Letter from California

An archive of the weekly "Letter from Calfornia", written by Jim McCarthy.

Monday, September 29, 2003

Letter from California: In the Race

What if I told you that there were still people in the United States who believed that one race of people deserved privileged status over all the others. They hang on to the old-fashioned notion that the skin color a person comes into the world wearing should determine where and how that person lives.

Would you believe it if I told you that here in 2003, 40 years after the Civil Rights Movement, there are organized groups of people who still hold on to this awful philosophy?

It’s true, but this time it’s not in South Carolina or Mississippi. It’s here in California. The organization is called MEChA, and it’s composed of college students of Mexican descent who, when not doing some admirable work in California’s Latino communities, also espouse a loosely organized racist belief system in which the world is divided into two classes: Mexicans and everyone else. As it says in a document at the core of the MEChA philosophy, “For the Race, everything; for those outside the Race, nothing.” While it’s true that much of what MEChA preaches is simple self-reliance and community development, it’s true also that they support a philosophy that says, “for the very young, there will no longer be acts of vandalism, but revolutionary acts.” Charming.

Usually, ignoring these kinds of people makes the best policy. They’ll pop up on Jerry Springer and hit someone with a chair from time to time, but short of that, they and their white supremacist counterparts are fighting a long, losing battle in today’s America. Wholesale racism just doesn’t sell anymore, so why spend any brain cells worrying about the people out there peddling it?

For California voters, the ‘why’ comes from the fact that Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante was once a member of MEChA. Since Cruz is running even with Arnold in the gubernatorial election, it would be nice to know if the man who may very well take the wheel believes in this foul nonsense. Strangely, though, Bustamante won’t say MEChA is off base about even the looniest or ugliest of its ideas. He could have said, “I joined MEChA as a young man, believing in some of the things the organization stood for, but being older and wiser, I don’t agree with them on many of the issues.” He could have said he didn’t fully know about the bad things they believed in. He could have said he joined to impress a girl. It happens.

That would have done it, I think. People do dumb things throughout life and if there’s a prime time for dumb and crazy, the college years are probably it, but Cruz declined that opportunity, and that’s curious. I don’t think Cruz Bustamante is a racist or wants to give California to Mexico, but I do think that he’s playing to the 21st century, California version of the ‘good old boy’ vote. Just as the politicians who fought for segregation in the South of the 50s and 60s never fully turned their back on the traditional white male who was suspicious of the Civil Rights Movement, Bustamante needs the people who might be at least partly sympathetic with what MEChA stands for. Just as the redneck aristocracy of the time let those politicians off the hook despite this moral failing, Bustamante gets an easy time from a mainstream media. For their part, the California media makes a good living talking about race, pointing out differences, reminding people that they are different from one another. Race conflict makes good headlines, and if you go looking for that in California, you’ll find it. Of course, if you go looking for people of different races getting along just fine, you’ll find that a hundred times a day.

Growing up in Sumter in the 70s, I didn’t see segregation with my own eyes, but its phantom hung over us as we learned to live together. Like many in Sumter, I went to schools that had been restricted by race only a few years earlier. Perhaps because those very real memories of segregation lived in the minds of the people running those schools, we learned that race was skin-deep and unimportant. There had just been a great battle between those who insisted on seeing their fellow human being through the lens of race and those who insisted on seeing others as individuals. We were living in the aftermath of that battle, so perhaps its lessons seemed clearer and more potent. Victory, so recently won, perhaps tasted sweeter.

Yes, we won that battle. The American people drove out the darkness of prejudice and tribal pride with the light of freedom. But this is a battle that never ends, because the darkness comes from the imperfection of the human heart. Yet, I’m confident we’ll win this time, too.

I just wish I knew which side the potential future Governor of California was on.

Tuesday, September 23, 2003

Letter from California: Arnie’s just an LA “Hard Hat”

There may have been one or two South Carolina governors that could do 500 sit-ups, but I doubt that any of them has ever had a bikini wax. California may soon have a governor that can handle both!

Everybody thinks it’s funny that Arnold Schwarzenegger is a serious contender for Governor here, and they’re right. It’s hilarious. Schwarzenegger is a real candidate, but he’s also an almost endless source of wisecracks, punch lines, and headlines that write themselves.

This is a man, after all, who bought a Humvee back when the only guys who had them wore olive drab and carried M-16s. When he works out at the gym in Venice Beach where he earned his Mr. Olympia titles, he parks on a marble parking space. I’m not kidding; they really gave him a personal marble parking space.

Most importantly, Arnold has a real knack for sounding ridiculous. Partly, it’s the accent. Partly, it’s the robotic deep voice. Mostly, though, it’s what he says. He told Jay Leno that deciding to run for Governor was the hardest decision he had made since he first decided to get a bikini wax back in his bodybuilding days. He recently threatened Wall Street guru Warren Buffett with 500 sit-ups if he mentioned property tax increases again. Buffet, for his part, would probably find it easier to turn $500 million in stock profits than to turn out 500 sit-ups.

As funny as it may be, it’s not altogether surprising, and if you look at it the right way, it even makes sense. Follow along with me if you will:

A smart kid from a poor family somewhere in the rural south in the 1960s leaves home when he turns 18 because he wants a chance to make something of himself that doesn’t seem available to him where he grew up. He catches on at a textile plant and finds that he’s got a knack for the business and works his way from crew chief to plant manager. He’s now well known and prosperous, always seeming to find a way to change the products to make more people want to buy them.

