As Sally and I get ready to leave Portland, it occurred to me I have been clear why I am leaving, but not so revealing about why I came here. So, this tale will be one of a series of vignettes about how I got here and why I stayed for 40 years. Here goes….
I came to Portland to stay in 1982. However, my first visit was in 1978. For almost a year, I lived in Salem for about a year with my girlfriend. I had been working in my home desert after school about as aimless as one can be. A college friend, who was doing graduate work at Willamette University, sent me a postcard which suggested I come to Salem. I went to the library (yeah, pre-Google) and read about Salem, Oregon. On a river, which meant it was the anti-desert. State Capitol. Hey, I had a new degree in Political Science, maybe that could be a thing. I left the desert, without a clue, and ended up working graveyard shift at a freeway gas station and growing pot in a closet. Now there’s living large.
My college friend had a boyfriend who was at the law school. He was a car geek, who made moonshine in the basement and had a love of the blues music. I didn’t yet know blues, only knew it was the foundation of rock. We lived almost across the street from each other. One day, he walked over and said that Muddy Waters was going to play in Portland. Was I interested? Sure, I said. Great, he said. But I needed to drive us to Portland to score tickets because both his Porsche 356A and Austin Healey were not running (note: way cool cars, but running wasn’t their thing). Off we went in my little Toyota Corolla Deluxe. Deluxe was a relative term for the Japanese cars of the 70s.
My first time on the streets of Portland started at the Memorial Coliseum exit off I5. Mark had a little sheet of scribbled notes and an alarmingly positive attitude. I recall seeing the black box arena and how we seemed to go in circles. We ended up in a head shop/music store and parked in an alley out back. Smell being a powerful memory, I remember the overwhelming aroma of incense, then popular to cover the smell of still felony marijuana. We got the tickets but didn’t linger, as the price of gas and tickets had exhausted our entertainment budget for the month.
Funny thing about where we bought the tickets. Many, many years later, I pulled into the weird diagonal head in/back out parking lot behind my all-time favorite music store in Portland, Music Millennium. Standing in on the sidewalk, looking at my car, it hit me. This was where I parked when I came to buy the Muddy Waters tickets. By then, I had been in Portland for decades and made friends with the owner, Terry. By then I had been to about 100 blues shows, but only at that moment did I realize that this was where my connection to Portland started.
The show was in an industrial area at a club called The Euphoria Tavern. It had an unlikely entry up a few steps on a street lined with loading docks and parked trucks. (The place still exits behind the Office Depot on MLK. It has had a dozen venue lives, and I once saw the queercore Portland band Team Dresch there.) Once inside, the place was pure Portland hippie funky. Beat up wood chairs, a few wobbly tables, and some rows of church pews up front. I recall a little before the music started, but what I didn’t know then was that Muddy’s backup band was a collection of blues royalty. Pinetop Perkins on piano, Jerry Portnoy on harp, Bob Margolin and Luther ‘Guitar’ Johnson on guitar, Calvin ‘Fuzz’ Jones on bass and Willie ‘Big Eyes’ Smith behind the drum kit. The band came out and played and played and played. Muddy Waters was nowhere to be seen. I mean, the music was great, but we came to see the man and I was getting antsy. Beers doing their job, I went to the restroom.
It was a two-urinal facility. I took my place and got about my business when an old, black man in a shiny purple shirt, black jacket and porkpie hat appeared at the urinal next to me. I could hear the band still playing (over the years, I have come to love taking a piss with live music in the background) and I had seen Muddy’s picture on Mark’s album cover. Yup, I was taking a whizz with Muddy Waters. Here is the bit of dialogue locked into my memory of my first trip to Portland.
Staring at the wall in front of me, with a slight head tilt and a little side-eye, I said, “Aren’t you supposed to be playing?”
Never looking my way, I heard his gravelly voice, “I’ll be gett’n there. I’ll be gett’n there.”
We finished our work and I hung back, so he exited before I did. Following him out, the small crowd saw him for the first time. The band switched to his walk-on music. People stood, clapped and hooted. One of the band members stepped to the mic and yelled, “Muddy Waters! Muddy Waters! Muddy Waters!” (I later learned that blues headliners always make the same sort of entrance after the backup band plays for a while.) That day, Muddy was the age I am now. Perhaps he was a prophet on that long ago night. Because what I didn’t know about Portland that night was that four years, and thousands of miles later, he had it right. “I’ll be gett’n there. I’ll be gett’n there.”
