I’m hearing good things about this state of Arkansas.
Like Delaware, you kind of forget that Arkansas is a state. When I listen to the radio, I sometimes catch an NPR segment highlighting the Arkansans who made some kind of dent in the nation’s history. I rarely recognize their names, unless it’s Dizzy Dean.
And yet, this commonwealth of little more than 2.5 million mostly-rural folk keeps reminding people that America’s 25th state has something to add to our coast-obsessed country.
When Bill Clinton tossed his hat in the presidential pot, few gave the ruddy-faced Arkansan a chance. He was a hillbilly. A redneck. A hick. Less than a year later, William Jefferson was President, chatting with Boris and jogging a healthy 3 MPH clip around Washington D.C.
Several years later, two of the more compelling presidential candidates – Hillary Clinton and Mike Huckabee – were Arkansans.* Two! From a state often unfairly lumped with Mississippi as an unsophisticated backwater populated by genetically disgusting, chicken-raping hill people.
My Grandmother once asked me, very seriously, if the children in Arkansas wear shoes.
It’s not that Arkansas hasn’t earned its critics. We’re forever linked to Orville Faubus and Central High School. We sided with the losers during the Civil War. During the Great Depression, the only thing that was less socially acceptable than an Oakie was an Arkie. We did everything but give Federal Express to Memphis. We have an image problem.
Today, the state still has a few kinks to work out. Politically, one has a hard time telling the difference between the Democrats and the Republicans. (The lone distinction, it appears, lies along vague fiscal philosophies.) Architecturally speaking, Arkansas – and especially the capital city of Little Rock – is an uninspired armpit of design. For Christ’s sake, the capitol building is a knock-off of the Nation’s capital building! No originality. When one views the city skyline of Little Rock, the one man-made edifice that stands out is a radio/microwave tower stationed in the city’s center.
We’re overly obsessed with the Arkansas Razorbacks. Nobody is allowed to have an allegiance to any other Arkansas university. It doesn’t matter where you graduated college or if you graduated. It’s Hogs or nothing.
We’re kind of churchy, too. We have too many dry counties, and you can’t buy liquor (even beer) on Sunday. Growing up, my small town outlawed MTV, partly because of Madonna’s Like a Prayer video – the one that had the audacity to feature the Material Girl making-out with a black Jesus Christ. Furthermore, it’s not uncommon in Arkansas to meet people who frown on dancing.
And yet, somehow, our bland values seem to appease the Nation’s masses. We give them Bill and Mike and Hillary, and you liked them. And most recently, just for the hell of it, we gave you an American Idol – a churchy, good-looking kid who just might have earned himself a lifetime supply of free AT&T minutes.
Admittedly, this Kris Allen guy makes me nervous for Arkansas. He’ll be okay. The kid acquits himself well. But you bring national media into Arkansas, and the last person a reporter wants to interview is a well-spoken Arkansan with some knowledge outside the arena of possum hunting. Rather, bring on the toothless, meth-cooking, stained muscle shirt wearing, hee-hawing sumuvabitch from the trailer park! They’re good quotes, and they’re the reason why my late grandmother thought our children went without shoes.
But not even Ms. Meth Muscle Shirt can elbow Arkansas from its due. I can’t explain it, other than to say Arkansas has pluck. Sand. Moxie. And not an ounce of inferiority complex. The state has always had a take-it or leave-it attitude. We rarely dwell on our mistakes, but then again we never really think too hard about the future, either. Arkansas has patience to wait for whatever success might arrive. We have that, and Wal-Mart
As much as Wal-Mart is publicly maligned, the retail giant brings both legitimacy and industry to Arkansas. Our biggest export isn’t cotton or rice or soybeans. It’s aviation. And, like a machine that spits out widgets, our copycat capitol building is grooming yet another governor who can charm his way to national notoriety.
And that should make those historical lessons on NPR more interesting.
* Hillary Clinton really isn’t an Arkansan, considering she was born in Illinois and would rather squeeze a cactus in her nose than acknowledge her years in Arkansas. But, then again, she’s not a New Yorker either, and that state made her a senator.