Don McCullin, East Germans Looking Into West Berlin, 1961…or, Californians looking towards Texas today?
On a recent episode of his HBO show, Bill Maher dug into Adam Schiff (D-CA).
“I live in California, so I am going to bitch a little bit,” Maher said. “I love California… but I feel like I’m in Italy in the 1970s or something. Super high taxes, potholes in the road… Businesses are leaving in droves. I got solar panels on my roof and it’s been three years and they are still not turned on… I can’t tell you how many inspections. We jumped through every hoop. It’s just corruption.”
Many of us Californians fantasize about admonishing our leaders in a similar fashion. I’ve been here for almost a decade and can testify that something has shifted this year. There’s a boding darkness; a feeling of deep dysfunction and chaotic fury haunts public interactions. Californians aren’t so sunny anymore. We’re increasingly angry. We want to yell at someone.
Maher identifies the right symptoms, but the wrong cause. If only it were as simple as corruption, then we could at least bribe officials to solve the problems affecting Californians' shared spaces—the worst-ever forest fires, the first rolling blackouts in two decades, mass-scale riots and looting, and, of course, a homelessness and drugs crisis that’s been best described as “Hell on Earth.”
The true cause is more insidious than corruption: it’s ideology. A far-left one that can probably accurately be referred to as Social Marxism. It’s a sort of pseudo-religious irrationality that’s bribe-proof, at least without conditions. Placed next to, say, Texas or Tennessee, the failure of our extreme governing principles has become glaringly apparent. Hence why so many prominent Californians—Kanye West, Joe Rogan, Chris Hemsworth, Elon Musk, Ben Shapiro, to name a few—have escaped or threatened to in recent months.
East Berlin, American-Style
Clean, orderly Texas, as seen from California in 2020, looks like paradise. During Soviet control of East Germany, West Berlin may have looked similarly wonderful in the eyes of East Berliners peering over the Berlin Wall. The thin physical divide between East and West Berlin that existed from 1961-1989 tested two approaches to government, capitalism and socialism, side-by-side. It was a contest of one ideology versus another with the wellbeing of its citizens as the sole judge. No excuses were possible. West Berlin thrived. East Berlin failed. In the 28 years that the Berlin Wall existed, 80 people were shot trying to escape East Berlin to go to West. Nobody was ever shot going the other way.
East Berlin and East Germany (GDR) at large failed because their ideologies came before the wellbeing of their citizens. German capitalists were primarily concerned with being happy, German socialists were primarily concerned with being right. Their objective was to prove that Marxism could work in practice, with proving coming before working. Whether or not their policies actually led to a better life for their citizens was secondary.
The problems were obvious from the start, but the socialists couldn’t accept it, so they doubled down on their ideology, and doubled down again. The wall would’ve come down a lot sooner if they hadn’t known, at some level, that their ideology, for all its good intentions, simply didn’t work.
Is California East Berlin? No. East Berlin was drab and grey, California is fiery and chaotic. Unlike California, there was almost no homelessness in East Berlin (there was in West Berlin). Also unlike California, East Berliners had access to cheap housing and cheap food. But that’s all there was. The most basic of needs were met, but the spice of life was bled out.
Despite being separated by a matter of meters, the GDP of East Berlin was roughly half that of West Berlin. West Berlin enjoyed a thriving economy replete with museums, zoos, theaters, shops, bars, and restaurants. Options were plentiful. Innovative art and architecture defined the urban environment. People could seek the jobs they chose and decide for themselves how much effort to put into them.
East Berlin was economically depressed. Life was harsh, cruel, and monotonous. “Most buildings were… nearly identical to each other.” There were food shortages and failed harvests due to poor planning. Meat was rationed, and you were often limited to “cabbages and potatoes.” You had to wait in long lines for luxuries, like your one banana per household per year. When food prices needed to be stabilized, household wares like blankets and towels became scarce. Actual luxury items were available…at 10x higher prices than in West Berlin. A TV would cost 10x a person’s monthly salary. You had to wait years to buy a car.
