Is California a Canary in the Coal Mine?

About present ecological problems in the Sunshine State, Patrice Aymes presented her own take on what is going on (Burn California, Burn… The Price of Hypocrisy?). Her perspective is from that of being a Californian, apparently from the specific location of Central Valley in Northern California. She argues that the main problem is urban sprawl. Based on that working hypothesis, she speculates the situation could be remedied by simply enforcing more dense urbanization and so disincentivizing large houses in areas that are difficult to protect against fire. Besides that, she also thinks better resource management would help. Let’s look at the data to get a sense of the challenge, data that to my mind is shocking. The Californian population is immense and growing, which problematizes any attempt at resource management. And climate change makes everything worse.

My take on the situation is, in some ways, simpler than the suggestion of reforming the system and restructuring housing. No matter how you dice it, the population is plain too large for the ecological constrains of California. It’s a variation on, if maybe less extreme version of, the Dust Bowl. There was a wetter period that attracted people to California. Also, as in earlier times, the Federal government encouraged people to move West. But the wet period inevitably didn’t last and the weather patterns returned to their historical norm. This was exacerbated in California. Franklin Delano Roosevelt implemented federal farm subsidies in California before they were ever used anywhere else in the country. Along with diverting water in from other states, this created a big ag that otherwise wouldn’t have been possible. Yet there is too much profit and too many powerful lobbyist groups invested in maintaining the status quo that, in the long term, cannot be maintained.

The purpose of artificially constructing this big ag was partly to feed the growing population (further promoted by the Nixon administration guided by the corporatist vision of Earl Butz). And a large reason for that was because the Federal government needed a massive workforce to be employed in the defense industry so that the United States military could have a presence on the West Coast. This defense industry also funded decades of the tech industry. Much (most?) of the Californian economy is, directly or indirectly, connected to and dependent on the military-industrial complex. This has brought immense wealth into the state and so created a wealthy class demanding luxury. They live beyond their means through taxpayer money and externalized costs. California, as it is presently structured, would not exist if not for the intervening alliance of big gov and big biz.

Even if urban sprawl was eliminated and housing concentrated, the same basic ecological problems would remain without solution. It’s likely to get worse. As with large areas of Australia, there probably will be a mass exodus from California until the declining population reaches a sustainable size. But the motivation for that change will require mass crisis and catastrophe. That is my sense of things, anyway. These are just my thoughts. I can defend parts of my argument. I’ve written about the emergence of big ag in California and it’s interesting history. The military-industrial complex, in California as elsewhere is not only interesting but concerning. (See: Fascism, Corporatism, and Big Ag, From Progressivism to Neoconservatism, Vicious Cycle: The Pentagon Creates Tech Giants and Then Buys their Services, & Plutocratic Mirage of Self-Made Billionaires.) All of that, from what I can tell, is pretty much straightforward facts that are well-established and agreed upon.

As an example of hard-hitting data: “About 60 percent of all precipitation evaporates or is transpired by trees and vegetation” (Water Education Foundation, California Water 101); still, California receives a fair amount of precipitation… but: “There’s a catch. While parts of Northern California receive 100 inches or more of precipitation per year, the state’s southern, drier areas receive less precipitation – and just a few inches of rain annually in the desert regions. That means 75 percent of California’s available water is in the northern third of the state (north of Sacramento), while 80 percent of the urban and agricultural water demands are in the southern two-thirds of the state.” Consider that 80% of California’s surface water is used by the agricultural industry, whereas the average water usage for urban areas is only 10%. Besides draining aquifers, the state has lost “as much as 90 percent of the original wetlands acreage—a greater percentage of loss than any other state in the nation” (Water Education Foundation, Wetlands).

As for water appropriated from the Colorado River, there is competition for it from many other states with their own agricultural needs and growing populations. The part about how much population could be supported through the local environmental resources is more speculative. A strong case against sustainability, though, can be and has been made. Many others have written about it. If you do a web search, you can find numerous scientific papers and news reporting on the relationship of water shortage and overpopulation in California, including comparisons to the Dust Bowl. (See: Water Use in California by Jeffrey Mount & Ellen Hanak, The California Water Crisis: More Than Just Another Drought from Calsense, & California faces ‘Dust Bowl’-like conditions amid drought, says climate tracker by Chris Megerian.)

My comments have been about all of California, not limited to one region. A fairly small proportion of the Californian population lives north of the Bay Area. Maybe that area has a sustainable population. The greatest population concentration in Northern California is the Bay Area. But even if you look at all of Northern California including the Bay Area, that is only 15 million compared to the 25 million in Southern California. So, Northern California is far less than half of the population of the state and the Bay Area alone is half the population of Northern California. Northern California minus the Bay area is less than 18% of the total population. When I traveled across California, what stood out to me was not only that the Southern half had a larger population but also more densely populated, although I don’t know in terms of urban concentration (specifically in comparison to the Bay Area and Central Valley). Northern California seemed relatively empty, as large swaths of it wasn’t inhabited. My observations are cursory, though. Besides the Bay Area, the urban areas I saw were smaller.

All of Central Valley that includes multiple cities is only 6.5 million, but as a comparison even that is larger than 39 other states and territories in the US (much larger than many farm states, and about 12 times that of the least populated state). There are only 16 states, excluding California itself, that have more population than Central Valley and Central Valley is one of the least populated areas of California. That is in the context of California being the most populated state in the country. To really emphasize the massive population we’re talking about, Central Valley is larger than 124 countries in the world, Northern California is larger than 160 countries, and all of California is larger than 197 countries. Only 35 countries in the world have more inhabitants than California. Such an immense number of people crammed together in such a small area, with or without urban sprawl, is hard to imagine and comprehend, specifically in terms of the implications and effects. Data can be barely convey the immensity of the ecological challenge.

That brings us to carrying capacity. California is one of the dryer places in the United States (in top 10 of states of low precipitation with 5 out of 9 the largest American cities with less than 20 inches as yearly average). There are many other states that have far more water than California, even though no state has more residents. This is why California is dependent on taking water from other states, specifically the Colorado River, and even then California is also draining its own aquifers faster than they can be refilled. Sure, using resources more wisely would help, but that can only go so far. It’s unclear what the carrying capacity is for the entire planet and some argue we’ve already overshot maximum population load, an argument I’ve found persuasive or at least a point of serious concern. The larger complication involves the repercussions of going beyond the carrying capacity, in that the full externalized costs wouldn’t show up for decades or even generations later. As such, if we’ve already traipsed past this breaking point sometime these past decades, we might not be forced to acknowledge this stark reality until later in the century when the bill finally comes due.

It’s all rather speculative, as I said. But we do know that climate change is irreversible at this point. The melting of ice is a half century ahead of schedule, according to many predictions. It’s happening far more quickly than expected. Large parts of the world are experiencing droughts and are draining their aquifers, which exacerbates desertification. Even the 100th Meridian is moving eastward and drying out what used to be some of the most productive farmland in the world, the region that has been the breadbasket of the world. My own attitude is that of the precautionary principle. I see no advantage to seeing how close we can get to the carrying capacity of any particularly area or for the whole planet before going too far. But ignoring that, it’s possible that the carrying capacity could be extended a bit more, if we find more sustainable ways of living. Maybe or maybe not. As always, time will tell.

