In which Starr brings his magnificent, multivolume series Americans and the California Dream, the product of a quarter-century of work, up to the present.
After all that time, Starr (The Dream Endures, 1997, etc.; History/Univ. of California, Los Angeles) admits, he had come to wonder whether he “had chosen a dead end. Was California an aberration, a sideshow, or, worse, a case study in how things could go wrong for the United States?” The events he covers here do not offer a powerful argument otherwise: the mass suicide of the Heaven’s Gate cult, the LA riots of 1992, the collapse of the public sector in the wake of taxpayer revolt, the election of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Things have always been different in California, Starr allows. Consider the cafeteria of religions, for example, about which he marvels early on: LA is a center for the New Age, but also for Hinduism, Mormonism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Pentecostalism, and Catholicism—and, on top of that, “the third largest Jewish community in the world.” But some recent trends have been both strange and unhealthy. One is a growing class division, manifested by laws that, for instance, make it impossible “for anyone other than the very wealthy to build on a restricted number of sites” near the ocean, even though access to the ocean was once one of the great democratic promises of California. Another is the rising tension between immigrants and natives, resulting in the phenomenon of “white flight” to neighboring states. Another is downwardly trending economy, for all those immigrants’ contributions to it. Still another, though perhaps curbed now, is the abrogation of public control to private interests that led to such things as the energy scandal: “The state preferred to let the boys from Texas do its dirty work, and Texas would soon be eating California’s lunch.” And so on. There’s plenty to be worried about, in other words, out there on the edge.
An unfailingly interesting, highly readable contribution to Starr’s grand series, which is drawing to a close. (Readers still have Starr’s take on the 1960s to look forward to; the next volume, he’s threatened, will be called Smoking the Dream.)