State Out of the Union: Arizona and the Final Showdown over the American Dream By Jeff Biggers Nation Books. 304 pages. $25.99.
Arizona holds a curious place in Americas public imagination. Recent media headlines out of the state depict witch hunts of ethnic studies teachers, military-style crackdowns on Latino immigrants, and a Tea Partier ethos that lies somewhere between Remember the Alamo and Morning in America. Frightening yet comical.
The title of Jeff Biggers's sweeping chronicle of Arizona, State Out of the Union, fittingly evokes Lincoln's ominous words at the outset of the Civil War. Best known for his reporting on Appalachian coal country, Biggers reveals an Arizona that is a cesspool of dysfunctional politics, where guns are turned on public officials and immigrants are hunted as fugitives. He also illuminates a segregated cultural landscape strafed by strip malls and vestiges of Manifest Destiny.
Biggers draws on interviews, blog posts, historical texts, and media reports to construct a conversation across communities, languages, and heritages. The temporal leaps often make the chronology difficult to follow, since the compression of anecdotes spanning three centuries within a few pages sometimes seems strained. But the structural discombobulation reflects Arizona's tortuous plotline.
While the media relish the bizarre and often paranoid antics of hard-right Arizonan politicians, the state has an equally powerful tradition of grassroots progressive movements. In fact, Biggers points out that for every community of evangelical zealots or border militants, there are organizations and movements that find creative ways of defending democracy and cultural pluralism.
Arizona was a rogue state before it even joined the union. During the territory's infancy in the mid-nineteenth century, Arizonans were embroiled in power struggles that anticipated future tension over local autonomy, racial politics, corporate plundering of natural resources, and the exploitation of migrants.
In the early days, Arizonan pioneers, who included embattled Mormons and white ethnic laborers, confronted and bristled at powerful "outsiders," including carpetbagger politicians and absentee corporate bosses. But the most vicious backlash was reserved for indigenous people and Mexican Americans, whom many white settlers periodically demonized as aliens or invaders of their God-given dominion. That sentiment has been echoed more recently in militant nativist...