Portland is a pretty good place to watch FOX News’s effusive tribute to recently deceased former White House spokesman Tony Snow, who was got by jimmy dancer last week. Snow was an energetic talking-head with Duracell bunny energy, who replaced the podgy, sweaty, phlegmatic, kinda sitcom-y, Scott McClelland in 2005, and immediately gave the White House’s outrageous lies a quality they had not hitherto possessed: an energy sufficient to achieve the momentary appearance of plausibility.
Diagnosed with colon cancer in 2005, he fought it off in 2005, and then it came back and won the second round. Snow worked for FOX before he went to the White House, insofar as those are separate organisations at all, and so the exequies of Sean Hannity et al had more than a smidge of Pyongyang about them, Snow’s love of kittens, powers to heal by touch, etc etc.
The whole thing was playing at my local cafe, a coffee bar which serves only waffles. And not just any waffles, oh no. With asparagus-curry and vegan burrito on the menu, these folks are at the forefront of the alt waffle. Trade is so-so, amazingly – when the staff order out, your business model has a problem – and the clientele it does have are standard issue Pac-Northwest, like a meeting of plaintiffs for a class action against a particularly inept tattooist, the lawsuit having reduced them to hornrim glasses and old REO Speedwagon t-shirts from the Godwill store.
God knows why FOX is on the flat-screen. It’s a sort of irony degree zero, the sound cut, closed captioning on, The curling quarter finals from Calgary or the Uruguyan j’ai alai play-offs unavailable.
You couldn’t really get a better picture of two Americas than a FOX Tony Snow tribute playing here like a communique from Romula 7, in Portland, a city I am leaving tomorrow with mostly regret, tempered by a little relief. Right across the country, the Tony Snow tributes will be watched with reverence by folks just back from church , who will have no problem with its essential proposition that, the nation being at war, the truth must be surrounded by an entourage of lies, and the tree of liberty blanketed in bullsh-t.
Snow’s main job once he hit the White House was to spin the Scooter Libby/Valerie Plame case – in which the White House had revealed the name of a CIA agent to punish her diplomat husband for refusing to lie about WMDs in Iraq – and then to return to FOX News and spin the same tail. The story involves the distortion of information to get the country into a war, the illegal betrayal of serving officers by their own government, and lying to the courts – yet for the loyal audience not planning their spoken-word evenings over cranberry iced-teas, this is very America, the defence of freedom’s essence achieved by an attack on its every appearance. Portland is far from monolithic, but I would be surprised if it did not have among the lowest proportion of adherents in the country.
The myth of a blue state/red state America – of two Americas, liberal and conservative, coastal and inland, facing each other in mutual incomprehension – became so pervasive in recent years, that the process of correcting it, in favour of a more open-minded independent, middle, purple America, has become so insistent as to overshoot the mark. Yes, America is not a cultural Cyprus, with a line down the middle – but nor increasingly is it a France, or even an Australia, where a dialogue can be had across the entire territory with some degree of common assumptions. As Bill Bishop notes in The Big Sort, the myth of red state/blue state America is driving the creation of it, as people choose cities and regions more amenable not only to their immediate needs – does it have a good supermall/art cinema etc – but whose overall style reflects their dominant worldview, has less within it that is likely to disturb it.
Portland, seen by some as a poor Richard’s Seattle, is by the account of its older – ie 40-something – activist inhabitants, a font of alt culture in its own right. Chuck Palhniuk, in his alt travel guide, A Walk Round Portland, noted that everyone in town introduces themselves in a triple-decker way, ‘I’m a waiter, I’m a musician, I make zines’ ‘I’m filming bands, I’m a writer, I do some tech repair’ which I thought was an exaggeration but goddam if they don’t really do it.
With the ultra-left Reed College nearby and the anarchist hotbed of Eugene – home to the great anarcho-primitivist John Zerzan, a man who suggests that the human project might have gone wrong with the emergence of the language facility around 100,000 years ago – Portland was never going to be Provo, Utah. Even in the 80s it was known by Republican strategists as ‘little Beirut’ for the ferocity of protest that Reagan or Vice-President Bush were likely to meet there.
But what it acquired in the 90s, as left-right politics slipped away to be replaced by left-right cultural position wars, was the sort of large-scale transformative power in the manner described in Douglas Coupland’s 1991 novel Generation X – an appetite for irony so inexhaustible that it goes all the way back round to become a sort of imminent earnestness, a DIY aesthetic necessary to a culture in which the lineaments of the world have become obscured by commodities, life as a back street identity chop-shop. Portland has its civic mainstream – its rose parade, its blues festival etc – but everything is bent, stapled and mutilated to give new meanings. If it has a presiding vision, it is contained in Portlander Katherine Dunn’s 1988 Geek Love, her extraordinary novel about a freakshow couple trying to conceive a mutant baby. The scarified and tattooed ladies in their summer frocks and combat boots, the 19-year-old boys with shaved heads and Victorian whiskers, the restored fleapit picture palaces with their schlock horror film festivals, the Cacophony society with its annual Santa Rampage – hundreds of Father Christmases running through the street doing most un-St Nicholassy things – its ‘alternative realtors’ – these are all the children of geek love. Portland is the city that ran away to join the circus.
