VENGEANCE IS MINE, SAYETH TELEVISION CITY (written c. 1980-83)
In the Summer of 1966,1 came to Los Angeles as a student to attend UCLA. The Summer before, I had visited shortly after the “Watts Riot” — the first of many insurrections in the Black districts of America’s larger cities in the later 1960’s. People were stunned at the sight of National Guardsmen in supermarkets, freeways being closed because of sniper fire, and whole blocks of buildings being looted and burned down – especially because Watts was known to be more prosperous, self-governing, and in other ways more “normal” than other black communities in the country – much different from the ancient, tenement or high-rise public housing ghettos of the East and Midwest. Watts had relatively clean streets with palm trees, yards, and separate houses like other typical Southern California suburbs.
Throughout my experience at UCLA, the spectre of Watts hung over our heads. It was the Liberal Golden Age, and Black students were admitted to the University in large numbers, Black Studies programs were initiated, and there was a continual interchange between the advocates of Black Liberation and the formerly isolated and privileged middle class.
Having grown up in Montana, and having never even spoken with a black person prior to my first year of college in Michigan, I was not especially concerned about the issue, nor did I feel any sort of guilt about the condition of Black people in the United States. At that time, I considered myself to be a Lincoln Republican with tolerent, secular values. Although my name is Paul Howard Stephens, I’d never heard of Howard University, nor did I even know that the Vice President of the Confederacy shared my family name. I discovered both of those coincidences several years after leaving California, in the mid-1970’s, and how important they had actually been to my experiences, there.
It was also about that time that I first read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” which created a telling American stereotype about Montana and its development after the Civil War. My own ancestors were from Kentucky, voted for Lincoln, and fought for the North against slavery — a distinct minority in Montana at one time. I am nearly certain, from family traditions, that none of my ancestors were slave owners.
For whatever reason, the prospect of insurrection or rioting in the streets never particularly bothered me, either. I always assumed that should something like that occur, I could easily go somewhere else and avoid it. And when student riots broke out in my own neighborhood and campus later on, that is precisely what I did, and so I always managed to stay out of those kinds of confrontations. What really worried me and what I assumed I should be worried about was the threat of violent crime.
Since early youth, I had gone to “crime school” along with most of my contemporaries, and much of it was, for convenience sake, set in Los Angeles. Dragnet was undoubtedly the best-known of these “courses,” but there were many others, including feature movies in which murder, arson, rape, vandalism, robbery, and other crimes were described and often glorified in great detail. For less sophisticated minds, there was the violence of cartoons and “Westerns” (which I knew to be almost entirely false, having spent my youth hearing the personal accounts of the kind of people who were supposed to have lived in that “lawless age.”)
But I still feared that I might be subjected to armed robbery or attempted murder at any time while living in Los Angeles, and so I tried to find the safest areas to live, and always kept a loaded gun close at hand. Guns, of course, are simply a tool to rural people like myself – something you use to kill skunks and porcupines, or put food on the table in the form of a rabbit or pesky deer, and in remote areas, it may be that a gun will save your life from a dangerous animal or an outlaw from whom there is no protection when the nearest law officer may be 40 or 50 miles away. Among themselves, rural people are peaceful and tolerent, but when they get carloads of drunken hunters cutting their fences and shooting their cows and horses, even farmers will be upset and possibly shoot back or wreck the culprit’s car.
My attitude was one of caution and prudence. I already owned guns and had done so since the age of seven, and it seemed like nothing but good sense to make arrangements for my own security. When I finally did have occasion to intereact with the police, all of my worst fears were realized. In the battle between good and evil, they were at best neutral, and often seemingly on the side of the malefactors — especially if one were part of a despised minority like Blacks or Hippies.
