A Tale of Two Empires

So, recently I began to talk about my idea that two of the regions of the United States are replicating the pattern of Rome and Byzantium/Constantinople. New York is Rome. California is Constantinople. New York is strong, but being caught up to and surpassed by other, newer centers of culture and power, such as California. In this, California is like Byzantium, which was apparently the place to be when the Roman Empire went into eclipse. Much better than Rome, for a long while. (For more on this, see my posts here and here.)

I want to say two things about this before proceeding. First, when I say “California,” I am also referring to trends among the western states, really. I am in a way using “California” for the capital and cultural flows that can also certainly be seen in the entire Pacific Northwest, although the two regions also exhibit profound differences. One difference? The Northwest doesn’t really want to be seen as a capital, whereas California embraces the idea.

Second, I don’t mean, of course, that California is “Byzantine” as that word is generally understood. If anything, the West is more transparent and open than the northeast, and easier for outsiders to understand, not harder. The analogy is the analogy of capital and cultural flows, not of specific characteristics.

However, I do think there is an analogue of the pejorative “Byzantine”—sneaky, convoluted–in the characterization of California as flaky and unsubstantial—which seems to be fading away now, but used to be a fairly common way to characterize it. In Disney concert hallboth cases, the fading capital is still strong enough to try to lob criticisms toward the new one. Perhaps part of the fade-away is, as the author M.G. Lord notes on the evolving dignity of Los Angeles as a cultural capital, it is simply that, as time goes on, Los Angeles has more of a history to be dignified about.

I can name several factors that made me think of California as the new seat of empire. At the time, I had been powerfully influenced by an Amtrak trip from the Pacific Northwest to the San Francisco Bay area. The cars were simply full of wealth. Train travel is not particularly luxury travel, usually, but this was a trip in which passengers were given complimentary wine, cheese, and fruit nearly every hour on the hour. And this wasn’t a particular first class travel compartment: it was the train generally. There was simply more wealth and ease and pleasure in it than Amtrak in the northeast states would ever have.

A friend and I who lived in Boston were equally fascinated by the idea that our living in the East had meant that we were part of the national story. In California, where we had met, you were part of a regional story. This—like the grocery store in my recent post—is part of the significant tells in daily life.

One can think of news programs reporting national election results, for example, that speak of “the results” and “the results from [for example] California.” “The results” is the entire election, often viewed predominantly through when the precincts of the northeast close and report. “The results from California” are from a subsidiary, whereas results from Boston and New York combined are it.

And yet California is where trends start and the West is increasingly where monetary, business, and population power are. They are not exclusively there, of course. But more and more, the areas that set themselves up for expansion versus constriction are where, well, people expand.



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