Have you been to Bakersfield? Ask that of most people in California and they’ll say, “No, but I’ve been through it.” They just kept on rolling over parched Central Valley earth en route to Los Angeles or the Bay Area. Why didn’t they stop? Perhaps they were startled or saddened by the eternal glare from the dry and forlorn bed of the Kern River gasping under Highway 99. If they had gotten off the freeway and driven around, they would have seen a city of astonishing ugliness. Some of the filthiest air in the country shrouds vast stretches of barren land and oil wells and drab buildings new and old. This is a place where desperate people came more than a century ago and the people who’ve come since – and I must candidly include myself – have also been desperate, either to take the good jobs they hadn’t gotten in better places or to take any job to escape economic deprivation in foreign lands. One third of the adults in this area do not have a high school diploma. Twenty percent of the people live at or below the official poverty line. The crime rate is high and anti-crime rhetoric is hot. Churches are plentiful, congregations vast.
Inevitably, many in distressed places talk a lot about moral values. They’re convinced, or want to become so, that those who live in more scenic and culturally stimulating places are ethically inferior to themselves. In that regard, the front section of The Bakersfield Californian on November fourth provided a launch pad for some of the most fanatical and self-serving political statements one is ever likely to encounter. The primary stimulus for such piety, of course, was the victory of George W. Bush. Sixty-seven percent of the voters in Kern County backed the president. The rest of California stumbled, giving Bush only 44 percent of its support. This was not merely a presidential victory. For Bakersfield, and hundreds of socially similar communities nationwide, this was the ideal moment to pronounce moral values their number one concern, and thus gays must not be allowed to marry, abortions have to be banned, and stem cell research should be severely restricted. Health care? That issue barely registered on their radar screens. Terrorism, Iraq, and the economy were concerns, but not nearly as much as the wanton call for superior morality.
A young teacher and youth pastor was roused to run for the high school board because some English teachers in the district had assigned the novel “The Bluest Eye” by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison. Earlier this year, groups of enraged parents tried to ban the book because of its depictions of sexual abuse. The superintendent of schools barely convinced the “liberal” school board not to bury the book by promising to offer it only to upper level and academically advanced students. The youth pastor could feel currents of righteous anger surging through his community, and built a campaign on the proposition that the school board should review all books on the reading list. Lots of people, even in the most evangelical communities, cherish their First Amendment rights, and they rebuked the young man, some leveling the unfair charge that he planned to be a book burner. In the immediate delirium of divine victory, the new board member told a radio talk show host that he really might start burning books. The next day he assured The Californian that wasn’t going to happen and had never been part of his candidacy. He was only being “sarcastic” to his detractors. They no longer mattered. There were more important issues. He was part of a vanguard that was establishing “basic moral sanity in our system of government and in our laws.” Evidently, basic moral sanity had been absent before his election.
An even more messianic figure was a councilwoman who crushed her less-pious opponent three to one. What has been this councilwoman’s most publicized contribution to government? According to The California, it was her success in emblazoning “In God We Trust” on a “prominent place” at city hall. That, unsurprisingly, is a mere warm up for this fount of righteousness. She and Bakersfield have a far greater duty. To The Californian she exclaimed that “God is blessing our country so we as Americans can be a light to the rest of the world.” And she offered even more hope closer to home, noting that people in Bakersfield “should take on another challenge (and) be a light to the rest of California. ”
Offering a light to others is often commendable. But try to remember that for some your light is a glare.