In his podcast the other day Joe Rogan was interviewing the writer David Mamet, who had just flown into Austin to appear on Rogan’s show. “I’m happy to be in back in the United States,” joked the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Glen Gary Glen Ross” and many other Broadway plays and movies. “I’ve been in California for a while.”
It’s an old chestnut—California so wacky and extreme it’s not even part of the United States—but Rogan laughed anyway and added, “Yeah, the People’s Republic of California. It’s been an unlikely turn of events. California has become a strange new place. Almost unrecognizable.”
To which Mamet responded, “It’d be recognizable to George Orwell.”
Wait. Hold it. They’re goofing on California and comparing it to the totalitarian world of Orwell’s “1984?” No, fellas, you’ve got it it all wrong. My California is not like that. See, this is the place my father saw for the first time when he was in the Navy, passing through Treasure Island and the Golden Gate on his way to fighting the Imperial Japanese in World War II. Like hundreds of thousands of other servicemen who first laid eyes on this state during that time, he came back here after the war to live, to work, to raise a family.
California has always been a magnet for people chasing opportunity, a refuge for dreamers, outsiders, rebels. Where people who maybe don’t fit in so well in the other 49 states find a home. Poor and on welfare, Joe Rogan’s family in fact lived in San Francisco for a time when he was a boy. Now the millionaire podcaster and comedian has migrated from Los Angeles to Texas in search of creative and personal freedom.
Huh? He’s seeking freedom in…Texas? Texas isn’t where Jack Kerouac and the beatniks did their anti-establishment thing in the 1950s. That was San Francisco. Texas also isn’t where young rebels invented hot-rodding, low-riding, or where the first tuners appeared. That was SoCal, the same spot where the surf craze started. The Summer of Love could have never happened in Austin; back then if some long-haired hippie from the Coast had gotten caught with a stick of weed they would’ve thrown him in the can and sentenced him to the chain gang with Cool Hand Luke.
Same with the gays, who flocked to the City by the Bay a decade later because they had finally found a place where they could be themselves, truly. That’s my California, my vision of it anyhow—a glorious land on the edge of the Pacific where people are free to be who they are. Not a 1984-like state where, in the words of another playwright, C.J. Hopkins, there is “this obsession with controls, this need to control everything, and the most intimate aspects of our lives.”
The trend lines in California governance these days always point in the same depressing dark direction. More controls, more mandates, an ever-expanding web of punitive law-making. Meanwhile basic rights keep getting shredded, with less freedom and freedom of choice for everybody.
As someone who grew up in California and raised his own family here, I would like to be optimistic. One reason for hope may even seem unbelievable to some: Gavin Newsom. Before becoming governor he was the mayor of San Francisco, and in his first year as mayor he butted heads with state law by permitting same sex marriages in City Hall. Thousands of gay couples showed up to exchange wedding vows in what is widely regarded as a breakthrough moment for gay rights in this country.
Newsom defied the prevailing orthodoxy, which harshly and unfairly targeted people who merely wished to lead their lives according to their own values, not what the state told them was right and wrong. Who knows? It could happen again. Maybe the governor will rediscover the Gavin the Liberator side of his personality, face down the apparatchiks in the state legislature and usher in a new era of good feelings in California, one that is in keeping with our history and identity as a tolerant and open people. But I wouldn’t bet on it. Fairytale endings like that only happen in the movies.
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