But while I was still a student, relatively “straight” and a defender of capitalism, the closest I ever came to abusing gun ownership was to consider shooting myself over an unhappy (and unconsummated) love affair. After living in California for a year or so, and finding a room-mate who seemed to share a number of my views and interests, I naively showed him my guns and told him how to use them “should the need arise.” Little did I suspect the consequences. Immediately, rumors spread that I was a hit-man for the mob; that I was a fascist, a militarist, a Nazi sympathizer, and God knows what else. He soon found an excuse to move out, and I was left wondering what was happening, although feeling somewhat liberated in my solitude.
Women of radical intellectual tendencies in whom I expressed an interest were soon informed of my heresies, and even staunch conservatives began to ask me if maybe I didn’t think that banning handguns might be a good thing. It still had not occurred to me that anyone, no matter what his or her political beliefs might be, would hold against me the fact that I was prepared to defend myself against random or purposeful violence, but that was certainly the predominant liberal, urban view of things in the late 1960’s. In retrospect, the difference was one of rural vs. urban values, and especially between my own self-reliance and personal responsibility, and the collectivist ethics of the Welfare (or “Nanny”) State, and the ethics of social conformity and obedience to established authority, to all of which I was then philosophically opposed.
The irony is that at the time, my reliance on guns was probably melodramatic, for the Hollywood jungle I feared did not then exist in the nearly crime-free West Los Angeles neighborhoods where I lived. Now, twelve years later, the very kinds of people who pilloried me for my lack of faith in the police and the goodness of my fellow man are assembling arsenals, joining shooting clubs, and spending thousands of dollars on alarm systems, combat weapons training, guard dogs, and the rest.
I had no way of knowing that the violence of television did not actually reflect the urban scene, but it should have been more obvious that to prepare for the breakdown of urban society could well become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Even the Jewish Defense League (and I should say that my liberal detractors were in most cases Jewish) has adopted a stance which now seems to be extreme in its reliance on armed force and revenge, but their situation is no doubt somewhat more desperate than mine has been. What I would now ask them is why they don’t concern themselves more with the causes than with the symptoms of this malaise?
I should also say that I no longer own even one firearm (although I am not opposed to such ownership, provided the use, care, and ethics of gun handling are thoroughly understood and observed), and that I am now a militant pacifist and anti-nuclear activist. As has often happened, before, I converted my adversaries, but not before they converted me.
From what I’ve been reading lately about the crime statistics in Los Angeles, and especially the formerly “safe” areas of West Los Angeles, Santa Monica, and the San Fernando Valley, it would appear that I was simply a few years ahead of my time, a prophet without honor in his adopted land, so to speak. I feel badly about that, and I would like to offer a plan for the resolution of this problem and one that is actually no different in principle from the one used in the later 60’s to defuse and pacify Watts.
The answer to crime and social disintegration is community. We must get back to the answers we found ten years ago – re-establish drop-out centers, free schools, community centers, half-way houses, and all the other person-to-person kinds of institutions which are actually capable of changing people’s attitudes and values, and reassuring them that they have not been shut out or forgotten.
Of course, the problems are much deeper than that. A cultural revolution is definitely in order, and it is necessary that it be maintained perpetually so that each generation can build on it and share in its perceptions and procedures. It seems incredible to many of us that only a decade after what we thought had been a final and permanent revolution in our view of government institutions, education, economics, and all the rest that we should be fighting our own younger brothers and sisters, cousins, nieces, and nephews who not only categorically rejected our experience and conclusions, but have asserted a reactionary vengeance that even our parents and the warmongers of the Vietnam era would have been ashamed to enunciate or support.
It is one of those fantastic reversals which no one could have predicted or believed. Most of us cannot believe it, yet. But that is precisely what has happened. And we must face that problem, now, even if it takes another sequence of urban insurrection to bring the message home to those who seem to think that it is up to them to live high off the hog while the remainder of humanity suffers under poverty and oppression.
Los Angeles is, without a doubt, the most privileged and profligate city In the world. [Now, a quarter century later, I would say that it has slipped somewhat in ranking.] If one hasn’t lived there, it is beyond comprehension that any group of people so lacking in any of the gifts which have made other cities great should have prospered so much and at so many other people’s expense. Only Rome at the beginning of the Empire could be considered to have been a proportional kind of center of imperialistic exploitation of its neighbors and the rest of the known world.
