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Liberal San Francisco and the Catholic Church

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San Francisco’s much touted reputation as a bastion of liberal tolerance has an unexpected foundation in of all things, the Catholic Church! It’s a complicated tale involving the emergence of a liberal cross-class majority in favor of economic growth and individual rights that has important roots in Catholic doctrine. By the last quarter of the 20th century the same liberalism that had prevailed as a manifestation of a “vital political center” had sown the seeds of its own demise. The dominance of Catholic morality over politicians, police, business, and labor leaders began eroding under the pressure of the post-war demographic changes in San Francisco. By the time the Soviet Union finally dissolved in 1991, liberalism had already lost its defining purpose (anti-communism combined with a capitalist-friendly regime of limited labor and human rights), while in San Francisco, the liberals had long become fused with elite business interests in their pursuit of a growth economy based on white-collar finance, real estate, medicine, tourism, and technology.

William Issel does a wonderful job of revealing and analyzing this history in his 2013 book Church and State in the City: Catholics and Politics in Twentieth-Century San Francisco (Temple University Press). Rooted in the early 20th century’s labor movement, then dominated by Irish Catholics (and to a much lesser extent Italian and Latin American Catholics), “native sons” of San Francisco’s Mission District born between 1890 and 1930 played an extraordinarily influential role in the political and social development of San Francisco up to the 1970s.

In the years before the Great Depression, in the context of Vatican teachings, natural disaster, and the nation’s first red scare, Catholics challenged the presumptions of organized capital to unilaterally define the public interest. The contests involving organized business, organized labor, and the Catholic Church were then complicated by transnational rivalries, including the Communist Party’s entry into politics and its competition with Catholic Action. The city’s Catholic business, labor, and civic leaders, in complex relations with the political left and the business right, contributed to the shaping of a local New Deal liberal regime that favored expanded rights for organized labor. Organized business, Catholics, and the left, including the Communist Party, also played key roles in redefining the city’s priorities around the importance of fostering future economic growth and human rights. (Issel, p. 251)

Many histories of San Francisco tend to focus on the ebb and flow of class conflict between the city’s business-owning elite and the various unions, confederations, and labor parties that emerged in different periods, a conflict that featured social unrest and upheavals from the 1870s through the dramatic General Strike in 1934 and into the post-WWII era, punctuated by only a few periods of sustained social peace. In this fraught dynamic, Father Peter Yorke held forth at the Mission’s St. Peter’s Church on 24th Street at the beginning of the 20th century. He was an outspoken advocate of the rights of the working man (who were largely identified as white ethnic Irish) along with his ardent support for Irish nationalism vis-a-vis the British empire. Yorke was but one of many Catholic men and women who sought to influence the terms of debate about the common good and what public policy would look like in the early 20th century and ensuing decades. Catholics enjoyed a disproportionate role in the political life of San Francisco due to being nearly a third of the population before WWII, but the politics of the Church (run by the Archdiocese with offices on Franklin Street) were not uniformly conservative.  More »

Revolutionaries Who Fall Short

From a trail on the Marin Headlands looking back towards San Francisco from under an amazing oak tree...

From a trail on the Marin Headlands looking back towards San Francisco from under an amazing oak tree…

It’s been a summer of reading (and walking, see photos!) for me, and now that autumn is here and the usual schedule of Shaping San Francisco Tours and Talks is starting, along with teaching weekly at the Art Institute, my time is shrinking. I still have a lot of time compared to most people so I’m not complaining (and I’m still reading a lot, but less). Anyway, this blog post is less of my writing and more from one of the books I read, which is a must-read for anyone still harboring fantasies that Fidel Castro is a great revolutionary.

I say this knowing that many people, even a fair number of friends, are ardent defenders of Castro, of the Cuban Revolution (which they unfortunately conflate), and the many movements that have claimed Castro as an inspiration or icon for their own efforts at “national liberation” (whether Chavez’s Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela, or the FMLN in El Salvador or the Sandinistas in Nicaragua). I am not attacking the people in these various places, not in Cuba or anywhere else, since it’s the rank and file activists who ultimately are the most betrayed by authoritarian party structures created by the various left-wing organizations in the name of revolution. Frequently, starting with Cuba, the argument is made that the United States directly or indirectly has forced these movements to become rigid top-down hierarchies, to center their organizations on a military logic, and to slavishly copy the worst of the old Soviet Union or Chinese Communist Party which in practical terms meant the brutal repression of all liberatory currents not under their tight control (in addition to the more obvious reactionary social groups that also exist in these countries).

Gerbode Valley from just north of the Golden Gate...

Gerbode Valley from just north of the Golden Gate…

I also read a longer book called The Return of Comrade Ricardo Flores Magón by Claudio Lomnitz, which is a beautifully composed look at the forgotten role of the Partido Liberal Mexicana (PLM) from 1906 to the eventual revolution overthrowing decades-long dictator Porfirio Díaz, with a detailed account of how its original leading role was marginalized by other leaders and groups in Mexico in part because the PLM leaders chose to stay in Los Angeles to carry on their publishing beyond the reach of the Mexican authorities. Lomnitz does a great job of capturing the cross-border ferment between the U.S. and Mexico, where the revolutionaries grouped together in the PLM organized and published their journal Regeneración. Moving around in the U.S. the Mexican revolutionaries worked closely with a growing group of U.S. radicals, including Wobblies and famed Los Angeles attorney and socialist Job Harriman. Ricardo Flores Magón was the chief theoretician of the self-proclaimed Junta, along with his brother Enrique Flores Magón. Antonio I. Villarreal, Librado Rivera, and Lázaro Gutiérrez de Lara, but others played important roles too, notably various American radicals such as William Owen, Elizabeth Trowbridge and John Kenneth Turner (author of the 1907 blockbuster Barbarous Mexico which in classic muckraking journalism exposed widespread slavery in the Yucatan and Oaxaca). More »

California Water and the Lack Thereof

North of Sutter Buttes the area is filled with almond orchards, which though very parched seem to be doing ok.

