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: Should algorithmd decide who gets criminal bail?

Civil rights groups signed a statement in late July calling for states to ditch pretrial risk assessment tools as a means of evaluating whether an individual accused of a crime should be detained pretrial, contending such data-driven tools do little to remedy racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Conservatives, meanwhile, have expressed...
READERS WRITE: AUG. 19

NFL players’ irresponsibility contributes to problem they protest Children raised in a fatherless home, especially black children, are more likely to engage in criminal behavior and therefore have more contact with police. When football players father a child with a woman to whom they are not married – or living with – they are contributing...
Opinion: A great moment in black history

In 2006, Leonard Pitts wrote this column based on an interview with Ron Stallworth, who, 12 years later, is the subject of Spike Lee’s latest film, “BlacKkKlansman.” In 1979, Stallworth was an intelligence officer with the Colorado Springs police department. He infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan, a hate group, and even developed a relationship...
Opinion: Markets know better than bureaucrats what society needs

Governments, seemingly eager to supply their critics with ammunition, constantly validate historian Robert Conquest: The behavior of any bureaucratic organization can best be understood by assuming that it is controlled by a secret cabal of its enemies. Consider North Carolina’s intervention in the medical-devices market. Born in India, Dr. Gajendra...
Opinion: Ga. high court needs women justices

Gov. Nathan Deal is weighing his next appointments to Georgia’s Supreme Court. He should pick women. Unless he does, soon every member of Georgia’s highest Court will be male. The current two vacancies on the Court are the result of the appointment of Justice Britt Grant to the Atlanta-based 11th Circuit Court of Appeals and the pending...
More Stories