Environmentally, it is still a “Cadillac Desert.” Whole rivers are diverted for its thirst, and oil-fields pumped dry to assure that everyone can drive a daily 50 miles in air-conditioned comfort. Electrical consumption must be higher than any other city in the world, what with air-conditioned everything and more electrical appliances than would have been imaginable to the prudent and sensible.
And the worst of it is not what Los Angeles has which other people lack, but the fact that by being the center of film and the exportation of its own unbalanced and perverted ways to all the farthest corners of the world, that everyone has imitated and adopted the short-sighted, Southern California sickness for themselves. One city like Los Angeles is too much, but 20 or a hundred of them may prove to be the end of civilization.
What is the basis of the economic wealth of Los Angeles? Originally,
it was film and a healthy and comfortable place to vacation or retire. When it was noticed that there are more than 300 good flying days a year in Southern California, a number of aircraft companies grew up there. It was not until the Second World War and the massive armaments production that Southern California really began to get out of hand. With the building of the freeway system and the California Aqueduct, its ecological demise was sealed, but still it grew by leaps and bounds.
“Smart people” moved there, and continue to do so to this day. That’s why I applied to UCLA. I wanted to be somebody, and transcend the rural wretchedness of my traditions. If there was one city in the world which seemed to have within it everything which one might aspire to or desire, it seemed to me to be Los Angeles. And by the time I’d left Montana, several of my relatives had already made the move, and some of them live there, still. Don’t ask me why. I’ve tried my damnedest to talk them out of it. But they like the smog, the crowds, and all the horrors that it offers, yet never would attend a symphony or a ballet – the only reasons I would even want to visit such a place, again.
I’m sorry, but the prognosis isn’t good for any of you Angelenos. The factors which gave rise to your existence in the first place are neither permanent nor beneficial to anyone. There is no reason for so many people to live in such a dry and desolate place, where nearly everything must be imported from somewhere else.
Los Angeles is like a powder keg, and the fuse is burning short. When the riots broke out in Watts in 1965, there wasn’t anything like the excuse for them that there is, today. Poverty, exploitation in the work-place, an absence of opportunity, a depressed economy, real-estate prices out of sight and going higher, surfing with inflation and most of us being wiped out.
Face it. The end is drawing near. I can tell you; its much harder to live in Montana than it was in West LA, but life is much more certain, here, and the rewards are health, permanence, and a feeling of living in a world that’s real and still within the individual’s control. When I left Southern California in 1971, everyone was thinking about leaving, and thousands of you left for Northern California, Oregon, Colorado, and other parts of the world. Then, we seemed to be in agreement. Of course, those who already lived in Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, or even Denver or St. Louis might have thought Los Angeles to be a better place. Certainly the warmth, the tolerence, the freedom to do and be the kind of person one might choose is a very great advantage, and one which other places might well imitate.
For awhile, I thought I was in paradise. I was treated very well in most respects, and those who didn’t like me didn’t like LA or much of anything else. My views were often taken seriously, and always patiently heard even when they weren’t respected. And the women in Los Angeles have utterly ruined me for any others in the world – that much is for sure. How disgusting, now, to meet a small-town woman from Montana with classic looks, confidence, and obvious material advantages, only to find that her knowledge and ideals of love are non-existent, or restricted entirely to the most neurotic, possessive, manipulative attitudes and practices imaginable, and that she no more aspires to a career or any kind of self-realization than her great-grandmother did – probably less so.
That has been my deepest disappointment and source of shame in my traditions after coming home. My only recompense is in the fact that the countries where my ancestors came from generations ago have improved in culture and in the relative status of women so that a modern British or Scandinavian woman is not so different from what I learned to love in California.
