A Letter from California

March, 2021

Dear American Conservatives, 

It has been a long time.  What, with all the social sorting going on over the last generation, we have seen very little of each other.  I am writing from California. But not just California—Northern California.  And to be more precise, I am writing from that Route 80 corridor that links Sacramento to Berkeley and San Francisco. One of the most reliably liberal places in the US.  

And I am not going to sugar coat it; I am writing as a liberal from this place—or maybe I am a progressive.  I am not sure anymore.  Titles hide more than they reveal.  But, quite honestly, if we take any of the “big” issues—climate change, immigration, government role, general “wokeness,” etc.—I am certainly left of center.

Oh, I also live in a university town with a top-tier public school, and I work there too, teaching students about intercultural engagement.  Are you sadly shaking your head at my lostness yet?  

In any case, I thought I would check in, let you know how things are going, and make sure everything is okay.

I read The American Conservative online daily, and I have some concerns. Don’t get me wrong, Bacevich is my lifeblood, and Larison is impressive, but the rest?

I bought the special issue about “What is American Conservatism?”. I made it through Bacevich and Deneen (who helped me leave my globe-trotting cosmopolitan ways to focus on the local). But after that?  A collection of grievances, end-of-times prophetic ravings, and simply poorly crafted blather with a lot of anger and no real ideas that I could discern.  

I tossed it.  It all felt like people saying mean things about you while you’re standing right there, without any curiosity to learn who you are.

So, let’s talk… issues.

Now I know you think we are way overboard on our rhetoric about climate change.  You may see it as just another plot to broaden government control or as some kind of Gaia-inspired pantheism.  

But the truth is, we are living the impacts of global climate change up close out here.  Talk to even the most Republican farmer here in the valley, and they will tell you.  Our fire season stretches from April to just about April.  We have red flag warnings in January when we used to have rain.

Last summer, there were so many fires for so long that no matter which way the wind blew, we had a thick pall of smoke that hovered down to the ground.  It felt like we had entered Mordor (I thought I saw an Orc, but it turned out to be Kevin McCarthy… okay, that’s a joke—he seems like a nice guy who just likes to read kids’ books to his, uhh, Twitter followers?).

The point is, we are living this up close and personal, and when Paradise burned two years ago, it touched all of us in profound ways.  Our first responders still live with the trauma of that particular destruction.  

Our trees are stressed, our snowpack a crapshoot.  

We talk less and less about stopping the change and more and more about adapting to it.  So maybe you will forgive us if we seem a bit “preoccupied” by the issue.  We can’t understand all the denial when we find ourselves living with climate change impacts every day.

How about immigration?  Same story.  It is not a policy debate for us. It is a fact of life.  Again, this is a bipartisan issue out here.  At our towns’ edges are fields overflowing with the most incredible bounty known to humanity, and we see who is planting, caring for, harvesting, transporting, and processing all that bounty: immigrants. 

Some of them are documented, and some are undocumented, but they all provide for us in ways that are daily evident to us.  And even more than that, they are our neighbors.  They are part of us.

So, when I read in TAC about how “unbridled” immigration will destroy America, I just scratch my head. 

Immigration is a pretty complex thing.  I have a farmer friend (a good Christian man) who hires quite a few immigrants (status mixed).  He tells me that in recent years if they try to head home after the harvest for a few months, the only way some can get back in is to act as drug mules.  At this point, you are saying: “SEE!!!, just like Trump said—criminals!” Right, but here’s the thing a) what kind of poverty pushes people to risk doing THAT to come here and work? b) what type of labor market do we have that draws so many people?  Again, talk to any Republican grower and ask if they can bring in the crop with domestic labor (they will say “no”); and c) you realize that many immigrants do not want to stay, right?  

Out here, we see a whole bunch of hypocrisy from folks who decry immigration but blithely consume their ALMOND lattes (sorry, that’s us liberals, you just like to munch almonds); their spaghetti sauces, their raisins, peaches, strawberries, lettuce, rice, walnuts and everything else that flows from immigrant labor.  

Tell you what, next time you dine out, take a peek into the kitchen.  Next time you eat your beef or chicken, ask yourself who rendered, packed, and shipped it.  Next time you stay in a hotel, check out who is pushing the cleaning cart down the hall.

Hypocrisy is not a strong enough word from where we sit.

Okay, I am getting a little harsh, and I am about to lose you, so let me step back and say we have our hypocrisy too.  I was the Mayor of our oh-so-liberal town, and I saw hypocrisy up close.

I saw the attempted pogroms against homeless people, the liberal white flight from schools, and the poverty-driven by high housing costs because those with $800K homes restricted the construction of new multi-family residences in their town because… traffic? noise? declining home values?  NIMBYism.

So, yeah, I know hypocrisy.  We all need to own it.  But your fear of the immigrant just doesn’t make sense to us.

And then COVID-19, and masks, and all that… Can we talk about that?

When COVID-19 hit, I helped organize our county food bank program to deliver food boxes to every elderly or sick person’s doorstep.  From zero, we ended up with 2500 doorstep deliveries every week. When I put out a call for volunteers, I soon had close to 1000!  The National Guard called and asked if we needed help in getting all that food out, and we said, “no, we got this,” and we did.

Our local COVID-19 Facebook group is a clearinghouse that connects people to services from free tutoring for kids to the best places to get quick take out.  Our university is making it possible to rapidly test every resident of our City (and beyond) weekly.  

Last week, I was in a meeting with a dozen of the most committed community leaders you could find anywhere about how to extend that testing to our farmworkers.

We did not wait for the government to come in and make these things happen.  We just started helping our neighbors.  

And we all wear masks, pretty much any time we are outside our homes.  No one seems to complain about it.  We all remind each other that it is just for a while and that we need to do it for our neighbors and friends.  

When you frame mask-wearing as a question of “liberty,” what we hear is “autonomy,” and we know that leads to anomie (Joan Didion taught us that).

I guess I wanted to write and talk about these things because I grew up in a conservative family back east and what I have seen out here in the last year embodies the conservative values that I learned at my mother’s knee: you care for your neighbor; you take responsibility not to harm others; you make sacrifices for the good of the community; you keep your “home place” clean; you look after the weakest first; you remember that God created the world and it is your job to care for it…

You may think we spend our time out here scheming about the next thing we will cancel.  You may believe that our students pass their time debating which books to ban next.  You may feel we view race as about some set of performative actions we take to shame you.  You may think and believe a lot of things about how we spend our time.  But you would be wrong.

I write today to let you know that we are busy, and we are tired.  We are trying to save our state from catastrophe and our communities from despair. I’d like to think we are doing what every other community in this nation is doing in these trying times.

We would love to see you when things start getting back to normal.

Robb Davis

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