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Christina Pesoli Headshot

Arrested Development: Despite His Tough Talk, Maricopa County's Sheriff Is Just a Below Average Joe

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Nicknames can tell you a lot about people. They both shed light on how the person with the nickname is perceived as well as saying something about those who bestowed the nickname.

For example, when my 6'6" son Aaron moved from Texas to New York to go to college, he became known around campus as "Tex." Anyone who didn't know anything about Aaron or his college buddies could easily guess from his nickname both that Aaron was from Texas where legend has it everything is bigger, and further that his college buddies weren't from Texas.

When a person picks out a nickname for himself it's a whole different story. Self-selected nicknames don't hold any clues as to what other people think of the person with the nickname. (Although the simple fact that someone has nicknamed himself makes it easy to guess what others think of him. After all, what kind of person gives himself a nickname?)

But a self-selected nickname is revealing in a different way. It says a ton about the person who sets out to get people to call him something other than his real name.

When my sister was in college she knew a guy who tried to get everyone to call him "Macho." Here's a safe bet: Whatever image you have in your head right now of a twenty year old guy who insists everyone call him Macho? Chances are that image is spot-on.

Like cartoon character bed sheets, there are some things that are cute when you are a kid, but creepy when you are a grown-up. Giving yourself a nickname falls into this category. Anyone can be forgiven for trying to get a self-selected nickname to catch on in elementary school. But once you're old enough to vote, a self-selected nick name is the ultimate badge of insecurity. And the older you are, the bigger the badge.

The man with the biggest badge in the America is Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who really, really wants people to call him "America's Toughest Sheriff." Really.

Other people have different names in mind. Like racial profiler, for example. That's a term that was bestowed on Arpaio by Latino plaintiffs in the class action federal civil rights trial which got underway on July 20th. Or unlawful discriminator. That moniker was chosen by the United States Justice Department in a law suit it filed against Arpaio in May of 2012.

But the manifestation of Sheriff Joe's insecurities doesn't stop at dreaming up self-aggrandizing nicknames. For decades he has engaged is a wide array of other behavior ranging from embarrassing to unconscionable all perfectly designed to showcase his raging case of little man's syndrome.

On the embarrassing end of the spectrum are actions like establishing an in-house radio station in the basement of the Maricopa County jail--and then naming it KJOE. Or describing as "world famous" on the Maricopa County Sheriff's webpage Arpaio's requirement that all the inmates wear pink underwear. Or marketing pink boxers emblazoned with the Maricopa County sheriff's logo and the words "Go Joe" (available in English and Spanish--take that, English-only crusaders!) as a fundraiser for the Sheriff's Posse Association. (There have been allegations of misuse of funds from the proceeds, but so far Arpaio is holding tough on his refusal to provide an accounting. Go Joe, indeed.)

On the unconscionable end of the spectrum is the establishment of tent cities that Arpaio refers to as "concentration camps." Temperatures in Phoenix routinely rise above 110 degrees in the summer and have been measured above 140 in the encampment itself. Arpaio likes to berate any inmates that complain about the heat, telling them to shut their mouths because it gets that hot in Iraq and soldiers have to live in tents there even though they haven't committed any crimes. But the thing is, many of the inmates who are housed in Arpaio's tent cities have not been convicted of any crimes, but rather are simply awaiting trial. With Constitutional protection like that, who needs fire arms?

Little Man's Syndrome often compels people to try to look better or stronger or tougher or more powerful than everyone else. But Arpaio's case is unique in its specificity. Rather than wanting to be perceived as somehow superior to everybody, Arpaio seems particularly obsessed with being better than Latinos.

You don't have to look hard to find evidence of Arpaio's special affliction. It gushes out of his mouth every time he opens it. He has called Latino immigrants dirty, for example.

And he routinely sends thank you notes to constituents who write to him with racist rants about Latinos. In fact, one lucky Sun City constituent who wrote Arpaio asking him to investigate a local restaurant because the staff spoke Spanish got both a thank you letter and a complimentary sweep of the area conducted two weeks later. That's what I call a double barrel over-reaction.

