Letter from California

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

Monday, December 22, 2003

Letter from California-December 23, 2003

Southern California and South Carolina differ in many ways, but they do have some things in common. The example that’s on my mind at the moment is football. Southern California and South Carolina share a strong tradition of top-notch high school teams that produce lots of NFL players. Not only that, but both regions have a Bowl-quality college football team called “USC”, though one of the two USCs goes to Rose Bowls and the other goes to the occasional Bowl with names like Carquest or Poulan Weed Eater. On the other hand, SoCal doesn’t have an NFL team anymore, so maybe it evens out.

In addition to high school, college and pro, South Carolina has its share of recreational leagues, but perhaps none quite like the one that recently made the news in Irvine, just an hour or so south of L.A. in toney Orange County (or the O.C., as Fox viewers everywhere call it). Irvine is the home of the nation’s first Muslim men’s recreational flag football league. If you’ve never been to Irvine, it’s a lot like the town of Stepford from The Stepford Wives. Instead of being a docile robot, though, the typical wife is more likely to be driving her land-barge SUV to Tae-Bo class, drinking a papaya smoothie and arranging a playdate for her toddler on the mobile phone all at once. There’s really no way she can be expected to watch out for you as you cross the street. After all, this is Orange County. If you insist on walking, well, you have to be willing to accept the consequences.

What could be more American than a group of young men getting together for a friendly flag football tournament over the New Year’s weekend? Even more, most of these men are children of immigrants to this country, proving that despite rumors to the contrary, the Great American Melting Pot bubbles on. It brings me a lot of comfort to know that second generation immigrants still gravitate toward the gridiron for fun, even if their parents think of a football as a round thing that you don’t touch with your hands. It’s nice to know that the children of Palestinian, Iranian, Syrian and Egyptian immigrants have taken on our ways. They’re playing football and devising elaborate ways of wasting an entire weekend. Three cheers for the Red, White and Blue!

One little flaw has emerged in this Norman Rockwell painting, though. It seems that the young men of the league have decided to name their teams in ways that honor their Muslim heritage, and not everyone is thrilled. One team, for example, called itself The Mujahideen, which I’m led to understand means something like “Holy Warrior.” It’s also the term that has been applied at various times to Islamic guerrilla warriors fighting the USSR, the USA, Israel, India, and many others. Some object, saying that the term is too loaded with anti-Jewish meaning for use in such a frivolous way. The players say it just means warriors.

Squaring off with the Mujahideen (I pity the person who has to write the cheers for these teams) will be the Soldiers of Allah. Hmmm, there definitely does seem to be a military theme here, and not a lot of originality: The Holy Warriors against God’s Soldiers. I hope they don’t have the same color uniform or people might not be able to tell them apart.

Then there’s The Intifada. That’s the term used currently by the Palestinians to describe their “uprising” against the occupation by Israel of their territory. Declared in 2000, the Intifada (the real one, not the flag football team) has resulted in the deaths of more than 900 Israelis and brought destruction to Palestinian cities in the form of Israeli retaliation. The league members try to suggest that this, too, is a more of a general term, nothing more than a way of saying “Don’t Tread on Me”. They’re surprised that the local Jewish community finds it hard to separate the team name from the actual Intifada. Why this should surprise them I have no idea. The players might not be sympathetic to terrorism, as they claim, but that doesn’t mean they’re not boneheads.

Personally, I have a hard time taking too much offense. After all, wouldn’t calling a team The Knights be pretty much the same thing as calling it the Holy Warriors? If a bunch of weekend jocks started feeling patriotic and named their team The Revolution, it wouldn’t sound too bad to us, but perhaps the British would feel otherwise. After all, it was their tea we dumped into Boston Harbor. I can picture the dirty look I’d get from my British wife now.

The other reason I have a hard time getting too upset is that we’re talking about a group of men being required to name something and doing it without supervision. It’s frightening to think what percentage of newborn children would be named after a superhero if it were entirely up to their fathers. Imagine it: instead of “Jacob,” America’s most popular baby boy’s name might be “Batman.” Don’t laugh! That could really happen.

The organizer of the event says that if he had it to do over again, he’d just call the teams “Team 1, team 2, team 3 and team 4.” Wise, probably. It reminds me of Samuel Jackson’s character in Pulp Fiction describing why he recited a bizarre poem to all the people he had been paid to exterminate: “I never really knew what it meant. I just thought it sounded like some cold-blooded stuff to say.” Of course, he used a different word for “stuff.”

