February 24, 2007

The California paradox

My dad, his wife, and my step-sisters all live in eastern Contra Costa County, so this blog entry by Andrew Leonard at Salon, on the metastasizing suburban hell that is the San Ramon and Tassajaro Valleys, rings deeply true to me. I've seen, first-hand, the six-lane-in-each-direction monster surface streets and 300 acre `developments' that destroy dwindling farmland and open spaces to house only about 1800 people. I came back from the movies in Dublin with my siblings along Tassajaro Road, gaping in horror at the vast tracts of freshly-bulldozed land as they gossiped about when the new high school is going to open.

At the same time, my mom makes her living designing custom homes and has family ties to contractors, carpenters, and other people who make their living in the building industry, so I'm acutely aware that `development' is a cornerstone of the Western economy. I can also somewhat sympathise with the ideal of home ownership, and I'm aware of the way mortgage payments are one of the key tax shelters that enable families from the lower middle class to move into the middle middle class.

And my parents, for all that I've presented them as caricatures in the first two paragraphs, feel this same tension. They are firmly ensconced in a paradox Leonard identifies, a paradox I'm going to call the California paradox:

The paradox that I had plenty of time to think about as I waited for the lights to change at the humongous intersections standing ready for the hordes of cars to come, is that the San Francisco Bay Area can be simultaneously home to such car-centered contemporary culture, and to one of the largest community of progressive activists dedicated to smart growth and ecological sustainability in the world.

On the one hand, both households recycle, try to heat and cool their houses as efficiently as possible, plan errand trips to minimize gas usage, and, especially in my mom's case, firmly believe that local governments in suburban communities need to take mass transit options seriously and dramatically reform their building codes so that new `developments' are designed for pedestrians, not car drivers. But, at the same time, they have no problem, say, driving nearly half an hour down the freeway just to save a few dollars per pound on coffee and a few dollars per gallon on milk.

I'm still working on Charles Taylors' Ethics of authenticity, and right now he's presenting his view of modernity as an anti-fatalistic one. According to Taylor, both the boosters and detractors of modernity hold a fatalistic view: whether for better or for worse, both believe that we are stuck with society as it is structured today, at least for the foreseeable future. But, Taylor says, this is false, and we need to view modern society as amenable to reform and rehabilitation through personal, political, cultural, and philosophical struggle.

I'd like to suggest that we read the California paradox in the same way. It is a manifestation of deep tension within the American cultural psyche -- and within the psyche of individual Americans -- between desires for universal justice and personal privilege. This tension is not conscious, for the most part. I think most Americans still believe -- or at least want to believe -- that justice can be achieved without any sacrifice on their own part. But this is clearly absurd: the giant strip malls that sell cheap, sweatshop-produced crap, low-density McMansion housing developments, and SUV-worshiping car culture that are the logical conclusions of the egoistic, capitalist version of `the American dream' consume too many resources and require too much parasitism of the poor by the wealthy to be consistent with justice.

I do not know which side will win out in the long run, but I do believe the winner is not already determined. I believe that personal, political, cultural and philosophical struggle can bring people to recognise the tension, make the choice, and make the choice for justice over privilege. To believe otherwise, I think, is to embrace profound, crushing despair.

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