CALIFORNIA: It Is Still America's Promised Land --

A place of heartstopping beauty, spectacular energy and stunning diversity. But faced with drought, mindless growth and a sputtering economy, can it preserve the dream?

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If America is the land where the world goes in search of miracles and redemption, California is the land where Americans go. It is America's America, the symbol of raw hope and brave (even foolish) invention, where ancient traditions and inhibitions are abandoned at the border. Its peculiar culture squirts out -- on film and menus and pages and television beams -- the trends and tastes that sweep the rest of the country, and then the rest of the world. If California broke off and dissolved in salt water, America would lose its seasoning.

And so the rough awakening is more painful as California confronts the crumbling of its cities, the clashing of its citizens, the glaring challenge to its assumption of uniqueness and special promise -- in short, the possible implosion of its dream. California's woes suit the scale of its mythology; when things go wrong there, they go deeply, harshly, frighteningly wrong. The crimes seem more vicious, the smog more choking, the poor more sorrowful in the light of fluorescent disillusionment. The mad, fit joggers must run at night if they hope to breathe freely, and in some areas a television glowing dimly through a window can become a target for a drive-by shooter. In Northern California's ancient forests, loggers fell trees that sprouted 10 centuries ago, and elsewhere in the state, some rural neighborhoods are raising their ^ taxes to buy the surrounding hills before they too are buried beneath the tract houses of yet another tacky instant city. California's myriad of problems are measured in superlatives: the state has more convicts than Tallahassee has residents; the $14 billion budget deficit California wrestled with this year was by far the largest ever faced by any state. Ethnicity comes in mind-boggling variety: Los Angeles has more Mexicans than any other city but Mexico City, more Koreans than any other city outside Seoul, more Filipinos than any other city outside the Philippines, and, some experts claim, more Druze than any other place but Lebanon.

The classic formula says California, the richest and most populous state, is the future. California is America's bright, strange cultural outrider: whatever happens now in California, or to California, will be happening to America before long, and to the entire world a little while after that. If you want to know whether America still works, then ask whether California still works. Does the reckless American hospitality to immigrants still accomplish its transformations and synergies? Can America still absorb so many disparate values and traditions and form them into a successful society? Or will the nation vanish into an incoherent future? Consult California.

In Los Angeles: Capital of the Third World, David Rieff says the U.S. has "stopped being an extension of Europe, and has, for better or worse, struck out on its own, an increasingly nonwhite country adrift, however majestically and powerfully, in an increasingly nonwhite world." Perhaps. Native Americans inhabited California before the European-Americans arrived, and the white civilization could prove evanescent. Maybe white Americans are simply redrawing their absolute perspectives. What the TV weather forecasters in Los Angeles call the "southland" is El Norte to Latin Americans. America's Far West is Japan's Far East.

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