A few weeks ago, I went to dinner with two friends from work. We decided to go out pretty late in the evening, so it took an hour to get a table. We decided to stay, mostly out of inertia, and found some seats near the bar to wait. Next to us there were three people, also waiting for a table. Normally I try not to eavesdrop in public, but we were sitting so closely together that overhearing was unavoidable.
The group was a male/female couple who live in Eugene and their friend, a man visiting from their hometown in the general area of San Francisco. As they were discussing what he should do while he’s here, the out-of-towner asked the other guy where the best coffee in Eugene is. After naming a few places, the woman laughed and said, “Can I just observe what a Northwest conversation we’re having right now?” I stopped listening at this point, because I was getting fired up, and I managed to hold it in until we were seated, when my friends kindly permitted me to let off some steam.
It has taken me a long time to figure out how to articulate why I get defensive about “the Northwest.” I grew up here in Oregon, in Roseburg, a small city about an hour from Eugene, sandwiched between mountain ranges in southern Oregon. I also love good coffee, but my exposure to single-origin, fair trade beans only happened when I moved here for college. Back home, I’m not sure I even know where to buy that kind of coffee.
There are plenty of differences between my hometown and Eugene–or, as I have taken to calling them recently, “Real Oregon” and “Liberal Oregon.” Roseburg is in the same congressional district as Eugene, and our representative, Peter DeFazio, wins elections in Eugene by about the same margin that he loses them in Roseburg; it’s only because the population is concentrated in Eugene that he keeps his seat. (Don’t misunderstand me; I think he’s a good congressperson. Just an observation of our political reality.)
In 2004, Oregon tied for 5th place in the race to ban LGBTQ couples from marrying. We share that shameful honor with Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Utah. (Alaska, Hawaii, Nebraska, and Nevada beat us all to the punch.) The election on Measure 36 wasn’t even close. Only two counties voted no on the constitutional amendment; most approved it by over 2/3rds. Thankfully, culture, especially political climate, can change quickly, and political organizing is underway to bring marriage equality to Oregon.
Another fact, one that usually surprises new Oregonians the most: in the 1920s, Oregon had a very active Ku Klux Klan. Roseburg, my hometown, was a hotbed of activity, but the Klan was everywhere, especially in the capitol. It’s worth observing that the Klan of the Reconstruction South (sometimes known as the First Klan) has some differences from the Klan of the 1920s, but it was still the Ku Klux Klan, and it heavily influenced Oregon state and local politics for several years.
I understand why more folks don’t know this stuff. I grew up in the Oregon where these facts are integrated into daily life. Most of my students aren’t even Oregonians, so I certainly don’t expect them to come with a knowledge of the state’s history better than many of its residents. But I’m a historian at heart, and I know that things are usually more complex than we’d like them to be.
If you’ll permit a hard left turn (pun partially intended), I am increasingly convinced that this “two Oregons” situation is related to cultural consumption. An unpleasant but direct example of this: Mike Jeffries, the CEO of Abercrombie and Fitch. In a 2006 Salon article, Jefferis explained the company’s no-plus-sizes policy: “good-looking people attract other good-looking people, and we want to market to cool, good-looking people. We don’t market to anyone other than that.” In other words, the company attracts customers by reminding them that their ability to wear A&F clothing is a privilege, and that purchasing the clothes makes you part of a beautiful people club.
The Abercrombie and Fitch issue made me think of a maxim that I have been told repeatedly as a new professional: “dress for the job you want, not the one you have.” I know there are different opinions about this concept, but to me, it could be restated as “go purchase the costume of a more successful [i.e. richer] person, wear it around, and soon you will be a more successful [i.e. richer] person.” Clothes, like a lot of other consumable goods, are frequently used to identify us as being members of particular groups. Think about a hipster, and you’re probably thinking about an article of clothing or an accessory, like glasses.
I think the idea of Liberal Oregon is constituted in a similar way. Portland, and also Eugene, are places where people can consume the stuff that makes them Liberal Oregonians. The fashion, the food, the culture all lean toward a particular kind of socially conscious liberalism. But I couldn’t see that liberalism from my hometown. ravaged by a methamphetamine epidemic that only abated when we made one of its ingredients prescription-only. Today, even though Roseburg is only one hour from the University of Oregon, its percentage of college-educated people is half the state average.
I often use this metaphor of two Oregons to challenge my students to see the complexity of the place in which they now reside, because it’s a great case study in the limits of consumerism. I’m not much of an economist, but I’m sure that socially conscious consumption is better than the alternative. What happens, though, when it’s not just stuff we’re consuming, but the ideals that go along with it? I like good coffee as much as the next person, but what does it mean when “the Northwest” becomes a synonym for “stuff that people, especially white, economically privileged, college-educated ones, want to buy and/or do”? What is the impact of our blindness on these other realities, the ones occupied by folks who aren’t as wealthy and educated?
That, for me, is the problem inherent in consumerism and social justice. Folks come here, and they purchase their version of Oregon, but the coffee and the hipster glasses and the independent bookstores are products of the same history as the methamphetamine and the poverty and the lack of education. I like coffee, and I am currently using hipster glasses to read the words that I’m writing. But can consuming these things make a difference? Can we ever fix what’s broken by consuming? I’m not so sure we can.