How to talk together again in Phoenix, Arizona

By Paul Kelly

Having been a small-town teenager in the Seventies my nascent views about the USA were informed and constructed by a range of different sources.

It probably says something about me that primarily these were episodes of The Fonz, an unrequited passion for Stevie Nicks and thanks to my mother’s love for Radio 4, a regular dose of “Letter from America” presented by Alistair Cooke.

Not to be confused with Alastair Cooke the England captain, Alistair Cooke the journalist was also a native Englishman who spent most of his working life in the US. Each week over a period of 15 mins he would present, in conversational style, an appreciation of one aspect or another of the USA and its people. The series ran from 1946 to 2004, which was remarkable, and enabled Cooke to build a strong and deep relationship with his listeners over several generations.

Of course, it helped that he was very well connected and knew many of the nation’s great and the good on first name terms. But his observations were always seasoned with conversations he had had with Americans from all walks of life.  To me he built up an impression of a proud and decent country, that was not without substantial challenges, but knew what its core values were and had a strong and unifying belief in its institutions and the integrity of its people, even when under considerable pressure. It would have been fascinating to be able to hear his views on his adopted country now.

Perhaps he might have talked about the experience of some friends of mine (Phil and Sarah) who live in a typical suburban development in Scottsdale, one of the nicer parts of Phoenix, capital of Arizona. They have lived in the same house for 25 years and seen neighbours come and go, whilst getting on with virtually all of them. This year everyone got involved in the election and put up signs in their yards.  Soon it became clear to my friends that they were the only Democrats on the lot. Nonetheless, they put out their sign only to have it stolen during the first night. Neighbours, whom they had once conversed happily with, actively shunned them and they have continued to do so. In all of his 65 years on the planet my friend, born and raised in the US, has never known anything like it.

This week, election officials in Arizona ratified the state as moving to the Democrats in the presidential election. Something it has done only once since 1948 and by the slender margin of 0.3%. 

As Phil says “With a margin like that I sometimes wonder if we should have not declared our allegiance just to keep the peace, because the social price we are paying doesn’t always seem worth it. How will we start conversations again with people we thought we knew and liked? Who must make the first move and how?”

Who must make the first move and how? I am pretty sure even Alistair Cooke, renowned for his grace and urbanity, would have struggled to know where to start.