That story was the right fit for Didion were the events surrounding the murder trial of Lucille Miller who was suspected of killing her husband Gordon Miller late one evening in 1964 on a remote road near their home in the San Bernadino Valley of Southern California. The murder and the family had their intriguing moments but it was truly the San Bernadino Valley that was the subject of Didion’s vision of a failed dream. The dream of the valley was not different than many American Dreams of the past – it was of space, expansion. She describes the place as “…in certain ways an alien place: not the coastal California of the subtropical twilights and the soft westerlies of the Pacific but a harsher California, haunted by the Mojave just beyond the mountains, devastated by the hot dry Santa Ana wind that comes down through the passes at 100 miles an hour and works on the nerves.” The region grew massively after WW2, serving as bedroom communities for commuters to Los Angeles (it is known as part of Greater LA), but today the economy is more centralized in the valley. Known as the “Inland Empire”, it serves as one of the most important transportation hubs in the country, facilitating intermodal exchanges between cargo coming off the boats in LA and Long Beach and the rail and trucking networks that are located in the valley. Forbes Magazine recently ranked the area first in its list of America’s most unhealthy commutes, as Inland area residents breathe the unhealthiest air and have the highest rate of fatal auto accidents per capita [Van Dusen, Alison (2007-11-26). “America’s Unhealthy Commutes”. Forbes Magazine.]
“California belongs to Joan Didion” wrote Michiko Kakutani in a 1979 article on Didion for the New York Times. From my vantage point, 33 years later, I cannot wholly confirm this. The dream of California’s past is so far in the past that it has been replaced by many more failed dreams. The pattern has become ingrained in the Golden State to such an extent that it is part of its charm and allure.
But as I imagine Didion sitting back in that fabulous home, thinking up sentences to capture trans-formative moments in American history, I am so appreciative for her critical insight. While California’s failed dreams may have their own particular regional flavor, the cautious words “The dream is teaching the dreamers how to live” apply to all of our dreams and the sometimes unintended or lives. consequences that accompany them. I cannot help but think of mobile technology and social networking, dreams which had promise of liberation but instead structure so much of how we live and think. Or I cannot help but think of political projects of the past, also promising liberation, but so frequently bringing along their own rationality and conformity. My main disagreement with Didion is that big dreams about better futures are not worth having because of the strong likelihood of failure. While we could always do a better job anticipating possible consequences of our dreams, isn’t fearing and avoiding those consequences by not having dreams a failure of the imagination?
Laski was a member of the small group of people who fell deep into the trap of sectarian conflicts internal to the far left. He was the leader off the Communist Party, USA (Marxist-Leninist) which is explained in dizzying detail on the incredible online resource marxists.org this way:
The C.P.U.S.A. (M.-L.) was born in Los Angeles during the 1965 Watts riots out of a split in the local POC. It published a newspaper, the People’s Voice and a theoretical journal, Red Flag from 1965 to 1968. In 1968, the Party underwent a split, with both successor organization’s keeping the C.P.U.S.A. (M.-L.) name. One, under Arnold Hoffman, continued to publish the People’s Voice. The other, headed by Michael Laski, began publishing a new newspaper, The New Worker in 1969. That same year, the Laski group merged with the Proletarian Revolutionary Party in New York, led by Jonathan Leake, a former anarchist turned Maoist, who had been active in the Resurgence Youth Movement, which was founded in September 1964 as the youth section of the Anarchist Federation to which Murray Bookchin and Noam Chomsky belonged. Both C.P.U.S.A. (M.-L.)s appear to have disappeared by 1971. After the demise of the Laski C.P.U.S.A. (M.-L.), the former members of the Proletarian Revolutionary Party and others reconstituted themselves as the Marxist-Leninist Party. These C.P.U.S.A. (M.-L.)s should not be confused with the C.P.U.S.A. (M-L) founded by the Marxist-Leninist Organizing Committee (M.L.O.C.) in 1978 nor with the C.P. (Marxist-Leninist) created by the October League in 1977.
Laski says of his interactions with Didion, “I talk to you at all only as a calculated risk. Of course your function is to gather information for the intelligence services…And yet there’s a definite advantage to me in talking to you. Because of one fact: these interviews provide a public record of my existence.”
But Laski did not properly calculate his risks. Only a year after the interview with Didion he was expelled from the party (expulsion was a popular past time of sectarian groups at the time). While the official documentation does not say anything explicitly about his interview with Didion for the Saturday Evening Post motivating his expulsion, it does suggest that he was opportunistic and represented his subjective views as official Party views. The closeness in time to the Didion interview cannot be an accident. But even poorer calculations also motivated the expulsion of Laski, he gambled the party’s entire treasury fund in Las Vegas.
Was Didion’s portrait of the sectarian left intended to function as a warning to people not to engage with these political ideas in particular, or was it a warning about getting trapped in your own world of seeking meaning at the expense of relevance?
Crash Course in California Hippies
Review: “Slouching Towards Bethleham” originally published in The Saturday Evening Post (1967)
The absence of a revolution and the presence of lost “children” provide a critical framework in which Didion’s snapshots of hippie life become in-fill. Her judgement is clear and provocative, but she clearly is the conservative voice in the room. She buys into the “games” people play to keep society working and does not believe dropping out should be an option. She also believes that in the absence of an “open revolution” that dropping out should not be an option. Her insistence that dropping out should not be an option for these young people in the midst of the build up to “summer of love” was provocative but lacked alternative directives.
She does come back to her early provocation near the end of the essay when she explains “At some point between 1945 and 1967 we had somehow neglected to tell these children the rules of the game we happened to be playing. Maybe we had stopped believing in the rules ourselves, maybe we were having a failure of nerve about the game. Maybe there were just too few people around to do the telling.” And she goes on to lament the social atomization resulting from families moving around frequently, getting divorced, etc.
Her critique was hinged on the idea that people had responsibilities but ignored the fact that what people were responsible towards might not be worth taking care of. I love this essay for all the themes and characters it reveals and explores, and I totally agree that dropping out was not and continues not to be the answer, but I must disagree with her fundamental conservatism and longing for the past. Society is too complex to stand still.