What I’m describing is, therefore, one stage beyond the post-60s process across the West, whereby select inner-city areas became the last refuges of a bohemia soon to be standardised. In Portland, so much of the city has become that, that relations of cultural dominance and submission have been reversed. It’s the neighbourhoods whose bars aren’t an old 50s diner with a zydeco-Kraftwerk houseband, and an Abbott and Costello trivia night, who don’t have an anarchist DIY bikefest with angle grinder and welding equipment supplied, that are in the minority. It is in other words, a city that a geek-freak can pretty much walk around in and always feel at home.
Consequently, a lot of people have come to make their home. Finding a native Portlandler is as likely as finding a true-born Darwinite. But where people go to Darwin to avoid a warrant, new Portlanders are here to evade Wal-Mart. Others are going from here, to Texas, to Phoenix, to avoid the rain, for the jobs, to get away from all the people coming to Portland.
So, the big sort. My view of it pretty obviously skewed – for an alternative take see David Brooks’s On Paradise Drive, his paean to ex-urban mallworld as an expression of the American quest for virtuous perfection – to suggest that such cities deal with the contemporary onslaught of prefabricated excess in more creative ways than they do elsewhere*. The problem is that such places in a culture of geographic self-selection, become their own orthodoxy, a somewhat routinised tradition that is not repeatedly refreshed by immediate and hard-fought cultural turf wars. For many Americans that creates its own distinctive insularity – the belief that the purchase of direct trade coffee and an award-winning masterpiece of Belizean cinema from one of the city’s sprawling alt DVD rental stores, is not only a necessary but sufficient basis on which US-world relations can be reconstituted. Obama, it need not be said, is very big in Portland.
To be young in such a city is very heaven, for the rest of us it can become a little irritating. I suspect it makes a difference if it’s your home or adoptive city or not – I don’t doubt that Melbourne’s effusive affection for the Skipping Girl vinegar sign gives other people the squits. And the counterweight is of course that other areas all over the country are leaving modernity altogether. Oklahoma, for example, which has not delivered a single county to the Democrats in the last two elections, now has a state government almost entirely composed of young earth creationists, now attempting fresh assaults not merely on high school biology, but on the whole corpus of science. And where your correspondent will be in a fortnight or so. Down in Okla Okla Oklahoma, by and large the only cavil with the Tony Snow obituaries is that the man was too damn liberal.
The brute fact of economic disaster has pushed the culture wars to second place, but what happens to a country undergoing such a geographical sort, when they return, if they do? The US has always had geographical self-selection – Utah mormons, Vermont free-staters, Carolina plantations – and such difference has served for a basis of unity. But can such a country become so ‘de-interlaced’ that it lacks the temperate strength to withstand tough times (tougher than now) untransformed? Such has happened once before of course, in 1861, but I am not suggesting that a new American crisis would present itself as a military civil war. It is however, not impossible to imagine that the ‘big sort’ is part of a cultural process that will eventually take on more explicit political forms.
In the meantime, the FOXagiography of Tony Snow has finished, and we’re switched to MSNBC, where Ben Stein is hosting a news show. Stein is an actor, writer and creationist propagandist who believes that Darwinism’s satanic nature is evidenced by the racialism of the Holocaust. He will be better known to most as the teacher in the 80s classic Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (‘Bueller, Bueller, Bueller …’) and briefly presented a gameshow called Win Ben Stein’s money. Before he begins this show ostensibly devoted to debate and critical inquiry he begins: ‘I want to thank all our men and women serving overseas who have the support of the whole country no matter what else we believe and I want to give thanks to God for what is undoubtably the freeset, the best and above all greatest country in the world … for letting someone like me on television’.
Irony, as I said, is a reach-around.
*Coincidentally, the Pac-Northwest is the area whose native American tribes were famous for the practice of ‘potlatch’ – the ritual destruction of objects in reciprocal tribute to another tribe, the ceremony sometimes getting completely out of control and the tribes burning all their own canoes and huts. Potlatch’s purpose was in part to ensure that a surplus of objects did not disturb reciprocal relationships within the group by creating individual wealth, to ensure that the spirit of living humans was not crushed by the weight of dead things. Did potlatch in some way influence the distinctive style of the Pac-Northwest? This idea is available for rental as a dissertation topic, for the price of, in true Portland style, a donation of five cans to the food bank, or old hardware to the ‘free geek’ alt computer rcycling collective.