(also on Armed Liberal)
I have been a huge fan of Kevin Starr’s boosterish histories of California since I read the first book, Americans and the California Dream. His work is the perfect anodyne to Mike Davis’ self-flagellating critique of California and modernity, City of Quartz.
So too in the popular entertainment of 1940, so much of it originating in California, did the desire for amusement, fantasy, humor, and escape resist the dawning recognition that the United States would soon be entering the conflict.
Such relations of ‘pure capitalism,’ of course, are seen as invariable destructive of the identity of ‘true’ intellectuals, still self-defined as artisans or rentiers of their own unique mental productions. Snared in the nets of Hollywood, or entrapped by the Strangelovian logic of the missile industry, ‘seduced’ talents are ‘wasted,’ ‘prostituted,’ ‘trivialized,’ or ‘destroyed.’ To move to Lotusland is to sever connection with national reality, to lose historical and experiential footing, to surrender critical distance, to submerge oneself in spectacle and fraud.
Embattled Dreams is the sixth book in Starr’s series, and in some ways the key one, because the roots of modern California were planted in World War II. There were older Californias, and we still can see their traces, but the California in which I live, and the California which serves as a bellwether for modernity, was laid out and built during and immediately after the war.
In it he details the cultural and human impact of the war, and then touches on the rise of Republican Progressivism which has defined much of the postwar era. He talks at length about Earl Warren, the Republican prosecutor turned Progressive Governor turned liberal Supreme Court Justice.
He also, I believe, tries to answer Davis and the critical challengers of the left by emphasizing the pernicious racism of the era, manifested by the anti-Japanese agitation that culminated in the relocation camps, and by the challenges of wartime integration.
Where the book fails, I believe is in integrating both of those histories…of the hopeful, optimistic Folks (as he calls the Midwestern immigrants) with the hope and optimism that led the Japanese, Hispanic, and African-American immigrants to also settle in California – and what happened when their dreams and the fears of the Folks clashed.
He concludes the book with the opening chapter of California red-baiting (which will figure prominently in his next book, I assume), and
The ensuing decade would witness Earl Warren emerge as one of the most influential – and liberal – Chief Justices in American history. Calm, majestic, Warren seemed destined for the marble corridors of the Supreme Court. Now, as Chief Justice, the other side of Warren’s nature – the liberal side of the California duality – was free to emerge. Historians would later describe Warren as reversing his philosophies and values after being appointed to the Court and turning liberal, even going soft, did not know the full complexity of Warren’s California Progressive sensibility with its admixture of conservative and liberal values.
I wish that the book had dug deeper into California Progressivism; I think it holds the key to understanding how we can reclaim the territory abandoned by the culture warriors of the right and left.
Starr needs no defense against Davis; California itself is his defense.