California is still burning.
At this point, 42 people are dead. Some 217,000 acres are devastated. Thousands of homes are destroyed. Entire towns are now charred wreckage. As the fires burned their hottest, trees glowed a seething orange behind their bark, before exploding. Families took shelter wherever they could find it; one couple spent a long, cold night submerged to their necks in a neighbor’s pool, seeking refuge from falling embers.
The fires are now mostly contained. But the cleanup will be massive. It will take political cooperation at the local, state, and federal levels to allocate funds, organize rebuilding, and provide relief to the tens of thousands of people who are now displaced — homeless — with no certainty about their future. It will take leadership, compromise, and statesmanship. It will take selflessness.
Even in ordinary times, the political cooperation and organizational infrastructure required after a disaster of this magnitude are a challenge. The political infighting after Hurricane Katrina is the stuff of legend. And these are not ordinary times. After a particularly brutal hurricane season, federal recovery dollars will be hard to come by. And Washington has never been more polarized, or less stable. California is beginning a gubernatorial primary season, which brings with it the kind of posturing and grandstanding that make it difficult to get real work done. At the same time, finger-pointing has begun, as Californians try to explain the causes of the massive wildfires that consumed so much of the Napa Valley. Governor Jerry Brown is already being blamed for the fires, after vetoing a bipartisan 2016 bill intended to make power lines less likely to contribute to the spread of wildfire in residential areas.
In such extraordinary times, facing such a monumental task, it’s natural to hope for a singularly focused, consensus-building political leader, who would cut through partisanship and pettiness to help rebuild lives, homes, and communities across California. Governor Brown, who has a very long record of public service in California, and has few political limitations in the year before his final term expires, should be the man for the job. That is why it is so disappointing that on Sunday night, while the wildfires were still spreading, the governor took time to sign California’s Gender Recognition Act, which allows Californians to choose a “non-binary” gender identity on drivers’ licenses, and to change name and gender on state identification documents with ease.
Signing the bill will cement Brown’s legacy among libertines and elites, who already revere him because of his support for gay marriage and assisted suicide. But while the Gender Recognition Act will win him adulation from progressive pundits, it won’t make it easier for Brown to solve the real and immediate problems his state is facing. In fact, he’s made that job harder.
In the face of a crisis requiring broad cooperation, especially from churches and religious social service agencies, Brown chose to remind Californians of faith that their views don’t matter, and that they have no place in his vision for California. Instead of building the consensus that would help real Californians, Brown chose to secure his place in the pantheon of progressive demagogues, consequences be damned. Instead of facing the reality of California’s needs, Brown spent his time trying redefine what’s real, to usher in a new world in which reason is supplanted by confusion, masquerading as freedom.
In the classic 1951 film Quo Vadis, based upon Henryk Sienkiewicz’ novel, the emperor Nero is a mad narcissist: licentious, insecure, and cruel. Nero is far more concerned with securing his place in history — with being remembered as a genius, and an artist — than he is with leading his people. They suffer for his madness, and for his neglect.
Eventually, Nero’s Rome burns to the ground, in a fire which the emperor himself began. But he is impervious to the suffering of his citizens. He stands overlooking his burning city, plucking a harp, and obsessing about his place in history, and a new world he’ll create in his own image — Neropolis.
“That is my epic,” Nero tells his courtiers. “To change the face of the world. To demolish and create anew.”
California is burning. Brown is not the cause of the fire. But he should be singularly focused on helping his people. Instead, he seems more concerned with plucking a harp for his place in history, redefining reality with his pen. “To change the face of the world. To demolish, and create anew.”