Tuesday, April 20, 2010

I left my heart . . .

Here are a few impressions from a short vacation in northern California. The trip combined nature (Yosemite) and urbanism (San Francisco). While I am basically a city guy, earlier trips to the National Parks with my partner Neal had given me a solid appreciation of the Parks. This enthusiasm was reinforced by the recent PBS series. Yosemite was the one significant site I had not seen. We went at an ideal time when it was mild and dry, and also before the summer rush. (Reputedly the park gets three million visitors a year). It is both like and unlike the photographs. The central zone with the enormous cliffs rising above is a supreme example of the Kantian Sublime in which sheer size compels admiration.

We then drove back through the hot Central Valley to SF. There too the weather was perfect, and we spent some time doing touristy things. My friend got his first cable car ride.

In the early seventies I started going to San Francisco on an annual basis, a custom I ended only after 1990. In those years the city was on the cutting edge of the country’s cultural revolution. This seems to have begun with the Berkeley Free Speech movement in 1964, an event I think of wryly because in the intervening years our campuses have become temples of repression.

Then there was the flower-power movement, and the whole rock-psychedelic thing.

Above all, for me there was the gay liberation movement. What glory it was to be alive in those days! We took risks, to be sure, as there was a strong possibility of losing our jobs. Some did lose them. But the sense of actually doing something meaningful for social change was exhilarating. As New York City faltered after Stonewall--a genuine watershed--San Francisco became Gay Liberation Central. The freedom of the city, not least in terms of actual sexual practice, prefigured --or so we hoped--the nation’s (and the world’s) future. The Harvey Milk film recaptured that heady atmosphere fairly well--though inevitably not the actual texture of walking the streets and patronizing the hot spots.

Today normalization rules. There are lots of new high-rise buildings, showing that prosperity persists--at least for the comfortable and well-healed. Polk Street, once the grand gay avenue, is a ghost town. Yet the Castro is thriving, full of prosperous businesses and prosperous young people. Much disparaged by gay radicals, assimilation has made it possible for gay men and lesbians to integrate with the larger communities. Most prefer this. San Francisco, it turns out, is no exception.

Still, for me the magic is gone. The hordes of tourists (ourselves included) are almost unbelievable. For their part, the homeless panhandlers have spread out from the Tenderloin and can be quite aggressive. The city’s reputation for tolerance and what amounts to a policy of subvention have kept the numbers of these derelicts high. This deplorable situation is a clear example of perverse incentivization.

The omnipresence of the homeless has made visiting the city a trip back in time. Before Clinton’s reform of the welfare system twelve years ago, which pushed most of these drones back into the workforce, or at least made them clean up their act, most American cities looked like this. A few weeks ago I took a trip to nearby Newark. It was Saturday and mine was one of the few white faces on the street. But I saw very few panhandlers. I felt very comfortable. In this respect, San Francisco is now retro, not cutting edge.

The city seems to have a three-class system. At the top are the wealthy and moderately wealthy, made up of such professsionals as lawyers, doctors, and professors, as well as many trust babies. At the other extreme stands the underclass, as I have mentioned. In between is a vast corps of young, attractive service personnel--waiters, bartenders, tour guides, and so forth. These people, who want to stay in SF at all costs, are eager to please, sometimes embarrassingly so. They know that they can be fired at any time, and there are lots of others ready to take their place. Other cities, like NYC where I live, seem to have a greater range of employment for middle-class wage earners. Nowadays, though, who knows? And all bets are off.

The moral? Times change. Carpe diem--take advantage of the opportunities. And so I did in those Golden Days not so long ago. And now again.

POSTSCRIPT. Early on in my relationship with San Francisco, the city affected me in another way. In the summer of 1973 I was recovering from a major illness. Lili J., an acquaintance who was going for a vacation in her native Denmark, lent me her apartment for a month. It was centrally located, just off Geary Avenue, and I used the location as a base for many delightful walks.

In the apartment itself, I discovered, there lurked (in addition to her formidable cat) a large cache of Libertarian literature, an enthusiasm of LIli's. At that time, I had very little idea about the nature of this approach to political theory. I was still a knee-jerk liberal, and viewed the tendency very unfavorably--as something akin to fascism (as some mistakenly still do today). Yet the books exerted the fascination of a taboo, not unlike a child discovering dad's porno cache. There was a strong representation of titles by such major figures as Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises. Also found were precursor works and contemporary commentators in the Libertarian vein.

Returning to New York, I started acquiring my own collection. A course I had taken in the field of political science at UCLA had proved almost useless; now I gave myself my own course. Like some others, I saw an application of Libertarianism to the struggle for gay rights. The most important thing though was the sense that I could at last think for myself in these matters.

Of course, I am a libertarian (small 'l') with sanity. I do not see privatization as a universal remedy (though the ploy has worked sometimes, especially in societies that are hobbled by corrupt governments using public industries as bottomless cookie jars for their cronies). I do believe in limited government, and especially in keeping the state out ot the bedroom. I am skeptical of employment-discrimination remedies and hate-crimes legislation.



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