* * *

As a related issue, maybe one should consider the importance of trees and the dire situation of their loss as related to climate change, in California and elsewhere:

Creeping toward Permanent Drought
by Kate Marvel

An American tragedy: why are millions of trees dying across the country?
by Oliver Milman & Alan Yuhas

California’s Trees Are Dying At A Catastrophic Rate
by Laura Geiser & Mette Lampcov

18 Million Trees Died in California in 2018, Forest Service Study Finds
by Ron Brackett

California’s Drought Killed Almost 150 Million Trees
by Jason Daley

150 million trees died in California’s drought, and worse is to come
by Nathanael Johnson

California has 149 million dead trees ready to ignite like a matchbook
by Umair Irfan

The hard truth about being a 21st century tree in California
by Mark Kaufman

Can the Los Angeles We Know Survive the Death of Its Trees?
by Brandon R. Reynolds

Scientists: Future of oldest tree species on Earth in peril
by Scott Smith

Earth’s Oldest Trees in Climate-Induced Race up the Tree Line
by Kat Kerlin

Vicious Cycle of Politics

There are two related thoughts that have been on my mind today.

I was thinking about American history, as that is what I’ve been reading and writing about lately. I see these repeating patterns and it can seem odd to me. Things keep changing and yet they don’t. The odd part, to my mind, is that so few seem to notice or think it all that important.

My first thought is about religious tolerance and inclusion.

Earlier in American history, Protestants had most of the power and they oppressed all other religions. Those they feared the most, however, were Catholics, Quakers and Baptists because they were competing Christianities. After centuries of persecution, Christians started forming alliances for practical reasons of trying to maintain what they perceived as a Christian society.

Jews had also been a persecuted minority, but they weren’t Christians. Catholics were bad enough. Accepting and tolerating or even cooperating with Jews, now that was going too far. Nonetheless, alliances began to form. Americans began to speak, instead, of a Judeo-Christian tradition.

Muslims have now become the newest popular scapegoat. Muslims are perceived as the enemy of both Christianity and Judaism. This has strengthened the Judeo-Christian bond even further, even going so far as creating an unhealthy pact between the US and Israeli governments. However, as with Catholics in earlier Protestant America, Muslims are growing in numbers and becoming normalized.

It is simply a matter of time before Muslims will become part of the club. Americans in the future will speak of Islamo-Judeo-Christian tradition of Mosaic monotheism. So, then it will be the Mosaic monotheists against everyone else. Then, of course, a new enemy will arise that “Real Americans” will join together in order to fight.

Repeat and rinse.

This cycle is so predictable. It’s almost boring in how obviously predictable it is. I feel inane in even pointing it out. Why can’t we just skip forward a few cycles and save some time, not to mention lives?

My second thought is about socialism and capitalism.

Here is a video to give you an amusing way of looking at the issue:

This is the best portrayal I’ve ever come across about the problems of dogmatically polarized ideologies.

Each side is inseparable from the other, each existing in a vicious cycle of reactionary political rhetoric and power-mongering. One side wins, becomes full of themselves and goes too far. Then the other side takes power, becomes full of themselves, and goes too far. And the cycle continues, ad infinitum.

I was thinking about this because of reading about the Southern Plains and California.

Those living in the Southern Plains were originally motivated by the capitalist rhetoric of free soil that became popular with the early Republican Party. Then the railroad and industrial tycoons got greedy and eventually Wall Street collapsed which led to the Southern Plains farmers to be inspired by the rhetoric of agrarian socialism, interestingly using rhetoric not dissimilar to what was used with free soil politics. In both cases, rural farming was romanticized, whether it was seen as opposing slavery with free soil or opposing capitalism with agrarian socialism.

With the Great Depression, larger numbers of these Southern Plains farmers headed to California. Of course, they couldn’t be independent farmers there as land was owned in massive tracts by wealthy landowners and so instead many of them became poor migrant laborers. That was in some ways a fate almost worse than death in their minds, but the rhetoric of their agrarian tradition wouldn’t let them see how they were being taken advantage of. They moved into the factories as the Cold War pumped a bunch of federal money into the defense industry. Becoming middle class and respectable, these same people embraced capitalist rhetoric again.

Now, a second era of massive economic turmoil has hit us. People are criticizing capitalism and once again discussion about socialism has arisen, especially among the new generation. Heck, socialism is quickly growing in popularity, in this era when the Cold War is mere history to many Americans. Before long, the demand for left-wing reform will become strong again and even go mainstream.

It’s an endless cycle. It keeps repeating, I suspect, because of a collective amnesia about history. The switching back and forth tends to happen over several generations. By the time it switches back the other direction again, there aren’t many people left who have living memory of what came before.

What if this endless cycle is part of the problem. When neither side can win, when both sides keep repeating their same mistakes over and over, maybe a third option is in order.

Southern Californian Birth of Salvific Corporatism

I’ve been utterly fascinated by the rise of the religious right and its bizarre relationship to neocons.

The social and political transformation happened because of a specific migration pattern. It was made most famous by the Okies, but was part of a larger migration. Beginning prior to the Civil War, many waves and streams of migration went to the West Coast from the Western South, including Texas along with what some call the Southern Plains or the Southern Midwest. This migration slowed down around the 1970s and shifted direction. Like others who left the South for the North, many of these Southern Californians and their descendants headed back to Texas and the Southern Plains/Midwest.

Combined with other migrations from the East, California was transformed. Most significantly, as the North/South divide began to take shape in the East, it also nearly split the California in two with Northerners in Northern California and Southerners in Southern California (see: The Golden State in the Civil War by Glenna Matthews, The Gold Rush and the Coming of the Civil War by Leonard L. Richards,  Los Angeles in Civil War Days, 1860-1865 by John W. Robinson, and The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream by H.W. Brands). This set the stage for the 20th century migrations of Evangelicals.

What is interesting and truly strange is how vast the transformation was.

Even before the migration, these people were very religious, but it was a religion that was mostly grounded in rural farm communities. These people weren’t right-wingers. They were New Deal Democrats, labor unionists, socialists and other varieties of liberal and left-wing radicals. The region they called home was particularly a hotbed of agrarian socialism. The righteousness of their radicalism was born out of their religiosity.

They were on a moral crusade to save their way of life against corrupt capitalists and monopolizing industrialists, especially railroad tycoons. This began, following the Civil War and Reconstruction, in the Populist Era in the last decades of the 19th century. These people were further radicalized by the Great Depression which was when socialism really took hold. Oddly, this was when a mass migration began to set their eyes on California, but their native ideological roots were left behind for the most part. They were uprooted and when they were replanted in California soil new fruits would come forth.

There are two reasons for this.

First, they were independent farmers back home, but in California they became laborers for massive farms the likes not seen often back on the Southern plains. Their populist rhetoric romanticized the farmer. This very agrarian ‘free soil’ rhetoric made it hard for them to see the Californian farming elite as bad guys, even as they were being taken advantage of.

Second, as time went on, more of them got factory jobs. They were living in an area that boomed because of the vast wealth pumped into it by the federal government’s military defense funding. These former migrants became middle class and respectable. Their entire way of life, including the vast wealth of their churches, was dependent on government funding and the Cold War that fueled it all. This formed a marriage between Evangelical Second Coming eschatology and Cold War patriotic propaganda, a marriage that gave birth to a deformed child of a corporatist military-industrial complex that saw its purpose as saving all of the world’s soul.