Arpaio has claimed that immigrants from Mexico are different from immigrants from other countries in that they "refuse to assimilate." At least that's what he claims in his understated and humble book, Joe's Law: America's Toughest Sheriff Takes on Illegal Immigration, Drugs, and Everything Else That Threatens America.

It's clear that Arpaio has it in for Latinos, but why? Arpaio and his supporters try to play it off as coming from a patriotic law-and-order desire to protect our borders. According to this defense, Arpaio's issues aren't with Latinos per se, but rather with those who are in the U.S. illegally.

Methinks the sheriff doth protest too much. Arpaio's real issue is both more obvious and primal than that. Arpaio is worried that his similarities may be showing.

Like Arpaio, I am an Italian-American who lives in a southern state that shares a border with Mexico and has a large population of Latinos. And if there's one thing I know it's this: Like pizzas and quesadillas, Italians and Latinos are really just slightly different versions of the same thing.

We look alike, what with our brownish-black hair and eyes and olive skin that tans without even trying. We sound alike -- in fact, it's hard to find two languages that are more similar than Spanish and Italian. Our last names tend to be heavy on the vowels. Our religion of choice is Catholicism. Even our food is pretty much the same. When you stop and think about it, manicotti easily becomes enchiladas with one or two basic substitutions. The bottom line is this: Italians are to the northeast what Latinos are to the Southwest.

Given that Latinos and Italians are like twins separated at birth, Arpaio's disdain for Latinos is one of the clearest cases of self-loathing that I have ever seen.

In an attempt to explain away in trial his statement that illegal immigrants are dirty, Arpaio said that traveling across the desert on foot for four days can make a person dirty. True enough. But do you know what makes you even dirtier than spending four days crossing a desert on foot? Spending two to three weeks crossing the Atlantic Ocean on a ship packed with other Italian immigrants in the early 1900s like Arpaio's parents and my grandparents did. Conditions like that almost make a Carnival Cruise sound like a vacation.

On top of that, once in the U.S., my grandfather lived in an old abandoned boxcar along with a handful of other Italian immigrants until they scraped together enough money for other housing. And stories like that are as common as pizzerias in Little Italy.

Because all of this happened long before I was born, I never had a chance to give the boxcar the white glove test. But a bunch of men who did manual labor all day long and slept in a boxcar at night -- all before indoor plumbing, air conditioning and Glade Air Freshener were invented? Even Oscar the Grouch would deem those conditions substandard.

And what about Arpaio's claims that Mexican immigrants refuse to assimilate? A review of the passenger records from the ships that originated from Italy and landed at Ellis Island in the early 1900s reveal that most of the passengers not only didn't speak English, but they couldn't read or write in any language including their native tongue. In other words, they weren't bilingual, they were bi-illiterate.

I can't speak for Arpaio's folks, but I know that like most Italian immigrants, after moving to the U.S. my grandparents lived the rest of their days here yet never did learn English. But their children that were born and educated in the U.S. did. And according to my dad, immigrant parents like his mom and dad watched with a very human mixture of both pride and pain as their children grew up to identify more as American than Italian.

The same pattern holds true for Latinos. Over ninety percent of the children born to Mexican immigrant parents and educated in the United States learn to speak English. But a study (by a Latino doctoral student whose last name--Aguayo--rhymes with Arpaio) now also confirms that along with learning English, children of Mexican immigrants who also retain aspects of their Mexican culture including language generally have higher grade point averages than those who only spoke English at home and in school. That fact should comfort the "English Only" crowd; but since they are driven by fear rather than logic, that information will likely serve to enhance their concerns, not ease them.

In trial last week when Arpaio was asked about his claim that Mexicans refused to assimilate, he claimed it was his ghostwriter's view, not his own. So, if Arpaio needed a ghostwriter to write his book and wasn't fully aware of what the book said when it was all finished, what does that say about the literacy and language assimilation of Arpaio himself?

Joe Arpaio may have failed at his efforts to get his nickname to catch on or to be viewed as superior to Latinos, but his efforts have not been entirely in vain. There is one glaring difference between Arpaio and other descendants of immigrants: His complete lack of humanity.

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