If the real problem of California is thought to be that of racial and cultural diversity – the fact that every major race and culture is heavily represented in its population – perhaps that is the place to begin, and the beginning that should be made is that of re-defining social order and obligation so that there is an equality and balance which now may well be lacking. If the source of present Anglo-American supremacy is merely that of military victory or armed might, it is no wonder that all the other groups resent this and will use force or what the Anglos would call “criminal means” to achieve their purposes and ends. That would only be a just and fitting recompense or retribution.
If, on the other hand, the American democracy and its republican ideals is claimed to be a system characterized by tolerence and equal opportunity and justice for all, then there is a similar kind of problem in that it seems to work very well for those whose traditions are democratic and republican, but not so well for people having authoritarian systems, traditions, and inclinations based on status, position, caste, class, or religious beliefs which are alien to the American tradition.
Does a system designed by black slave owners serve the purposes of the descendents of the slaves? Apparently not, and this more than any other question is the one which is unanswered and unresolved up to the present time. Or does the land taken by force from its original Spanish settlers serve the purposes and fulfill the needs of their descendents? Or does the land of the Indians, whose custodianship was exemplary for something like 30,000 years, after the passage of a few short centuries maintain its character and its integrity so that it may support our children and their children indefinitely into the future?
The only people who have even a glimmer of the truth or any kind of answer for the future of California (or, indeed, for any other place) are the ecologists – those who fully understand that life is complex and interrelated, and that to break one link of a fragile chain is to break the entire chain so that the continuities of nature are destroyed. And when nature is destroyed, man must also be destroyed because man is nothing except one small part of nature – even if the most complex and active part in terms of manipulating nature for his own – often mistaken – purposes.
Already, California has the reputation of being the most ecologically conscious and politically-aware state, and one of the most advanced political entities in the world in these respects. Land-use planning, for example, is largely unheard of in Montana, and here, the principle of environmental preservation is largely construed as some sort of forest-ranger function like wild-life management or logging inspection. But it is unclear whether the advanced political mechanisms which exist in California are really serving general and public purposes, or merely providing a kind of palliative against public outrage and total social breakdown.
Los Angeles has yet to undertake the construction of an urban transit system, and even the one it has is increasingly unusable because of strikes, deterioration, and crime. Its city fathers spend millions lobbying for multi-billion dollar “defense” contracts which will serve no useful purpose whatsoever, while the closure of the freeways and establishment of mass-transit links continues to be a political chimera, no doubt at the insistence of the oil and automobile Interests which seem to dominate the California political landscape.
There’s probably not another city in the world so dependent on the automobile as Los Angeles, and so crippled and deteriorated because of it. It is astonishing to those who have suffered from air pollution in other places where it is mlniscule compared to that of the Los Angeles basin how people can survive and flourish there, and yet we know the costs are astronomical in terms of health-care and shortened lives. In a city where a minimum of solar-voltaic panels could charge batteries to power electric vehicles and home appliances, there seems to be no effort to adopt such permanent and healthful technologies.
Surely California is in a position, with its Silicon Valley and massive
technological infrastructure, to develop and deploy these technologies independently, without recourse to the foot-dragging Federal Government. Where is the innovative statesmanship and economic development impetus when it could serve genuine human needs and peaceful purposes? It is precisely this sort of paradox which makes a person like myself prefer the dark ages of bicycles, horses, and wood stoves In the mountains of Montana to a life of comfort and prosperity in California. If all the progress only serves to poison everyone and arm us for a final apocalypse, then what is the point of it?
My ancestors have been pioneers, living off the land and growing food without high technology for hundreds of years. We could go on doing it forever. But what is happening in California not only threatens its own people with self-destruction, but threatens everyone with nuclear anhiliation. Why? Where are the California whiz kids getting their orders? Who wanted this nonsense in the first place? It wasn’t people like us. It was Nazis and Bolsheviks and technocrats and scientific “geniuses” whose basic, practical good sense is totally lost or corrupted.