I have an admission. From the mid-1980’s when I arrived here until a few months ago, I had no idea there was a difference between the cities of Tigard and Tualatin. I knew they were somewhere south of Portland. I got this intel from freeway exit ramps from I5 south bound. Since I rarely left the comforting street grid patterns of Portland, I absolved myself of any need to know about these cities by simply calling them the T-Places.
Now, because irony is my lifelong north star, my wife and I own a new home in Tigard. Turns out it is a city of 50,000 north of Tualatin and that the bigger city of Beaverton squats down on both the T-Places like a resting monkey on a branch. Come the end of June, we will abandon our longtime home “High Atop Mt. Tabor” and plant ourselves near the banks of Fanno Creek. This an outcome both as bizarre to me as it is natural.
As I have written here before, sadly, Portland has become a burden. While our neighborhood still has most of its former charms, the trip in and out of our few blocks is now an ugly affair as inner SE Portland is besotted with camps, crime and vandalized buildings. And perhaps our block on Mt Tabor isn’t what we want. The new wave of couples with baby strollers is friendly enough, but they now live in what recently became million-dollar homes. Google money has arrived. I suppose I should just get over it, but my blue-collar roots wonder how I ended up living in what is becoming an exclusive neighborhood. I don’t know if the slightly smaller house in Tigard will eventually have the same fate. I think it will feel different without all the history.
Another reason we are leaving is time. In the last few years, I have experienced how quickly aging can drastically alter one’s relationship with place. The most visible symbol on our street comes and goes. It’s the long aluminum ramp to the front door of these older homes. Our place has at least 3 steps in and out, and two stairways once inside. Turns out, especially as we age, a few steps can be a mighty impediment to living a functional life. The new place is a single level ranch style. Over the last year, we have been excited about potential homes only to open the garage door and see 4 steps to the main level. Sal and I are impossibly practical, but in this need, we feel prudent. Now, we won’t have to think about that outcome, should it be in our future.
Living in a big city, it is hard not to hear the phrase “walkable neighborhood.” In theory, that is where we live now. I can see Hawthorne Blvd from the front steps. I could walk to groceries, dining, coffee, and entertainment. Guess what. I don’t. I like to drive. I drive everywhere. You can take the boy out of Southern California, but you can’t get him out of his car. Everything I need, well Home Depot could be closer, is a quick drive from the new place. And even better, we are 5 minutes from the delicious GTI playground back roads in the Willamette wine country. This thrills me as going for a ride is one of my all-time favorite things to do. Was I a suburb guy all along? I wonder.
Still, early in our search, we concluded that downtown Portland needed to be less than 30 minutes away. I still need live music, baseball, cocktails with friends and vintage movies at the Hollywood Theatre. There is a vast difference if something is 20 minutes away and not 40 minutes. At 40, I know I will just blow it off. Portland is a different place if you are a visitor.
One last admission. I hate, yes hate, the privilege and smugness of bike culture in Portland. I had a bike when I injured my foot. Used it for exercise. It was stolen. I was fine with that. Truth is, biking on the street scared the shit out of me. Not my thing. Unbelievably, I am now looking forward to getting a bike. We are a block from the Fanno Creek trail system. Miles of isolated, improved bike/walk trails. And, 1.2 miles away (I checked) on those trails is a collection of taverns loaded with good cold beer. Now, at last, I have a motivation to try a bike.
Why did I use the dystopian photo for this piece? It’s a perfect example of life in Portland now. Less than a year ago, that building was a 7/11. I liked that store for ice cream bars, beer, and industrial strength corn dogs that spun on those hot chrome tubes. Almost immediately after it closed, the graffiti appeared, followed by a homeless camp followed by large piles of garbage. The owners painted over the graffiti, moved the camp and put up the fence. The next day the fence was breached and all the decay was back. A predictable, endless loop. Even occupied buildings are tagged. Last week, someone shot two souls outside of Gold Dust Meridian, a cocktail bar I like on Hawthorne. An arsonist attempted to burn down buildings at the little Christian college down the street. One was occupied by a family. My wife can’t use her office looking out on Dawson Park because of the gunfire and rounds that shattered the windows of her offices. The litany is endless. We are leaving for many reasons, many good ones. But in the end, we just couldn’t take it anymore. Compassion fatigue, Sal calls it. That’s about right. See you in the burbs.
With over 1,000 shows on my list, as I watched the snow fall, I thought about which one was the pinnacle. I could go big, Bowie, Stones, Who, Eagles in the 70s. But as my memory pot simmered, and everything else disappeared with the steam, I had one night left. On April 15, 2013, I saw something transcendental in a little bar down in the inner eastside industrial district in Portland. I didn’t take any pictures, don’t have the ticket stub. They were out of t-shirts. All I have from the show is a little blue lapel pin that says “I AM HERE.”
