Believing in a better world
By Katie Meehan
As news of the recent tragic shooting in Arizona ricocheted across the nation, I recalled the first time I met Rep. Gabrielle Giffords ã in a different Tucson parking lot, during her run for office in 2006. Carne asada crackled on the grill; people laughed and traded gossip; my friends band howled country tunes from a makeshift stage. Gabby shook hands, thanked volunteers, listened intently to people who tugged at her sleeve. When a cover of "El Guero Canelo” ã a local anthem ã was played, she dragged her staffers onto the dance floor. Her feet had no rhythm, but she was fearless.
Since then ã and particularly since that Saturday ã "Arizona” has become synonymous with political division and violence. After seven years and a doctorate from the University of Arizona, I left Tucson last summer for greener pastures in Oregon ã my home state. At the new faculty orientation, people raised their eyebrows when I listed my schooling. "Oh, Arizona,” one person sighed, "Why are they so backward?”
While I cant blame them ã Arizona is ground zero for border conflict, anti-gay and anti-immigrant legislation, foreclosures and dire fiscal circumstances ã I find this conceptual distance even more troubling. Following this tragedy, our Oregon congressional delegate chose to draw lines between "us” and "them.” Rep. Kurt Schrader described Arizona as "a little more whacked out than other states.” Rep. Peter DeFazio offered a similar explanation. "I would hope that nothing like this would happen in Oregon,” he said. "This kind of behavior isnt part of Oregons culture.”
Really? I was an undergraduate at the UO when the shootings at Thurston High School rocked our community to its core. I remember the hateful anti-gay rhetoric that backed Measure 9. We all witnessed the racist and anti-government testimonies of the Woodburn bank bombers. Just last month, someone started a fire at a mosque in Corvallis, in apparent retaliation to the Pioneer Courthouse Square bomb threat. The Beaver State is not immune to divisive politics, planned acts of violence, or refusal to accept social difference.
The polarization of political discourse, in my opinion, pivots on questions of social difference: how we codify it, where we allow it, how we police it. These issues reach beyond the saguaro-studded deserts of the Southwest. "It is not only about the difference of opinion,” remarked Rep. Raul Grijalva, a congressman from Arizonas 7th District, "but how we handle difference. There needs to be an acceptance of divergent views and how we act like a community. The state of Arizona is the bellwether state as the creator of much of the division across the nation.”
Arizonas Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik put it even more bluntly. "We have become the Mecca for prejudice and bigotry,” he told a evening press conference. "Because I think its the vitriolic rhetoric that we hear, day in and day out, from people in the radio business and some people in the TV business Ä this has not become the nice United States of America that most of us have grown up in. And I think its time that we do a little soul-searching.” Some, like Sen. John Kyl, think "the sheriffs words have no place at a press conference.” But I think its time to speak truth to power.
What meaning could ever emerge from such violence and loss? On one level, this was a story of a deeply disturbed individual, motivated by anti-government feelings, punishing citizens who happened to be, as Sheriff Dupnik said, "in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
But on another level, this story reveals the profound refusal to peacefully accept difference. Consider this political map: Arizona is not "out there.” Its right here. From health care to immigration, from the ideal role of government to the institution of marriage, political fault-lines run deep within our national bedrock. We suffer from the same lack of jobs, the same deteriorating education system, the same uncertain futures.
Now, more than ever, we need an American culture that respects difference ã and that starts here, in Eugene. For 2011, try finding points of unexpected convergence and agreement between divisive issues. Attend a public lecture or event on a controversial topic. Learn to think critically and argue peacefully. Volunteer with a local organization that promotes peaceful understandings of social difference. Do a little soul-searching.
To the victims of this tragedy, their loved ones, and the people of the Old Pueblo, our Oregon hearts are with you. In these dark days, I reach back to another Saturday, to a different parking lot in Tucson ã where under a starlit night Gabby Giffords danced in cowboy boots, asking us to believe in a world where hate gives way to hope. Ill see you there.
Katie Meehan is a professor of geography at the University of Oregon. She can be reached at email@example.com