Wednesday, May 12, 2010

What's the Matter with Arizona?

Forget Kansas. What the heck's the matter with Arizona?

The latest racial foolishness to come out of that state is a law that bans ethnic studies classes. Oh, wait, it doesn't ban all ethnic studies classes, just those that promote "ethnic chauvinism" and racial resentment toward whites (but not toward other racial groups?), advocate ethnic solidarity, and segregate students by race. And Huffington Post reports that the law, which the loopy governor signed into law, also outlaws classes that "promote the overthrow of the U.S. government."

Had a lot of classes advocating the overthrow of the government, do they in Arizona?

I doubt it.

Just as the state did with its recent (immoral and in all likelihood unconstitutional) law requiring anyone who looks possibly foreign to have their papers on them at all times, the state is once again taking a reasonable and important concern -- in the first case, our country's porous borders and incompetent immigration enforcement, in this new case, the popular affection for identity politics -- and turning it into a cruel and ignorant policy that will have more backlash than positive effect on the problem.

One doesn't have to support wide-open borders to oppose Arizona's documentation law. I don't support wide-open borders; every country has the right to determine who can enter. But I think Ronald Reagan had it right: We benefit greatly from a large influx of immigrants from all over the world; we benefit economically and intellectually. Let's let in large numbers through a legal process and control the borders. Fine.

One doesn't have to be infatuated with race-based group identity to oppose this new law, either. In fact, I have serious problems with universities running women's studies programs, gay and lesbian studies programs, and other such schools. Getting a degree in any of them is realistically (and intellectually) meaningless. But my criticism comes from my belief in the importance of a liberal education (one that is therefore diverse and self-critical) and the intellectual heritage of the Western Enlightenment, not because I don't think people should research, teach, and learn about such subjects. They should; just don't separate them into different academic tracks.

But I don't see the Arizona initiatives as having any of those shades of gray or complications. The Arizona laws look quite plainly like the legalization of racist attitudes, and the old guard of our political elite has broken down, unable to stamp down the crazies.

What we are seeing in Arizona (and, if you've been paying attention, in Virginia) is the continued re-entry at the top levels of political society of a group of people who for decades had not participated in politics. In the early decades of the previous century, the fundamentalist right-wing was on the defensive, its religious, racial, political, and global views laid bare for scorn as science and education spread. But they began re-entering politics, slowly at first, in the 1960s; it increased with the openly born-again Jimmy Carter's election, and it went into high gear with Ronald Reagan's presidency. It's peak -- or nadir -- was George W. Bush's presidency.

They have, I believe, warped people's understanding of Christianity itself, turning it into something its namesake would forsake. That is emblematic of what they are doing to American politics.

It's hard to believe that Arizona used to be a stronghold of flinty Western libertarianism, exemplified by the state's longtime Republican senator, Barry Goldwater. But Goldwater found himself increasingly on the outs with the bark-chewing religious right in his own party.

Goldwater famously (infamously, to his critics) told his party's convention in 1964, when he accepted the GOP nomination for president, "I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!"

That's a controversial statement, but one can interpret it as a strong-spined defense of traditional American independence and liberty. Unfortunately for Arizona, the Republican party, and the rest of this country, Arizonans are increasingly reinterpreting Goldwater's statement to mean, "Extremism in the defense of extremism is no vice."

But it is.

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