Sunday, January 30, 2011

This is Not Civil Discourse

Tucson City Council
Call to the Audience testimony (edited)
January 25, 2011

Mr. Mayor, members of the city council, city staff:

Last week, shortly after I addressed the audience here in a plea for civil discourse, a member of the community came here to this podium and called you "vampires."

I repeat this here not to fan the flames of rhetoric but as a step toward accountability. When we see uncivil discourse, we should name it. He said these words: "we are not your slaves that you should drink the life blood from our bodies like vampires." And he was referring to the members of this council.

This is not civil discourse.

The first time I was booed at this podium I walked away shaking. The following week, a friend said to me that I looked different when I did my reading. I looked more tense, heavier. And he was right.  I'd been made to feel unwelcome. And the second time I was booed didn't get any easier. I think I was a little bit traumatized, and still am. Sometimes just the silence from the chairs behind me is enough to set me shaking again. 

I cannot imagine what it must be like for the council. I sit in this audience week after week with a knot in my stomach from the vitriol that comes into in this room. Everyone here deserves better than this, including the members of the public who have made time in their lives to come here and participate sincerely in the democratic process. Including the people for whom this room is a workplace. 

Councilmembers, we know you make extraordinary personal sacrifices for this job and that you each operate out of sincere desire to improve this community. You deserve better than this.

Mayor Walkup, your civility accord is a wonderful and important first step and we (let me speak for the thousands whom I know agree with me) are grateful for your leadership. I'm eager to learn more about its details. I'm glad and relieved to  hear your position on abusive remarks. This podium does indeed need a firm facilitator. I was so glad and proud to hear you on NPR saying "Not in my house," and that your intention is to stop the vitriol when it occurs.

But we also need to prevent the behavior so that such scolding becomes unnecessary. We aren't, after all, children. We the people need to take ownership of this room and of the culture we create here.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Tucson as birthplace of the civil discourse movement

public art in Presidio Park
Tucson's heart has broken wide open. And to our pride we discover that out pours love.

This loss of innocence has not closed us down and filled us with fear, as it might have done.  We are wide-eyed, America, at what has happened on our doorstep. We're grateful for one another. There's a lot of hugging going on. We're not afraid to show this country a thing or two about kindness, not to mention heroism.

What good might come? What if these events began a new way toward democracy? Here on the eve of Martin Luther King Day, what if Tucson were to become the Selma of the civil discourse movement? We already have the attention--and respect!--of the country. What if Tucson were to lead by example, what if we pledged henceforth to engage in the democratic process with civility and compassion and respect?

Tucson, America loves us. They love us out of empathy for our loss and also because we have been so openhearted in the media about our pain and grief and our resolve to move forward as better versions of ourselves. If any city can bring America back to civility, it's Tucson. And what better way to return the love of our country.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Tucson: learning to live with the discomfort of unknowing

This week, the sort of familiar violence we watch on the news has come home to Tucson, and our hometown  seems suddenly unfamiliar.

So I did what used to be done in this country, not really so long ago, when the senseless struck: I consulted a novelist. The writer of stories, the reasoning goes, has spent a good amount of time thinking about the human condition and might have something interesting to say about it.

Redtailed hawk over downtown Tucson, December 2010
The loss of innocence, says the American novelist Charles Baxter, is partly a recognition that there are depths to things, that what you see isn’t always what you get. The loss of innocence leads us to explore, to try to figure out what it all means. To gain insight.

But the mass production of insight in America is a dubious phenomenon, says Baxter, and some of these insights can seem disturbingly untrustworthy. There is a smell about them, he says, of recently molded plastic.

My call today is for reflection, and calm, and a strong yet passive resistance to the demands all around us that we participate, at top volume, in efforts to neatly wrap up this experience. Perhaps, for a while, we should let it dwell in the realm of inexplicability. We should live with the discomfort of unknowing. Soon enough we’ll be compelled to make sense of it all, but maybe for now the most appropriate and most dignified response is to sit quietly and reflect.

Let's not allow this tragedy to be commodified for the national and international media. To join in the noise of a debased and thoughtless rhetoric, the kind that people use gleefully without really knowing what it means or understanding its consequences, is fundamentally disrespectful. We ought to give these deaths and grave injuries and indeed our own grief the dignity of their own complexities.

We are free to reject toxic public discourse.

We can be grateful that Tucson has a history of investing in the arts. In the months and years to come, we're going to need our artists. The role of the Tucson artist in the wake of these events is the same as it always is, in good times and bad: to consider that which she sees and to reflect it back to us in all its beauty and pain. To show us who we are, and in so doing to help us see ourselves differently. Said James Baldwin on his eloquent public resistance against the pain and struggle of black Americans: "I have never seen myself as a spokesman. I am a witness." In moments like this, when our hearts are broken open, when the familiar seems strange, when a parking lot becomes a killing field, the artist shows us how to expand our vision. 

The story of what happened on January 8, 2011 in Tucson, Arizona is a moral mystery. Good storytellers understand that tales overcontrolled by their meaning, as Baxter says, start to go a little bit dead. When a story hits us over the head with what it’s trying to tell us, it can become false to its own shadings and nuances. Perhaps we should take a cue from the artists and try not to explain this right away, but just to see it. Perhaps we ought for now to reject the self-satisfied declarations and false authority of others who are trying to tell our story. Perhaps for now we ought to allow the mystery to unfold without judgment, without attaching a meaning to it, because when we are too busy interpreting, and then yelling out our interpretations, we can't listen.

Gratitude to Charles Baxter in "Against Epiphany," Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction (Graywolf Press, 1997)

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Tucson, I love you.

Tucson, my home my inspiration. I hate you I love you. My heart is cracked wide open. I've spent five years writing a novel about you. It's too soon to respond, that much I know, but respond I must. My incoherence in the face of these events is profound. We're just one city in America, one city with problems. We're a microcosm and we're an anomaly both. We speak for everyone and we speak only for ourselves. I'm a writer and a citizen, an agent for social change, a mother and a person just making her way. I feel responsible for what happened and responsible for interpreting it, for reflecting it back to an equally confused community. I write, I grieve, I don't know what to do.