(cross posted at Zocalo Public Square)
In the rhetorical crescendo of his inaugural, if not his governorship thus far, Jerry Brown claimed that “We can overcome the sharp divisions that leave our politics in perpetual gridlock, but only if we reach into our hearts and find that loyalty, that devotion to California above and beyond our narrow perspectives.”
Sounds awesome, this loyalty to California. Sign me up! Yet I can’t help but wonder: What exactly does that mean? How am I supposed to live this commitment? Where is the manifesto, the manual for being a loyal Californian?
I ask because looking at the California news on any particular day, it certainly seems like I should be doing something. Budget cuts, tax debates, endemic unemployment, political gridlock — the parade of depressing headlines suggest that California’s bright future is slipping and that my generation faces an uncertain path.
So again, with the urgency of our current crisis, what exactly am I supposed to be loyal to? It’s a tough question because we Californians are pretty sheepish about identifying ourselves as such. Sure you see the occasional “Cali” t-shirt or tattoo, but ask someone who they are and almost no one says “Californian.” Which is really remarkable when you consider the uniqueness of our society.
In little over a century and a half, California has been transformed from a sleepy agrarian backwater to seizing the spotlight on the world’s stage. Where else in the world has some much of human history been compressed into one region in so short a time? We have raced through the Odyssey-like experience of the Gold Rush years, the near-feudal tyranny of the Southern Pacific Railroad, an economic explosion into modernity during the second world war, and at the turn of the 21st century, we invented the New Economy. Pretty unique, when you think about it.
And this history has imbued California with a certain character, even if we don’t put it front and center. Back in the 19th century, the pioneering Jesse Fremont, the remarkable wife of California’s first Senator John C. Fremont, eloquently wrote: “How can I tell all that the name, California, represents? If our East has a life of yesterday, and the midwest of today, then here tomorrow had come… What a dream of daring young energy – of possibility – of certainties – of burdens dropped and visions realized.”
This young energy never really left California – witness the dot com boom and the heyday over all the new young millionaires. Yet we still don’t really have a strong identity; we still really can’t answer the question of what “the name, California, represents.” We’re just never going to be Texas, “that guy” at the 50-state party, always needing to tell everyone how much bigger things are back home.
As Californians, our sense of shared identity is too diffuse and amorphous, amounting to a shared “nice weather, isn’t it?” shrug. I am not saying we should all go around wearing bear lapel pins, but why is the nation’s largest and most innovative state so unwilling to pound its chest? To the rest of the world, after all, the things that make America America – the Hollywood blockbusters, the Malibu lifeguards and the transformative technologies out of places like Apple and Google – all come from here.
A couple of months ago, I was helping my mom in her classroom, and I read the kids a story about the gold rush. Afterwards, because I can’t get enough of people’s stories about California, I earnestly asked the students what they thought about the California dream. Of course, people don’t really talk about that so much these days, so I got a bunch of blank stares in return.
Then my mom, far wiser than me, jumped in to ask the kids why their family came here. The kids rattled off touching story after touching story about how their family moved here for a better job, better weather, or really just the hope of a better life.
Those dreams define the California experience. A little over a century and a half ago, hundreds of thousands of people from around the world poured into a sleepy agrarian backwater simply because they heard rumors of gold. United by nothing more than the hope of striking it rich, Californians forged a society based on a simple premise: here, a better life is possible. And they still come: there is a reason that over 220 languages are spoken in LA County alone.
Ours is an aspirational society; America’s America, the place of burdens dropped and visions realized. A place premised on the idea that everyone could do what they want with their life. That hope should command our loyalty.
Especially when the promise is jeopardized.
So what does California loyalty require of me? Josiah Royce, the California-born intellectual defines loyalty as “The willing and practical and thoroughgoing devotion of a person to a cause.” Thinking about California, it’s tempting to immediately think about titans whose feats rightly landed them in California’s Hall of Fame: say, Kevin Starr’s heroic effort to chronicle the California Dream or Earl Warren’s lifelong commitment to public service.
