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: Fear of a black continent

Emmanuel Macron, the youthful and ambitious president of the French, likes to talk about African birthrates. In summer 2017, he answered a question about why there couldn’t be a Marshall Plan for Africa by calling the continent’s problems “civilizational” and lamenting that African countries “have seven or eight children...
Opinion: Victims of sexual assault stand tall in a Kansas courtroom

From where they sat in the courtroom, the predator’s victims — two past girlfriends, one perfect stranger and a woman who once lived in the same apartment complex — couldn’t see the handcuffs clamping Brady Newman-Caddell’s wrists. He kept his hands in his lap during the sentencing hearing this week in Olathe, Kan. Except...
Opinion: The Trump tax scam, Phase II

When the Trump tax cut was on the verge of being enacted, I called it “the biggest tax scam in history,” and made a prediction: Deficits would soar, and when they did, Republicans would once again pretend to care about debt and demand cuts in Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. Sure enough, the deficit is soaring. And this week Mitch...
Opinion: The rich white civil war

Every few years one research group or another produces a typology of the electorate. The researchers conduct thousands of interviews and identify the different clusters American voters fall into. More in Common has just completed a large such typology. It’s one of the best I’ve seen because it understands that American politics is no longer...
Opinion: Warren highlights the danger of racial identity

She was mocked as “Fauxcahontas” long before President Donald Trump began referring to her as “Pocahontas,” and frankly, Sen. Elizabeth Warren invited the ridicule. She is a poster child for the pitfalls of basing identity on race, and reminds us of the many furies such self-definition can unleash. What people choose to call...
More Stories