by Victor Davis Hanson
California is a rich state — as the world found out the last century. It has the best farmland in the world, much of it watered by gravity-fed irrigation from the Sierra. Its timber acreage is vast. There is a lot of natural gas and oil still in the southern interior and off the coast. Silicon Valley, tourism, Hollywood, defense, and Napa Valley all contribute to natural wealth.
The problem is that we have created a strange drone mindset that manifests itself in two ways. Among elites there is almost a “Don’t touch or disturb that!” mantra. The law of the hothouse orchid reigns. Once our grubby ancestors created our infrastructure, we wish sometimes to ridicule and — use — it, less often to leave anything better behind for anyone else.
Fish, Not People
We want all the dividends of industrial society, but an 18th century wilderness at the same time. So the in-the-know people demand cheap, plentiful, and tasty food, but worry more about a three-inch fish than the farmers and farm workers who keep us alive one more day — and so divert fresh water out into the bay to keep the delta smelt alive. (Oh, I know the Gorist logic: the smelt is a canary in the mine; when he can’t get enough oxygen, then we won’t be able to drink soon.” Sorry, I suggest that communities whose treated sewage goes into the bay begin using some sort of organic toilets rather than the old flush models.)
To drive through downtown Santa Barbara is to count the amazing variety of Volvo, Mercedes, Lexus, and BMW SUVs — and wonder where the gasoline comes from, as off-shore drilling declines. You get the picture — our top echelons have become quite prissy. The redwood deck is beloved, not the falling coast redwood tree; kitchen granite counters are de rigueur, not the blasting at the top of the granite mountain; the Prius is a badge of honor, not the chemical plant that makes its batteries; we now like stainless steel frigs, but hate steel’s coke, and iron ore, and electricity lines; arugula is tasty, not the canal that brings water 400 miles to irrigate it; I support teacher unions and ***-studies courses in the public schools, but not with my Ivy-League bound children.
And on the Other Hand…
At the other end of the social spectrum, the underclass seems to be growing. I don’t expect to see much cash at mega-supermarkets in my area. Food stamps — and yet expensive food — are the norm. The school systems of California’s major cities are broken; the wealthy praise them and flee, and the poor complain about their inadequacy, but insist on the sort of identity “pride” politics curriculum and staffing that ensure the inadequacy.
Don’t mention parental responsibility; that’s either Neanderthal or racist. When I see gang bangers in San Jose or Fresno, I think two things: they like DVDs, nice cars, drugs, and the cult of male violence, but when they get hurt they show up at the emergency room and demand 21st-century medical care from the nerds they so often intimidate on the street. Is a Stanford-trained emergency doctor potential prey on Saturday night at the stop light, or a few hours later in surgery a godsend?
It is taboo to ask our failing youth a simple question, “What exactly have you done the last month to ensure your birthright to the world’s most sophisticated lifestyle propped up by advanced math, science, social stability, and political tranquility?”
It other words, our elite is becoming more elite and refined, while our non-elite is becoming more rough around the edges. But they share a disturbing commonality: both expect something that they are not willing to invest in.
The well-off like nice cars, tasteful homes, good food, and appropriate vacations — but not the oil, gas, coal, nuclear energy, transmission lines, timber, cement, farmland, water pumps, etc., that bring that to them. In California, we like to leave old pot-holed roads up to the Sierra as proof of our environmentalism (cheaper too), and then clog them when we wish in politically-incorrect fashion to have a picnic in the mountains. You see, the mindset of the elite Bay Area denizen is to keep California pristine, rough even, for that one day a year in the wild experience, even as it turns out most green suburbanites actually like to go to the lake or beach, and get in their carbon-emitting cars on congested roads to get there.
The less well-off want their versions of the same things — cool clothes, good music players, neat cell phones, the best plasma TVs, blue-ray players, video games — but are not interested in the hard study and discipline necessary for a society to create the sort of educated work force that makes and deserves such appurtenances. If the math scores of an inner San Jose, Fresno, or Los Angeles public school are dismal (forget per pupil spending or the exorbitant cost to staff such schools), or there are few mastering mechanics or the building trades in our unions and trade schools, then even fewer make the connection that their own assumed perks are, well, doomed in the long run.(I used to get memos the same week at CSU dryly reciting that 50% of our students were now in remedial math and English, while praising to the skies a new [quite costly] program to attract the “non-traditional” student.)
I suppose the attitude of the directionless youth is something like the following, though never articulated: “Some nerd will dream up a new video game; the Chinese will build it for me cheaply; and I will play it at my leisure given my birthright both as an exalted American and the enormous debt ‘they’ (fill in the blanks) owe me.” At some point the world snaps back, “Nope, the Indian and Chinese young person knows more, works harder, produces more — and gets more than you, despite your American brand.”
I now expect to be better treated on the 1-800 line from someone in India than an American — and am discovering that the former really tries to speak the King’s English he learned while the other doesn’t much care for the language he was born with.
This recession has really brought out the dichotomies: We spend billions of scarce cash on imported food, fuel, and manufactured goods, but have acres of idle farmlands, vast untapped deposits of natural gas and oil, and millions of feet of unused factory space. Bread and circuses seem to be the answer for the angst of the underclass.
Some Modest Suggestions
Natural gas and oil producers need to say they are really building solar and wind plants, then all public law suits and concerns over a messy access road, a rare desert lizard, or a fragile cactus will disappear. Freeway builders should say those are not roads, but “light rail” going in. Lumber men must claim they are looking for “bio-fuels,” while West Side farmers whose empires used to produce tons of cotton and carrots, must assure us they are remaking biodiverse, organic sustainable plots. The nuclear plant designer should talk of carbon footprints, warm water discharges for sustainable aquaculture, and reusable nuclear waste — emphasize talking green, even though in fact much of this is absolutely true.
Meanwhile, we should plug subliminal Latin messages in killer video games. CDs should have one 30 second airing of a part of the Constitution before “Kill the Bitch” lyrics begin. A spelling bee should be mandatory half-time entertainment at basketball or football games, and to get into the emergency room, one should be able to recite the Pythagorean Theory or name five presidents — or explain what a battery or hydroelectric power is.
In other words, our Eloi elite need to get a little more real, and our Morlock non-elite need to become a little less frighteningly real. And the rest of us in the middle? A little more pragmatic, and a little less sanctimonious, a little less politically — and environmentally — correct, if all our children are to inherit even a semblance of what we were born into.
©2010 Victor Davis Hanson