In American politics, this took shape as the Southern Strategy. Nixon, a native Southern Californian, began the Southern Strategy and used it to great success. Reagan inherited it and revved up this style of propaganda to levels maybe never before seen in American politics. He was a native Midwesterner with an easygoing personality of Midwestern sunny optimism which he brought to Hollywood. Allying with Southern Evangelicals, he was able to cross the boundaries between North and South in California and in America at large. He took the dark vision of Evangelical End Times and made it a capitalist salvific vision of unending progress and profit.

As the Cold War began to slow down and then ended, the migration pattern reversed. Many Southern Californians headed back to their cultural homeland. With them, they took their weird Californianized ideology and they Californicated Texas along with the Southern Plains. Former Democratic strongholds became Republican majorities. This was a new Solid South, but one with the most modern techniques developed in California.

Here is how Darren Dochuk describes it in From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism (Kindle Locations 7783-7806):

Many Southern California evangelicals found the South’s new suburbs promising as well and played a direct role in populating (and politicizing) them. Indeed, as much as evangelicalism’s repositioning within Southern California dulled some of its power, a fourth force of change— more migration— blunted it altogether. This time, the migration was outward-bound. During the 1980s and 1990s, Southern California’s political economy underwent dramatic restructuring as a once spectacularly strong defense sector began to lose government contracts, its fight against inflation, and, generally, its luster. A declining tax base (exacerbated by Proposition 13) coupled with rising costs further tore up local neighborhoods. Orange County— once the epitome of California’s cold war boom— went bankrupt, marking a very real end to decades of unimpeded prosperity. Cold war defense suburbs that ringed Los Angeles County suffered similar burdens of adjustment, as did the evangelical communities that had banked their livelihoods on this economy. In reply, countless evangelical citizens and their institutions picked up and went east. Some , like James Dobson and his organization, Focus on the Family, were enticed by boosters and cheaper living to a newer defense community tucked away in the Mountain West: Colorado Springs. More often they simply returned to the place from whence they came: the western South. In a dramatic reversal, California began losing southern migrants in the 1980s, Oklahoma and Texas reclaiming them. Retirees, job seekers, and the homesick now steered their automobiles east on Interstate 10. Writing about this rising trend in 1983 that was remaking the Texas “oil patch,” social scientist William Stevens declared that the “great surge of post– World War II westing migration” had “bounced off the West Coast and ricocheted back to Texas.” He added that “both money and people” were making the trip. 13

This reverse migration was also primed to “Californiaize” Texas political culture and Republicanize Texas politics, pundits noted. To be sure, they overstated the case for the former, since Texas political culture was always protective of its character. And by the 1980s, Texas and the entire western South boasted a political and cultural authority that the rest of the nation now envied. This was the new epicenter of the new political economy , a home for NASA, Texaco, and Wal- Mart, emblems of the Sunbelt’s high-tech, resource-based, service economies and financial clout. In the late 1930s, Houston politician and philanthropist Jesse H. Jones had given an impassioned speech to students at John Brown University in tiny Siloam Springs , Arkansas , imploring them to take control of their region by applying a frontier mentality to its development. It was time, he said, for the western South to become strong and independent of northern industrialists’ grasp. Thanks to the work of educator-entrepreneurs like John Brown, George Benson, and R. G. LeTourneau, two generations of Christians had internalized this message and, with the aid of federal funds and venture capital, helped turn the western South into the colonizer rather than the colony.

Thus, the Great Amnesia took over American politics and the American populace. It was as if the Populist and Progressive Eras had never happened. Ignorant of the past, Americans became puppets whose strings were pulled by a plutocracy that had nearly all former restraints removed. They didn’t need democracy for they had Capitalism and God… or rather they had a Capitalism that was their God… along with some culture war issues to prettify his divine visage.

As Thomas Frank sums it up (What’s the Matter with Kansas? by Thomas Frank, p. 5):

… the Great Backlash [is] a style of conservatism that first came snarling onto the national stage in response to the partying and protests of the late sixties. While earlier forms of conservatism emphasized fiscal sobriety, the backlash mobilizes voters with explosive social issues-summoning public outrage over everything from busing to un-Christian art-which it then marries to pro-business economic policies. Cultural anger is marshaled to achieve economic ends. And it is these economic achievements-not the forgettable skirmishes of the never-ending culture wars-that are the movement’s greatest monuments.

The backlash is what has made possible the international free-market consensus of recent years, with all the privatization, deregulation, and deunionization that are its components. Backlash ensures that Republicans will continue to be returned to office even when their free-market miracles fail and their libertarian schemes don’t deliver and their “New Economy” collapses. It makes possible the policy pushers’ fantasies of “globalization” and a free-trade empire that are foisted upon the rest of the world with such self-assurance. Because some artist decides to shock the hicks by dunking Jesus in urine, the entire planet must remake itself along the lines preferred by the Republican Party, U.S.A.

The Great Backlash has made the laissez-faire revival possible, but this does not mean that it speaks to us in the manner of the capitalists of old, invoking the divine right of money or demanding that the lowly learn their place in the great chain of being. On the contrary; the backlash imagines itself as a foe of the elite, as the voice of the unfairly persecuted, as a righteous protest of the people on history’s receiving end. That its champions today control all three branches of government matters not a whit. That its greatest beneficiaries are the wealthiest people on the planet does not give it pause.

In fact, backlash leaders systematically downplay the politics of economics. The movement’s basic premise is that culture outweighs economics as a matter of public concern-that Values Matter Most, as one backlash title has it. On those grounds it rallies citizens who would once have been reliable partisans of the New Deal to the standard of conservatism. Old-fashioned values may count when conservatives appear on the stump, but once conservatives are in office the only old-fashioned situation they care to revive is an economic regimen of low wages and lax regulations. Over the last three decades they have smashed the welfare state, reduced the tax burden on corporations and the wealthy, and generally facilitated the country’s return to a nineteenth-century pattern of wealth distribution. Thus the primary contradiction of the backlash: it is a working-class movement that has done incalculable, historic harm to working-class people.

The leaders of the backlash may talk Christ, but they walk corporate. Values may “matter most” to voters, but they always take a backseat to the needs of money once the elections are won. This is a basic earmark of the phenomenon, absolutely consistent across its decades-long history. Abortion is never halted. Affirmative action is never abolished. The culture industry is never forced to clean up its act. Even the greatest culture warrior of them all was a notorious cop-out once it came time to deliver. “Reagan made himself the champion of ‘traditional values,’ but there is no evidence he regarded their restoration as a high priority,” wrote Christopher Lasch, one of the most astute analysts of the backlash sensibility. “What he really cared about was the revival of the unregulated capitalism of the twenties: the repeal of the New Deal.

This is vexing for observers, and one might expect it to vex the movement’s true believers even more. Their grandstanding leaders never deliver, their fury mounts and mounts, and nevertheless they turn out every two years to return their right-wing heroes to office for a second, a third, a twentieth try. The trick never ages; the illusion never wears off. Vote to stop abortion; receive a rollback in capital gains taxes. Vote to make our country strong again; receive deindustrialization. Vote to screw those politically correct college professors; receive electricity deregulation. Vote to get government off our backs; receive conglomeration and monopoly everywhere from media to meatpacking. Vote to stand tall against terrorists; receive Social Security privatization. Vote to strike a blow against elitism; receive a social order in which wealth is more concentrated than ever before in our lifetimes, in which workers have been stripped of power and CEOs are rewarded in a manner beyond imagining. _____

Backlash theorists,(as we shall see) imagine countless conspiracies in which the wealthy, powerful, and well connected-the liberal media, the atheistic scientists, the obnoxious eastern elite-pull the strings and make the puppets dance. And yet the backlash itself has been a political trap so devastating to the interests of Middle America that even the most diabolical of stringpullers would have had trouble dreaming it up. Here, after all, is a rebellion against “the establishment” that has wound up cutting the tax on inherited estates. Here is a movement whose response to the power structure is to make the rich even richer; whose answer to the inexorable degradation of working-class life is to lash out angrily at labor unions and liberal workplace-safety programs; whose solution to the rise of ignorance in America is to pull the rug out from under public education.

