WASHINGTON – “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”
— L.P. Hartley
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 — prewar 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-19th century, and extending through the mid-20th 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 14th and 15th amendments (not doing so until 1959 and 1973, respectively).
In 1920, Oregon’s population was 0.006 percent Japanese (they came after the federal government banned Chinese immigration in 1882), 0.3 percent African-American, 0.1 percent Jewish and 8 percent Catholic. To make living difficult for Japanese, Gordon says, the state “banned immigrants from operating hospitality businesses.”
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.
In a let-bygones-be-bygones spirit that Oregon progressives probably are too stern to embrace, let us assume that what Shakespeare said of individuals can be said of American states: “Use every man after his desert, and who shall ‘scape whipping?”
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?
George F. Will writes a column for The Washington Post. © 2018, The Washington Post Writers Group