Opinion: Portland progressives: So much to protest, so little time


“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

— L.P. Hartley

WASHINGTON — They do things differently in Portland, but not because it is a foreign country, although many Americans might wish it were: At this moment, it is one national embarrassment too many. Rather, the tumults in Portland, which is a petri dish of progressivism, perhaps reveal something about Oregon’s political DNA. A century ago, the state was a bastion of reaction.

Recently in Portland, an “intersectional” feminist bookstore (“intersectionality” postulates that society’s victims — basically, everyone but white males — suffer interlocking and overlapping victimizations), which appeared in the television series “Portlandia,” closed. It blamed its failure not on a scarcity of customers but on an excess of “capitalism,” “white supremacy” and “patriarchy.” (Presumably these made customers scarce.) Poor Portland progressives: So much to protest, so little time. However, right wingers spoiling for fights have done “antifa” (anti-fascist) Portlanders the favor of flocking to the city to provide a simulacrum of fascism, thereby assuaging progressives’ Thirties Envy — nostalgia for the good old days of barricading Madrid against Franco’s advancing forces.

In the Twenties, however, Oregon was a national leader in a different flavor of nonsense, as historian Linda Gordon recounts in “The Second Coming of the KKK: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition.” The Klan’s revival began in 1915 with the romanticizing of it in the film “Birth of a Nation,” adapted from the novel “The Clansman” by Thomas Dixon. He was a John Hopkins University classmate and friend of Woodrow Wilson, who as president made the movie the first one shown in the White House. Wilson was enraptured: “It is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”

The resuscitated Klan flourished nationwide as a vehicle of post-World War I populism. It addressed grievances about national identity — pre-war immigration (too many Catholics and Jews) had diluted Anglo-Saxon purity — and disappointment with the recalcitrant world that had not been sufficiently improved by, or grateful for, U.S. involvement in the war.

Gordon, who grew up in Portland, says: “Starting in the mid-nineteenth century, and extending through the mid-twentieth century, Oregon was arguably the most racist place outside the southern states, possibly even of all the states.” By the early 1920s, “Oregon shared with Indiana the distinction of having the highest per capita Klan membership” because the Klan’s agenda “fit comfortably into the state’s tradition.”

In 1844, Oregon territory banned slavery — and required African-Americans to leave. Prevented by federal law from expelling African-Americans, Gordon says it became the only state to ban “any further blacks from entering, living, voting or owning property,” a law “to be enforced by lashings for violators.” The state offered free land, but only to whites. It imposed an annual tax on non-whites who remained. Oregon refused to ratify the post-Civil War Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments (not doing so until 1959 and 1973, respectively).

In 1923, only one state legislator voted against barring immigrants from owning or renting land. In advance of today’s progressive hostility to private schools competing with government schools, Klan-dominated Oregon — it was primarily hostile to Catholic schools — banned all private schools. In 1925, in Pierce v. Society of Sisters (Gov. Walter Pierce was a Democrat and, Gordon says, “an ardent Klan ally”), the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously struck down this law.

Today, Portland’s generally irritable, often cranky and sometimes violent progressivism suggests that William Faulkner’s famous axiom — “The past is never dead. It’s not even past” — needs this codicil: The bacillus of past stupidities lurks dormant but not dead in the social soil everywhere, ready to infect fresh fanaticisms when they come along, as they invariably do.

Perhaps the proportion of stupidity to intelligence in America is fairly constant over time, and today just seems especially soggy with stupidity because social media and mesmerized journalists give it such velocity. Isn’t it pretty to think so?



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Opinion

Opinion: Hate crime stats tell a disturbing tale

When FBI released its report “Hate Crimes Statistics, 2017” earlier this week, Srinivas Kuchibhotla’s name was nowhere to be seen. Yet his widow, Sunayana Dumala, knows his murder in Olathe, Kan., was a hate crime. She didn’t need the report to tell her that. But America does. We need hate crimes detailed and categorized in...
Opinion: Sheep without shepherds

Here is a striking fact about the Roman Catholic Church in the United States. The sex abuse crisis in the early 2000s, the horrid revelations of predation that began in Boston in 2001, did not have an obvious long-term effect on the practice of the faith. Yes, American Catholicism has lost millions of its baptized flock over the last 50 years. But...
Opinion: Why was Trump’s tax cut a fizzle?

Last week’s blue wave means that Donald Trump will go into the 2020 election with only one major legislative achievement: a big tax cut for corporations and the wealthy. Still, that tax cut was supposed to accomplish big things. Republicans thought it would give them a big electoral boost, and they predicted dramatic economic gains. What they...
Opinion: Congressman who believes in what he has lived

WASHINGTON — The world’s oldest political party has developed an aversion to discretion. The Democratic Party is manacled to an over-caffeinated base that believes that deft government can deliver parity of status to everyone while micromanaging the economy’s health care sector, which is larger than all but three other foreign nations&rsquo...
Opinion: Michelle Obama tells her truth

So now Michelle Obama finally tells her truth. There has always been about her a sense that she did, indeed, have a truth of her own and that it was, if not at odds with the one her husband expressed with high-flown eloquence, more real and more rooted, as befits a girl from the South Side of Chicago. “You wait till Barack gets out of office...
More Stories