People wonder about crime? Don’t look in the ghettos or the barrios. Those are just good, simple folks who haven’t anything useful to do with themselves because all their jobs were taken away by machines. The real criminals are to be found In the Pentagon, the aerospace companies, the universities, and the reseearch centers. Bust them. Lock them up for awhile. If my own experience as one whose highest aspiration was once to be an economist for the RAND Corporation is any example, I can assure everyone that being treated like a criminal and knocked around, locked up for a few weeks, and humiliated will definitely produce a change of heart. I’m serious.
Everyone whose life is structured such that he is immune to the consequences of his own work and belief-structure is a danger to the rest of us, and ought to be subjected to a reality so that he or she might see the effects that other people must suffer so that a few can keep their “status,” comforts and privileges.
The experience and wisdom of the Chinese is certainly relevant in this regard. The policies which terrorized the privileged few were actually to everyone’s advantage, and the practice of assigning high-ranking bureaucrats, intellectuals, scientists, and managers to the fields and work-shops for a month or two each year was nothing but sanity, itself. Until the privileged few realize what the average person has to endure just to make ends meet or keep a family together or preserve the simple benefits of health, friendship, and community, there can be no peace or end to crime and deprivation.
Where do we begin? How can we change our own communities so that people feel that they belong, that their needs and wants are being adequately and fairly provided? What can we do to assure that young people get the kind of education and guidance that they need to become useful and moral citizens?
There was a time when I thought I had the answer. It was essentially that of Milton Friedman – the abolition of minimum wages and occupational licensure; a guaranteed annual income; universal vouchers for education, or in the abolition of the public schools, provision of vouchers only for lower income families; an end to military conscription; control of the money supply by a general rule; free trade and open immigration; etc., etc.
Soon after, I would have added nuclear disarmament and the cessation of American imperialistic aspirations in the world. All together, it is a program which might have worked, if promoted and accepted with good will and a sincere desire on everyone’s part to make it work. Now, it would be the rankest kind of folly, and merely to suggest it is tantamount to proclaiming the beginning of a violent revolution. No, the problems we face, now, are the development of a class structure for the first time in American history, the necessity of re-establishing our economic priorities away from production and consumption and into the quality of life and non-material concerns, ending conflicts, preservation of the environment, and developing communities.
Los Angeles must abandon its claim to world pre-eminence as a city of elites and elitist values. That much is obvious and certain. It must spend its own wealth for public purposes, clean up its air, perhaps reducing population, changing the industrial base away from aerospace and manufacturing, and re-designing its infrastructure along the lines of permanence and self-sufficiency.
Los Angeles, a world-city expecting to be treated as a serious and civilized place, is still a raw and savage boom-town, flooded by recent immigrants and based on industries and practices which are neither permanent nor sensible. It must confront these facts and solve these problems rather than attempting, piecemeal, to overcome each riot, crime, or crisis as it appears.
The kind of society created and values propagated and displayed will determine the consequences for everyone. Start out with the abolition of all violent crime and anti-social activity in films and television. That is the most simple and obvious rule imaginable. If people don’t see crime or hear about it, they’ll have no inclination to engage in it, themselves. That’s a rule that has been advocated for at least 50 years, and had it been adopted, then, there wouldn’t be nearly as much crime and violence that we have, today.
What about education? I wish I had the answer. I still believe in decentralization and community participation – local school boards in which parents of the children in school are responsible participants in the education which their children receive. Any other system is likely to amount to nothing but bureaucracy, oppression, indoctrination, and the cultivation of values, practices, and beliefs which are entirely destructive or counterproductive. Schools as they now exist train us to be obedient and competitive and very little else, unless it would be to lie and cheat.
The successful student is likely to be successful in the business world or government, but will have little in the way of self-reliance, originality, sympathy for the plight of others, or concern about issues other than his specifically assigned tasks and obligations. The school system as it now exists favors conformity, emulation, adherence to the values of success, progression through hierarchies, chauvinism of various kinds (“us” against “them”), and other evils too numerous to mention. It is neither a preparation for life as it should be nor the source of democratic values which it was intended to be.