Like a French Revolution in reverse-one in which the sansculottes pour down the streets demanding more power for the aristocracy-the backlash pushes the spectrum of the acceptable to the right, to the right, farther to the right. It may never bring prayer back to the schools, but it has rescued all manner of rightwing economic nostrums from history’s dustbin. Having rolled back the landmark economic reforms of the sixties (the war on poverty) and those of the thirties (labor law, agricultural price supports, banking regulation), its leaders now turn their guns on the accomplishments of the earliest years of progressivism (Woodrow Wilson’s estate tax; Theodore Roosevelt’s antitrust measures). With a little more effort, the backlash may well repeal the entire twentieth century.

The Californian Confusion of Okies: Context is Everything

I recommend the book American Exodus: The Dust Bowl Migration and Okie Culture in California by James N. Gregory.

It basically lives up to what it sets out to do and what I expected of it. It’s a quality history of the so-called Okies. It remains a useful analysis despite it having been published in 1989, but I’m sure a lot of new historical research could be added all these decades later; indeed, I will add some of that myself here in this review.

There is a more recent book that might be helpful in adding context to this older book. The book I have in mind is From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism by Darren Dochuk. I’ve only started reading it, but it seems promising. The difference with it is that it focuses on the larger migration beyond the Okies. I may review it at some point.

Before I get into the meat of my review about American Exodus, I’ll offer something the author quoted near the end of his book in explanation of what it meant to be an Okie. This is from Woodie Guthrie in his describing his own Okie heritage (Kindle Location 3376):

Though my mama came from Arkansas
and my daddy came from Texas, and though we all came to Oregon from
Colorado by way of daddy being stationed at the Mare Island Navy
base in California during WWII, I nevertheless must admit that
I think of myself as an Oakie.
Let me tell you what being an Oakie means:
Being an Oakie means being the first of your whole family to finish
high school let alone go on to college …
Being an Oakie means getting rooted out of an area and
having to hustle for a toehold in some new area …
Being an Oakie means running the risk of striving out
from under a layer of heartless sonsabitches only to discover
you have become a redneck of bitterness worse than those
you strove against …
Being an Oakie is a low rent, aggravating drag, but it does
learn you some essentials … essentials like it isn’t a new car
that pulls over to help you when you are broke down with the
senile carburetor; it is somebody who knows what it is
to be broke down with a hurt machine.

The rest of my review will go into more detail, both about what is in the book and what isn’t in the book, both about the objective data and my personal way of connecting to it. So, let me begin.

The reason I decided to read American Exodus is two-fold. First, I was recently visiting California for the first time. Second, part of my visit involved visiting family or visiting places where family had lived. As I’ve been doing genealogical research, I thought it would be useful to gain some historical and cultural knowledge about the area. Living in the most western  section of the eastern half of the US, this was one of the books that offered an interesting way of looking at the relationship between the East and West in terms of one particular migration.

My father’s great uncle and great aunt on his mother’s side moved to California from Texas sometime in the very early 20th century (not sure when), but I doubt they moved for reasons of poverty and desperation as did the Okies. My paternal grandmother (the niece of my father’s great uncle and great aunt) along with my aunt moved to California from Indiana during the 50s and she too had been born in Texas. On the other side of my family, my mom’s uncle (my maternal great uncle) and his family moved to California from Indiana also in the 50s, but they were also of a more Southern culture as various lines of the family had spent many generations (many centuries, in fact) in the Upper South: Southern ‘Hoosier’ Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia.

None of my family was a part of the Okie migration, but that wasn’t unusual for most who ended up in California. The migration from Texas, the Western South and the Southern Plains had been going on in the decades before and in the decades after the Dust Bowl era. Besides, my family was going to California mostly departing from the Midwest, but they would have been in good company with many Midwesterners and other Northerners who went West (in California, I came across a Danish village called Solvang that was settled by Danish Midwesterners, some of the leaders from my home state Iowa).

My dad’s Texas great uncle and great aunt are family members I never knew and so I have no personal connection.

Even though Texas is very distant from my personal experience, I have been fascinated for a long while with the similar histories of Texas and California (both being former parts of Mexico and before that the Spanish Empire which means both have a local Hispanic populations that are older than the United States). The connection between Texas and California was only magnified by so many Texans (as Okies and otherwise) moving to California (many of these immigrants included millions of Hispanics and blacks, a fact the author does mention, though not in great detail as that isn’t the focus).

Texas played a special role for Okies, as the author explains. Many Okies had a combined sense of pride and shame about where they came from. Texas with its (self-proclaimed) proud history of revolution (ignoring all the violence and oppression) seemed like a more respectable place than somewhere like Oklahoma and so many took on the cowboy attire as a cultural signifier; although interestingly the entire cowboy culture originated from the Spanish and was passed on by Mexicans and Mexican-Americans to white Southwesterners and then to Okies.

It should be noted that the Mexico originally included most of Texas as well as parts of Oklahoma and Kansas. And, prior to that, the Spanish Empire included all of Florida through all of Texas along with the entire Gulf of Mexico coastline in between including all of Louisiana; everything going north from there including all of Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa and Minnesota; and nearly everything West of that all the way to the West Coast. As I pointed out in another post, in reference to the concentrated numbers of Hispanics in a quarter of the North American territory of the United States:

“Mexicans aren’t invading America. Americans invaded Mexico (and the former Spanish Empire).”

I would have liked to have seen in the book more analysis of how white Southern culture and Mexican/Tejano/Norteno culture in some ways merged together in the Southwest and in Southern California, a merging that was far from complete and that coincided with much conflict of course.

I would also like to have seen the relationship between whites and blacks in the Okie’s home states and in California. Located in Oklahoma was what has been called Black Wall Street which became famous with the Tulsa race riot.

Now, that would have made an interesting historical note to the story of Okies: poor white Okies came from a state that once had some of the richest black people in America, and then that thriving black community was violently destroyed by racist whites only a decade before the Okies began heading out to California. That would put into context some of the conflicts blacks and whites had in California, a place where blacks finally felt free to fight back in a fair fight as the Okies had no majority advantage to suppress them as they did back home.

Here is the passage where the author goes into greater detail about Okies and blacks (American Exodus, Kindle Locations 2273-2286):

Even as some whites were learning new lessons, others clung tenaciously to racial animosity. And if we are looking again for central tendencies, it would have to be said that racism remained the subculture’s dominant voice. Many Southwesterners found purpose in speaking out against rather than for interracial understanding.

This became quite evident in the 1940s, when the racial composition of California underwent a fundamental change. Black migration accelerated dramatically during World War II, nearly quadrupling the state’s Afro-American population by 1950. Where Okies and blacks met there was continual tension. Sociologist Katherine Archibald observed the conflict in a Bay Area shipyard. Blacks were resented by most whites, she noted, but especially by Okies, who “found it hard to accept the casual contact between Negro men and white women to which Northern custom had become indifferent-sitting together on streetcars and buses, standing together before lunch counters or pay windows, working side by side in the same gangs.”” Grumbling that “it’s the niggers who are taking over California,” Okics talked loudly, she added, about lynchings and other bloody remedies. “What you need round here,” one Southwesterner told her, “is a good old-fashioned lynching. Back in my home state we string a nigger up or shoot him down, every now and then, and that way we keep the rest of them quiet and respectful.”””

