TEMPE, ARIZ. – Around midday Sunday my friend and colleague at Arizona State University’s Cronkite School, Dan Gillmor (@dangillmor), tweeted this: “Are Arizona folks reflecting on the fact that hardly anyone was surprised that the shootings took place in AZ?”
I had just walked out of Catholic Mass and my first reaction to Dan’s tweet was “no, Dan most Arizonans are not aware of that.”
Sure Arizona has vitriolic political rhetoric, a president of the State Senate who many liberals believe has ties to conservative hate groups and a Maricopa County Sheriff who thinks it’s good politics to dress inmates in pink underwear and feed them baloney sandwiches. Despite all that, my perception is most Arizonans are taken aback by the fact that the rest of the country views Arizona as a hotbed of hatred. Certainly, talk radio on Monday seemed to reject that notion.
Just take a look at the debate kicked off by Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, who said his state has “become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry.” As a consequence of speaking out, Dupnik is now coming under attack by many including the immensely popular U.S. Sen. John Kyl, R-Ariz. Kyl said Dupnik’s comments were inappropriate and nothing more than “speculation.”
Kyl made one crucial point. He said: “We really don’t know what motivated this young person except to know he was very mentally unstable as was pointed out ….”
I hesitated to write this reflection because of that fact. While the nation and the media rush to judgment and decide that Arizona is an ugly, racist place, there is apparently no direct evidence that Jared Lee Loughner is anything more than a seriously disturbed young man. Liberals may be dismayed, but the efforts to connect him to the Tea Party or Sarah Palin seem to be little more than mean-spirited speculation.
BUT, the argument that Arizona is a place where hate and mean-spiritedness have a comfortable home is not that far-fetched. I have a Latino friend who is incredibly respected in his field who refuses to make Arizona his permanent home because of the political environment. The rhetoric against Hispanics and undocumented immigrants is often disturbing. I suspect it would leave most Minnesotans with jaws agape. I know Minnesota has moved to the right since I was a full-time resident there, but my three months a year there tell me reason still marks Minnesota politics in most instances. That is not always the case in Arizona, where there are few curbs on some hateful language.
Before you make judgments about that race issue and immigration, one leavening idea is required. There is a decent argument to be made that Arizona has been left to fend for itself on the illegal immigration issue. The sense of abandonment by the federal government is real. There are not daily gun battles in Phoenix, and I personally remain totally unconvinced that undocumented workers have taken jobs white people wanted; but certainly Southern Arizona ranchers live in fear. Arizonans feel picked on when it comes to immigration.
Clearly, Arizona is a conservative state, but is it hateful? Do people in school, church and workplaces constantly hold hate in their hearts? My clear answer is no.
The sin for most Arizonans, and perhaps most Minnesotans, is too few people stand up to hatred, political bullying and outrageousness. Too few people in Arizona and most other places have the courage to stand up and say, “Look, moderation is virtuous and I won’t tolerate extremism.”
I have been bursting with pride for the last few months over the actions of my good friend Dave Durenberger and several of his important Republican friends. That group, disturbed by the stances of the GOP nominee for governor, supported the Independent candidate and are being punished for it. Marching in political lockstep is not good for any society. I fear that if political courage is punished our democracy takes a serious hit.
My wife, Jean, and I have been discussing for several months whether passivity is acceptable anymore in the Arizona political environment. Saturday night we were in a sports bar near our home when another patron said some incendiary things about the events of the day. In an attempt at peace Jean quickly said, “It’s obvious political conversations won’t work between us.” The fellow ignored us and clearly wanted to fight, so he continued.
In the past we would have moved, or just let the fellow spout. Not anymore. We fought back. We spoke our minds and spoke for our perception of justice. The bully backed off. I don’t kid myself that we changed his mind, but we did make him aware that there is diversity of opinion. Maybe, just maybe, that fellow, radio talkers, vehement bloggers and commenters will think a little bit before they express volatile opinions.
All Arizonans, all Americans who believe they are moderate and reasonable in their views, who believe they are without hate and who believe malice is poisoning our political society, need to begin speaking up now. We all need to understand we are accountable for what the leaders of our state say and do. The actions of our “leaders” do reflect on each of us.
Tim McGuire is the Frank Russell Chair for the Business of Journalism at the Walter Cronkite School, Arizona State University. He blogs at McGuire on Media. McGuire was editor and senior vice president of the Star Tribune from 1992 to 2002.