Or as Khan, an 18 year-old player for one of the teams said, “They were just trying to be cool.”

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Letter from California-December 16, 2003

When Bill Clinton was president, he was fond of coming to California and he dropped in on us often. When he did, he always ordered bagels from the bagel company that I used to work for, which made me very proud. Like him or not, Clinton was the President of the United States, and he was Jonesing for our stuff! It sounds silly, but we were thrilled.

Last week, the former President came back to California in support of a Democrat running for office, but this time he wasn’t gamely throwing himself in front of the Schwarzenegger juggernaut. In fact, he wasn’t campaigning against a Republican at all. He was out to support Gavin Newsom, Democrat, against Matt Gonzalez of the Green Party in a very close and contentious race for Mayor of San Francisco. The Republicans didn’t even have a candidate in the race. As the San Francisco Chronicle put it after the primary election that eliminated all but the liberal Democrat and the even more liberal Green, “All that’s Left is Left.”

Indeed, the reconstituted “Green Party” is little more than the second coming of the Communist Party. The people and money behind the now-fashionable Greens are the same folks who brought you the basic idea that if only we copied the U.S.S.R’s ways, everything would have turned out much better. A decade has passed since the Soviets closed up shop, and there are plenty of young people in places like San Francisco who don’t really remember what the Cold War was all about.

Now, with a hip new name, the Greens are tapping into the kind of post-adolescent anger that fuels most on-campus flag-burning to this day. The Jurassic-era slogan “Don’t Trust Anyone Over 30” may have been modified a little (Gonzalez is 38), but the sentiment is the same. Newsom, the Democrat, has actually had a job! He has actually spoken up in support of businesses! He has the gall to say that he thinks the city of San Francisco ought to address its truly stunning homeless problem with “care, not cash.” The program Newsom has devised may or may not be effective, but the intent is that rather than merely lavishing benefits on the homeless (a homeless person in San Francisco can currently collect approximately $400 a month) the City should offer ways to improve their condition more permanently so that they would eventually not be reliant on government goodness.

Gonzalez agrees that cash isn’t the solution to the homeless problem. In addition to cash, and more of it, he feels that the City should build and provide housing, elaborate job training, and a minimum wage of $8.50. Not a bad deal, really. I bet quite a few of last spring’s High School graduates would be interested in that package. Imagine it. A guidance counselor sits with his young charge, reviewing his options: college, a stint in the Army, maybe an apprenticeship in a local business, or, hey, here’s a brochure for becoming a homeless guy in San Francisco. Lots of perks, courtesy of the hip new Mayor, but you’ll have to get used to the bad weather and not getting to shower much.

You might be relieved to know that Newsom won, but only by 53% to 47%, and only after outspending Gonzalez 10 to 1. It’s certainly not outrageous to think that a “Green” could become mayor of San Francisco someday soon. In fact, if I were in Vegas right now and had to bet on red, Republican, or Green for which party would produce the next non-Democratic mayor of San Francisco, I’d have to put my chip on Green.

Have no fear. San Francisco isn’t exactly a good predictor of where California, or anyplace, is heading. A couple months ago, when 10,000,000 Californians were washing Gray Davis right out of their hair, San Francisco County went against the recall by 81%. San Francisco, while charming, beautiful, and unique, has become an island of extremism. Propose a law banning urinating in public and risk being considered the greatest evil since Hitler. Suggest that legal immigrants should have rights and privileges not enjoyed by illegal immigrants and you might as well be walking around wearing a white cape and hood.

While it’s not a worry of mine that the Green virus will spread very far, it’s a tribute to the power of good marketing that a worn-out old idea like Communism can make this kind of a nifty comeback. It goes to show how far you can get with a new brand name, a good-looking young spokesman, and a sympathetic target audience. Hey, these people should start some kind of business. Oh, wait, I forgot. Communists don’t do that kind of thing.

What a pity.

By the way, if you’re thinking of getting me a Christmas gift (and I’m sure some of you are), go to http://www.uso.org and buy a phone card for a G.I. in Iraq. They can’t be with their families and friends, but you can make it easier for them to have the next best thing.