Apparently it was not all talk. Violent incidents, including cross burnings and even murders, occurred in both the Bay Area and Los Angeles, settings where defense work brought the two groups of Southerners together. At the end of the war a brief florescence of Ku Klux Klan activity in southern California was linked to Southwestern whites.’

Southwesterners enjoyed no monopoly on racism, of course. Nor did California, with its legacy of anti-Asian sentiment, need instructions in white supremacy. Black newcomers met resistance from many quarters. But some white Southwesterners brought a heightened militancy to the subject. Both because interracial contacts at work and school were new and because their self-esteem at this juncture was so fragile, vigorous racism became a prominent feature of the Okie response to California. Charles Newsome remembers the transference. “The people out here [Californians] looked down on the Okies but the Okies looked down on other people too at the time.””‘

Here is another passage where he explains how shocking California was to the Okie sensibility (American Exodus, Kindle Locations 2226-2249):

Settlement in California imposed a number of unfamiliar ethnic encounters on migrants from the Western South. Coming from a region where blacks and in some settings Hispanics were the only significant minorities and where white Protestant supremacy was an unquestioned fact of life, the greater diversity and somewhat more tolerant habits of California offered a serious challenge.”

Some found themselves working for Italian, Scandinavian, Portuguese, Armenian, or perhaps even Japanese growers; others for Hispanic labor contractors or once in a while a black contractor. They competed for jobs with Hispanic and Filipino workers, sometimes finding that these groups were preferred by certain growers. All this was confusing. “We thought we were just 100 percent American,” recalls Martha Jackson, who arrived in California as a teenager in 1937. “1 had never heard of an Armenian, I had never met an Italian and I never had seen Chinese or Japanese or Mexican people…. We thought their grandparents didn’t tight in the Civil War or Revolution.””`

The new encounters were especially difficult because of the contempt Okies experienced at the hands of so many white residents. Accustomed to a social structure which guaranteed them ethnic privileges, they read California’s arrangements as an inversion of accustomed patterns. “I have not noticed the California critics condemning the Filipinos, Japanese, or any other foreigners,” William Siefert wrote to Fresno’s major newspaper. “But when United States horn citizens come here, they say we cut wages and lower their standard of living.””3

“Just who built California’?” another writer asked rhetorically before revealing his ignorance of California’s ethnohistory:

“Certainly not the Chinese, Japanese, Hindus, etc., that you let stay inside her borders…. The aliens are perfectly welcome, but the real citizens must stay out…. Not one word of protest did I hear [about foreigners]. But let a citizen front the East come out here and try to make a home and be a respectable person and one hears plenty.”

James Wilson encountered similar complaints among the migrants he interviewed in Kern County. Among those who would speak freely of their feelings of discontent, several blamed Mexicans, Japanese, and Filipinos, all of whom, one Oklahoman claimed, “git the cream of the crop, they git the jobs.” “That is where a lot of our trouble is,” he continued, “the country is too heavily populated with foreigners … the farmers ain’t got no business hirin’ them fer low wages when we native white American citizens are starvin’.””s It was had enough, Clyde Storey* maintained, that Californians refused to “treat you like a white man,” but to encounter a sign reading “No White Laborers Need Apply” at the ranch belonging to former President Herbert Hoover was in his mind the most painful irony of all.” A young Oklahoman summarized the fear that pressed heavily on the self-esteem of many migrants: “they think as much of a ‘Nigger’ uptown here as they do white people.”” It was not true, of course, but the decline in their own social position, combined with what most Southwesterners saw as a substantial elevation in the rights of racial and ethnic minorities, perhaps made it seem so.

Without question the most troubling feature of the California ethnic system for Southwesterners centered on interactions with blacks. A tiny black population shared the farm-labor occupational strata with Okies in the San Joaquin Valley. Excluded even from the FSA camps, living mostly in isolated enclaves in some of the larger towns, blacks, as always, suffered far more serious economic and social discrimination than any whites. Still they enjoyed certain opportunities not common to the Southwest, and these offended the sensibilities of the newcomers. The superiority of white over black was the bottom line of plain-folk culture, and any change in the status of black people was very deeply felt.

The most obvious breach in segregation etiquette occurred in the schools, some of which admitted black students to the same classrooms as whites. Ruth Woodall Criswell recalls the resulting trauma in her household. It was “the first time in my life I’d ever gone to school with anyone except just white children.” Her parents “could hardly reconcile themselves to the fact. At first they didn’t seem to mind so much about the Mexican and Chinese but the blacks bothered them.”””

With clashes of culture and ethnicity, politics took on new meaning. Back in Texas and the Southern Plains, Okies had often been New Deal Progressives, union members and sometimes even socialists or communists. These tendencies were magnified for some Okies who found themselves on the strike lines with minorities. Other Okies turned reactionary which magnified, instead, their worst traits of racism and religious bigotry. It was a mix.

Maybe that is why country/folk music became so central to Okie culture. It was something all Okies could agree on.

I’m a Midwesterner and don’t have much Southern soil left on my family’s Southern roots.

However, I did spend 8th grade through college in South Carolina and several summers in North Carolina. Then I moved back to Iowa and have been here since. My time spent in the Deep South and the Bible Belt has made me endlessly fascinated by Southern culture. The transplantation of that culture to California equally fascinates me. As the book makes clear, California is where Southern culture and politics was transformed and nationalized. It is the originating point and the incubating place of so much of the contemporary clashes in our society, from Nixon’s Southern Strategy to the religious right, from country music and protest folk music to cowboy movies made in Hollywood.

American Exodus was helpful in my seeking to understand my Californian family members and the culture of the state they moved to. My grandmother was raised a Southern Baptist, although she became a Methodist in Indiana. It is interesting how much she changed by having moved to the Bay Area which is a very different place from the Southern California area her aunt and uncle lived in. My mom’s Hoosier family are much more of the Evangelical/Fundamentalist tradition that I suppose they brought with them from Appalachia, and so they would have meshed more with the Okie population.

Helpful as the book was, the author doesn’t fully explain to my satisfaction certain aspects of the changes that happened in this regional migration and cultural transplantation.

I already pointed out the political aspect. During much of their history well into the 20th century, the Southern Plains and Texas were known for radical and left-wing politics along with many alternative and even utopian communities (including some socialist), not necessarily or entirely the conservatism they are known for today. These were also bastions of New Deal Progressivism and the Democratic Party, and indeed many Okies and other Southwestern migrants remained or became liberal Democrats and labor unionists in California (something the author does note).

I can’t emphasize enough how socialist was this region. Texas and the Southern Plains was a breeding ground for agrarian socialists. It was a massive populist movement, and Oklahoma was the center of the storm. Okies came from an extremely radical political tradition.

The region Okies came from had been a place of great conflict, especially during the 19th century. The antebellum period saw the first Anglo-American settlements and then the conflict of slavery. Some Okies came from former slave states and some from former free states. Two examples will suffice. There was Bleeding Kansas which became a major battleground. And there was Texas that was founded by slave owners, partly for the reason that the Mexican government abolished slavery.

