Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Searching for Arizona's soul

While watching crusty and opinionated Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik on TV over the weekend, I thought, "I'm glad this man is watching over my boy."

My boy is Kevin. He's no longer a boy but a man. A resident of Tucson, and a student at Pima Community College. Kevin probably doesn't give it much thought but it's good to have a sensible and sensitive human as the county's chief law enforcement officer.

I've spoken to Kevin several times since Saturday's shootings. Yes, everyone in Tucson is talking about it -- and we're all upset. No, he's never seen the shooter around campus. But there are five PCC campuses and thousands of students. I haven't had a chance to talk to him since this evening's memorial service at the University of Arizona Arena. Attendance was 26,000. I wanted to be there.

Tucson is a fine city. My most recent trip to Arizona was in January 2009. Call me a genius but January in Tucson is much more temperate than July in Tucson. My wife Chris and daughter Annie and I drove to Arizona in July of 2007. Long Fourth of July weekend and we had a week off. The evening of July 3, we stopped in Bernalillo north of Albuquerque and watched fireworks with a bunch of teenagers sitting on the hoods of their cars. The next night, we ventured out of the AC to watch the holiday fireworks from Tucson's A Mountain.

A few days later Kevin and I ventured out in the midday sun to visit the University of Arizona Poetry Center. U of A has since built a new poetry center, which was mentioned by University President Robert Shelton in tonight's closing remarks. He read a poem by W.S. Merwin, who lives in Hawaii but has spent a lot of time at the center, according to Shelton. Interesting how poetry and music are needed in times of woe.

Since Saturday, I've spent many hours online reading commentary about the Tucson shootings. I tended to gravitate to those pieces that talked about Arizona's culture.

One of the best is by Aurelie Sheehan. She's the director of the U of A creative writing program. She's a friend and a one-time Wyomingite. She wrote this:
Saturday night we had signed on to go to a benefit concert for a small organization that develops music programs for at-risk children in the Southwest. It was organized by a talented 12-year-old boy who took guitar lessons alongside our daughter, and we had been looking forward to it. Now no one really wanted to go — we were all too beaten down by the day. But we went anyway, to support the young guitarist and the nonprofit group.
We sat down in the school auditorium, restless, a little ill at ease, scattered in our thoughts. About 200 people were there. The lights went down and, after a weirdly protracted pause, Brad Richter, the nonprofit’s co-founder, took the stage. 
We talked quietly about what had happened that morning. He had played guitar at Gabrielle Giffords’s wedding, in 2007. And that evening he played an original composition for us, something she had requested he play then: “Elation,” the song was called. The feeling of community in the room was palpable, and if elation was beyond our reach, we were at least consoled.
Aurelie is such a great writer. I've also worked with Brad and know his soulful music. Again, here are the arts helping us to make sense of tragedy.

A harsher critique of Arizona appeared on Media Matters. It's by Will Bunch and is entitled "Arizona is where the American dream goes to die." Here's an excerpt:
The real factors behind this Arizona Nightmare -- venal banks, too much borrowing, too much outsourcing of jobs that, unlike home construction, would have been permanent and stable -- were too abstract, especially for the toxic soup of talk radio. It is tragic how a state that once prided itself on Barry Goldwater-style can-do self-reliant libertarianism devolved into blaming The Other the minute that things went south here. Virulent anti-immigrant nativism -- occasionally sprinkled with things like neo-Nazism -- grew into the desert, as did fear of Muslims, to the point where an architecturally unusual new Christian church in Phoenix had to declare in a giant banner that it was not Islamic. Political heroes were now those like Arpaio who didn't just pursue reactionary policies but actually heaped humiliation and degradation on The Other, in sweltering outdoor prison camps. Ditto with members of Congress suddenly out of step with the new zeitgeist -- moderate Democrats like Harry Mitchell and Gabrielle Giffords were not just to be disagreed with but to be physically threatened with vandalism or worse. Meanwhile, guns became a statewide obsession, as lawmakers competed to see just how lax an environment they could create, where it was legal to bring concealed firearms just about anywhere. This was the world that surrounded and buffeted a disturbed young man in Tucson named Jared Lee Loughner.
I've seen that part of Arizona. I've seen it in Wyoming, too. The anger of people who are well-to-do but who feel a strange resentment towards The Other. Those people who are wildly indignant about nearly everything because, well, because...

O.K., calm down, self. No name calling tonight.

Will Bunch does that pretty well. Although he wraps up with this hopeful note:
...maybe Arizona can dust itself off, gaze into the splendor of its big sky and see what an outsider sees, and remember what it was that brought them all to this scenic corner of America in the first place.
The promise of paradise.
Timothy Egan wrote "Tombstone Politics" for the New York Times op-ed pages. He wrote that great book on the Dust Bowl. To read his column, go here
Tombstone, the town, is in Giffords’s southern Arizona district, an Old West burg where shootouts are staged, bodies fall into the street, and then everybody applauds and laughs it off. Tombstone politics is the place we’ve been living in for some time now, and our guns are loaded.
We're living in a mythic cowboy West and our guns are really loaded, unlike those on "Tombstone Territory" and "Wyatt Earp" or "Gunsmoke." All Hollywood versions of Wild West shoot-em-up towns. But a fake Tombstone is one thing. A very real Tucson where deranged people fire guns at politicans?  We can't afford that.

For full text of Pres. Obama's speech, and other coverage of today's Tucson events, go here

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