Friday, January 15, 2016

Kathy Olmsted's "Right Out of California"

I just finished reading Kathryn Olmsted's Right Out of California: The 1930s and the Big Business Roots of Modern Conservatism. I first learned about it from Gabriel Thompson's enthusiastic Truthdig review. A few quick thoughts on this crisp and expert account.

First, there's the primacy of California agribusiness, which Kathy casts as the state's political crucible. We all know about John Steinbeck, and some of us know about Carey McWilliams, but Kathy argues that the farm labor conflicts of that period actually led to the formation of modern conservatism. Specifically, those conflicts gave rise to the Associated Farmers, a powerful player in state politics. The AF's anticommunist activities, in turn, reached far beyond the fields and eventually touched Hollywood, the University of California, and other key institutions. Along the way, Kathy links the farm labor story to the LAPD Red Squads, Upton Sinclair's 1934 gubernatorial bid, the criminal syndicalism trials of Caroline Decker and Pat Chambers, and the rise of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.

For me, the real pleasure of this book is watching California conservatism come into sharp focus. I already knew a fair amount about the key episodes, but I hadn't seen the larger pattern they formed. Much of this patterning hinges on Kathy's cast of characters. I learned a lot about Caroline Decker, for example, and Kathy is keen to point out the contributions other women made to the labor struggles of that decade. That Decker's Sacramento prosecutors benefited from AF funding and Red Squad testimony pulls together several important threads.

Kathy also has a lot to say about race. For example, she discusses John Steinbeck's decision to substitute white men for minorities (and women) when fictionalizing the actual events behind In Dubious Battle. Steinbeck's tremendous success reflected a painful truth: Americans cared about California farm labor abuses only when white Americans became its victims. Steinbeck probably understood that very well; either way, his decision is an important one to acknowledge in the classroom. Likewise, I appreciated Kathy's account of Langston Hughes's sojourn in Carmel. The local press reports of his visit display the racial hysteria that the Associated Farmers stoked at every turn.

If you don't believe Kathy's account on this score, I'd be happy to share the transcript of Carey McWilliams's closed-door testimony before the Committee on Un-American Activities in California. Much of that colloquy consisted of Jack Tenney quizzing McWilliams about his views on miscegenation. (McWilliams had recently written Brothers Under the Skin.) The committee never published McWilliams's testimony, but it did publish a characterization of it: his views on miscegenation, it turns out, were consistent with the Communist Party line. California legalized interracial marriage a few years later.

This has turned into a long post, so let me give you the short version: I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in California history or modern conservatism.