Sunday, November 13, 2011

What IS it about Arizona?

Marc Lacey is easy on the eyes.

I don't care about your age, or usual type. Even if you're blind, that man is attractive. He's articulate and gently humorous without being offensive, which is pretty much exactly what most people want in a panel moderator. A big thumbs up to Zocalo Public Square for their choice of the New York Times Phoenix Bureau Chief to preside over the October 20th panel "Is Arizona the Front Line of American Politics?"

The panel was held at Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, well-attended and in complete disagreement with one key phrase of the event planners' tag line: "Zocalo Public Square connects people to ideas and to each other in an open, accessible, non-partisan and broad-minded spirit."  That is to say, in this case, it was a totally partisan event.

The democratic panelists politely took turns answering each question with roughly the same position.

There was former Arizona House Minority Leader Art Hamilton.
Tom Zoellner, author and former speech writer for Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
ASU associate professor of political science Jennifer Steen.
And Jon Talton, The Rogue Columnist and former Arizona Republic writer-turned blogger, who answered every question by reading aloud his April 2010 post Crazy Arizona

Actually, Talton wasn't even asked as far as I know. A gal can dream right? Nevertheless, of the ACTUAL panelists, all esteemed leaders.

From the start, the panel agreed that yes, Arizona IS leading a charge in American politics. Yes, we are garnering press and holding our freak-flag high, but only because here - in the outlaw west - we make it easy for the disenfranchised, the frightened, the radical extremists to speak up, to get elected to office, to pass bills, to ride the coat-tails of our celebrity politicians and then to cut and run when problems arise in their wake.

I learned about the down side to term limits: It denies institutional memory and fails to create trust in the government establishment. With a less mature governmental structure than places like Sacramento or Sante Fe, how can a revolving door to the House encourage people to value what goes on inside it?  I heard that what is currently written into the clean elections bill that Arizona has been an early adopter of just allows for anyone with friends and a microphone to push their agenda; experience and quality control be damned.

If this was a panel called "What is Wrong with Arizona?" than I would have nothing left to say - question answered. Thank god a panel named with that kind of vitriol wouldn't make it past the Public Square's Public Relations. 

To be sure, I left with an armful of statistics and a juicy bit of political gossip:
  • In the last year, 69 front page stories in the New York Times mentioned Arizona.
  • Over 80% of people here aged 65 and above are anglo and 60% of the youth in our state define as Latino - a demographic known as "Grey vs Brown" (other resources quote other statistics). 
  • Despite our red state reputation, according to voter registration, the numbers split the pie roughly in thirds.
  • According to Zoellner, Governor Jan Brewer didn't want to sign controversial Senate Bill 1070, but needed an edge to move out of 3rd place in the republican state primary. Shortly after signing, she won. I'm not sure if this makes me like her less or more. Probably less.
As time passed, I found myself getting increasingly uneasy - why? The panelists weren't saying much I hadn't already heard, and weren't courting controversy themselves...

It's probably because I tend to get fixated on goals.  Maybe it's because I had a really tough AP English teacher in high school.  Truly, it's because beyond a simple "yes," they never answered the question! What I really wanted to hear were articulate reasons WHY Arizona is the front line of American politics. Have you ever known something was true but unable to verbalize how? After 10 years in the desert I know Arizona represents something bigger. But I'm no expert. Just a simple girl bothered by the bothersome. It was for this reason I was in the audience that night: to sit and not think.

To not think about how many people here are 1st generation Arizonans, moved in from Washington, Illinois, Michigan and Connecticut. About the sense of entitlement that we new residents bring with us as we move into big inexpensive houses walled off and protected from less-desirable neighborhoods. That here in our state we have more golf courses than anyone west of the Mississippi and I heard last year that Arizona has the largest number of Hummer owners per capita than any other state. Arizona sings the siren song of what has become of The American Dream - and like it or not, the recession that threatens to take away our beloved real estate, flat TV screens and the blinders against societal ills - hits harder here than in any other place. So of course Arizonans are going to yell the loudest and cast blame about with the greatest absurdity; we bought into an ideal that is fast crumbling around our feet. In smaller regions spread about the country, other Americans are feeling the same, and feed the media giant Arizona has become because they are desperate too to see something, anything try to pull us out of this muck.

I'm interested to read the upcoming book A Safeway in Arizona: What the Gabrielle Giffords Shooting tells us about the Grand Canyon State and Life in America.  Mr. Zoellner said that while the shooter was obviously insane, the political climate here played a part.  I'm curious to see how far the argument is taken. Has Zoellner too arrived at the conclusion that out here in the desert, we're all just terrified of losing what we have, and rather than sit on our proverbial porches with guns across our laps, many people have felt compelled to get up and Shout! and Run for Office! and Pass Bills! Unfortunately, the platitude Desperate Times Call for Desperate Measures isn't enough now, because the recession is showing us an ugly side of ourselves - a side that is sometimes racist, ageist, possessive, and at times downright ridiculous.

It's been about a month since I sat in that folding chair, taking notes and waiting for some magical phrase that would sum up nicely why everything feels so unsettled in Arizona, and why the nation keeps looking at us and wondering what's next. What I expected and what I got were clearly very different but I can appreciate a good catalyst to thought when I see one.

In hindsight. 20/20 you know.


Unknown said...

Wow Megan, you're developing into quite the articulate writer. Javing lived in Arizona myself (albeit briefly), I've often wondered about some of these same things, and haven't come to any useful conclusions. One thing you touched on though I feel is at - or at least near - the root of the problem nationwide, but especially in AZ, TX, and CO:

"About the sense of entitlement that we new residents bring with us as we move into big inexpensive houses walled off and protected from less-desirable neighborhoods."

As an educator, what I notice most about that divide is the impact it has on schools - depending on the state (and county and district) schools in wealthy, predominantly white areas tend to get funding correlating to the tax contributions of the residents of that particular school district, meaning that privileged white kids typically get a privileged white education (much like we had, let's face it), while kids in less affluent neighborhoods get less resources, and lower-paid (grumpier!)teachers, not just perpetuating the problem, but exacerbating it.
Thanks for this post, Megan. Starting my day with some food for thought :)

Dave S

Megan Michelle said...

Wow - thanks for your feedback Dave! I had a hard time writing this, because I am not a political scientist...but this curious state of affairs has been keeping me up nights - I had to put something into words! Any additional thoughts you have on solving this issue send my way! :)

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