A FEW YEARS AGO Fresnans were jumping onboard the new online magazine Fresno Famous. It was building traction and a lot of people thought the site was going somewhere. It had culture, the arts and sass. Then, just like its symbolic Marilyn Monroe mural getting painted over by some disgruntled so-and-so, it was gone.
Within a few more years the beautiful blue water-god on the Neighborhood Thrift Store’s agricultural mural in Fresno had been censored. While the mural still has its allure, the painting-over and censoring of the mouth of the god, who must now shut up, who must now not spill its life water like a holy vomit, is truly symbolic of Californian’s oft-times intellectually anaesthetized Central Valley.
A hundred miles south of Fresno lies Bakersfield, a city without any notable murals, where many magazines and news sites have failed. The city—my city—has few magazines, one newspaper, one large-chain bookstore, and once again, ranks No. 1 as the least literate city in America.
According to an article in Time Magazine reporting on a Central Connecticut State University (CCSU) study, Bakersfield was ranked as “the worst city in the U.S. for its overall reading culture.” The report nailed Bakersfield for its lack of bookstores, low subscription rates to magazines and scholarly journals, poor newspaper circulation, poorly-rated library system and low educational attainment rates.
Bakersfield: here weathergirls, conservative shock jocks and TV anchormen are its biggest celebrities, where used-up newscasters get recycled, lending what’s left of their hard-earned celebritydom to cheesy television commercials promoting local businesses and lawyers.
The city is part of an agricultural mecca, though what’s visible to most passing through are trash-strewn freeways, dumpy buildings, ghettos and a sign with a clip-art logo of a leaf just above the phrase, “Life as it should be.”
Bakersfield could be the gateway to the new frontier. Just up the road is the Mojave Air & Spaceport. “Imagination flies here,” its website declares. Yet the same intellectual drive to send privatized industry into space doesn’t seem to fuel the largest city in the same county. The city misses out on a potential marketing transformation, publicity, a new leadership role, even the appeal of futuristic architecture in a city more frumpy looking than a reality TV star.
Bakersfield’s Tomorrowland may never come.
In the meantime, McDonald’s and Starbucks have built the most lasting of architectural futuristic designs, stand-alone strip-mall fabrications created by fast-food empires in need of appealing to the sensibilities of the masses pleased with shoddy aesthetics in a quick-buck culture.
Since I’m in the throes of being l’enfant terrible, I should say, Bakersfield, though having its strip-mall appeal, is the equivalent of fruit rotting on the ground with its non-intellectual celebrities, boarded-up businesses, and historical buildings transformed to rubble in a cityscape of boxy structures, all bereft of splendor and detail.
You will find no murals of William Saroyan in Bakersfield (He was from Fresno anyway). You will find no odes to famous composers (unless you think a honky tonk was once an orchestra theatre). And in the realm of social justice, though Bakersfield was, and sometimes still is ground zero for debates on farm workers and immigration reform, you will find no streets named after Cesar Chavez or Dolores Huerta. You will find no uncensored poetry or prose readings (unless I hold them in galleries or restaurants). You will find no college reading series (if there were they would be censored like the blue giant, mouth shut from any words that might be construed as vomitus).
Historian Richard Hofstadter, in his 1962 book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, suggests that “regard for intellectuals in the United States has not moved steadily downward . . . but is subject to cyclical fluctuations.” He claims intellectuals, past targets of political scorn are going to continue to be railed against in the U.S.
Let’s turn to the New York Times op-ed column “Professors, We Need You!” by Nicholas Kristof for evidence. While Bakersfield may be a slumming ground for non-intellectuals eager to breed an illiterate culture, the phenomenon may be much larger. While a casual reader might think Kristof is heralding academia, he’s being viewed as saying the opposite. Across the country, professors have defended intellectuals against Kristof’s words, who himself steals Hofstadter’s book title within his essay (an anti-intellectual move if there ever was one), using it in his article to suggest academia has marginalized itself by writing “meaningless gibberish” in journals for the sake of tenure.
