404 - Page Not Found - In These Times

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Business as usual in the disinformation age.
The backlash against high-stakes exams.
Southern Bellwether
For unions to survive, they must organize in Dixie.


The Permanent War.
A double standard on terrorism.


Israel targets Arafat.
Russia's last independent network goes under.
Dumping on Nevada
The Department of Energy approves Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste site.
Prison Blues
Starbucks, Nike, others profit from inmate labor.
Against the Odds
Public housing residents eke out some rare victories.


Autumn of the Patriarch
BOOKS: What a difference a pop makes.
BOOKS: Carey McWilliams and the Fool's Paradise.
MUSIC: It's to Change punk rock.
The Docs' Good News
FILM: Documentaries are alive and well at Sundance.
Tony Kushner, Native Son
INTERVIEW: The playwright on America, Israel and terror.

February 1, 2002
Carey Quite Contrary

n California, everything seems to be reversed, to occur out of the natural order of events, to be upside down or lopsided,” wrote Carey McWilliams of the place that was his muse and enduring theme. “Even to describe the state accurately is to run the risk of being branded a liar or a lunatic.”

McWilliams, perhaps the most prescient of California’s chroniclers, was branded these and more. In 1939, the Associated Farmers, a militantly anti-labor coalition of agribusiness interests, responded to McWilliams’ scathing indictment of California’s agricultural system, Factories in the Field, by dubbing him “Agricultural Pest No. 1, worse than pear blight or boll weevil.” Two years later, Republican gubernatorial candidate Earl Warren made firing McWilliams from his position as state commissioner of immigration and housing a top campaign promise.

All this was payback for McWilliams’ tireless work as debunker of California’s myths and as self-appointed advocate for the exploited. Decades later, his many books and articles for the popular press remain authoritative accounts of social struggle in California, and his impact upon subsequent observers of the California scene is so broad as to be almost inestimable. Writers and academics running the gamut from Mike Davis, whose chronicles of class oppression, racism and environmental ruin are distinctly noir, to Kevin Starr, whose popular works on California history border on rose-colored, continue to cite McWilliams. Even a first-time reader will likely find him strangely familiar.

But despite the lasting salience of McWilliams’ work, the literature devoted to his life and works is sparse, consisting of a few short journal articles and a single dissertation. Save for McWilliams’ own 1979 memoir, he has garnered no biography, and until now, his works have lacked an anthology. Small Berkeley publisher Heyday Books steps in to fill this breach with Fool’s Paradise: A Carey McWilliams Reader, a collection culled from McWilliams’ many books and magazine articles. This new anthology does not quite do McWilliams justice—it is awkwardly organized, with some puzzling inclusions and regrettable omissions—but it does provide a capable and long-overdue introduction.

McWilliams was not born in California, and he did not die there. He lived there for only 28 of his 75 years, and produced his best work on the state in the space of little more than a decade of that time. The son of a wealthy white Colorado cattle rancher and state senator, he moved to Los Angeles in 1922, enrolled at the University of Southern California, and earned his bachelor’s degree while moonlighting in the business department of the Los Angeles Times. After graduation, he went on to law school, married and entered a successful Pasadena law firm—all while simultaneously embarking upon a second career as a writer.

It was at the urging of H.L. Mencken that McWilliams authored his first book, a biography of San Francisco writer Ambrose Bierce. “Mencken encouraged my father as a writer,” explains Wilson Carey McWilliams in his foreword to Fool’s Paradise, “and he reciprocated by imitating Mencken’s hairstyle (parted straight down the middle) and his drinking habits (Bourbon Manhattans).” McWilliams spent the next few years writing literary history and criticism for various magazines and socializing with an impressive circle of Los Angeles writers, including Louis Adamic, John Fante, William Saroyan, Nathanael West and William Faulkner.

Not until the turmoil of Depression-era California had begun its crescendo did McWilliams become engaged in politics. Against the backdrop of massive labor unrest and Upton Sinclair’s campaign for governor on a platform to end poverty, McWilliams developed an intense interest in the plight of California’s farm laborers. This interest culminated in Factories in the Field: The Story of Migratory Labor in California.