There were also social abuses. Christians were harassed, churches were banned, and worshipping was restrained. Citizens who were suspected of questioning the reigning ideology were bugged and tracked. Foreigners suspected of spying were kidnapped and sent to gulags. And, of course, if you traveled too far West, you were killed. All to prove that the principle of “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need" was a workable premise upon which to build society.
A different, but fundamentally similar far-left ideology dominates contemporary California. Our leaders and bureaucrats trip over themselves to defend it. It’s more fixated on socioeconomics than hard economics, and so far it’s been less damaging, but its negative effects are starting to pile up. Like in East Berlin, that doesn’t matter to leaders like Adam Schiff, Kamala Harris, Gavin Newsom, and Eric Garcetti. The ideology comes first, it’s consequences second.
The ideology in question is somewhat hard to affix with a label (The same was true of East Germany… was it Marxism, communism, or socialism?). It can be described neoliberalism rooted in the principle that the rights of the individual trump all others. To boil it down to a maxim: “the rights of the most vulnerable must be protected at all costs.”
On its own, the maxim is noble and inspiring. But, like Marxism, becomes absurd and dysfunctional taken to its extreme. In California, that’s exactly what’s happening.
Let’s start with our severe homelessness and public drug use problem, the most obvious and evident signal that something is very wrong here. The root cause, instituted by both politicians and legislated from the bench by activist lawyers at the ACLU and judges like Marsha Berzon, is the idea that the homeless people and drug addicts that now dominate our city centers deserve to have their rights protected, just like the rest of us.
In principle, this is of course true. Homeless people, even those on drugs, deserve dignity and respect…so long as preserving it doesn’t infringe on the dignity and respect of the working-class people who rely on public space. Preserving the public square is quite literally the basis for all civic law, but somehow the interests of the not-most-vulnerable have gotten lost in the calculus. Protecting the most vulnerable, or proving that we protect them, has become our sole objective.
Two court cases in particular beggar common sense: Martin v. Boise and Jones v. Los Angeles invalidated all local laws banning sleeping on streets. The cases, filed by well-funded activist groups like the ACLU, frame homeless people as down-on-their-luck victims of capitalism who suffer the cruel and unusual punishment of being arrested for sleeping on the street when no shelter beds are available.
In the courts, the both decisions have been extended to ban throwing away of litter generated by the homeless; that’s now considered a deprivation of property without due process. Every time police or city workers come across piles of trash, they must mark them and wait several days before removing them. At least one LA-area officer alleged to me that the ACLU plants activists in encampments to entrap officers who attempt to enforce recently-invalidated laws.
The decisions of Martin and Jones, taken to their logical conclusions, mandate that cities must provide free, taxpayer-funded beds for all of their citizens (e.g. if every Angeleno were to become homeless, the city would technically have to provide beds for all of them before it could enforce its laws). They also bans cities from cleaning up their streets—it’s impossible to be certain whether trash left on the streets is litter or property. In effect, they have blocked enforcement of virtually any law that would maintain public spaces as clean and clear. They have descended into chaos, and thus the average citizen lost its parks, streets, and sidewalks. LA-resident and Advice Goddess Amy Alkon wrote that her Venice home had been “turned into a prison” by failed policy.
But no matter, as long as everyone knows we’re protecting the most vulnerable. Even when a court ordered LA city to clean up encampments near highways, Mayor Garcetti refused citing “ethical issues.”
“There’s ethical issues. There’s health issues. And then there’s just logistical issues,” Garcetti told The LA Times. “I don’t know who could enforce this besides a law enforcement officer. I don’t think I want those images. That’s not good for us. That’s not good for the people who are traumatized on the streets.”
It’s the image, and only the image, that counts.
Blackout the Sun
Ideology is also making fires worse and causing rolling blackouts. Wildfire season in California has evolved into an expected yearly disaster, somewhat like hurricane season in the gulf states. This year, we experienced the worst fire season in state history. There are a multitude of causes, but one is ideological: environmental groups have lobbied the state for decades to stop all forest clearing, including timber harvesting, underbrush removal, and controlled burns. People on the ground in fire-prone areas say that naive policies, not climate change, are the true cause.