My buddy Bob got a heads up from somebody that he really needed to see a band from London that was coming to town on a school night. Bob told me to meet him at Bunk Bar. This is a deeply odd place to see a show. It’s a small, former warehouse space that specializes in magical sandwiches and the mandatory row of Portland beers on tap. There is no stage. At some point, the wait staff pushes back an arch of tables, and a few monitors appear as a demarcation line, the illusion of a stage. No sound system. You get the sound right off the amps. No special lights, just a seemingly, randomly aimed collection of spots. There isn’t a green room. Opening bands blend into the crowd when they finish their sets and load out. There’s a hallway that leads to the restrooms and a door to the kitchen. That’s where the next band mills about, guitars strapped on, waiting to plug in.
One element that makes this show so special is that I almost didn’t see it. I was in a tough run, trying new medications to deal with my PTSD and panic disorder. That entire day, I had vacillated whether I could deal with a show, the people, the noise and especially the voices in my head. About the time I knew Bob was at the bar, I called him and said I was a goner. I simply couldn’t summon up the willpower to make it down the hill from my house. Being my pal, he both understood and gently encouraged me. I was disconsolate after I hung up, pacing about almost in tears. Time had ticked by for the opening band. Finally, as I have often had to do with the voices, I got punk rock on them and said, “Fuck it. Just go down and see what it is like.” That was the trick I often played on myself. Commit only to the parts. Drive down. Find parking. Mill around outside. Buy the ticket. One small step at a time. Each one with an escape plan.
Finally, inside the door, I looked for my friend. There couldn’t have been over 50 people in the place. He was in the back, beer in hand. I had surprised him. He came over and gave me a big hug and said, “Let’s get you a beer.” As the booze took effect, I knew I was there for the show. Conscious of the exit door, I motioned him down to lean on a table on the right side of the stage. He’s a short guy, so I am always conscious of his sight lines. I can see fine over his head. There was a manager looking guy sitting in a chair at the edge of the drum set staring at his phone. He gestured to the hallway and out came 4 women from London: Savages. We knew nothing about them. Never heard a song. But Bob and I share a minor obsession. We love women who rock. We seek those bands and singers. Too old coots, we are the most unlikely Riot Girl fanatics on the planet.
They looked rock band tough, all dressed in slick black clothes. Being eye to eye with a band in a small space means there is no place for them to hide. No antics. No posing. You get to see the band in what is little more than a practice space or a basement show. From the first slashing, high speed, almost surf guitar notes, I got that familiar chill as my body shed all anxiety and was fully present. Bob and I looked at each other, eyes wide, mouths agape. The singer, Jehnny Beth, was a blowtorch of charisma, seemingly in a trance for a moment, then exploding in swirling, dark lyrics. At the end of each song, as the room heated up with moving souls, Bob and I kept mouthing “what the fuck” at each other. Three songs in, Jehnny Beth talked to us. And here was where the intense fourth wall imploded. We were in awe, but so were they.
You see, this was their first American tour. They had driven all day to Portland from San Francisco. The first thing she said was almost adorable, “We did not know how big America is. What we drove today was the entire length of our country.” Looking at the faces of the four women, you could see they were a little exhausted, pumped on adrenaline, and a little lost in what was happening to them. I don’t think I have ever had the thought at a show before, but there was an innocence hanging in the air all around them.
There were no weak songs. Each one was an experiment. Challenging rock ballads. Full-on aural assaults. And, in each one, an ethereal challenge for the listeners. I looked around the room. Everyone was on the same ride, a shared journey of discovery. It was an experience you never wanted to end. When they finished, the applause and yelling was the most sincere demand for an encore I had ever heard. They came back out of the hallway and stood there, not plunging in. The drummer stood behind her kit. Jehnny Beth took the mic and said, “Uh, this is the first time we have done an encore.” The room went nuts yelling and clapping. She put her hand up to calm us down, “No, you don’t understand, EVER! We only know one more song. We could play that and one more again if that’s alright.”
Of course, it was alright. They ripped through the two songs, and all came out front to bow and thank us. I looked at their smiling faces and saw clearly that they were just kids who had stepped through a dream door and had only then realized it. Our great luck was to go along with them for a couple of hours. I stepped over to the mech table wanting a t-shirt. The woman behind the table said, “We didn’t know this would happen. We only have these buttons left.” For me, that night, that button said it all. I put it in my shirt and gave my friend a hug. Yea, I AM HERE.