North of Sutter Buttes the area is filled with almond orchards, which though very parched seem to be doing ok.

I’m relatively new to the enormous body of work covering the history, politics, and geography of water in California. Given the severe drought gripping most of the state (great 8-second animation here), and the oft-repeated cliché that water is the oil of the 21st century, it seems like a good time to start paying closer attention! I decided, after some research, to go and have a look, taking the opportunity that most of us fog-bound San Franciscans do to escape to the searing heat of the Central Valley at least once during the cool, windy summer we get here on the coast (though to be honest, this year has been relatively warm and sunny until the last few days). Adriana and I borrowed a car and rode along levees from the mouth of the Sacramento River at the edge of the once-enormous Delta, all the way to Sacramento (only pausing there to visit “Old Sacramento” which I had somehow never done), and then back on to the levees north toward our first night’s destination of Marysville at the conjunction of the Feather and Yuba Rivers.

Here's a view of the Delta I took from a plane in September 2013.

Here’s a view of the Delta I took from a plane in September 2013.

We went to Rio Vista on our first stop, crossing onto Sherman Island at bottom left of image on the Antioch bridge before crossing the Sacramento River into Rio Vista.

We went to Rio Vista on our first stop, crossing onto Sherman Island at bottom left of image on the Antioch bridge before crossing the Sacramento River into Rio Vista.

I’ve been giving myself a crash course during the summer, in preparation for teaching a new class at the SF Art Institute called “Dredge.” One of the unusual finds I made was the Dutra Museum of Dredging in Rio Vista, at the edge of the Montezuma Hills, a old geologic formation that forces the Sacramento River around it south in its path through the Delta to the Bay. The folks behind the museum are an old family-run California dredging company, and they’ve published a beautiful book “The Tule Breakers,” which is an exhaustive history of their industry, and includes a general overview of the terrain and conditions in which their business has been conducted.

One of the rusting dredges on the grounds of the Dutra Museum of Dredging in Rio Vista.

One of the rusting dredges on the grounds of the Dutra Museum of Dredging in Rio Vista.

In this 1930 image from "The Tule Breakers" you can see the dredges working to excavate sand and mining debris (still flowing down from the Gold Rush days)  from the channel of the Sacramento River.

In this 1930 image from “The Tule Breakers” you can see the dredges working to excavate sand and mining debris (still flowing down from the Gold Rush days) from the channel of the Sacramento River.

I also read Battling the Inland Sea by Robert Kelley, a fascinating account of the politics of water and rivers in California in the 19th century. Kelley goes through the saga chronologically to show how the Democrats who dominated state politics after the Civil War were the standard-bearers of laissez-faire individualism. They were opposed by the Republicans, who carried on the politics of the defunct Whig Party in favor of a more centralizing and coordinating role for government. In a nutshell, the two parties in the 19th century held reversed positions compared to today. The Republicans were the party in favor of publicly funded infrastructure which would improve conditions broadly for “everyone.” Read in a more class conscious way, we would say they were the party of Capital in its broadest interests, while the Democrats tended to defend the interests of individual property owners against encroachment by the state, seeing the individual owners as the logical descendants of a Jeffersonian agrarian democracy and the state as beholden to the interests of the monied interests and large corporations that were emerging in the late 19th century. The Democrats were also more brazenly the party of white supremacy, although it must be admitted that racist ideology was the norm across the political spectrum until well into the 20th century.

The domination of laissez-faire inspired localism led to a decades-long failure to assess California’s hydrological reality in systemic terms. Instead of looking at the interlocking river system as a whole, and seeing the entire Sacramento Valley (the northern part of the Central Valley) as an integrated watershed draining a dozen rivers eventually into the Delta and Bay, each individual farmer and landowner was encouraged to take individual responsibility for building levees to protect their property. This led to a kind of “arms race” as one would build levees to a certain height, forcing the landowner across the river to build a bit higher, that would in turn force the original owner to build his even higher, and so on. It was exacerbated by the fact that county lines often ran down the middle of rivers (e.g. the split between Marysville in Yuba County and across the Feather River sat Yuba City in Sutter County), so property owners would also have different local governments from which to seek legal remedy or support. The first legal entities formed in California beyond the elected legislature and local governments were “reclamation districts” who gained the right to tax property and even seize it under eminent domain if needed to execute plans for water channeling and farmland protection. These entities were dominated by land speculators who often used their political power, not surprisingly, to direct Reclamation Districts to projects benefiting their landholdings.

The first leg of our road trip on the levees (going from lower left to upper right). The two circles are Rio Vista at left, and Locke at upper right.

The first leg of our road trip on the levees (going from lower left to upper right). The two circles are Rio Vista at left, and Locke at upper right.

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