It has been famously asked, “What’s the matter with Kansas?” Likewise it could be asked, what’s the matter with Oklahoma and what was the matter with Okies?

Many things transformed the culture in these states during the mid-to-late 20th century and much more transformed the culture as it was transplanted to the West Coast. In California, there was a mixing together of all kinds of ideologies, religions, social systems, cultural traditions, and races/ethnicities. This exaggerated certain aspects of those who moved there while suppressing other aspects. There is a strange and complicated history behind Nixon’s Southern Strategy and the rise of the religious right, specifically as they came to national attention largely via Southern California.

I would point out a couple further shortcomings or problems with American Exodus.

I’ll start with the simpler criticism. The author occasionally, although not often, would make statements that seemed to imply some kind of positive bias toward Okies. I came across it a number of times in my reading, but I’ll offer the last one I came across (American Exodus, Kindle Locations 3228-3232):

Southwesterners were not alone in donning cowboy styles. Nor was the style particularly new. Well before the Dust Bowl migration, rodeos, Western Day celebrations, and a sprinkling of cowboy hats signified rural California’s Western heritage. But the look grew significantly more popular in the closing years of the Depression and became associated with the Okie subculture in the same nonexclusive way that governed most of the group’s symbols and institutions. A marker of sorts, it was not the defiant group uniform adopted by some subcultures (zoot suits, for example, by young blacks and Chicanos in the same period). Okies sought legitimacy from their symbolic statements. Choosing references they assumed to be widely respected, the distinction they valued was that of being the best Americans around.

Southwesterners, according to the author, were simply seeking respectability by dressing differently than those around them. Racial minorities, on the other hand, were adopting a “defiant group uniform” in their doing the same. Really? I’d say that the cowboy image was the very symbol of defiance. Okies even celebrated their defiance of a mainstream culture that they despised or pretended to despise, although less so after Southwestern culture became more mainstream. This defiance by Okies, in fact, is described by the author in this very book.

A simpler explanation is that young Okies in particular, in seeking peer approval, dressed up in the latest popular fashion among young Okies. The same explanation would apply to young blacks and Chicanos. That is just what young people do.

This is a minor complaint, though. I suspect the author for a brief moment fell into romanticizing the Okies, just as the Okies had romanticized their own Southwestern culture.

The romanticizing by Okies of cowboys holds an odd historical element. The defiance of cowboys came from their status as outsiders. Cowboy culture along with open-range ranching originated in Spain and was spread to America through the Spanish Empire. It came to fruition in the frontier areas that would later be annexed by the United States. The first cowboys were of mixed Spanish and Native American ancestry. In the highly ordered society of the Spanish Empire, cowboys had greater freedom than most in that they were itinerant workers that traveled freely between ranches. The imperial control was weakest on the frontier which was known for rebelliousness and revolutionary tendencies, even before any Anglo-American ever set foot there.

My other criticism is more complex and involved. The author at one point in the book had a minor discussion comparing the Okie influence on California with the Midwestern influence on California. This grabbed my attention.

I’m a Midwesterner and so is most of my family. I was born in Ohio where I lived in my early childhood and then spent several years in Illinois, but I ended up in third grade living in Iowa for a few more years. After spending almost a decade away from Iowa in my latter school years and thereafter, I returned to Iowa and have remained since. An Iowan is what I identify as and the Midwest is what I most personally know about. It is from this perspective that the following passage stood out to me (American Exodus, Kindle Locations 3365-3368):

A group identity may not carry very far unless it is tied to specific institutional vehicles. This may be one of the reasons why Midwesterners have not made the same kind of demonstrable cultural impact on California, despite massive numbers and sometimes avid home-state loyalties (Iowans for example). Of course, the fact that Iowans were never cast as social outsiders made a powerful difference, but so did the Southwesterners’ proprietorial control of several institutions that were relatively new to California.

There might be some truth to this, specifically about institutions. I couldn’t say which institutions that Midwesterns might have had proprietorial control of. However, that is far from concluding that “Midwesterners have not made the same kind of demonstrable cultural impact on California.” It is because Midwestern influence was so massive and powerful that it was so diffuse throughtout and so well integrated into California culture.

Southwesterners stood out so much as a sub-culture in California for the very reason that they were essentially a minority group there, thus competing against other minority groups in a very public clash of politics. Minorities tend to get a lot of attention from the mainstream media and from politicians, and maybe this is because they often seek attention in their seeking recognition. It also might just be a cultural difference among regional groups. Midwesterners are perceived as being so normal, so typically American as to be bland and boring. Another thing about Midwesterners, unlike Southerners and Southwesterners, is that they tend to be very moderate in both their politics and their religion. Midwesterners are good at blending in. Seeking attention/recognition just doesn’t seem to be a part of Midwestern culture.

Midwestern culture has become so widespread in American society that it is almost invisible. Midwestern English, specifically in the area centered in and directly surrounding Iowa, became Standard American English which is to say that when someone of this region speaks it is perceived as there having no accent. Ronald Reagan became the great conservative leader from California was born in western Illinois which is part of the region of Standard American English. It was because of Midwesterners such as Reagan that Midwestern English became so common in Hollywood (and so common on nationally broadcast radio and television); by the way, John Wayne also came from this region, having been born in Iowa. This invisibility of Midwestern culture goes along with the invisibility of German-American culture, as the Midwest is the main region where Germans settled and most people don’t realize that there are more Americans of German ancestry than of any other ancestry. Both my parents are largely of German ancestry.

Didn’t it occur to the author that it was odd that so many Californians speak Standard American English which originated in the Midwest?

Spending so much time in Iowa, I speak Standard American English. My dad also speaks Standard American English, more or less. My mom, even though she was born in central Indiana like my dad, inherited an Appalachian/Hoosier accent from her family. However, her cousin who was was born in central Indiana as well spent most of her childhood in California and doesn’t have a trace of accent. She speaks Standard American English, despite never having lived in the region from which originated Standard American English. It’s interesting that my mom’s family living in the Midwest had a Southern accent and only gained a more typical Midwestern accent by moving to California.

Also, consider this from a different angle.

The Midlands culture that forms the backbone of the Midwest isn’t limited to the Midwest.

Midwestern influence ended up being very broad as the migration pattern from Pennsylvania westward eventually spread north into Canada and south as far as the hill country of Texas. The very western area of the South that this book is about was heavily influenced by Midwestern culture, especially by way of German immigrants, long before there were any Okies in California. This influence of the Midwest was, therefore, carried to California by Midwesterners and by many Okies as well.

Along with this, consider the religious issue.

How did the South become so Evangelical in the first place? The South originally was one of the least religious regions during the colonial era and into the early American period.

It took Methodist circuit riders and Baptists from the North to begin the process of creating a more strong religiosity in the South, especially the Deep South; but initially these religious outsiders were perceived by Southerners as radical and intrusive. As explained in Christine Leigh Heyrman’s Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt (Kindle Locations 138-144):

The surprise, of course , is that evangelicals struggled for many decades to prosper among whites in the South. So long has this region been regarded as the cultural hearth of evangelicalism in the present-day United States that it takes some doing to imagine a past that was radically different, a time when a diverse, contentious spiritual culture seemed unlikely ever to become the “Bible Belt,” let alone its proudly proclaimed “buckle.” But much of what follows is an effort at doing just that— recovering a world marooned from living memory in which evangelicals, far from dominating the South, were viewed by most whites as odd at best and subversive at worst.

