Under the Influence: California's Intoxicating Spiritual, Cultural Influence on America

by Monica Ganas | illustration by Ben Cauwels '11

When I was a graduate student in Kentucky, I met a toddler at church who confided to me that he wanted to be a missionary to Mars or California. Although I smiled at this, in a way, he’d confirmed my suspicions that I had grown up in some image of “outer space,” and this before the nationwide diffusion of the Planet Hollywood franchise. Picturing the toxic gasses surrounding Mars, I sensed that much of California, especially Southern California, was in need of rescue—not so that it could align itself with the well-behaved Midwest, but so that it could be revived from a sort of mass-produced stupor, one that I now realize, after much research and analysis, seeks to anesthetize people to actual human experience, relationships, environment, and, I fear, the true God.

The Intoxicating "California Dream"

For although many, if not most, actual Californians avoid the offer, cultural messages invite people to hover above their own existence in a quasi-religious state I call California-ism, intoxicated by a manufactured, potent distillation of the American Dream, “The California Dream,” that promises by turns, overnight success (from the Gold Rush to the Dot.Com Rush), sun-kissed beauty, stardom or brushes with celebrity, transcendent automobiles, designer food, eternal youth, perfect happiness even at funerals, and at its most extreme, personal divinity. California-ism—as a state-of-mind —has little to do with California the state, and even less to do with real, everyday Californians. California is a local phenomenon, California-ism a universal one.

“California entered history as a myth,” writes Kevin Starr. While other states in the union typically are named after actual geographical locations (New York, New Mexico), historical figures (Washington, Rhode Island), or native tribes (The Dakotas, Massachusetts), California is named after Calafia, a mythical queen from a Spanish romance. The fictional nature of the state meant that the stubborn facts of life were our enemy almost from the beginning, so we were prone to fabricate our experience, and have continued some version of that on and off ever since.

Queen Calafia figures prominently in Golden Dreams, a high-end video once presented at Disney’s amusement park, California Adventure. Whoopi Goldberg brought Calafia to “life” as a holograph in a domed theater vaguely resembling a temple. Throughout history, she invests figures from California’s past with a Tinkerbellish fairy dust to give them the courage, insight, and magical resources to succeed, or in the case of minorities, to survive. The fairy dust, administered to the famous and obscure alike, is presumably the very spirit of California, some finely ground character traits of the mythic Calafia, who was “desirous of achieving great things.” But she serves only spectacle and feeling, as do so many cultural products.

The rest of the California Adventure theme park completes the fantasy by replacing the real California with a constructed image of the state. My favorite ride features an OMNIMAX screen into which park guests are air lifted, fans blowing in our faces, to simulate “Soarin’ Over California,” from the Golden Gate Bridge to Yosemite, to beaches, snow peaks, lush vineyards, perfect golf courses, and back again to, best of all, the Magic Kingdom, where Tinkerbell welcomes us “home.” Soaring over California is very different from living through California. And this, of course, marks the appeal.

The Real Deal

But our actual lived experience occurs in California, the real California—our histories, our neighbors, our marriages, our funerals, our homes, our public policies and private agonies, our comings and goings—right down to the humble daily activities of eating meals, driving to work, or watching television. And all of these are pursued by California-ism, which relies upon a love affair with perfection, pleasure, and power, values of human-made empires, not those of the Kingdom of Heaven. The temptation becomes to consider reality never quite good enough. But reality really isn’t that bad and fantasy isn’t that good if it routinely robs us of human experience and replaces the people we know with the people we wish we knew. This is, after all, the one life we’ve been given.

Despite its perceived difficulty and dreariness, its lack of magic and Technicolor, there really is no place like home. Examples of homespun efforts abound, from churches and schools that meaningfully engage their neighborhoods to public theater and art movements of all kinds, clean-up campaigns and community gardens, festivals, farmer’s markets, storytelling contests, service agencies, grassroots social efforts, traditional gatherings, and family reunions. With a sense of gratitude and wonder, many continue to resist California-ism and pay attention to our real environment, real community, real relationships, and real policies—personal, political, and spiritual.

Originally published in the Spring '11 issue of APU Life. Download the PDF or view all issues.