This year, Californians also experienced rolling blackouts for the first time since 2001. Why? Because green energy resources like solar and wind have daily dropoffs as the sun goes down and wind ceases. In their “rush to go green,” California politicians placed too much of the energy burden on renewable resources, assuming, I suppose, that their good intentions would be enough to power the state. They weren’t, and now California has to scramble to find 10,000-15,000 missing megawatts during peak periods, which means buying them on the open market.
The last time we had rolling blackouts, in 2001, the cause was corrupt deregulation involving Enron. Today it’s the opposite—incorruptable adherence to interminable ideology. Not to be dissuaded by the blackouts, Newsom quickly issued an order banning all gas cars in the state by 2035. How we’ll able to afford Teslas by then is anybody’s guess.
Cry Out for Justice
Perhaps going outside in the heat wouldn’t be so bad if our urban landscapes weren’t facing yet another threat: officially-sanctioned mass protests and anti-police unrest that descend into riots and property destruction. In the past several months, entire neighborhood blocks, countless private vehicles, and statues of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln have been destroyed along with hundreds of small businesses, many of whom aren’t able to cash in on insurance policies. Despite canceling family holidays, public gatherings, and religious worship due to COVID, L.A. mayor Eric Garcetti expressed his full support.
Yet again, it’s the public square (and those of us still naive enough to believe we deserve one) that pays the price. As a former resident of DTLA, I saw my neighborhood wrecked four times in a span of six months—the businesses boarding four separate times—and many of them never coming back. The most recent spark? Not a police killing. The Lakers winning the NBA championship.
Facing the highest homicide rate in a decade, Garcetti responded by cutting $150 million from the police budget. Governor Newsom responded similarly: encouraging protests while simultaneously banning religious singing to prevent COVID. Both Newsom and Garcetti have tacitly suggested that protests, unlike other gatherings, don’t spread COVID because everyone wears masks.
Perhaps the most telling example of our prison of belief is Proposition 16, a referendum which the super well-informed people of California will vote on in November. The proposition removes an amendment to the California constitution that “prohibits government institutions from considering race, sex, or ethnicity, specifically in the areas of public employment, public contracting, and public education.” In other words, progressive ideologues now want enable California to discriminate by race and gender to ensure that certain identity groups receive preferential treatment. Despite it being in direct opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (federal legislation that the far left worships), Governor Newsom supports it.
Ich bin ein Californian
The California ruling class doubles over to prove its loyalty to the woke left. Then doubles again, and again, until the results become absurd. It’s reminiscent of USSR-era bureaucrats so desperate to prove the legitimacy of their fragile ideology that it doesn’t matter if everything is broken.
While Califronia doesn’t resemble East Germany, it would appear that similar dysfunction is operating in a similar way. In East Berlin, there were bread lines—those long waits for your yearly banana. Today, California food pantries are experiencing their highest ever demand. Veteran volunteers say they’ve never seen anything like it. People wait in miles-long lines for days at a time, sitting in their gas-powered cars that will soon be illegal.
In November 1989, Berlin Wall fell. No matter how committed its leaders were to its ideology, the real-world results were too strong to deny any longer. But even today, three decades later, East Berlin still feels the impacts. It has markedly higher unemployment, lower wages, and lower GDP than West Berlin. It’s still a tale of two cities; a political terrarium where we can judge the success of opposing ideologies side-by-side.
California is not East Berlin; it isn’t and will probably never be as monotone, rigid, or collectivist. Pioneering and individuality is in our DNA, which means we’ll always be on the edge of something. And even now, our leaders are pioneering a certain ideology far beyond the point of comfort. We can respect their intentions, maybe even their bravery, but at a certain point, we can’t accept the results. And if we’re forced to accept them despite their obvious absurdity and detrimental effects, then we really do risk becoming something as grey and dead as East Berlin. If you tried to leave East Berlin you were shot. That’s not true of California…yet.