One of the earliest Baptists in America was Roger Williams, a former Bostonian Puritan who founded Rhode Island. The only Evangelical tradition native to Southerners is Presbyterianism which was mostly concentrated in the Upper South of Appalachia, and many of the earliest Scots-Irish who brought Presbyterianism there came through the Quaker colony of Pennsylvania.

However, even early Appalachia was less overtly religious for a number of reasons. The South in general and the frontier South in particular tended to be more often settled by single male immigrants (whereas, in the North, entire families or even entire villages moved together and settled together). Even when Appalachians did settle down in families, it was more difficult to build religious infrastructure as Appalachians were less motivated in building roads and towns, preferring to live in kinship groups spread far apart from others. Presbyterians also had the problem early on in finding enough preachers for it originally had been the practice for all preachers to be trained in Britain which meant some congregations lacked a preacher for extended periods of time.

The First Great Awakening (i.e., period of revivalism) had its most noticeable activity in New England, but its influence was felt throughout the colonies. At that time, Baptists were the driving force behind separation of church and state. Interestingly, long before the Okies, the Scots-Irish settlers in California were likewise the driving force (against New England settlers) behind separation of church and state. The later Okies were ironically also largely of Scots-Irish descent and so ended up fighting against the secular tradition of their forebears. If not for those first Scots-Irish, New Englanders might have successfully made California a religious state as their religious descendants helped make the South religious. New Englanders sought to establish Protestantism in California and promoted religious social reform, such as the blue laws that became common in the South.

From Colin Woodard’s American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America (Kindle Locations 3621-3639):

However well funded and organized they were, the Yankees had little luck with their efforts beyond their coastal beachheads. They successfully lobbied to get the state legislature to pass laws protecting the Sabbath, but the California Supreme Court was by then dominated by Borderlanders from the mining districts, who declared the law invalid. San Franciscans on the whole rejected Puritan morality. “In California, the Sabbath is ignored by the masses,” the San Francisco Bulletin reported in 1860. “The more abandoned resort to gambling saloons where, with drugged whisky and logwood wines they manage to stake their previous week’s earnings on a throw of dice or a doubtful game of pasteboard.” Yankees had influenced the Left Coast, but they could not make it a commonwealth of saints.14

The central problem, of course, was that from 1850 onward the overwhelming majority of California’s Left Coast residents—and those of the state as a whole—weren’t Yankees. The Gold Rush had drawn people from all over the world: Appalachian farmers, Chilean and Australian miners, Irish and Italian adventurers, and hopeful Chinese laborers. In a land whose colonial culture was yet to be defined, few were willing to simply follow the Yankees’ lead. Catholics rejected it altogether in favor of their own dreams that California, on account of its relative isolation and Spanish heritage, might serve as a refuge from Protestant America. They, too, had their schools, missions, orphanages, and colleges: Italian Jesuits were issuing degrees at Santa Clara while Berkeley was still a prep school. When voters elected delegates to the territory’s constitutional convention in 1849, Yankees were a distinct minority, outnumbered by Borderlanders and norteños. California’s first two governors were San Francisco residents, but both were from Appalachia.15

While the Yankees failed in their broad mission, they did have a lasting effect on coastal California from Monterey north. The coast blended the moral, intellectual, and utopian impulses of a Yankee elite with the self-sufficient individualism of its Appalachian and immigrant majority. The culture that formed—idealistic but individualistic—was unlike that of the gold-digging lands in the interior but very similar to those in western Oregon and Washington. It would take nearly a century for its people to recognize it, but it was a new regional culture, one that would ally with Yankeedom to change the federation.

The other side of the First Great Awakening was Deism and Universalism with a smidgeon of atheism and other heretical thought thrown in. Many of the revolutionary generation, including many of the founders and signers, were Deists, Universalists or otherwise (by today’s standards) not very traditional Christians.

The Second Great Awakening was most concentrated in an area of western New York that became known as the burned-over district. It was the Second Great Awakening that brought on the wave of Methodist circuit riders who reached into the backcountry of the Midwest and the Upper South. This is how Presbyterianism was brought out of its rural isolation and slumber. The Second Great Awakening was known for promoting grassroots democracy and progressive reform, in particular temperance, women’s rights, and abolitionism.

The other side of the Second Great Awakening was spiritualism, transcendentalism, Mormonism, and utopian movements. Many note that Quakers weren’t involved with the revivalism movement, but Quakers along with Shakers were the driving force behind spiritualism (as a side note, my paternal great grandfather was raised by Shakers). Like revivalism, spiritualism took hold in western New York and spread widely. Mormon also arose in that same area, also offered an alternative to revivalism, and then also spread West heading across the Midwest (I’ve seen the old Mormon wagon tracks that are still visible here in Iowa). Like the Evangelicals, Mormons later would support New Deal Progressivism and then even later identify with the religious right culture wars.

Mormonism has become more well known and almost mainstream at this point, but spiritualism had a great impact as well, way more than many today realize. Abraham Lincoln’s wife, and maybe Abraham Lincoln himself, was involved with spiritualist mediums and involved in spiritualist seances. Abraham Lincoln was certainly in the same social circles as many spiritualists, the most famous examples being Harriet Beecher Stowe (she claimed that Uncle Tom’s Cabin had been dictated to her by spirit authors) and a lesser known example being Robert Dale Owen (who was the son of an influential socialist and who was himself an influential socialist and politician who, for example, pressured Lincoln to declare the Emancipation Proclamation).

In the Third Great Awakening, the Social Gospel laid the groundwork for the Populist Movement and the Progressive Era which, in secularized form, laid the groundwork for modern liberalism and progressivism. The Social Gospel was, however, rooted in the progressive reform that was inherent to the first two Great Awakenings. Only later in the 20th century did such progressive reform become solely identified with and blamed on liberal elites and left-wing secularism, a fact that is typically omitted by conservatives, especially Southern Evangelicals.

The other side of the Third Great Awakening was New Thought Christianity, Christian Science, Theosophy and New Age Spirituality. All these were phenomena of the North, including the Midwest, long before they became associated with the West Coast. I was raised in Unity Church which was founded by Midwesterners and established in Missouri. Many Okies, of course, were from Missouri. It was because of various waves of Southern Plains and Midwestern immigrants that all of this alternative spirituality/religion ended up in California which is where my grandmother discovered it and how my parents became introduced to it. Like my mom’s cousin having to go to California to get a Midwestern accent, my grandmother had to go to California to get Midwestern alternative religion.

My point is that the Okies can’t be fully understood without the full context.

Okies get so much credit for influencing California culture and American culture because for one there was a mass media to report on them and second because they weren’t shy about grabbing the attention of mass media (e.g., all the Okies who became famous musicians and movie stars). But maybe this exaggerates their actual influence or obfuscates so many other influences both before and after their resettlement on the West Coast.

I’m sure iit won’t bother most readers that the author didn’t tackle this more difficult analysis. I won’t hold it against the author. I just felt the need to point out that it was missing since so few know about these intertwined aspects of history. Anyway, if the author followed my advice, his book would have become a cumbersome multi-volume project.

I’ll end on a positive note.

