A Rainbow in Tucson

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published January 19, 2011.
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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.

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