In Ecology Of Fear, Mike Davis writes about our national obsession with West Coast apocalypse. Filmed depictions of Pacific disaster are big entertainment for the whole country. If the earthquakes don’t get Southern California, it’ll be the landslides, or the tornadoes (Los Angeles is weirdly prone to them, he suggests), or a tsunami, or a megadrought that will leave millions of beautiful and formerly well-hydrated people gasping for a drink of water.
In part, we’re fixated on Californian disaster stories because we know that the planners are throwing dice with death, taking major chances by overdeveloping a region that isn’t exactly geologically sound. But if we’re honest, we ought to concede that we’re also rubberneckers, and little Savonarolas who believe that vanity will, in due time, be punished by the universe. We’re pieces of work, we are. When the cataclysm comes, we expect Californians to stop tanning and turn on each other; this is the theme of, among other songs, Jamey Johnson’s excellent-repugnant “California Riots”. While the liberals will be killing each other over scarce resources, Jamey will be in his pickup truck and headed back to Macon. I hope he’s not laughing.
But just as the secret of eschatology is in understanding that every day on earth contains its own little acts of genesis and tribulation, the awful truth of California — especially Southern California — is that apocalypse happens in slow motion all the time. The burdens of apocalypse fall disproportionately on the damned, which, in a country that worships money, mostly means the folks who haven’t got any. California is the Garden of Eden, but you won’t find this place too hot if you ain’t got the dough-re-mi; it’s as true today as it was when Woody Guthrie first sang that chorus oh so many moons ago. Right now, a regime in Washington that appears to hate the whole West Coast is making life hard for the immigrants and illegals and asylum-seekers who are huddled at the bottom rung; this puts extra pressure on folks who are already the most vulnerable to droughts and mudslides and all the other dangers of a land that has never wholly been tamed. That gorgeous, flower-dotted country between San Diego and the Mexican border is home to many of the wealthiest Americans, living in beautiful houses. It’s also a transition zone populated by poor workers whose hold on American life is getting more precarious by the day. When disaster comes, guess who’s going to ride it out okay, and who is going to fall into the fault line?
You may have noticed that many Californians are sick of this treatment — sick enough that they’re contemplating taking their beach ball and going away. A #Calexit, if it were to happen, really would be a disaster, a comet-strike to the political world: a huge percentage of America’s gross domestic product would be wiped off the books, probably for good. There were similar rejectionist movements in Texas and other Southern states when Obama reached the White House, so it’s tempting to think that Californian separatism will also come to nothing. But I hope that the success of the Brexit campaign and the rise of the SNP has taught us to take secession movements seriously. A year ago, nobody thought that the MPs in Westminster were really going to turn away from the EU. Well, hell, they’re really going to do it.
Would Sacramento really kiss the rest of us ingrates off? Well, honestly, why wouldn’t Californians at least consider it? They have no voice in the electoral college — Presidential elections are usually decided even before their polls close. They are taxed to pay for an aggressive foreign policy that doesn’t serve their interests. Now they’re at the mercy of federal immigration officers whose brutal practices undermine municipal police departments and erode trust in authorities of all kinds. The state that has been a tremendous driver of innovation ever since it first consented to be part of the Union has to watch, voiceless, as a bunch of know-nothings in office deny scientific consensus. Climate’s heating up; cool heads aren’t likely to prevail.
The action-adventure-y “Route 52” is set at a not-so-distant future moment when California is in the teeth of a drought and readying for the big divorce. None of that is spelled out explicitly in the song’s lyric, but it’s all hinted at, and one of the things I’m enjoying about this Almanac is that I can fill in the narrative blanks with the story and the essay. This particular story is a little gonzo, I admit. I’m not going to make a habit of that, hopefully, but I felt that “Route 52” required me to take a few liberties. As a hokey person I went for a Californian sound: a little Game Theory, and Allen Clapp, and Aislers Set, and CVB. I realize those are all Northern Californian acts. Beach Boys mimicry is beyond my capacities.
I feel the need to say that I love California as much as any damned Yankee can. I do not, ever, want to be part of a Golden Stateless nation; that would horrify me, and I wish Washington would stop pushing California toward the door. It would really feel like we were shooting the popular kid as an idiotic act of defiance. My fear is that unscrupulous politicians who have no great love of the Union and a great deal of love for power will determine that they’ve got a better chance of imposing their will on the rump of the nation if California goes. You may find that far-fetched or legally dubious; I think it’s frighteningly plausible, and I’ve noticed that laws — even constitutional laws — have a habit of giving way when people in power deem them inconvenient. Consider: right now, most Americans’ primary enemy isn’t Russians, or Arabs, or Mexicans. It’s other Americans — Americans on the other side of the political divide. Once the cookie starts to crumble, the whole thing could fall to pieces fast. Don’t make me pull for #NJexit. You know we’d be fine. We’ve got the Garden.