A Rainbow in Tucson

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published January 19, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Here is just one of the very many Tucson stories that have now become part of who we are: It is a story told by the political commentator Mark Shields, quoting his friend Allen Ginsberg, a historian in Maine: What we have witnessed (in part) is a white, Catholic, Republican federal judge murdered on his way to greet a Democratic woman, a member of Congress, who was his friend and is Jewish. Her life was saved initially by a 20-year-old, openly gay Mexican-American college student, Daniel Hernandez, and eventually by a Korean-American combat surgeon, Dr. Peter Rhee. And then it was all eulogized and explained by our African-American president.

Above all else, this is a quintessentially American story; if not “only in America,” then only in a tiny handful of countries. As against some of the confusing Tucson stories that are still being pieced together, it is both succinct and inspiring.

We do not know and may never know for sure how much of Jared Lee Loughner’s bizarre behavior owes to his evident mental illness, how much (if any) was encouraged by the mean-spirited political rhetoric of our time, and how much by a culture that seems fixated on zombies and vampires, and how much by an Internet that enables people to create for themselves alternate realities and then present those to the world.

We will never know what lay in store for Christina Taylor Green, of whom President Obama, in a speech that was pitch perfect, said: “Here was a young girl who was just becoming aware of our democracy; just beginning to understand the obligations of citizenship; just starting to glimpse the fact that someday she too might play a part in shaping her nation’s future. She had been elected to her student council; she saw public service as something exciting, something hopeful. She was off to meet her congresswoman, someone she was sure was good and important and might be a role model. She saw all this through the eyes of a child, undimmed by the cynicism or vitriol that we adults all too often just take for granted.”

None of us can say whether Christina would have grown into cynicism (a word that has become a compliment in large segments of the current youth culture) or become a younger colleague of Gabe Zimmerman, Gabby Giffords’s outreach director, fatally shot that awful morning. All we can do is what the president urged upon us: “I want us to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as she imagined it.”

These days, that is a very substantial challenge, and it is reasonable to expect that if we move in that redeemed direction, we will not move in a straight line or even at a steep angle. We’re told that even minimal repairs to our gun laws — to our national discredit, they, too, are an “only in America” phenomenon — are exceedingly unlikely. Incivility will almost surely remain the stock in trade of some of our prominent talk show hosts and bloggers. More generally, the generous response to events such as the assault in Tucson tends to be spasmodic — grief, empathy, shame and then, in a matter of weeks, business pretty much as usual.

But here we have at least one uncommon opportunity, one that derives quite directly from the story with which I began this commentary. Starting with an urgent reconsideration of the proposed DREAM Act, we can have a new and newly informed appreciation of what immigration has meant and can yet mean to our nation’s growth. And perhaps we can also newly appreciate the blessings of diversity.

Diversity has not always been thought praiseworthy in America. Thomas Jefferson worried that immigrants would “infuse into [legislation] their spirit, warp and bias its directions, and render it a heterogeneous, incoherent, distracted mass.” John Quincy Adams held that new immigrants “must cast off the European skin, never to resume it. They must look forward to their posterity rather than backward to their ancestors.” And Woodrow Wilson believed that “A man who thinks of himself as belonging to a particular national group has not yet become an American.”

In short, Walt Whitman’s celebration of America’s diversity was not echoed by our political echelon, nor, for that matter, by our academic community. There was, historically, little appreciation for the hyphenated American. Israel Zangwill’s “Melting Pot” (1908) reflected the conventional view: “Germans and Frenchmen, Irishmen and Englishmen, Jews and Russians — into the crucible with you all! God is making the American.”

It was the philosopher Horace Kallen who coined the term “cultural pluralism,” who saw that a free America need not reject the hyphen, that people can be wholly Mexican and wholly American, wholly Jewish and wholly American, and so forth. In America, each of us is free to establish the character of our relationship to the whole, to be simultaneously, if so we desire, “a part of” and “apart from.”

A third of Arizona’s residents are Hispanic. While the state struggles and stumbles in formulating public policies, notably in law enforcement and public education, that will respond to its diversity, at least some citizens of Arizona have moved beyond such struggles. We have now met some of these, and they enrich us. As do Christina’s parents, who made her organs available for transplant to a child in Boston whose life was thereby saved.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.