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Commentary | ON THE RECALL Peter H. King

An Angry Paradise

When reality foils the California dream, resentment reigns

October 08, 2003|Peter H. King

It must seem strange to those who do not live in California. I imagine some luckless wheat farmer in South Dakota somewhere. Another hard winter is bearing down on him. His last crop didn't bring enough cash to cover even the harvest costs. The bank's yapping at his bootheels.

And then he flips on the cable news, and there's the latest report from the California recall campaign -- images of sun-drenched men and women in short sleeves, roaring approval as a Hollywood icon recites a line from an old movie: "We're mad as hell, and we aren't going to take it anymore."

Mad about what? our weary farmer wonders.

A drought? No. A plague of crop- devouring insects? No. Total insolvency? No again.

It's something called the car tax, which is used to finance firehouses, libraries and other local government endeavors and now, because of an economic slump, has been returned to pre-boom levels of five years before.

Or it's a new law that permits undocumented field hands, who make up the majority of the state's farm labor force, to obtain driver's licenses. Or it's the shocking fact that the governor has behaved like the career politician that he is.

It must sound off-key to those not living in California, that so much anger could be stirred by what to outsiders must seem relatively minor oppressions. But it has always been that way here. From the start, anger has animated the state's politics and forged its politicians. Happy warriors never last long on the California scene. Brooding dividers, playing to the native hunch that Eden has been squandered, tend to fare much better.

Even a fellow like Arnold Schwarzenegger, fabulously fit, rich as a railroad baron, living large on the Pacific Coast, felt compelled to strike the pose of the aggrieved insurgent, determined to grab back what had been "taken" from him by "Sacramento."

To hear him blasting away on the stump, one might well have assumed the poor man was holed up in a tent, living on beans.

Often the angry tone of California politics is merely tactical. From the post-Gold Rush attacks on Chinese laborers, to the Depression-era demonizing of hobos and fruit tramps, to Pete Wilson's assault on illegal nannies and drywall hangers, the formula for political success in this state has held true: Channel resentment toward some "other" and then maneuver to the front of the mob.

Typically, but not always, the anger will be aimed at the latest wave of new Californians. It also can be directed toward a specific policy or person. This time, Gov. Gray Davis was hammered for a budget deficit. A quarter of a century ago, it was an "obscene surplus" that helped rouse the Proposition 13 tax cutters.

The recall campaign can be seen as one more manifestation of the angry streak in California politics. It simply was Davis' misfortune to happen into the cross hairs of the mob this time. The anger he generated always seemed a bit outsized compared with his political sins, although his actions didn't help matters. One sensed he was being blamed for more than a tardy response to the energy crisis or a failure to herd the Legislature in a timely fashion toward a balanced budget. Rather, deep-seated sources of discontent seemed to be at work -- the disappointment of the dot-com collapse, perhaps, or the shabbily planned suburban expansions of the last decade, or the shifting demographics of the new California.

Now as always, the anger in California politics appears to be rooted, more than anything else, in the unexplored, nostalgic notion that the state was a far better place to live only a few years before -- before "they" swarmed over the border, before all those shabby subdivisions overtook the land, before Davis.

From the Gold Rush forward, it has been common among Californians to believe they came to Paradise a generation too late, that a trick has been played on them: "They were savage and bitter, especially the middle-aged and the old, and had been made so by boredom and disappointment," Nathanael West wrote in "The Day of the Locust," his 1939 classic, describing the Hollywood mob scene that provided the novel its climax.

West wrote of a people who toiled all their lives so that they finally could come to California, "the land of sunshine and oranges.... Once there, they discover that sunshine isn't enough. They get tired of oranges, even of avocado pears, and passion fruit. Nothing happens.... Their boredom becomes more and more terrible. They realize that they've been tricked and burn with resentment."

They sign recall petitions....

This is Peter H. King's final column on the recall election.

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