Hailed as a nonfiction Grapes of Wrath upon its publication in 1939, the book was the product of McWilliams’ travels through California’s fields, his involvement with labor organizing, and countless hours spent sifting through records and poring over yellowed newspaper accounts. It presented a history previously unrecorded—“a hidden history,” he wrote at the time—of the state’s farm industry. Today it is considered a milestone in social history.

cWilliams soon became fascinated with the relationship between class and race. The subject inspired much of his most passionate and groundbreaking writing, and ultimately generated four books: Brothers under the Skin (1943), Prejudice: Japanese-Americans: Symbol of Racial Intolerance (1944, the first book to appear on Japanese internment), A Mask for Privilege: Anti-Semitism in America (1945) and North from Mexico: The Spanish-Speaking People of the United States (1950).

Three of them are excerpted here. From widespread lynchings in the 19th century to 20th-century signs excluding “Negroes and Mexicans” from theaters and roller rinks, the California that emerges from these selections is violent and racially charged. McWilliams connects California’s “attempt to Jim Crow the Chinese” with the rampant racism of the American South, noting how southern and western senators collaborated to pass legislation barring Chinese immigration. In so doing, he demolishes the image of California as a haven from racial strife.

America’s entry into World War II brought the internment of Japanese-Americans, and the ensuing years were no kinder to California’s Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. “It was a foregone conclusion,” explains McWilliams, “that Mexicans would be substituted as the major scapegoat group once the Japanese were removed.” McWilliams’ narrative of racial tensions in homefront Los Angeles is riveting, from the “Sleepy Lagoon” show trial, in which 17 Mexican-American youths were convicted of a single murder, to the so-called Zoot-Suit riots of 1943, in which thousands of white soldiers and civilians roamed the streets of L.A. over 11 nights, terrorizing and beating young Mexican-American men.

hen the chaos of World War II had started to subside, McWilliams published Southern California Country: An Island on the Land, the first of two popular books devoted to California. Selections reprinted here address the Californian predilection for utopian schemes and the place of water in the region’s psyche and politics. Also included is McWilliams’ classic piece on the state’s “mission legend,” where he takes up the contradiction between Anglo Californians’ romantic obsession with their state’s “Mission-Spanish past” and the poor treatment of contemporary Mexican-Americans. Material from California: The Great Exception, written shortly before McWilliams left the state in 1950 for New York and editorship of The Nation, is regrettably absent: He once described it as the summary of his efforts to understand the state.

But in its place, the Reader’s final section is devoted to short pieces from The Nation on California’s political scene. Collected here for the first time, they include descriptions of Earl Warren’s tenure as governor and of the Tenney Committee (a California forerunner of HUAC), as well as such treasures as a 1950 description of Richard Nixon as “a dapper little man with an astonishing capacity for petty malice.”

Even from New York, McWilliams’ eyes were trained closely on California. References to early political consultants Murray Chotiner and the Spencer-Roberts firm suggest that McWilliams recognized their significance to California politics—and anticipated the emergence of paid political consulting as a national phenomenon—before almost anyone else. “How to Succeed with the Backlash,” a look at the racial overtones of Ronald Reagan’s gubernatorial campaign—“one of the most subtle and intensive racist political campaigns ever waged in a Northern or Western state”—is both incisive and disquietingly prophetic. The volume concludes with “Paradise Reagan-ed,” written on the occasion of the Gipper’s 1966 election. It is McWilliams at his most caustic and disaffected.

But it would be a mistake to remember him on this note. Although he was a piercingly ironic critic to the end, his was a criticism rooted in a profound sense of social justice and an abiding sense that California should, and could, be better. It would also be a mistake to remember McWilliams simply as a champion of California exceptionalism. When McWilliams is invoked today, it is most often for his commentary on California the quirky, California the anomalous, California the “island on the land.”

While he found much that was spectacular and bizarre in California—he once said that in 1920s Los Angeles he had found himself a “ringside seat at the year-round circus”—he also understood how intimately the state’s fate was intertwined with the rest of the nation. Here, at the edge of the Pacific, was America’s future, writ large and run amok. As he put it, “Here the swiftness of transition from rural to urban, from hardihood to wealth, has been most pronounced, here the social neuroticism produced by such a transition is most widespread, and here the extremes between ‘lowest’ and ‘highest’ are most patent and glaring.”

On this count, McWilliams was no liar, no lunatic and certainly no fool.

Kate Julian, formerly of Lingua Franca, is a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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