Yet, as Royce points out, loyalty is about much more than accomplishment. In fact, he says we should “consider especially the loyalty of the obscure, of the humble, of your near neighbors, of the strangers who by chance come under your notice.” I’m immediately reminded of one of my lifelong friends whose family immigrated here to give him the opportunity to have a better life.
Unlike me, my friend is chasing his California dream over in Afghanistan. He joined the Army so he and his family could get citizenship — a moment forever enshrined in Facebook lore with his status update about driving down the 210, windows down, blasting “And I’m proud to be an American.”
And really, though few of us can match the sacrifice of those who go off to war, this sort of loyalty is more common than you might expect. Think of the everyday figures whose small but immeasurable acts create the social glue that makes California a place worth living in. Consider the teacher who stays after school, long after the bell has rung, planning the lesson that will bring students just a bit closer to reaching their dreams. Or folks who agree to clean a hillside or beach on the weekend; devoted health providers in overwhelmed community health centers who go out of their way to follow up with patients after their visits; journalists who make the extra calls to get their story right, shedding light on pressing public matters.
This loyalty isn’t about any particular cause, let alone any political party or ideology. Instead, as Royce argues, loyalty comes from a deep commitment to live a morally significant life. It’s about intentionally choosing a cause that’s larger than yourself and finding a way to make those ideals real in a practical way.
Royce’s ideas didn’t emerge spontaneously out of a vacuum. As he wrote The Philosophy of Loyalty, his brilliant son, who had graduated from Harvard at age 18, gradually slipped into insanity, and Royce committed him to a state mental asylum. Yet out of grief emerged a monumental work. And that pain, as Royce makes clear, is in many ways needed: “Strain, endurance, sacrifice, toil, — the dear pangs of labor at the moments when perhaps defeat and grief most seem ready to crush our powers, and when only the very vehemence of labor itself saves us from utter despair — these are the things that most teach us what loyalty really is.”
So in this dire moment, how can we translate a sense of California identity and concern for our neighbors into collective civic engagement? How can we reverse the disengagement expressed by such things as a paltry 11 percent voter turnout in the recent Los Angeles City Council elections?
Of course, disengagement is not a new phenomenon in a state built to advance the aspirations of individuals, and their freedom. Even during the state’s first constitutional convention, many of the delegates didn’t even bother to show up to Monterey, choosing instead to try their luck in the fields. We are undone by our very virtues.
At the end of his inaugural speech, Governor Brown highlighted this enduring struggle to find our better angels: “…it strikes me that what we face together as Californians are not so much problems but rather conditions, life’s inherent difficulties. A problem can be solved or forgotten, but a condition always remains. It remains to elicit the best from each of us and show us how we depend on one another and how we have to work together.”
Today, regardless of what happens with Jerry Brown’s tax extensions, California truly faces an era of limits. Of tuition increases and larger class sizes, of state park closures and service cuts. Of parents worrying whether their children will have the same opportunities they did. We face the fundamental challenge of making the best of our all too human condition.
That challenge, making good on the promise of California, is the fundamental question we face today. How do we protect and burnish the glorious inheritance that was passed along to us – of preserving our pristine coastlines, enabling a culture of incredible innovation, and providing a world-class education so that we can honor our obligation to the next generation?
Life in California can seem all too easy – that is part of the brand’s appeal – but loyalty to California shouldn’t be. These are demanding times. Loyalty to California is about coming together to figure out the fundamental question of how we can live together. But it’s also about small, everyday gestures. Fixing California is a huge mountain, but we can all fix our small piece of California in our own lives.
So vote, get involved in the big questions that face our state, but also find a child that needs mentoring. Help out at your local community center. Give your time to a neighborhood school. Make another Californian’s dream of a better life more real in a small but powerful way.
And when – not if – it gets hard to make the time or find the resources, muster that last ounce of devotion, volunteer that extra inch to your cause. Because that’s loyalty to California.
Patrick Atwater, a fourth generation Californian and College Bound mentor, is a former Redistricting and Demographics Manager of the Rose Institute of State and Local Government. He is author of A New California Dream: Reconciling the Paradoxes of America’s Golden State (September 2011).