We all live in Arizona now

We don’t like strangers, do we? Strange bodies, strange accents, strange attitudes? Not really. At least it seems so these days in many parts of the country—those you read about, those you may live in.

Theories about why fill reams of paper—enough, I am sure, to encircle this “global village” of ours (that mythic space we yearn for but don’t do much to create). Fear of the foreigner, the psychological need for “otherness,” the isolating force of capitalism—all may have a role in why this is.

But it is. We tuck into ourselves with increasing rapture. We long to personalize, customize, individualize every experience, from our weddings to our ring tones, from our news feeds to our homes. We collect data on ourselves: numbers of Facebook friends, steps walked, calories consumed, pennies spent—we are our own favorite subjects of study. Sure, we still live with others, but we gravitate toward “echo communities,” says one researcher, where everyone thinks, shops and decorates as we do. A community of mirrors, where you all look like me. A circle of friends and followers whose engagement with us we can limit and control, like or ignore. Comforting and insular.

Are we all that insecure, or have we bought into a marketing notion that we “fulfill our potential” through individual entrenchment. What makes me more me is having experiences more like the ones I already have. And when we need a thrill, we tour the world via ChatRoulette, taking and dumping partners as fast as we can hit the “next” button. So easy, so tidy.

Less so our encounters in real space, where difference is often perceived as threat, or where the threatened perceive difference as danger, all the while leaving unanalyzed why they feel so vulnerable.

And so, last fall, 32 percent of New Jersey conservatives still believed that Barack Obama was born in a foreign country. And in Arizona, carefully nurtured anti-immigrant sentiment has, with an alchemist’s skill, transformed into populism. In Mississippi, a high school drops a senior from the yearbook because she is a lesbian. In Alabama, gubernatorial candidate Tim James’ declares in a new campaign spot, “This is Alabama. We speak English. If you want to live here, learn it.”

And in Cortlandt, my town: A flashy red Honda sporting a Puerto Rico flag sticker and chrome wheels rolls down the street at the train station. The driver stops to let two women and me cross the road. Latin music blares from the car. We reach the far curb; the car eases on its way. “This is America?” one woman says to her friend. “Right?” she replies.

Right, I think. It is America. But was it always so intolerant? In my nostalgic sense of history, I think, no, not like this. In my optimism for the future, I think it won’t always be so. I wish I felt more certain of that.

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