Jessica Wolfe rebuts Kristof in an Ethos Review article, “Open Letter To Nicholas Kristof.” She makes the point, like so many others has, that if anyone is being anti-intellectual it’s Kristof.
In his bid to slander academia, Kristof claims many disciplines are becoming marginalized because of their obtuse verbiage, and that history, as a discipline, hasn’t been marginalized like the others. He’s wrong there too. History isn’t being driven into obscure archive rooms because of over-specialization. It’s being eradicated (at least on the university campus in Bakersfield). At CSUB, history is slowly being squeezed to death, and not at the hands of gibberish-producing professors like Kristof suggests. Budgets for ordering books, or to replace retiring professors, are non-existent. This week I asked a CSUB historian (who I won’t name) if the program had shrunk since I attended in the mid-nineties. The professor said it had, that two retired professors hadn’t been replaced. The historian also went on about its budget crisis, suggesting monies were next to none.
Who should we blame? University administration? Politics on and off campus? What about on a national level? If Hofstadter’s right, then the attack could come from politicians. After all, he does cite McCarthyism.
A journalist I greatly admire commented on a former newsman’s Facebook post about the illiteracy rate in Bakersfield. I’ve been suggesting we could be in a new age of McCarthyism under House Whip Kevin McCarthy, of Bakersfield. His position in the tea party has done little, if anything, for education in Kern County.
The journalist wrote:
Some political positions simply receive more support when its constituency is undereducated and functionally illiterate. These politicians have little motivation to see significant increases in the number of Americans with strong critical thinking skills.
Corrupt politicians busily after big agri-business and oil dollars, woeful academic administrations and a culture of non-readers is a toxic stew. Not to mention, perhaps Hofstadter wasn’t so wrong when he discussed the impracticality of being intellectual as far back as the nineteenth century. Why? Because it’s still happening today . . .
During the nineteenth century, when business criteria dominated American culture almost without challenge, and when most of business and professional men attained eminence without much formal education, academic schooling was often said to be useless.
Hofstadter predicted the Kristofs of the world popping up in American society as mouthpieces against the intellect. Either way, what we can infer from the CCSU study is that Bakersfield is at the apex of a terrible state in American society. This is what occurs when anti-intellectualism gains traction.
What happens if we do nothing? Will there be more parents raising children to become industrial-sector workers? More fast-food employees? More truck drivers? More electricians to help wire the mansions of the business owners and politicians?
At the university in Bakersfield, if you aren’t playing baseball, then you might be getting a business degree, which fuels many students these days to enroll there. Maybe it’s just a reflection of culture, this notion of Bakersfield having a prominent business school, where many have become Harry (Rabbit) Angstroms, running down the rabbit hole of success (or failure). Every young, greedy-eyed business major has his or her tank full, for the moment, not yet ready to run out of gas, but soon enough may just be helping propel Bakersfield further downward . . .
There always comes in September a parched brightness to the air that hits Rabbit two ways, smelling of apples and blackboard dust and marking the return to school and work in earnest, but then again reminding him he’s suffered another promotion, taken another step up the stairs that has darkness at the head.
I complain on Facebook now and then about my struggle to bring uncensored literary events to an anti-intellectual city. I still have dreams of opening an event venue, a coffeehouse bookstore where intellectualism can thrive.
While I’ve blamed my father for sparking the creativity within me, it all came full circle in the 1980s. Here was Dad, a Latino truck driver, a man who got in fights all the time and bragged about them. He was an ex-cop, a one-time puppeteer, who suddenly sat me down and said, “I really think when you get out of school you should look into driving trucks instead of going college.”
Should have given up on my dreams and listened to my father?
We intellectuals face oppression not just here in the Central Valley, but in America. It comes from all kinds of classes. Hofstadter warned us. It’s up to us to keep fighting back.