In Defence of Arizona

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The skyline of Central Phoenix on an unusually overcast morning [Image by Duncan Wane, 2009].
I have lived in Arizona, on and off, for 13 years now.  I went to high school here, my mother lives here, the house I’ve lived in the longest is here, I have friends here, and –despite its rapid and dizzying development– I know Phoenix better than perhaps anywhere else in the world.  I see no contradiction between calling myself Arizonan and not calling myself American, in the same way that I don’t really like being English but I identify strongly with Oxford.  As you’d expect, I rather like Arizona.  I have consequently spent 13 years defending it to other people.

In the UK, Arizona is one of the few places people generally know of which isn’t a major coastal city.  The image they have is generally one of cowboys, deserts, and the Grand Canyon – not entirely unfair.  In the rest of the US, however, and particularly on the East Coast, the general reaction to Arizona is somewhat more vitriolic.  I get looks of pity, exclamations of distress, and general expressions of contempt.

Arizona’s state politics are, as everyone knows, absurd.  Our lawmakers regularly try to assert that they have to right not to apply certain parts of the Constitution or Federal Law; people here have to fill out a second more detailed voting registration in order to vote in state elections; we have armed militias in the border counties which habitually harass and murder people suspected of being immigrants; the Sheriff of Phoenix, who is almost certainly a criminal, has been in office longer than Robert Mugabe and possesses his own private army; and the State is still thought of as the home of the abominable SB 1070.  All of this is true, and well-publicised.

However, reducing Arizona to this right-wing trend also ends up ignoring the political contributions and mobilisation of anyone who disagrees with it.  Americans like to conceive of their culture war as fundamentally geographical, and of course there are many states which reliably vote in a certain direction.  But each state contains a wide diversity of political opinion, and the margin of electoral victory by which a presidential candidate carries a state rarely exceeds 5%; when it does, it’s a landslide.  Arizona, for all the irritating behaviour of its major politicians, has a powerful (if widely-ignored) left-wing movement to oppose them.  More than that, it has been a site of serious confrontation between the right and the left since before it became a state, often presaging the major issues which would seize the nation.

The Democratic Party does function in Arizona, of course.  Janet Napolitano, now in charge of Homeland Security, used to be the Governor, and the Mayor of Phoenix is also a Democrat.  But, separated from the Democratic heartland in New England, and contemptuous of California, left-leaning Arizonans –and there are a surprising number of us– tend to look more to the grassroots to organise, rather than relying on the national parties, which leads to surprising intellectual frankness on a number of points.

Thus Phoenix, “the world’s least sustainable city”, boasts a number of local agricultural initiatives and cafés which serve only food which grows naturally in the Valley.  In an era in which sustainability is so often merely a buzzword or an excuse, this is refreshing.  As Arizona is the state with the largest First Nations population, the Heard Museum of Native American Art houses not only an impressive collection of artifacts but also a room describing in detail the torment and degradation suffered by the Nations at the hands of the American government, along with a detailed mural which depicts, among other things, a bald eagle symbolically pecking itself to death.  On the matter of immigration, Arizona’s border counties engaged in a symbolic but meaningful attempt to secede from the rest of the state in 2012, in order to show their displeasure with the State Government’s persecution of immigrants.  After the Occupy Phoenix protests were cleared out by police in October 2011, they re-emerged, with the authorities threatening similar tactics.  In response, a right-wing group of armed veterans travelled to Phoenix from and formed a barrier protecting the occupation from the Phoenix Police.  Arizona’s traditional suspicion of federal politics is not just a Republican trait.

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A bald eagle pecks itself to death in the Heard Museum’s mural [Image by Duncan Wane, 2011].
One of the first battles fought was over the issue of the recall.  Arizona’s Constitution was the first in the nation to provide for the possibility (in Article 8, if anyone’s interested) that any elected official could be subject to a recall election, after a grace period, once a certain number of signatures had been collected to that effect.  Despite the best efforts (and subterfuge) of many of Arizona’s least likable politicians of the 1910s, the recall provision remained in the draft Constitution and still applies today.  It applies to every government official, up to and including the State Governor, and has been used many times to dispatch disagreeable politicians to an early career death.

Arizona’s political war moves in phases of about 25 years.  During each phase, the conservative faction becomes slowly more powerful, and shriller, until it attempts something truly astonishing: in 1917, it was the Bisbee Deportations, during which 2,000 mine workers and other citizens were illegally deported to New Mexico by copper corporation vigilantes who then took over the town and ran it as their own for several weeks.  In 1987, Evan Mecham (a proto-Tea Party perennial candidate) unexpectedly won the Republican gubernatorial primary, and then became Governor, upon which his first act was to abolish Martin Luther King Day.  These tremendous demonstrations of power and hubris are followed by collapse, more catastrophic in some cases than in others.  In 1917, the labour movement in Arizona was crushed for a generation until the arrival of César Chávez, but the affair drew national condemnation, including from President Wilson.  In 1988, Mecham’s term in office was brought to a rapid close when he was simultaneously recalled and impeached.

The most recent occurrence of this type might be the outrage surrounding SB 1070 and its aftermath.  For all that the bill is associated with Arizona in the popular imagination, its most important provisions were struck down as unconstitutional (widely covered in the national press), and the man who wrote and sponsored the bill, Russell Pearce, was ousted in by a recall election less than a year after the bill had been passed (ignored by the national press).  Obviously, it’s too early to say whether his dismissal from office marks a full turn of the wheel; evidence suggests that there is probably another act yet to be played out.

I am not denying that the Arizonan population possesses more than its fair share of right-wing political feeling: that much is clear.  Nor am I arguing that Arizona and Phoenix are somehow exceptionally politically vibrant.  My point is that obsessing over Arizona’s government as if they somehow represent everyone here ignores the very real pushback from within the State.  Jan Brewer, Joe Arpaio, and the rest will pass out of importance, and doubtless they will be replaced by others in a similar vein, who will make their own colossal mistakes.  But, no matter how absurd it gets, there will be a reversal, and when it comes, it will be home-grown.

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