I arrived in San Francisco after 16 days spent vacationing in the State of Jefferson (the name locals give the swath of mountains and lakes straddling the California-Oregon border), shocked to find Republicans had taken over all federal governance, the country was moving even faster toward pre-emptive war, and the future portended massive deficits, attacks on civil liberties, environmental rollbacks, and free rein for corrupt corporations. Worse, I learned, Iran-Contra conspirator Adm. John Poindexter had been made head of a Pentagon division that would compile a vast database of every financial, medical, employment, school, credit, and government record for every American, so that law enforcement and spooks might better spy on us.
Still, there's always a bright side: Perhaps Adm. Poindexter may be able to also use his new database as a force for good, to divine exactly why America has gone so terribly, terribly wrong.
Optimistically, I dialed John and Linda Poindexter's number -- (301) 424-6613 -- at their home at 10 Barrington Fare in Rockville, Md., hoping the good admiral and excused criminal might be able to offer some insight. A pleasant-sounding woman I think might have been Linda, the former Episcopal priest and now effusive Catholic, answered the phone.
"John's not home right now, but can you call me in about 10 or 15 minutes?" she said. "I'm on the other line." But henceforth I only reached the Poindexters' answering machine.
Surely there's got to be something ordinary Californians can do. We are, after all, the one American state resisting the right-wing tide that swept the rest of the nation; we Californians stood alone in electing only Democrats to statewide office, affirming our commitment to the environment, equal rights, and world peace.
After days spent perusing the north state counties of Siskiyou, Shasta, Lassen, and Tehama, a region where the idea that Superior California should break off from the inferior part forms the core of a local right-wing nativist belief system, I began to imagine that perhaps these State of Jefferson types might be onto something.
In northernmost California, state Department of Fish and Game regulations requiring farmers to use water sparingly during drought years to protect endangered fish species are resented as a sort of imperialist attack. Enforcement of laws preventing miners from rerouting creeks and rivers is seen as a form of communist aggression. And Environmental Protection Agency curbs on logging to protect species such as the spotted owl are, for State of Jefferson movement backers, recollected as a far-west version of the Battle of the Alamo. Just as Republicans learned from Bill Clinton's centrist posings and posited George Bush Jr. as a kind and gentle man, might we also learn from our ideological opposites? I began hearing a voice: California should secede, it said.
"We've been together since 1850; that's 160 years, that's a lot of time together. Think of it as a separation, think of it as a trial separation," said the voice, which, as it happened, belonged to S.F. humorist Will Durst, interviewed on public radio's California Report. In a states'-rights manifesto published on workingforchange.com, the Web site of the left-friendly marketing company Working Assets, Durst had suggested that separating from rightward-ho eastern America would offer myriad benefits.
"Face it, they don't like us. And we don't need them. We got the food. We got the wine country to wash it down with. We got the movies, the Disneyland, the Yosemite, the Death Valley, the Sierras, the otters, the Humboldt County. We could use a flag and some money, but otherwise, we're set," Durst wrote.
California is a state uniquely suited for independence, Durst noted. Local legislatures in places like San Francisco and Berkeley are already extremely comfortable setting foreign policy.
Could it be? Might we be able to follow the lead of the right-wing yahoos populating the northern part of our state and secede from the right-wing yahoos running the rest of the country? For answers I looked to that primordial California state of 166 years ago, the last time California became an independent nation.
If we're to throw off the fetters of our Republican oppressors, we'll need to tap into our state's legendary iconoclasm. We'll need heroes the likes of the first father of the California Republic; we'll need another Stuttering Ezekiel Merritt.
Stuttering Zeke, the father of our republic, was an illiterate, smelly, ill-mannered mountaineer and trapper who kept an Indian squaw, had an Indian servant named Peg, and possessed a tomahawk with 100 notches, allegedly representing Indians he'd killed.
"He chewed tobacco disgustingly. He drank deeply whenever he could get liquor, and was a brawny stern man of 40 years of age," says Ben Hughes, a history instructor at Red Bluff High School and Shasta College, who says he's the only person to have compiled a history of the Father of California Independence. "His whole appearance and manner was as one moved by a vengeful and intoxicating passion."
In 1846 Merritt and a few of his fellow settlers on the banks of the Sacramento River in what is now Tehama County got wind that Mexico, which then governed California, planned to expel foreigners. They made their way south toward Sonoma, commandeering some Mexican army horses and kidnapping a Mexican general along the way, before joining freelancing U.S. Army Capt. John Fremont at the largely empty Mexican fort at Sonoma, where they declared California an independent republic. The republic lasted 26 days before U.S. Commodore John Drake Sloat disembarked at Monterey and proclaimed the annexation of California. Merritt, for his part, disappeared into the hills. Legends evolved positing that Merritt's cohort, William Brown Ide, was made president of the Republic. Historians subsequently showed this to be false.
For Californians horrified at the perilous direction the rest of the country has taken, Ezekiel Merritt's exploits offer hope. If there were ever a place bulging with wandering iconoclasts, California is it. If there were ever a time for those willing to cast off social mores and fight for a cause, it's now. The second movement for California independence will require the efforts of all of us ill-bred California yahoos; here's what we need to do.
As Will Durst noted in his California Independence manifesto, there are plenty of Americans, Republican and otherwise, who would be perfectly happy without California and its Democratic-leaning electoral votes. If we could irritate the Republican federal government enough, it just might set us free. We might be able to set ourselves up for a month of independence, before joining similarly liberal-minded Canada.
For freedom's sake we need to make ourselves as irritating as Stuttering Zeke Merritt. Here's how: We'll relentlessly pick on Information Czar John Poindexter. Long a hero to Republicans for avoiding prison on a technicality after being convicted of lying to Congress, Poindexter's on his way to becoming a beloved icon with his project to re-Nixonize the United States. He says his personal-information-collecting idea is to look for patterns of potential terrorist activity. I say we all band together and look for patterns in John and Linda Poindexter's personal activity.
Why, for example, is their $269,700 Rockville, Md., house covered with artificial siding, according to Maryland tax records? Shouldn't a Reagan conspirator be able to afford repainting every seven years? Is the Donald Douglas Poindexter listed in Maryland sex-offender records any relation to the good admiral? What do Tom Maxwell, at 8 Barrington Fare, and James Galvin, at 12 Barrington Fare, think of their spooky neighbor?
This kind of snooping isn't generally considered socially correct. But, then, chewing tobacco and boasting of mass killings didn't conform to the mores of 1846 Mexican California when Zeke Merritt became the father of our country.
I urge modern California founding fathers and mothers to embark on a similar campaign of social impropriety: Call Poindexter's home number, all of you, several times a day. If you get Linda, ask about her conversion from Episcopal priesthood to Catholicism; if you get John, ask why he needs our tollbooth records.
For those of you revolutionaries with private investigator friends, ask for even more sensitive information on Reagan's former national security adviser. I'd be glad to publish anything readers can convincingly claim to have obtained legally.
If enough Californians do thorough background checks on Mr. Poindexter, then use the information to jam his personal life in every possible -- legal -- way, perhaps Republicans will become annoyed enough to get rid of us once and for all. Perhaps if we phone residents of Poindexter's Rockville neighborhood often enough, the idea of California independence will become a goal of Washington insiders.
And once again, Californians will be free to be happily on our own.