The student in today’s public high school is likely to be cynical, violent, neurotic, and lacking in patriotism and knowledge of what life is really all about. In fact, on the average we are far beyond the point of diminishing returns. More funds spent on education, in most cases, reduces the quality of life, not because education is bad, but simply because it doesn’t happen in most of the schools as they now exist.
I, for one, see the burgeoning private-school movement as our only source of hope and citizenship in the decades ahead. Even though I disagree with many of the values and beliefs which private schools have fostered, at least they have tradition on their side, and may hope to forestall the destruction which otherwise seems imminent. If only there were more progressive, egalitarian, socialistic, and innovative private schools (something which a voucher system would allow – indeed, encourage – and that is why I still would favor one), we might really hope for positive solutions to our problems rather than merely delaying or postponing the course of events which presently seems to be inevitable.
If I am to be sincere In my prescriptions for the solution to a problem like Los Angeles, though, I really must advocate its abolition. That is to say, several million people have no business whatsoever living packed together in the desert basins of the Southern California coast.
The ideal urban community is known to be of a size something like the city where I now live – Missoula, Montana – which has about 50,000 people In the city and 80,000+ within a proximity of 50 miles. If anything, that is too many. There are four high schools here – three public and one private – and they are good enough to produce Nobel Laureates and Metropolitan Opera stars.
Our university, with less than 10,000 students, ranks 14th in the world in the production of Rhodes Scholars over the history of the program, and three law students recently took the national championship in Moot Court competition, beating out Northwestern in the finals. No California schools even got to the finals, or close to them, including Stanford, or for that matter, Harvard, Yale, Georgetown, or Columbia.
You don’t need a car, here, to go on a hike. The wilderness begins at the city limits, in some directions, and on an acre or so of ground, its possible to be self-sufficient in food – good, healthy food – for a vegetarian, and to buy live and organic poultry, pork, or beef from neighbors. Our life is real and experiential. We’re close to the source. People here are smart enough to outlaw nuclear energy and waste-disposal – the only state so far to do so, and that, in the first election before the nuclear interests outspent us by 100-1, by a vote of 2-1. (In the last election, the initiative against waste disposal barely passed, but it did pass, and it will be enforced).
Compare all of this with life in Southern California, and you may begin to understand why there are already many people here who left there years ago, and why we recommend that others follow our example, not by invading us with refugees, but by changing the circumstances of their own existence so that it might in certain ways resemble ours, utilizing good judgment and the wisdom we have learned or retained and now will gladly share with all.
Ten years ago, when I left California, It seemed to me that its direction had been changed and that the answers had been found, or were in the process
of being found. Instead, I see now that every kind of ignorance and folly has reasserted itself, and taken over so that the idiocy of a Reagan administration, so clearly shown to have failed in California long ago, is now to be inflicted on the country and our would-be friends throughout the world. In its horrifying message of elitist persecution and destruction, we find the end of hope itself, and the destruction of precisely that tradition and American ideal which Reagan and his ilk have criminally usurped and defiled, leaving to the rest of us the role of dissidents and radicals.
It’s tragic that it should be California, the greatest source of progress and enlightenment, which proved to be the staging ground for perhaps the two greatest political failures of the century, possibly excepting Warren G. Harding, who also waved the banner of “conservatism,” “law and order,” and “economic sensibility” only to obscure his own corrupt dependence upon vice and criminality. The solutions they have offered are merely the nth degree of the evils we have already suffered; the affliction itself being offered as the cure; a host of wrongs welded together and proclaimed to be a right – the very essence of truth, justice, and the American way.
The irony is overwhelming. Only in a negative sense, in the possibility that Reaganite repression might unite us all, again, in the common struggle against the things he represents, might we find any solace or consolation in this sad, disgusting turn of events.