I’m Proud to Be Un-American

A New Poll Shows the Rest of the Country Hates the Golden State—And That’s a Good Thing

Rather than defend itself against conservative smear campaigns, the Golden State ought to find comfort in its defining virtue, writes columnist Joe Mathews. Courtesy of Tim Mossholder/Unsplash.

I’m not really American, and I couldn’t be prouder of that.

I hope you, my fellow Californians, feel the same way.

Because sometimes there’s no greater compliment than an intended insult.

This time, the backhanded praise came in the results of a Los Angeles Times survey, conducted early this year by the Canadian firm Leger, which examined how Americans feel about California.

Among the findings was that half of American adults believe our state is in decline. The survey made headlines for laying bare how much American conservatives dislike the Golden State. Two-thirds of Republicans surveyed say that the national impact of California has been “net negative.” (We are merely the home of the world’s leading technology and entertainment industries!)

As the kicker, nearly half of Republicans consider California—and Californians by extension—to be “not really American.”

The media reports about the poll treated this label “not really American” as harsh criticism. The L.A. Times dwelled extensively on how such an outcome reflected a terribly divided and polarized country. Two of its columnists, simultaneously taking the bait and taking leave of their senses, proceeded to defend California as being very American.

Why bother? I mean, who in their right mind wants to be “really American” these days?  In this century, our country has become defined by its anti-democratic fascism, rage, and madness. Being considered less than American by other Americans should be considered a badge of honor. Reading the poll, I wanted to print up “Not Really American” T-shirts and hand them out at a big California-themed party.

Disdain from the rest of the country isn’t new, either. In fact, it’s one of the few things that never seems to change here. The first best-selling book about California, The Land of Gold: Reality versus Fiction—published in 1855 by a Southern white supremacist named Hinton R. Helper—called California “an ugly cheat” and said, “there is but lank promise in the future.” If only you could see us now, Hinton!

Among California’s partisans, the fact that the state doesn’t really fit in the United States has always been a signal virtue. The journalist Carey McWilliams, perhaps our state’s greatest interpreter, wrote in 1949: “One cannot, as yet, properly place California in the American scheme of things.” He then added: “To understand this tiger all rules must be laid to one side. All the copybook maxims must be forgotten. California is no ordinary state; it is an anomaly, a freak, the great exception among the American states.”

Being considered less than American by other Americans should be considered a badge of honor.

Even Republicans and conservatives, back when they ran the state, once considered California’s singularity a virtue. But in the past two generations, as California has grown more liberal, our distinctiveness has come to be seen as disloyalty.

Not long before his death, the right-wing U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia declared that California “does not count” as a real American state or as part of the U.S. West. Tellingly, he included this insult in his dissent from the landmark 2015 court decision legalizing same-sex marriage—which makes the justice’s ugly remark just another compliment.

Californians ought to be prepared for many more such compliments. Donald Trump’s backers have published plans for an initiative called Project 2025, which would treat California as an American enemy—because, of course, our values are not really American.

The plans seek not just to overturn California policies, but to punish Californians for having backed them in the first place.

For instance, California’s “un-American” support for women’s rights and reproductive rights would be met with a Trump federal abortion ban at 15 weeks, as well as harsh penalties for Californians and others who continued to provide the services.

Our wise extension of health insurance, including Medicaid, to all our people, regardless of their legal status, would also be targeted.

In addition, we’d lose the power to establish higher-than-American standards for pollution and air quality. Our terribly un-American efforts to fight climate change would be similarly reversed and penalized.

Naturally, we’d pay a price for our not-really-American commitment to gun control. And we’d pay for protecting immigrants from Trump’s promised military-led deportation scheme, which is all but certain to sweep up U.S. citizens too, since half of California’s kids have an immigrant parent.

Trump has also promised to overturn the 14th Amendment’s protection of birthright citizenship, which would take away rights from more than five million naturalized Californians.

In this context, is it any wonder that a majority of our not-really American state is ready to leave before the Americans kick us out? According to another recent poll from the Independent California Institute, 58% of California adults say we’d be better off than we are now if California peacefully became independent—its own country—in the next 10 years.

An even higher number, 68%, say California would be better off if, instead of seceding, the state obtained a special autonomous status within the U.S. that allowed for more control of our land and infrastructure.

All that said, while many Americans seem to hate California, we don’t hate Americans back. The same Independent California Institute poll asked Californians if they felt more Californian or American.

Fifty-one percent said that they felt equally Californian and American. Only 21% said they felt more Californian. Still, 63% said they wouldn’t live anywhere in America other than California, our less-than-fully American home.

For such a loving people, the correct response—when faced with glorious insults about our lack of Americanness—is to lean into the hatred. How? Californians might borrow from FDR who, in countering wealthy critics who saw Depression relief as a communist plot, declared: “I ask you to judge me by the enemies I have made.”

But that might be too American a reference for our state. Instead, let Californians answer the American Ahabs with the love of the Gospel of John, Chapter 15, Verses 18 and 19, when Jesus tells his disciples:

If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.


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