Monday, January 10, 2011

What to Say about Arizona?

Back when I was in High School in the early 60s - in the glory days of the Civil Rights movement - the faraway (in more ways than one) states of Alabama and Mississippi seemed (to my adolescent analysis) to be some kind of national embarrassment. Eventually, of course, I came to understand that much of what seemed so problematic about those particular places was at most a more extreme version of a nationwide challenge.

After all the attention Arizona has gotten in the last year or so for some really reprehensible legislation, one might be tempted, in the wake of Saturday's fatal tragedy, to wonder what to say about Arizona. All the more reason, therefore, to be cautious and deliberate about one's response - easier said than done, of course, in a culture characterized by instant analysis and increasingly polarized into opposing factions that are not inclined to listen to one another and are increasingly disposed to accept as facts whatever seems to supports one's group's beliefs (and often only whatever supports one's group's beliefs).

The President of the US Bishops' Conference, Archbishop Dolan of New York, expressed it well when he cautioned "against drawing any hasty conclusions about the motives of the assailant until we know more from law enforcement authorities.”

Archbishop Dolan also addressed the larger, particularly public significance of this event beyond the personal tragedies involved,: “When the target of a violent act is a public official, it shakes the confidence of the nation in its ability to protect its leaders and those who want to participate in the democratic process."

It is, of course, that very "democratic process" that has been so corrosively threatened by all the rancor and name-calling by both sides in our apparently unending culture war. The "democratic process" presumes not just that citizens will refrain from violent acts but also from the moral demonization of one another that has become all too common a substitute for reasoned discussion. Perhaps, we as a society have been so widely infected by a "post-modern" suspicion of others' underlying motives that it is increasingly almost impossible for ideologues on either side to respect the sincerity and good will of those they disagree with.

So, perhaps, the question should be not what to say about Arizona but what to say about salvaging the requisites for citizenship and a workable political community.

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