25 October 2007

California - Land of Children?

George F. Kennan was one of the most influential policy-makers during the peak of America's influence. A remarkably thoughtful man who warned against involvement in Vietnam – in the 1950s – and warned against warming up to the USSR – in the 1940s. Back in 1989, the Atlantic published excerpts from his diary, including these two on California.

Just visiting here, Kennan had keen insights into California. Here in San Diego, evacuation centers have been characterized by live bands, roving clowns, and what participants and observers describe as harmony. At one point, there was one volunteer for every one evacuee down at Qualcomm. (Where else but California would the numbers work out to allow one personal trainer for each disaster victim?) For those of you living in other parts of the country, Kennan’s diary entries from 1951 and 1956 might help you to better understand this odd creature called a Californian. As the father of fifth generation Californians, I'm a little ashamed to say that his words are very much on the mark.

From Kennan's diary:

California again, this time for research at the Hoover Library in Palo Alto.
MAY 13, 1956

California reminds me of the popular American Protestant concept of heaven: there is always a reasonable flow of new arrivals; one meets many—not all—of one's friends; people spend a good deal of their time congratulating one another about the fact that they are there; discontent would be unthinkable; and the newcomer is slightly disconcerted to realize that now, the devil having been banished and virtue being triumphant, nothing terribly interesting can ever happen again.

California is outwardly one-dimensional, in the emotional sense. Looking at the faces, listening to the snatches of conversation, one wonders whether such a thing as anguish exists at all—whether, in fact, there is even any anguish in love, or whether this, too, comes, is experienced, passes, and dies with the same cheerful casualness that seems to dominate all the other phenomena of existence.

These people practice what for centuries the philosophers have preached: they ask no questions; they, live, seemingly, for the day; they waste no energy or substance on the effort to understand life; they enjoy the physical experience of living; they enjoy the lighter forms of contact with an extremely indulgent and undemanding natural environment; their consciences are not troubled by the rumblings of what transpires beyond their horizon. If they are wise, surely the rest of us are fools.

NOVEMBER 4, 1951

I have today that rarest of luxuries: a day of complete leisure, with no obligations, away from home, where not even family or house or neglected grounds can lay claim to attention. I am out here for three days on business and am the guest of a friend whose home, swaddled in gardens, looks down from a hill on the rooftops and foliage of Pasadena. It is strange, and somewhat enervating, after watching the death of the year in the growing austerity of the East Coast autumn, to sit now in a garden, to listen to the chirping of birds and the tinkling of a fountain, to watch the foliage of the eucalyptus trees stirring in a summer breeze, and to feel the warm sunshine on the back of one's neck.

My thoughts are full of this southern California world I see below me and about me. It is easy to ridicule this world, as Aldous Huxley and so many other intellectuals have done—but it is silly, and a form of self-condemnation, to do so. These are ordinary human beings: several million of them. The things that brought them here, and hold them here, are deeply human phenomena—as are the stirrings of anxiety that cause them to be so boastful and defensive about it. Being human phenomena, they are part of ourselves; and when we purport to laugh at them, as though we stood fully outside them, it is we who are the ridiculous ones.

I feel great anxiety for these people, because I do not think they know what they are in for. In its mortal dependence on two liquids—oil and water—that no individual can easily produce by his own energy (even together with family and friends), the life of this area only shares the fragile quality of all life in the great urban concentrations of the motor age. But here the lifelines of supply seem to me particularly tenuous and vital. That is especially true of water, which they now have to bring from hundreds of miles—and will soon have to bring from much farther away. But equally disturbing to me is the utter dependence on the costly, uneconomical gadget called the automobile for practically every process of life from birth through shopping, education, work, and recreation, even courtship, to the final function of burial. In this community, where the revolutionary force of motorization has made a clean sweep of all other patterns of living and has overcome all competition, man has acquired a new form of legs. And what disturbs me is not only that these mechanical legs have a deleterious effect on man himself, drugging him into a sort of paralysis of the faculty of reflection and distorting his emotional makeup while they are in use—these things are not too serious, and perhaps there are even ways of combating them. What disturbs me most is man's abject dependence on this means of transportation and on the complicated processes that make it possible. It is as though his natural legs had really become shriveled by disuse. One has the feeling that if his artificial ones were taken away from him, he would go crawling miserably and helplessly around like a crippled insect, no longer capable of conducting the battle for existence, doomed to early starvation, thirst, and extinction.
One must not exaggerate this sort of thing. All modern urban society is artificial in the physical sense: dependent on gadgets, fragile and vulnerable. This is simply the apotheosis. Here the helplessness is greatest, but also the thoughtlessness. And the thoughtlessness is part of the helplessness.

But alongside the feeling of anxiety I have at the sight of these people, there is a questioning as to the effect they are going to have on, and the contribution they are going to make to, American society as a whole. Again, this is not conceived in terms of reproach or criticism. There is really a subtle but profound difference between people here and what Americans used to be, and still partly are, in other parts of the country. I am at a loss to define this difference, and am sure that I understand it very imperfectly.

Let me try to get at it by overstating it. Here it is easy to see that when man is given (as he can be given only for relatively brief periods and in exceptional circumstances) freedom both from political restraint and from want, the effect is to render him childlike in many respects: fun-loving, quick to laughter and enthusiasm, unanalytical, unintellectual, outwardly expansive, preoccupied with physical beauty and prowess, given to sudden and unthinking seizures of aggressiveness, driven constantly to protect his status in the group by an eager conformism—yet not unhappy. In this sense southern California, together with all that tendency of American life which it typifies, is childhood without the promise of maturity—with the promise only of a continual widening and growing impressiveness of the childhood world. And when the day of reckoning and hardship comes, and I think it must, it will be—as everywhere among children—the cruelest and most ruthless natures who will seek to protect their interests by enslaving the others; and the others, being only children, will be easily enslaved. In this way, values will suddenly prove to have been lost that were forged slowly and laboriously in the more rugged experience of Western political development elsewhere.

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