A few years go by, and he’s made more friends. Some of those friends put together some money to start a major new textile operation and turn to him to run it. It works, and their new company creates more profits than almost any other textile outfit in the world. Our smart kid is now a wealthy, well-known leader in a major local industry. Soon, he decides he’d like to make things better in the place that gave him so much, so he starts dabbling in politics. One thing leads to another, and then some friends suggest that he run for Governor…

Ok, now just replace the rural south with California and replace the textile industry with movie making and that’s pretty much Arnold’s story. He’s got rags-to-riches credibility to match anyone. The son of a policeman, Arnold lived in a walk-up apartment in Austria as a child. He and his brother had to bring in water from a well for the family each day. That covers the ‘rags’ part.

As for the ‘riches’, Arnold’s now a pampered, ostentatious movie star who parks his monstrous SUV on marble, but if you’d met him 35 years ago, he was just another young hopeful bucking for a bit part in a movie. He guessed that he could use his physique to improve his odds, since he has, let’s say, less-than-stellar gifts as an actor. In his first movie, the director decided to have his spoken lines overdubbed with another actor’s voice.

In fact, in a town where almost as many people spend time making movies as they do watching them, being in show business is a real lunch-bucket affair. Being an actor, or a stage hand, or a special effects engineer, or a script assistant, or a best boy, or a guy who hauls the heavy cans of film across the studio so that the director can watch the previous day’s prints makes you a regular hard hat in this town. Like a steel worker in Pittsburgh, a tobacco farmer in the Carolinas, or an oiler in Texas, Schwarzenegger started as a hard hat, L.A. style, and just made it big.

I don’t know if Arnie (a lunch-bucket name if there ever was one) would make a good governor, but I’m not surprised he’s running. Amused, entertained, yes, but not surprised. It’s like Arnold said about himself years ago: “I will not change. If you’re successful and then you change, then you’re an idiot.”

Did I mention that he had a knack for making himself sound ridiculous?

For more fun Arnold quotes, visit http://www.welovearnold.com.

Tuesday, September 16, 2003

Letter from California: Are We All Crazy?

I grew up in the serenity and ease of Sumter, South Carolina, where the news is something that happens in other places and the pace of life is good for the soul. Now, I live in California, on the edge of Los Angeles, a town where if you’re not making news, you’re probably not doing your job. It’s show business that makes this place go, and show business needs an audience.

These days, though, the Golden State is getting even more attention than usual because a million people signed a piece of paper that said they wanted a chance to toss out the Governor of the State. Now we get to choose from more than 100 potential replacements, including a child star, a porn star, an aging Austrian bodybuilder, a used car dealer, a railroad worker and even a couple of politicians who’ve held public office.

This has a lot of people wondering what’s going on here. Have the 35 million people of the State of California gone one cappuccino over the line? In short, Are We All Crazy?

I’m here to answer the question for you, and you can trust me because even though I’m embedded in the L.A. scene, I’m a Sumter kid. I’m your inside source, so when I tell you the answer, you can rest assured that it’s the truth.

Yes. The answer is ‘yes’. We are all crazy here.

Now, you might be asking yourself why you should continue to read a letter from a person who just included himself in a group of crazy people. Here’s why: because there’s good crazy and there’s bad crazy, and here in California, we’ve got plenty of both.

Let’s talk about good crazy first. Californians are inventors. Here in LA alone, we’ve invented things as broad ranging as the Internet (without any help from Al Gore), fortune cookies, and the Space Shuttle. Then of course, there’s Menlo Park up north, where Edison basically invented the 20th century from his campus just south of San Francisco. Add to that Star Wars, All in the Family, barbeque chicken pizza, , Disneyland, The Godfather trilogy, MASH The Magnificent Seven, and eBay. All of these are the kind of crazy that make peoples’ hearts beat faster and make it fun to live here.

Then there’s the bad crazy. L.A. street gangs invented the modern crack trade and franchised it around the country in the 80’s, creating a death machine with reach into even the most remote towns. And for every Schindler’s List there are 10 times as many Police Academy 4’s. Then there are the people you might bump into at the farmer’s market: Heidi Fleiss, Robert Blake, George Michael, Hugh Grant, or even O.J.. And if you do manage to avoid them while you pick up some sushi for your trip to the beach, you’ll probably still have to pay $10 to park and take a shuttle bus down to the water.

And what’s worse is that I find lots of people that come to LA chasing the kind of lifestyle that seems natural, almost unavoidable in South Carolina: a life of comfort and calm with your surroundings, your home, and your place in the world. For many, those things look like golden prizes just out of reach rather than things that can’t really be bought. That’s bad crazy, too, but it’s part of life for some people here.

Still, I’m here, and I love it. I’m raising my family here, and have found a place, literally and figuratively, where the people that are in my life balance down-to-earth with reach-for-the-stars in a way that makes for interesting adventures. I’m in a good spot to see a lot, and, if you’re interested, I’ll tell you about it.

After all, being crazy makes us fun to watch. If it weren’t this recall, it would be something else because entertaining people isn’t just what we do at work, it’s who we are. As they say in Hollywood, ‘call me crazy, but call me!’

I’m also going to include a web site address of something quintessentially Californian that I think you’ll find interesting. To begin, here’s where you can find an archive of this column as well as a way to contact me by email.