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Opinion: L.A. Times writers explain why California remains the Golden State

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California has been a beacon, a destination, a paradise and promised land ever since its headlong expansion in a rush of gold fever. It’s also been a perennial source of envy, mockery, and contempt. That naysaying has gained much greater currency in recent years as California’s population has contracted for the first time in more than a century. The “exodus” has become an industry, stoking real estate markets from Nevada to Tennessee, fanning the red-versus-blue political flames, and launching a thousand what-went-wrong analyses. The latest insult — or bracing reality check? — came last week in a Los Angeles Times poll that found 50% of adults nationwide believe California is in decline. Nearly half the Republicans surveyed said the state is “not really American.” Whatever that means.

L.A. Times columnists Mark Z. Barabak (a proud California native) and Anita Chabria (a happy Ohio transplant) discuss the poll, the hating by haters, and the state of their troubled but still much-loved state.

Barabak: So first off, Anita, are you OK? You haven’t choked to death on the noxious air pollution, or been run over by some smash-and-grab robber making a getaway through your pothole-filled neighborhood?

Chabria: To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of our death are greatly exaggerated — again. The Golden State remains alive, kicking, and, dare I say it, a thriving part of the United States. But I am troubled that nearly 30% of respondents agreed with the statement that California is “not really American.” Nearly half of Republicans thought that, which is less shocking. But inexplicably, 21% of Californians did, too. That’s more than just the Fox crowd regurgitating the right-wing narrative of California as the spawning ground of social evils. People, we joined the union in 1850 — ahead of Kansas, West Virginia, and Nebraska, to name a few. We’ve been American longer than many of the so-called heartland states. I’ve been puzzled for days over whether a third of America is terrible at geography, or history — or if they think it’s some sort of dig at California.

What do you think, Mark? Are we in fact not American in some fundamental way I don’t understand?

Barabak: I suppose it depends how you define American. If you’re talking about a certain kind of America — one that is overwhelmingly white and conservative in its social, political, and cultural values — than, no, California fails to measure up to that, er, standard. We’ve been a majority-minority state now for more than a generation. Politically, the state has leaned strongly Democratic for decades, after supporting Republicans for much of our history. Culturally, we’ve always tended toward broadmindedness — or being overly permissive, in the eyes of critics. Fresh starts and reinvention have been a lure since the first gold seekers — the ones digging actual nuggets — flocked here from the more straitened and class-conscious East Coast.

As you suggest, it’s not just Fox News. There are plenty of alienated Californians — the state has more than 5 million registered Republicans, which exceeds the population of many states — who feel overlooked in Sacramento and looked down upon by the supposed sophisticates in San Francisco and Los Angeles. That probably accounts for the 21% that had you scratching your head. But to be clear, a lot of folks interviewed in the poll are obviously viewing California through a partisan lens. Or, perhaps it should be said, while wearing a thick set of blinders. I mean, 3 in 10 Republicans said the state has a worse natural environment than other states. Really? Go shout that from the top of Yosemite Falls. Or in Santa Barbara at sunset. Or on a sunny winter day in Joshua Tree National Park, as folks in the Midwest thaw their snow shovels so they can dig their cars out of the drifts. That said, we’ve got plenty of problems, no?
Chabria: Every place does and, of course, we are no exception. The survey highlighted one problem most of us agree on: The cost of living in California is too high. More than 80% of California residents felt that way, and it’s no shock. I’d venture to guess that has a lot to do with the price of housing. People can’t afford rent, which leads to a whole host of other problems — including older people being forced into homelessness. I genuinely believe that California’s future depends on finding a way to build massive amounts of new housing, not just a few units here and there. We need the mental health beds promised by Proposition 1 on the March ballot and to find ways to create more affordable homes for the broad swath of middle-class Californians. And that’s just for starters. But the survey also pointed out that the majority of Californians, including myself, are happy living here.

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So the Huntington Beach City Council can rant all they want, and the haters can hate. California will always stand for diversity, freedom, and tolerance — all values that sadly seem to be growing scarcer east of the Sierra. Where do you see the bright spots, Mark?

Barabak: Apart from its unsurpassed physical beauty, California is still a place that attracts innovators and entrepreneurs. It’s still a harbor for the politically persecuted and those who feel unwanted or unwelcome living elsewhere as their genuine selves. Yes, our sales and income taxes are high compared to some other places. Housing, as you suggested, is obscenely expensive and we desperately need more of it. But check out life in other cheaper, supposedly better places. Look into the cost of insurance in Florida. Get nickel and dimed every few miles on toll roads back East. Sweat your way through a summer in Texas and hope the power grid — and your air conditioning — doesn’t go out.

Sure, our government regulates with a heavier hand than elsewhere, and it’s not hard to find examples of excess. But isn’t it nice, for instance, to breathe clean air and be spared the teary eyes and clenched chest that smog-suffocated folks in Southern California experienced not so many decades ago? Speaking of seeing through the gloom, here’s one heartening finding in that otherwise dismal poll: The attitude of young people.

