Post Election Reflections in the Desert
After the disappointing results of the November elections my husband and I decided to get away from the noise of the pundits and the seduction of the internet for just a little while. We put our dogs in the truck and went for an evening drive in the desert. The dirt road we chose was dusty and the truck rattled over washboards as we headed east towards the Superstition Mountains. The lowering sun reflected its amber light off craggy rock faces and large cacti with names like saguaro and cholla dotted the landscape. Leafless trees with chlorophyll-rich bark known as palo verde provided green relief contrasting against the reds and grays of the rocky dry soil. The solitude was complete, the silence deafening.
A large spider was crossing the road in front of us so we stopped the truck and got out, cameras in hand. It was a male tarantula, about the size of a small teacup, out looking for a female. Tarantulas are generally reclusive but in the fall the males get the urge to mate and can be found wandering afield. I squatted down and guided him onto my hand where he reluctantly stepped; daintily lifting his eight hairy legs in synchronistic order as he crawled up my arm, across my shoulders and down my back. I coaxed him back onto my hand and released him to the safer ground off of the road.
I need to see this beautiful, unforgiving landscape and its wild denizens from time to time. It may look harsh to some but to me it signifies resilience and how an ecosystem has evolved to survive in a very difficult climate. It also begs a comparison to the political climate in this state, where people of color are still denigrated, treated as second class citizens and also have to create their own resilience to survive. The distinction is one of purely natural function versus adversity manufactured from the all-too-human emotions of fear and hatred.
I’ve been speaking out about the politics of Arizona a lot lately. There has been much to talk about: A law targeting undocumented immigrants that also sweeps up in its wide net Latino residents and citizens, while leaving the white inhabitants unaffected; A state senator hell-bent on dismantling a constitutional amendment guaranteeing all persons born on this soil the right to be here; a grab for power by an incoherent governor who learned that lies sell and hatred of brown “invaders” wins elections—even while the state was crumbling all around her.
Somehow the dialogue has been twisted around to advance misinformation and scapegoating instead of looking at real issues, facts and humane solutions. Straw men in the form of scary Spanish-speaking people, who dared to cross a line to seek opportunity for themselves and their families, are labeled “illegal” and called criminals. At this point all exchange inevitably breaks down because once a criminal you are no longer human in the eyes of those see you in this light. You have dared to break laws created by people who have motives you can barely understand. The price for this transgression is now everyone who looks and speaks like you is regarded with suspicion and subject to raids on their homes, their persons and workplaces. Never mind the fact that you left circumstances too horrible for any of us in our comfortable American complacency to conceive of. No one cares that you work long hours doing backbreaking labor--or that you purchase our goods, pay our taxes, support our schools, keep your head down and raise beautiful children who dream of a life better than yours. Forget about the fact that you are a human being. You are illegal. You must be driven out.
Those of us who are willing to look beyond the stigmatizing labels and endless rhetoric of hate and who possess a shred of empathy find this increasingly difficult to watch. “The law is the law” being parroted over and over again starts to sound eerily reminiscent of the signs that proclaimed that “whites only” could drink at certain fountains or sit at the front of busses-- for these too were the laws once. The fact that at one time it was illegal for women to vote or to marry a person of a different race or for men to love other men is hard for many to conceptualize now. It's almost as if those crazy laws never existed.
Apparently it is just as difficult for some to remember that the political party they have just handed the US House of Representatives back to is the very same that got us into economic quicksand to begin with. Memories are short, perhaps further curtailed by truncated segments on television with one-sided messages played repeatedly-- effectively drowning out any attempt at independent thought on the part of the viewer. As Vladimir Lenin once said, “A lie repeated often enough becomes truth.”
Like the desert landscape, where erosion is the happening thing, change comes very slowly to Arizona politics. As the 48th and last contiguous state to join the union, Arizona was the final frontier where people fled to avoid the law, whether it was Mormons who wished to have multiple wives in peace or gunslingers in Tombstone. At one time the mining boomtown of Bisbee had a judge-sanctioned unwritten law in place that no "Chinaman" could remain in town after sundown. This bucking of progressing social norms continued when Governor Evan Mecham told African Americans in 1987 that “(Martin Luther) King doesn't deserve a holiday." Now we have Russell Pearce, newly elected as president of the state senate proclaiming that the 14th Amendment has been “subverted” because the newer laws excluding people from the country somehow take precedence over the simple and elegant language stating that “All persons” born here are guaranteed citizenship. He doesn't display any empathy for those who are citizens of his state either. While advocating cutting services for the poor and children, Pearce tells us, “Church, community, family’s got to provide.” In other words, we're gonna party like it's 1929.
Governor Mecham also once said, “The time comes when the majority says we’re not going to take it anymore.” It’s abundantly clear to many of us that what Pearce really fears is that the current majority, his majority, may be on its last leg. Now Mecham’s words take on a whole new meaning. Soon the tide will turn leaving those of his and Pearce’s ilk out in the cold, where they so rightly belong.
The sun rapidly approached the western horizon where Phoenix lights would soon be twinkling in the distance. We drove up to the Peralta trailhead, gateway into the Superstition Wilderness, just as the setting rays were turning the faces of pitted rock, columns and hoodoos a brilliant burnt orange color. Darkness descends quickly on the desert and this is the time animals stir forth to eat and be eaten. My tarantula will face many dangers but with luck he will find a female and coax her out of her burrow to mate. He will then need to beat a hasty retreat to avoid becoming dinner himself. Like the tarantula, we are all driven by our own purpose, some to divide and maintain an enclave of white power-holders, others to bring a truly equitable climate to this state for all its inhabitants. The desert is patient. We must be as well. Change may be slow but it is inevitable. It's up to us to keep moving forward, not backwards.