Tag Archives: Arizona

I Came To Grieve and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt

What if the President of the United States gave a speech and all anybody could talk about the next day was the applause? That is not exactly where we find ourselves today, one day after Obama’s remarks at the University of Arizona last night; but it is hard not to talk about the raucousness of the crowd and wonder whether all that hooting and clapping and whistling and hollering was appropriate, and why the occasion wasn’t more serious and solemn.

Conservative commentator Tammy Bruce labeled it “massacre rally theater,” and thought the event outdid even the Paul Wellstone funeral in its cynical exploitation of tragedy. Others were appalled, or pretended to be appalled, by the “Together We Thrive” t-shirts distributed to the audience.

You can write most of that off as mere whining from the right. Of course the event was political; how could it not be? The conservatives protest too much, and they would have a better case if John Boehner had bothered to show up and shed some tears over someone other than himself. Still, I have to wonder how many people in that audience came expecting grief, prayer, or catharsis and left confused by the pep-rally atmosphere and the lousy t-shirt.

I was reminded less of the 2002 Wellstone memorial and more of the 2007 rally at Virginia Tech after Seung-Hui Cho went on a shooting spree, inspiring Nikki Giovanni to write yet another very bad poem and raise her arms in triumph as the Hokies in the bleachers let out war whoops. I guess all this cheering and hollering and chanting is one way people have of coming together and lifting themselves up after something inexplicable and terrible happens; and maybe we can’t expect restraint or dignity from a big college crowd, used to gathering at football games and basketball tournaments.

I worry, though, that in the face of shooting rampages or worse, the rally atmosphere makes nuanced discussion nearly impossible, and gives false hope, asking us to pretend we are less divided than we really are, and tries to bring closure prematurely when we should be asking ourselves some very hard questions about where we go from here.

To put it another way, I am not at all sure that Together We Thrive. Dissent and dissonance matter, too; a democracy thrives through difference and division. The whole “Together” theme feels Orwellian, to use an overused word; it celebrates a hive mentality, and smacks of a Utopian fantasy — that we can retreat from history and take refuge in some Togetherness or Unity, or the City of God (as the President himself suggested in his reference to Psalm 46), or that we can escape from the work of politics with a group hug and big, rousing cheer.

Next Stop, Arizona

I bring my passport with me as a matter of course when I travel, and I will have it with me when I go to Arizona in a couple of weeks. I don’t plan to cross over to Mexico, but I consider it prudent to have my papers always in order. And it seems especially prudent now under the new Arizona law.

There’s not much chance I will arouse suspicion. My features are unmistakably Mediterranean, Southern Italian, Neapolitan: walk the Spaccanapoli or the streets of Fisciano and you will see versions of me everywhere, people who could be cousins, sisters, brothers, uncles, aunts. There are people who look like me (and who share my last name) in Buenos Aires, Argentina and Sao Paolo, Brazil, too; but those faces simply tell the story of European migration to the Americas.

Still, a rich and pampered woman from Connecticut, the wife of an acquaintance, once mistook me for a waiter when I attended a party at a restaurant where the staff was almost entirely Hispanic; another woman, much the same type, remembered me as one of the Mexican counter staff at a café in Berkeley where I used to study. Mistakes have been made.

And it’s only recently in American history that my heritage allows me to claim that I am one of us rather than one of them. The largest mass lynching in American history took place in New Orleans, in 1891, where 11 Italian immigrants were strung up for their role in murdering New Orleans police chief David Hennessy. (These 11 were convicted after a city-wide sweep in which 250 Italian immigrants were arrested.) At the time, and up until the First World War, Italian immigrants were associated in the popular mind not just with organized crime (as they still are) but also with political anarchism; nativists thus stood for the rule of law and against the lawlessness immigrants brought to our shores, and for linguistic purity and an unhyphenated American identity. Teddy Roosevelt spoke of Southern European immigrants in many of the same disdainful terms Arizona politicians today use to describe the invading Mexican hordes.

Which is not to say there is not a real problem with illegal immigration in Arizona. It’s just that we’ve been here before, at a moment when the country was undergoing a demographic shift on the order of the one it’s undergoing right now. By 2050, the Hispanic population is expected to double from 15 to 30 percent — one third — of the American population.

Frank Rich rightly points out in his column today that the anger in Arizona, and around the country, is not just about illegal immigration, but a “nativist apoplexy” that afflicts the very same people who consider President Obama “Illegal Alien No. 1”. Rich cites Rush Limbaugh, who, after the President made comments critical of the Arizona legislation, offered this clever little quip: “I can understand Obama being touchy on the subject of producing your papers. Maybe he’s afraid somebody is going to ask him for his.”

Limbaugh knows how to play on the feelings of disenfranchisement, both political and economic, that make the trouble in Arizona about more than race, more than ethnicity, more than changing demographics. Still, Rich is on to something, and I read today’s editorial with more than my usual interest, because I have been grappling in my own mind with the question whether, despite my work commitments, I should somehow support or respect the calls for a boycott on Arizona.

Rich makes the point that such actions are likely to prove futile, because the “virus” has already spread beyond Arizona, or was never confined to Arizona in the first place: “Boycott the Diamondbacks and Phoenix’s convention hotels if you want to punish Arizona, but don’t for a second believe that it will stop the fire next time.”

So maybe a boycott won’t change the fact that we all live in Arizona now. The question is what sorts of engagements, political and economic, will.