Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Aliens In Arizona

Phoenix, Arizona

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

It's hotter in Arizona than in New Mexico. Must be the lower elevation. Definitely a taste of things to come all across the desert, and it's making me glad I stopped walking when I did. When I say hot, of course I don't mean hot in the way that word is understood here, which implies three digit Fahrenheit numbers. Picture the tops of thermometers exploding and lemon-sized drops of sweat popping off your head, like in the cartoons. No, the heat this week has been relatively mild except to a denizen of the northern climes like me. Only in the low 90s. People still jog and bicycle, like the mad dogs and Englishmen they are. As for it being a dry heat, well I suppose that's the case, but then sticking your head in an oven is partaking of dry heat, too.

I explored Phoenix a bit on Monday, visiting the Heard Museum downtown, an extensive collection of Indian art and artifacts. Very informative about the many tribes and the variations in their approaches to jewelry, pottery, and other crafts. What struck me during the tour was how many times the guide mentioned that such-and-such a group had modified its techniques to incorporate materials and tools introduced by Europeans or to make their stuff more commercially attractive to tourists. Nothing wrong with that, but it exploded the impression (in my mind, at least) that these tribes were doing things exactly as they had done them since time immemorial--part of the Rousseauian noble savage myth, I suppose, and an idea they themselves like to exploit. In truth they were busy adapting, like humans do everywhere. For example, according to the guide the Navajos and their ancestors had been making cloth from cotton for a couple thousand years before the Spaniards introduced sheep into the southwest, after which they started raising them and using the wool for which they have become famous. And of course the Spaniards brought horses, too, which many nomadic groups, like the Apaches, took to with the vigor of Scythians. Before that I picture them prancing along on foot like King Arthur and his knights in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, somebody bringing up the rear with sound effects from a pair of coconut shells.

I suppose the underlying message here is that what we sometimes think of as an ancient line of tradition unbroken for millennia isn't that at all--it's just the latest variation in a pattern of continuous cultural evolution, just as in the European world. Nostalgia, bolstered by with religion, keeps people longing for a past that never really existed. Even for the Indians, who without a doubt got the shits put to them pretty decisively, the only thing worth doing now is to move forward. Hence casinos, involving a concept that was largely alien to the mostly-communal societies of the pre-Columbian era, namely, greed for something that belongs to one's neighbor. Of course at this point they're not trying to get each other's dough so much as ours. Wonder how all that will play out.

Speaking of cotton, I wonder how cotton came to North America? It's a perennial plant, so perhaps it existed in the wild all around the sub-tropical belt of the world. It's been used in this hemisphere for at least 8,000 years.

Phoenix has a new light rail system, and I used Michael's pass to ride out to Tempe to sit among the ASU students. Later we went and ate at a place called Poncho's, sitting at a table where Bill Clinton had dined when he was El Presidente. There's a mural of the Man of Many Appetites on the wall, and another of one of his Secret Service guys on the opposite side of the room.

The big buzz in Arizona currently is a new law the state just passed that requires local law enforcement to inquire about citizenship, and gives the state some power to arrest illegals. There's a question as to its constitutionality, involving, I assume, the issue of whether the federal government has exclusive jurisdiction over immigration matters. In the meantime the state seems to be counting on what might be called the "hassle factor" to deter illegals from south of the border from choosing to come to Arizona. Look for Texas, New Mexico, and California to take the fallout, and maybe to try to follow suit.

Of course by European standards our immigration laws are still somewhere between lax and nonexistent, but then we are a land filled with squatters, from the first nations who walked across the land bridge from Asia, to the Conquistadors who brought horses and chickens and sheep, to the zany Brits with their Puritanism and their slaves, to all the farmers and cheap laborers who came during the last two centuries. It's pretty absurd to try to close the border now. Anyway, who else is going to work out in that hot sun? Are you?

No comments: