Jewish World Review July 28, 2003 / 28 Tamuz 5763
Red states versus Blue
http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | LITTLE ROCK, Ark. - It was wholly a pleasure to have all the country's lieutenant governors meet here. Heck, it's a pleasure to have anybody meet in Arkansas. That way, we get to explain things to others for a change. Unless they're visiting experts, in which case they know everything.
I don't believe I've ever seen so many lieutenant governors in one room. The grand new hall of the Governor's Mansion was just aglow with their supernumerary redundancy.
I'd tried to visualize what a convention of lieutenant governors would be like. I pictured it as 50 smiling faces gathered under a huge banner proclaiming: WE'RE NO. 2!
I think I know why their eyes glazed over when I tried to explain Arkansas to them. Folks have been trying to explain it to me for about 40 years now, and I still don't understand the place. I decided a long time ago that it would be the better part of valor to just sit back and enjoy it.
Arkansas is one of those privileged locales, like our neighbors Louisiana and Mississippi, where an editor's challenge is not how to juice up the news to make it interesting, but how to tone it down to make it believable.
We here in Arkansas are divided not just by geography - hills and delta - but inwardly, too. And the surest sign of that division is that we've never been able to agree on what to call ourselves - Arkansan or Arkansawyer? Or Arkie?
On my first day on the job in Arkansas, in the summer of 1962 at the Pine Bluff Commercial, I learned a new word: Arkansan. Pronounced like Kansan with a prefix.
It didn't take me long to figure out that Arkansan is a kind of code word, the summation of everything about this state that is bright, shiny, futuristic, upwardly mobile, urbanized . Americanized.
By now Arkansan has won out over Arkansawyer, a tag that sounds too country, too Southwestern, too . . . Mark Twainish.
But the Arkansawyer was a real person in a way the Arkansan isn't. The word connotes all those qualities that welcomed me here in that long-ago summer of '62. Informality. Good humor. The ebb and flow of real conversation - not just the words spoken but silences shared. And a sense of time as something that needs to be enjoyed, not just a commodity to be used. I miss the Arkansawyer.
The Arkansan is more a creature of newspaper and advertising copy, Chamber of Commerce brochures and PowerPoint presentations.
As for Arkie, it's become one of the Forbidden Words. It's been banished, like Okie, to the Realm of Outer Darkness by the ruling gods of Public Relations. Arkie has too many associations - with "Grapes of Wrath" poverty, the Thirties, the Great Depression, all that Poor But Proud ethos. I understand. I, too, would rather aim for rich but humble.
As a word, Arkansawyer may have been lost but, happily, something of the qualities it conjures up remain in these latitudes.
An almost palpable sense of loss comes naturally to a frontier society that is always Moving On. It isn't just an Arkansas phenomenon. That same psychic divide separates the red states from the blue states. In the Nineties, it was called the culture war, a kulturkampf.
Any political or social phenomenon you need German to describe should have red warning lights all around it. Once you get past good ol' gemutlichkeit - cosiness - to describe a society, and have to use words like Realpolitik and Schadenfreude, Weltanschauung and Volk, that society is in a heap o' trouble.
Our current divide here in Arkansas is over education and school consolidation. It's a classic case of rural versus urban: Rural legislators want to hold onto every single, small, inefficient school and its football team. Urban legislators want to provide a richer curriculum, but do so economically, which means merging school districts.
There is much to be said for local control, and even more for better education. So Arkansans and Arkansawyers are squaring off.
The job of our leaders is not to make the choice between competing visions, but to make such a choice unnecessary. To lead us into a consensus all can accept and take part in - a melding that combines the best of the Arkansan and the Arkansawyer, the best of the red and blue states of mind.
On a national level, too, our aim should be something all-American - red, white and blue states. The goal is a society that doesn't reflect only the Fox Network or NPR, but rises above and beyond both. The next American identity should be as palpable and exhilarating, and as different and distinctive, as America has always been when seen through fresh eyes. That'll require some education.
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