Seven in 10 of those ages 18-34 see California as a trendsetter and, at 43% of respondents, were twice as likely as other Americans to say they would consider moving to the state. They believe California’s future is bright. Me, too. I’ve moved around a lot, including the obligatory stint — for a political hack like me — in Washington, D.C. I thought I’d spent my career covering our nation’s capital, but lasted just seven years. Like Dorothy, who went all the way to Oz to know she really wanted to be in Kansas, California tugged at me the whole time I was away. For all the state’s difficulties — or challenges, if you prefer — I can’t imagine ever living any place else. California resides deep in my heart. How about you?

Chabria: I love California. As a mixed-race woman with mixed-race kids, I value its tolerance and diversity. I value its willingness to fight and lead at this critical time when democracy is fragile. I value that it’s truly a live-and-let-live kind of place, even when people don’t agree. To me, the poll results say less about life in California than the sad effectiveness of right-wing political propaganda and the power of fear-mongering over truth. MAGA needs California to be a villain, to represent the supposed failures of the Democratic Party, especially around crime and immigration, and reality be damned. If no one else wants them, we’ll take the tired and poor, the huddled masses. California always has and always will embody the American dream, that each of us matters and each of us belongs. That respect for equity and equality is what makes us the Golden State.

California is still a Golden State, a land of hope, dreams, and opportunities, despite the difficulties it faces. The state’s unparalleled beauty, diverse culture, and commitment to tolerance are just some of its shining aspects. Even though the cost of living is high and housing remains a challenge, California continues to draw innovators and entrepreneurs, as well as people who seek a place where they can truly be themselves. Despite the negative perceptions and challenges, young people still see California as a promising destination, and many residents, just like the columnists, share a deep and unwavering love for the state.

California has been a beacon, a destination, a paradise and promised land ever since its headlong expansion in a rush of gold fever. It’s also been a perennial source of envy, mockery, and contempt. That naysaying has gained much greater currency in recent years as California’s population has contracted for the first time in more than a century. The “exodus” has become an industry, stoking real estate markets from Nevada to Tennessee, fanning the red-versus-blue political flames, and launching a thousand what-went-wrong analyses. The latest insult — or bracing reality check? — came last week in a Los Angeles Times poll that found 50% of adults nationwide believe California is in decline. Nearly half the Republicans surveyed said the state is “not really American.” Whatever that means.

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L.A. Times columnists Mark Z. Barabak (a proud California native) and Anita Chabria (a happy Ohio transplant) discuss the poll, the hating by haters, and the state of their troubled but still much-loved state.

Barabak: So first off, Anita, are you OK? You haven’t choked to death on the noxious air pollution, or been run over by some smash-and-grab robber making a getaway through your pothole-filled neighborhood?

Chabria: To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of our death are greatly exaggerated — again. The Golden State remains alive, kicking, and, dare I say it, a thriving part of the United States. But I am troubled that nearly 30% of respondents agreed with the statement that California is “not really American.” Nearly half of Republicans thought that, which is less shocking. But inexplicably, 21% of Californians did, too. That’s more than just the Fox crowd regurgitating the right-wing narrative of California as the spawning ground of social evils. People, we joined the union in 1850 — ahead of Kansas, West Virginia, and Nebraska, to name a few. We’ve been American longer than many of the so-called heartland states. I’ve been puzzled for days over whether a third of America is terrible at geography, or history — or if they think it’s some sort of dig at California.

What do you think, Mark? Are we in fact not American in some fundamental way I don’t understand?

Barabak: I suppose it depends how you define American. If you’re talking about a certain kind of America — one that is overwhelmingly white and conservative in its social, political, and cultural values — than, no, California fails to measure up to that, er, standard. We’ve been a majority-minority state now for more than a generation. Politically, the state has leaned strongly Democratic for decades, after supporting Republicans for much of our history. Culturally, we’ve always tended toward broadmindedness — or being overly permissive, in the eyes of critics. Fresh starts and reinvention have been a lure since the first gold seekers — the ones digging actual nuggets — flocked here from the more straitened and class-conscious East Coast.

As you suggest, it’s not just Fox News. There are plenty of alienated Californians — the state has more than 5 million registered Republicans, which exceeds the population of many states — who feel overlooked in Sacramento and looked down upon by the supposed sophisticates in San Francisco and Los Angeles. That probably accounts for the 21% that had you scratching your head. But to be clear, a lot of folks interviewed in the poll are obviously viewing California through a partisan lens. Or, perhaps it should be said, while wearing a thick set of blinders. I mean, 3 in 10 Republicans said the state has a worse natural environment than other states. Really? Go shout that from the top of Yosemite Falls. Or in Santa Barbara at sunset. Or on a sunny winter day in Joshua Tree National Park, as folks in the Midwest thaw their snow shovels so they can dig their cars out of the drifts. That said, we’ve got plenty of problems, no?
Chabria: Every place does and, of course, we are no exception. The survey highlighted one problem most of us agree on: The cost of living in California is too high. More than 80% of California residents felt that way, and it’s no shock. I’d venture to guess that has a lot to do with the price of housing. People can’t afford rent, which leads to a whole host of other problems — including older people being forced into homelessness. I genuinely believe that California’s future depends on finding a way to build massive amounts of new housing, not just a few units here and there. We need the mental health beds promised by Proposition 1 on the March ballot and to find ways to create more affordable homes for the broad swath of middle-class Californians. And that’s just for starters. But the survey also pointed out that the majority of Californians, including myself, are happy living here.

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So the Huntington Beach City Council can rant all they want, and the haters can hate. California will always stand for diversity, freedom, and tolerance — all values that sadly seem to be growing scarcer east of the Sierra. Where do you see the bright spots, Mark?

Barabak: Apart from its unsurpassed physical beauty, California is still a place that attracts innovators and entrepreneurs. It’s still a harbor for the politically persecuted and those who feel unwanted or unwelcome living elsewhere as their genuine selves. Yes, our sales and income taxes are high compared to some other places. Housing, as you suggested, is obscenely expensive and we desperately need more of it. But check out life in other cheaper, supposedly better places. Look into the cost of insurance in Florida. Get nickel and dimed every few miles on toll roads back East. Sweat your way through a summer in Texas and hope the power grid — and your air conditioning — doesn’t go out.

Sure, our government regulates with a heavier hand than elsewhere, and it’s not hard to find examples of excess. But isn’t it nice, for instance, to breathe clean air and be spared the teary eyes and clenched chest that smog-suffocated folks in Southern California experienced not so many decades ago? Speaking of seeing through the gloom, here’s one heartening finding in that otherwise dismal poll: The attitude of young people.

Seven in 10 of those ages 18-34 see California as a trendsetter and, at 43% of respondents, were twice as likely as other Americans to say they would consider moving to the state. They believe California’s future is bright. Me, too. I’ve moved around a lot, including the obligatory stint — for a political hack like me — in Washington, D.C. I thought I’d spent my career covering our nation’s capital, but lasted just seven years. Like Dorothy, who went all the way to Oz to know she really wanted to be in Kansas, California tugged at me the whole time I was away. For all the state’s difficulties — or challenges, if you prefer — I can’t imagine ever living any place else. California resides deep in my heart. How about you?

Chabria: I love California. As a mixed-race woman with mixed-race kids, I value its tolerance and diversity. I value its willingness to fight and lead at this critical time when democracy is fragile. I value that it’s truly a live-and-let-live kind of place, even when people don’t agree. To me, the poll results say less about life in California than the sad effectiveness of right-wing political propaganda and the power of fear-mongering over truth. MAGA needs California to be a villain, to represent the supposed failures of the Democratic Party, especially around crime and immigration, and reality be damned. If no one else wants them, we’ll take the tired and poor, the huddled masses. California always has and always will embody the American dream, that each of us matters and each of us belongs. That respect for equity and equality is what makes us the Golden State.

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Chats and reflections on the present moment.

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Lydia Polgreen

Credit…Will Heath/NBC, via Getty Images

It is a rare thing in our rapidly secularizing country to be confronted with piety and devotion in popular culture. So it was a surprise, and a balm, to watch a man who prays daily and talks openly about his devout faith storm a bastion of earthly godlessness: “Saturday Night Live.”

I am referring, of course, to the comedian Ramy Youssef, who hosted the show on what he described in his opening monologue as “an incredibly spiritual weekend,” noting Ramadan, Easter and the arrival of a new Beyoncé album.

“I’m doing the Ramadan one,” he quipped, to peals of laughter, unspooling a very funny bit about how loving Muslims are. Youssef has mined his experience as a believer among the profane in gentle standup specials and a namesake sitcom. His entire monologue glowed with a welcoming warmth — Muslims, he seemed to say: We’re just like you.

In a country that is supposedly obsessed with diversity and inclusion, it is remarkable how rare it is to hear from a practicing Muslim in America.

Surveys by the Institute for Policy and Understanding, a nonpartisan research organization focused on Muslim Americans, have consistently found that Muslims are the most likely group to report religious discrimination in the United States. According to a Pew survey conducted in 2021, 78 percent of Americans said that there was either a lot or some discrimination against Muslims in our society. Muslims are no more likely to commit crimes than members of any other group, but crimes in which Muslims are suspects get outsized media coverage, research has shown.

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It is no surprise, then, that Islamophobia is perhaps the most tolerated form of religious prejudice. Right now, Senate Republicans appear to have persuaded several Senate Democrats to vote against a Muslim judicial nominee after smearing him, with no evidence at all, as an antisemite.

Many of the skits that toyed with religion on “S.N.L.” on Saturday were funny — Ozempic for Ramadan! Genius. But part of me winced through them as well, because I saw in Youssef something that other members of minority groups have had to do to “earn” their place in the safety of the mainstream: the performance of normalcy, of being nonthreatening and sweet, the requirement to prove that your community belongs in America just like everyone else’s.

I loved Youssef’s monologue, in which he bravely pleaded, “Please, free the people of Palestine. And please, free the hostages. All of the hostages.”

“I am out of ideas,” Youssef declared toward the end of his monologue. “All I have is prayers.”

To which this nonbeliever can only say: Same, Ramy. Same.

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