The author, even with my criticisms, was far from clueless about the larger historical context. For example, he acknowledged the similarity between the migration pattern of Southerners going to the North and to the West (my family being a part of both movements). Here is what he wrote (American Exodus, Kindle Locations 82-84):

One stream of the white exodus has been studied. Whites from the upper South and Appalachian highlands moved into Northern cities during the same decades that large numbers of Southwesterners were heading west. The two experiences appear to have much in common. Called “hillbillies” instead of “Okies,” white Southerners in cities like Chicago and Detroit acquired the same kind of socio-cultural definition as Southwesterners in California. Distinctive subcultures, shaped somewhat like those belonging to immigrant ethnic groups, emerged in both settings.

There are many other examples of the author offering historical context, specifically about various groups that moved to California. I learned much by reading American Exodus. It is a lot more interesting topic than I ever considered.

A book like this is inevitably limited in its intentionally narrowed focus. For me, though, the larger context is more interesting than the single topic by itself. Non-fiction books in particular are most valuable when not read in isolation, but that is the responsibility of the reader and not the author.

Westerly Migrations

My research on genealogy and family history has shifted gears, that being the proper metaphor to describe my recent family road trip.

The traveling party included my parents, my second oldest brother and myself; although my brother only came for the first half of the trip. It was a long trip, but I didn’t mind too much. I get along well enough with my parents and it was nice to spend some quality time with my brother who, these days, is usually busy with his own family.

It was a trip with family and largely about family. There was much discussion. I prodded my parents with many questions and took extensive notes. My motivation to learn about my extended family is that I didn’t grow up around them nor did I ever see most of them on a regular basis. They are strangers to me, strangers because of distance and time. Some of them, specifically three of my grandparents, were dead before I had become an adult.

I grew up feeling detached from family. As I wasn’t raised with extended family, I wasn’t raised with the belief being overtly instilled in me that there was much value to extended family, my own parents willingly having left their families behind other than for brief visits. There was never a sense of closeness. No big family reunions and holidays. No grandmother next door, no cousins in the neighborhood, not even distant relations in nearby towns.

My parents didn’t consciously choose this, but on some level I’m sure they understood the choice they were making for their children. They had conflict-ridden or even distant relationships with their own family, especially their parents, and so they did the opposite of prioritizing extended family. Career always came first, a choice that was easily rationalized out of a sense of parental responsibility and duty to self-development. This just makes my parents normal according to the standards of modern American society.

My parents have always wanted normalcy or a close approximation to it. They grew up with the nuclear family fantasy of those early black and white tv sitcoms. That is what they internalized and then modeled in their own adult lives. They just wanted to be good people, responsible adults, dutiful parents. It was a role that society told them to play and they played it well. I make these observations with deep empathy for I understand the pull of wanting to fit in and be accepted, to be perceived as a worthy human being and a valued member of society. It just so happens to be a role I’m not very good at playing. If not for depression, I very well might have followed right along with a career, house, wife and 2.5 kids.

The destination for the road trip was California. It was a journey that followed in the footsteps of family members before me, some of the family I never knew or barely knew. California is a state that for some reason was where several lines of my family ended up in or passed through, not unlike many other Americans. California, the land of new beginnings, the birthplace of the suburban dream.

While in California, my mom visited a cousin she hadn’t seen since childhood and I visited a cousin I hadn’t seen since childhood, two reunions from each side of the family. Along the way, we stopped in a town where my dad recalled visiting a great uncle (where a great aunt also lived nearby) and we stopped in another town where he once visited his mother after his parents divorced.

All of them had their reasons for leaving their families behind. My mom’s cousins ended up there either because their father was escaping debts or because it was suggested that a change in climate would be beneficial for some illness in the family. My dad’s mom simply went for the supposed perfect climate of the bay area, illness not being the motivating factor. My cousin has been there because he has a good job in Silicon Valley. My dad’s great uncle and great aunt moved there for reasons unknown.

California is a place that hasn’t held any personal significance, but this trip has changed that. Starting in the most southern area and heading up just past the Bay area, I was able to get a glimpse of what life is like there — the geography and history, the culture and ethnicities, the settlement patterns and imperial remnants. No doubt it is very much symbolic of America and the American Dream. A society on the move. A people of progress. Keep going West until you can’t go any further. Then what?

Cultures and Determinism

Culture isn’t deterministic in an absolutely predictable way. We can measure certain factors within a culture that can probabilistically predict outcomes, but a culture as a whole is constantly shifting even as patterns of collective identity are maintained. Cultures aren’t just limits, but also potentialities. A cultural worldview is a reality tunnel that, while closing down particular possibilities, opens up other possibilities.

This became clear to me in reading Colin Woodards American Nations. He described the development of California. It seemed like a perfect example of how cultures interact to with unforeseen consequences.

California (and the Ecotopia Northwest) is a unique area, very different from the Eastern part of the country. Americans normally identify the Scots-Irish with the Appalachian South, but Scots-Irish are concentrated in many different areas. Scots-Irish immigrants mostly entered through Pennsylvania where there still are many and they have assimilated to the Quaker Midlands culture there. Extending from Pennsylvania, there are many Scots-Irish in the Lower Midwest border area, although interestingly there are fewer Scots-Irish in the Upper Midwest than in New England. The largest concentration of Scots-Irish is actually in the region around the Northwest, including Northern California and the Northern Far West.

It’s equally interesting to consider all the areas the Scots-Irish have intentionally or unintentionally avoided for the most part. As I pointed out, the Upper Midwest is almost entirely devoid of Scots-Irish. The population of the Upper Midwest is a combination of Germans and Scandinavians, and it is the area of the US known for having one of the strongest traditions of socialism and communitarianism, certainly the only area that had a city run by a socialist majority political leadership for about a half century. The only other areas with comparatively low percentage of Scots-Irish are Florida and the Lower Southwest, both Hispanic areas of the former Spanish Empire and once part of Mexico.

California, specifically Northern California, has a connection to New England Yankeedom. It seems strange to see how many Scots-Irish chose to move to both of these areas heavily influenced by Yankee culture and politics. I’m not sure if the Scots-Irish assimilated in New England, but in Northern California it wasn’t a perfect assimilation for anyone involved. Mexicans had settled in Southern California more and they maintained their culture there while New Englanders came after to Northern California where they had a majority in government while also operating the first churches, schools, and newspapers. Following the New Englanders settling the mostly coastal areas which became urbanized, the Scots-Irish spread out mostly in the rural areas. Yankee dominance was never complete for New Englanders were outnumbered by those of other ethnicities.

This created a weird amalgam in California not found anywhere else. The New Englanders brought the Puritan tradition of industriousness and utopian social reform. The Scots-Irish brought their love of independence and grassroots populism. The two cultures conflicted at first which lessened certain aspects of both cultures while magnifying other aspects. Strangely, the Scots-Irish undermined the Puritan religious impulses and helped secularize California which is completely the opposite of how the Scots-Irish embraced evangelical fundamentalism in Appalachia. Also, the Scots-Irish population in the Northwest shows less gun violence than in Appalachia.

Different social conditions lead to entirely different results.

You Decide: Students’ Education or the Afghanistan War?

rethinkafghanistan — April 20, 2010 — Californias economy is in a tailspin. One in 5 Californians is out of work. Over three quarters of a million have lost their homes. Desperately needed social services have been cut to the bone. Yet residents of our state continue to pay for a senseless war in Afghanistan thats not making us safer a war that has cost California taxpayers nearly $38 billion already.

Last month, facing tuition and fee hikes of over 30 percent, public university students all over California said enough is enough, organized and went on strike. Now these students have a new message: California is wasting tens of billions of dollars on war even while making public education accessible only to the rich.

We cant afford to continue a war that does nothing to make us safer.…