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California is the headquarters of the resistance, but that doesn't make us special

California is the headquarters of the resistance, but that doesn't make us special
A protest against Donald Trump in Beverly Hills on March 13. (Los Angeles Times)

The evening before the 2016 presidential election, Gov. Jerry Brown joked at a political dinner in Sacramento: "If Trump were ever elected, we'd have to build a wall around California to defend ourselves from the rest of this country."

At the time, it seemed a safe-ish bit of humor because, of course, Hillary Clinton would win. When she didn't, I came to imagine Brown's remark as the opening volley establishing California as the state of resistance — unique, independent, distinct from the rest of the United States.

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Since the president and his minions descended on Southern California like a late winter storm earlier this month, I've found myself reckoning with a new realization: It's the other way around. California is not the resistance so much as it is the mainstream. We don't need to defend ourselves against the rest of the country, because we represent it.

Don't get me wrong; I realize that California's politics don't prevail in Washington, let alone many statehouses. I understand that resistance is essential. Indeed, I am drawn to the whole idea of it, with its whisper — I won't call it a promise, exactly — of the people rising up.

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(I was born in the early 1960s and came of age in the backwash of the counterculture. I went to my first demonstration in 1977 when I was 15; we were protesting Kent State University's plan to build a gym annex on the site where, seven years earlier, the Ohio National Guard had gunned down four students. We lost.)

I am drawn, as well, to the idea of California as a free state. Like the governor, I've done my share of cracking wise about the need for a "big, beautiful wall," but one that runs north from the Gulf of California, not east from the Pacific Ocean — a barrier to keep "the Americans" out.

We’re beset with intractable contemporary problems (homelessness, economic inequality). And yet, we cling to a vision of ourselves as exceptional.


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We Californians, after all, like to think of ourselves as the vanguard, as special in nearly every sense. We take pride in living at the cutting edge of art and culture, technology and social change. These days, we see in the multicultural landscapes of our cities a vision of what America could, and should, become.

We sometimes call this sensibility California exceptionalism. The phrase derives from Carey McWilliams' book, "California: The Great Exception," which was published in 1949. It has become one of the cliches of the state, a corollary to the myth of West Coast reinvention, the faith that life here lends itself to re-creation, to a smarter, richer, better way of life.

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That this is self-serving, smug even, is obvious. We know California has its own complex and less-than-progressive history, (See Proposition 187, the racial divisions that led to the 1992 uprising and the Watts riots a quarter-century earlier, the ongoing disaster of Proposition 13). We're beset with intractable contemporary problems (homelessness, economic inequality). And yet, we cling to a vision of ourselves as exceptional.

The truth is that California is more an exaggeration, an apotheosis, of America than an anomaly. We are less distinct, less separate than we would like to believe. At our best, we share with the rest of the nation a halting, if generally forward, movement toward what the Constitution calls "a more perfect union."

Californians are, and should be, proud that the rule of law has expanded civil rights. So are the majority of Americans. Like nearly 70% of our fellow citizens, we understand that climate change is real. Most of us want to establish a path to legalization not just for "Dreamers," but for their parents, as do the vast majority — nearly 90% — of people in the United States.

When the president and U.S. Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions came West in early March, they did so with the intent of accelerating what our governor is calling a "war against the state of California." The main target of their displeasure (and the target of a federal lawsuit) are three immigration statutes, including the California Values Act, all of which limit cooperation by state authorities with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

But "California values" is a misnomer for these laws; it is American values we're talking about.

To wrap our minds around what that means, we can return to McWilliams and his notion of California exceptionalism. In the nearly 70 years since his book appeared, his intentions have been widely misunderstood. California, he wrote, "is the great catch-all, the vortex at the continent's end into which elements of America's diverse population have been drawn, whirled around." And Californians "are more like the Americans than the Americans themselves."

During his election eve remarks in 2016, Brown added this: "We don't like walls, we like bridges." Another volley, and he wasn't speaking only for the Golden State.

David L. Ulin is a contributing writer to Opinion.

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