty for so long is a mystery. Far better that the new state adopt "California Dreamin' " (I'd be safe and warm if I was in L.A. . . . .) or "Hotel California" (This could be Heaven or this could be Hell . . . .)

We could go on musing in this vein. The state fish, currently the golden trout--how about the pan-seared rare ahi in cilantro sauce? The state insect, currently the dog-faced butterfly--hey, down here we have collagen injections for that; how about, instead, the Hollywood studio executive (or might that work better for state reptile)?

I don't think the north would object too much to our detaching ourselves. They'd have the old traditions to themselves. True, they'd also have most of the water, but they'd probably continue sharing it just to be rid of the smogged-in, sunscreened lot of us.

It's not like there couldn't be cordial relations between North California, "The Golden State," and South California--"The State of Flux"? "The State of Shock"? "The Stand-Up Comic State"? . . . .

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James Ricci's e-mail address is james.ricci@latimes.com

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