Friday, July 25, 2014

Raising Arizona


I remember my first trip across America when I was no more than 6 years old, stopping off at Old Tucson to watch one of their famous staged gunfights.  The studio dates back to 1939 and is still used today, although its glory days when Gene Autry, Glenn Ford and Jimmy Stewart rode into town are long since over.  Tombstone was the last movie of any significance to be shot at the studio in 1993.

Still, that spirit lives on, moreso than some persons would like it to, as Arizona has placed itself prominently in the news with its border clashes and its virtually non-existent gun laws.  You can purchase almost any type of gun today and carry it openly, just like in the days of the Old West.

Much of Arizona came in with the Western territories in 1848, the spoils of the Mexican War.  The Gadsden Purchase completed the deal in 1853, forming what is now the border with Mexico.  In 1862, Arizona was given its own territorial government apart from New Mexico, and immediately threw its sympathies behind the Confederate States.  In a bold move, Jefferson Davis actually trade to establish a trade route to California, but this ambitious quest was thwarted at Glorieta Pass.  Arizona has been fighting a "border war" with Mexico ever since.

President Taft approving Arizona statehood
There were several attempts to gain statehood, the most contentious of which was an omnibus statehood bill in 1903 that would have given statehood to Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona but it too was blocked.  Arizona would simply have to wait its tour, coming into the Union of February 14, 1912, a month after New Mexico and four-and-a-half years after Oklahoma.

The state has had a colorful history and a lot of contentious moments.  Probably its most contentious moment was when Barry Goldwater chose to defy the conventional wisdom of the Republican Party and vote against the landmark Civil Rights legislation of 1964.  Turns out he was just a little ahead of his times, as eventually the GOP would use this same tainted well of emotions to lure the Dixiecrats to its party and sweep the South in the 1972 election.

Goldwater was known as "Mr. Conservative."  He had previously rejected the New Deal and anything else that smelled of big government.  He was born in Phoenix when it was nothing more than a territorial governor's seat.  His brand of politics was popular among the Libertarian Republicans, who strongly believed in a small federal government and the balance of power resting in the states.  To Goldwater's credit, he didn't see a place for religion in politics, which would put him outside mainstream conservatism today.

Arizona struggled with the legacy of Civil Rights.  It refused to acknowledge Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which even the Southern states had begrudgingly accepted.  Governor Bruce Babbitt had tried to invoke the holiday by executive order, but it was similarly revoked by the succeeding governor Evan Mecham.  Finally in late 1992 the holiday was approved by referendum after the NFL threatened to pull the Super Bowl from Sun Devil Stadium the following year.

It is also one of only two states not to recognize Daylight Savings Time, although the Navajo Reservation, which engulfs a large northern section of the state does, making it kind of cumbersome crossing borders within the state.

Probably the most enduring image of the state remains Monument Valley as shot both by Edward Sheriff Curtis and John Ford.  I'm sure Curtis' sepia prints inspired Ford, who would use the iconic buttes in several of his films, notably The Searchers, which was filmed on location in 1956.  He was one of the first directors at the time to include native Americans in his films and had a particular affinity for the Navajo.  He airlifted food into their reservation when they experienced one of their worst winters in December, 1948, and the Navajo never forgot Ford's generosity.

Edward Sheriff Curtis, Monument Valley, ca. 1900

I had the opportunity to work one summer at Canyon de Chelly in 1988, which is part of the Navajo reservation.  The beautiful canyon hosts some of the most extant cliff dwellings of the Anasazi, dating back to the 10th century.  The nearby Hopi mesas also date to the same time with Walpi the oldest continuous settlement in North America, dating to approximately 900 CE.  The Navajos, or Dine as they call themselves, were immigrants who arrived in the Colorado Plateau sometime around the 14th century, long after the pueblo builders.   And, of course there is the Grand Canyon which John Wesley Powell explored in 1869 during his geographic expedition of 1869.  This canyon has long been home to the Havasupai, whom Powell encountered along the way.

It is odd that a state which embraces its rich cultural legacy took so long to accept MLK Day, but I guess this is part of its independent nature.  This would help explain some of the recent decisions in state legislature, openly defying the federal government, especially in regard to immigration.

The state has literally tried to take the law into its own hands, infamously represented by Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, who used racial profiling to track down perceived illegal immigrants, resulting in numerous lawsuits brought against his sheriff's department, and eventually the US. Department of Justice stepped in to investigate the matter.  Arpaio also actively challenged President Obama's birth certificate.  All this made him a folk hero among the conservative right wing, and has earned six consecutive terms as sheriff.  His antics, however, have made him "the most expensive sheriff in America."

Sprawling Phoenix
More than a century after its statehood, Arizona very much remains an enigma.  It has attracted persons from far and wide, yet remains staunchly conservative in its views.  This spirit was probably best captured in the Coen Brothers movie, Raising Arizona.  Since 1912, its population has risen exponentially from 204,000 to well over 6 million inhabitants, with the vast majority of that population centered in Maricopa County.  This is the Phoenix metropolitan area. Tucson is further to the South in Pima County.  Together these counties account for nearly 80% of the population.

The sizable Hispanic population doesn't seem to have much sway in state politics, largely because they have been conveniently isolated as a result of the gerrymandering that followed the pivotal 2010 midterms.  Since then the state has been battling with federal courts over the shape of the districts.

Somehow this state has managed to defy its limits, but one wonders how much longer in can do that, as this is a state (at least the southern part) literally running out of water, with much of its fresh water supply coming from the Colorado River Basin, which is drying up.  John Wesley Powell had foreseen these problems, but unfortunately the state chose to ignore his comprehensive water management plans and now has to rely more and more on water treatment plants.

At some point Arizona's conservative intransigence has to give way to more pragmatic concerns.

No comments:

Post a Comment