Praising Arizona

Despite recent tragedy, Arizona can still be an example to the outside world

By Liat Spiro

Before returning to campus, I was tinkering with a column about some of the novel ideas and good people I had met in my home state, Arizona. Then, on January 8, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot.

Amidst the destruction of so many lives, the column seemed irrelevant.

But, while there has been extensive national coverage of the shooting, little of it has really examined who Giffords’s Arizonans are, the actual perils they face, and the promise they offer.

So I offer the pre-January 8 column, with a few modifications, to demonstrate a bit of why Giffords was proud to represent Arizona in the U.S. House of Representatives:

I’ve heard other UChicago students characterize my home state, Arizona, as a society of bigots hailing from small, Midwestern towns and a haven for disconnected, golf-playing retirees.

But maybe Jon Stewart struck closest when he called Arizona “the meth lab of democracy.” Things happen here that are unthinkable in other parts of the country. All too often they are backwards, discriminatory, disgusting, or corrupt—take SB1070, the elimination of Medicaid coverage for life-saving organ transplants, or the firing of whistleblowers in state government (and subsequent invocation of Nixon and Cheney-style executive privilege).

Sometimes, however, things are novel in a good way, ahead of their time, breaking out of European-style or East Coast binaries (Democrat-Republican, secular-religious, capitalist-proletariat). Giffords’s positions and her third electoral victory exemplify this. Here are some other quintessentially Arizona stories, in the good way:

Tahirih (pronounced Ta-ha-rae) is a 28-year-old law student with three kids. Full disclosure: she is a friend of my mother is from the State Bar’s World Peace through Law section, where they both volunteer. Although Tahirih and her parents are of Mexican and Polish descent, they have become devoted Baha’is. According to Tahirih, Baha’i embraces and encompasses all religions in its ongoing quest to discover truth and God. This might sound like leftist spirituality, some sort of multicultural goulash, a nice way of recognizing others and still dodging moral relativism. But Tahirih is serious about God. Following her Baha’i faith, she and her husband, a born-again Christian, host interfaith meetings for children and adults at their house every week. While their interfaith group does discuss local community affairs (the common ground many interfaith groups use to effect positive change), discussion mostly focuses on God, as members of different faiths share, interpret, and exchange prayers, songs, and ideas.

“Bowling alone,” Putnam’s idea that non-sectarian, voluntary social groups are disappearing from the American landscape (with severe consequences) does not hold for Tahirih’s block in Mesa, AZ. By hosting these meetings and attending her husband’s 2,000-member evangelical church as a visitor for close to a decade, she is—person-by-person—reconstituting a neighborhood and reconstituting civility in the wider discourse about religion. I wouldn’t be surprised if Tahirih has won more hearts and minds—attenuating the negative consequences of extremist religion and magnifying religion’s force for good—than Bill Maher and Christopher Hitchens combined. Religion, even sometimes with “fundamentalist” accouterments, as a tool for reasoning and inclusiveness. Religion as the solution to religion’s problems. Only in Arizona.

Halfway across the world, persecuted minority groups in Iraq—Kurds, Assyrians, Yazidis, Mandeans, and others—are looking for models of autonomous states within states. And, in a bizarre turn of events that hammers home the extent of globalization’s reach, they are meeting with and learning from Native American tribes and legal experts from the Southwest. The Navajo, Hopi, and Tohono O’odham reservations in Arizona may serve as political, legal, and economic models for a new autonomous zone in the Nineveh Plains. Leaders of a number of Southwestern tribes have already visited Kurdish leaders in the Middle East. Despite the painful history of the reservation experience, the last three decades have witnessed a cultural and political resurgence for the tribal peoples in the Southwest, as they have strengthened their legal, political, and economic autonomy. And they, along with the legal experts from outside of the reservation, are actively explaining their model—the institutions that have brought them from terror, cultural subjugation, and poverty to secure autonomy, significant cultural preservation, and a degree of economic success—to Iraq’s minorities who find themselves, in targeted church bombings, kidnappings, and beheadings, at the very beginning of this cycle.

Will Tahirih’s message of tolerance and truth-seeking reach the armed militias at the border, the historical whitewashers at the state capitol, or the dangerous and disturbed like Jared Lee Loughner? Will persecuted minorities in Iraq gain a measure of peace, security, and stability thanks to the efforts of Native American tribes in Arizona? I don’t know. But some national intervention, in the media and in government, is needed to ensure that free-thinking Arizonans like Tahirih are not intimidated within their state and ignored outside of it. It’s time to bring back the Arizona that produced Goldwater, O’Connor, and Giffords.

Arizona deserves a place in major national discussions and decisions; federal interests and national consensus deserve a place in Arizona. Only achieving both will prevent politicians like Jan Brewer from drawing strength from “us against everyone else” rhetoric, furthering the state’s radicalization. Only achieving both will enable Arizonans’ seemingly-wacky-but-potentially-transformative ideas to travel to the parts of the country and world that most need them.

Liat Spiro is a third-year in the College majoring in History.