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California's progressive social legislation - 01 May 1998

If anybody had put it me in my early days that I'd get absorbed by something called economic geography, well... Let me tell you about Dr J Russell Smith of Columbia University, a downright man in many things and a downright definition of a good economic geographer.

Somebody, he'd say, who can be put on a train at night and when he wakes up in the morning, you drop him off and he looks around and tells you what sort of people live there, their occupation, means of livelihood, probable average income and so on, just from looking at the trees, if any, the breed of grass, the fencing, the cloud patterns in the sky, the type of roadway and approach to cities in different climates.

He was a master at this game, even when the land was lying fallow. If he found himself out on the prairie, he might be on the high plains of western Kansas or hundreds of miles to the north in the Dakotas, with no tree in sight. He'd know where he was the moment he heard the first train whistle. All the different lines had their own tunes and he didn't have to examine the grass to know that he was close to the Rock Island line, say, or a thousand miles to the south and west, he was in Johnny Mercer's Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe country.

Well this is getting to be a game harder and harder to play because of, first, the practical disappearance of the transcontinental passenger train and because of what's happening in every what we now call developed country; ever-swelling and spreading population so that isolated villages merge into a continuous suburb, the collapse of the local grocer, here the general store, the hardware store, in the path of the mighty regional or national chain, the juggernaut of the supermarket.

More than anything else that's stamping out or blurring local character I think, is the inevitable disappearance of local newspapers before the continental and now the planetary networks of television stations. It's hard to credit today that when radio came to this continent in the early 1920s, it was recognised in some places as a threat to local culture and local pride and there were people in great stretches of the country who at first thought of a radio set as an intruder in their private lives and wouldn't touch it. The first president ever to speak over the radio privately thought it would be used to trick politicians. Maybe he was right. He was a little man with a crab apple face – Calvin Coolidge. A thin, wiry man who looked, a president's daughter said, as if he'd been weaned on a pickle. Nevertheless, he presided over an America rejoicing in its last great surging bull market and to his admirers he was known simply as Silent Cal.

He'd been visiting in California and was to take the train back east from the main station in Los Angeles. There was a great bustle and fuss around the steaming train, more than usual because the papers had announced that for the first time in history, a President of the United States would address the people over this marvellous new invention. So little President Coolidge taps his tiny feet along the platform, with his entourage beside him, pauses before climbing up the high steps and an excited announcer talks agitatedly into a hand-held object that looked like a small ping-pong paddle. It was a microphone. After a swift, flowery introduction and a reminder that this was something new, a great occasion in the history of progress or something, the announcer shouted: and now ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States. Silence. A crackle, President Coolidge opened his mouth. He said, "Goodbye", and climbed aboard.

But today the small village that Calvin Coolidge grew up in, in Vermont, is as likely as a village in Ohio or Georgia or for that matter, New York City or Los Angeles, to have 50 or 60 or 70 of the same cable television channels. A fact for the past 20 years or so, which provoked a friend of mine, an incurable New Yorker, to say, why do you have to go to California to do any of your talks, when you get all the same channels wherever you are? What's so different about California?

A question worth answering, apart from the local TV channels and plainly there are scores of them in a state 800 odd miles long and over 200 wide, a land of several distinct climates and the special interests that attach to them. The climate of Yorkshire and of Spain, of the Sahara Desert, of the Alps and of Finland. California is the salad bowl of the United States and almost the fruit bowl also, the capital of the microchip industry. In an encyclopedia passage on California, its history, economy, geography, its electronic and metal industries, employment, education etc, there is no mention at all of a minor source of employment, motion-picture making. A sheep town in the hills when I was born, called Hollywood, became in time the factory of the world's myths and love stories.

But California is also famous for a minor and a major characteristic, The minor one is its reputation as a cradle for weird religions and a haven for crackpots and quick fixers of many kinds. Among the worthier eccentrics are what have been called the green-keepers, the environmentalists. The American environmental movement started here and an offshoot, I suppose, is a very vigorous and unforgiving animal rights movement. I've been here in San Francisco only just over a week but there's been a special pother over defending the rights over two animals precious to nature lovers. Would you like to make a guess? The California red-legged frog and the San Francisco garter snake.

They inhabit, among other places, an old Spanish ranch, 4,000 acres in rolling hills, south of San Francisco and so far have enjoyed their freedom and the admiration of hikers and tent carriers. A San Francisco hotel chain owner wants to build a 40-room hotel, 12 cabins, 188 tent sites and a new, large general store, open the place up. The hotel man says only a teeny weeny sliver of the 4,000 acres, do no harm to either a red-leg or a garter. But the 800 people who live at intervals on this sweep of land are going to court, to maintain that the hotel project violates the United States Endangered Species Act.

The major characteristic of California, which I'd say most non-Californians are not aware of, is that it's strikingly a pioneer in much social legislation. I don't believe I would have done a talk about AIDS for a year or two longer, if I'd not been here in the autumn of 1981, when some doctors told me about this strange, new affliction that had hit the large gay community here. One epidemiologist mentioning that the only thing like it in the literature was a similar disease that had killed an English sailor, way back, I think, in the 1950s. Somebody, an Englishwoman, I believe, in Washington, once said, we'd better know what's going on in America because more often that not, we see there our future. I believe you can say, with even more truth if you're an American, don't ignore what's new in California, good or bad. It may soon be happening to you.

There are two prime examples to hand. Initiatives, they're called, or propositions, ever since a large body of Californians felt impatient enough or ardent enough to try and push a new law, not through the usual legislative channels, but through the onrush of a popular referendum. These two propositions will come up in the June primaries. If so many hundreds of thousands of people feel passionate enough, then the proposition goes on the ballot and is voted on in a state-wide election. One is proposition 227, which is burning tempers across California and being watched with concern, wherever a region of the United States, the south-west and the deep South mostly, have large incoming populations of immigrants, mostly speaking a foreign language, the great majority Spanish.

For 30 years it was decided the way to get these people out of their tributary native language into the mainstream of English was by bilingual education. The theory was that children did better if all subjects were taught to them in their native tongue for a time. The time could go on for years, while on the side they're picking up English. Most places, it hasn't worked. Too many Spanish-speaking teachers are poor at English and the kids wind up speaking poor English and learning the basic subjects badly. Proposition 227 dictates that all immigrant children shall be tossed into English at once for a year, as say the Russian and Asian children are, who incidentally do much better later, both as English speakers and as jobholders.

The second proposition is one that concerns – troubles, indeed – the whole country. It's even more simple and fair-minded on the surface. It requires labour unions to get their members' permission before using members' dues for political campaigns of the union bosses' choosing. This is a dynamite issue in California, in this year's election. The success or failure of both these referendums brings up the general fear, rarely discussed openly in California. Is a referendum, the forcing of an idea into law through a vocal, passionate majority, democratic or authoritarian? Two hundred years ago, one of the Constitution's founding writers, James Madison, a genius of common sense, who spotted many awkward points in seemingly shining democratic theory, said the most important thing about a large and passionate majority is that it should at all times be checked by a concurring minority. If the opposing minority loses its voice altogether, then an unchecked majority can be a new form of tyrant. This ought to be worth taking up in June, when we shall know the numbers and force of the petitioners.

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