I have seen them in headlining tours 2 more times. The photo is from a sold-out show at the Wonder Ballroom. Last night of their US tour where Jehnny Beth started by yelling, “You are getting everything we have left tonight!” We did.
Surfing Netflix, I came across the 1998 movie, “As Good as It Gets.” If you haven’t seen it, just the on-screen time between Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt, who both won Academy Awards, is worth the 2 hours. About 90 minutes in, I noticed something strange. Rather, I noticed the absence of something now ubiquitous. The movie appeared on the cusp of smart phones and the widespread use of the internet. I was highly attuned to that moment, as I was an early adopter of both. Leading an IT engineering team, we had a 24X7 on call rotation to support the company’s business servers and network. I didn’t have a rotation. As the boss, I was basically on call all the time. So, when cell phones became smaller than a valise, my team all got them to go with our pagers. It was a time when, if I was on my phone walking down the sidewalk, people did a double take. The movie is from the last gasp of an unconnected world. I couldn’t shake the feeling that may have been a better world because it was defined as much by what we didn’t know as what we knew. Everyone lived in their own mystery bubble.
Let me first be defensive and challenge the reflex that this essay is just another old man’s lament. We are now well into the second generation of ubiquitous, first world connectivity. Millions of people don’t know what they cannot know about the past. I am not saying pre-connection was better. That’s a silly way to judge history. However, layering context is essential. It this case, I believe there is a spiritual difference in the previous analog world based on what could and couldn’t be known. Every day, people were reminded of what they didn’t know. Simple questions like: ‘Where is she?’ ‘Where am I?’ governed our lives. We moved about in patterns that others could not know. We got lost and sought help, sometimes from a skinny kid at the local gas station like me. Resolving gaps in our knowledge started with a nearby person. “Hey, have you ever heard of… .” Stumped, the first thought was to pick up a phone and call someone who “just always knows.” Crowdsourcing information was a person-to-person, leisurely pursuit. Sometimes, the ultimate authority for a conundrum was an exchange of letters, snail mail, or even a trip to the library. None of this caused anxiety because we had faith that somewhere, someone had an answer. Mystery was ubiquitous.
I don’t have children, so have not been privy to the Borg-like intertwining of youthful minds and the internet. But in my work life, I saw an influx of Gens M and Z. One thing that startled me about their days was the need for certitude. If our conversations charted new ground for them, they would stop mid-sentence, reach for their smart phone, or turn to a screen and fire up the Google. Not surprising. Who hasn’t consulted the internet? What was different was the immediate need to end the discomfort of ignorance. Their’s is a world where mystery must be wrestled to submission. Oscillating between biological and electronic communication was second nature. Amongst their peers, the banter continued as eyes floated down to phones and back to other eyes. Having experienced a world where attention, focused personal presence was highly valued, I found the new digital habit first distracting, then frustrating, and finally, sad. Possibly more disconcerting is that I am now more likely to behave in the same way.
But I wonder, will the connected from birth ever feel the pure fun of an argument where facts are in doubt? I have spent hours with friends and strangers, engaging in the joy of pointless speculation. Among baseball fans, the beers came and went in long arguments about the relative merits of players or teams. We injected facts randomly based on the knowledge of hardcore fans. Everyone was an expert on something or feigned such expertise. Yea, we bullshitted each other. Most often, the discussion resolved amicably, if not inaccurately. In this way, we could revisit the same argument. Sometimes, the argument itself became a signifier for a relationship in the group. Should facts become critical, we consulted “the bible.” The bible was The Baseball Encyclopedia, a massive tome that collected all baseball stats from the beginning of the game. I have one. Page after page of the names of players and their careers. It’s an absurd book because it was obsolete the year it was purchased. Season by season, data marches away from the book. Now, Google solves all arguments because the internet it timeless. Is that a good thing?
Without accepting mystery, we are likely to fall prey to certainty. With a tap or some clicks, we are now sure we know. That need to know has become dangerous. Being addicted to certainty predisposes us to demand rapid answers, the endorphin hit of clarity. And once one is certain, repeatedly, a crack opens through which information can be altered to fill the need to know. We now see that truth has become relative. The quick hit of any sort of certainty is often more important than the muddy reality of nuanced and strained truth. Having lost the ability, or need, to live with a mystery, doubt becomes the enemy. People spouting the misinformed nonsense now swear that they “have done their own research.”
With no mystery, we fall prey to lies that feel like the truth. Feelings become facts. Any good behavioral therapist will tell you that the path to constant neurosis is an inability to separate feelings and facts. Look around you or look at your social media feed. How much of what you see is based on how people feel? How have they have substituted feelings for facts? And now, most dangerously, once anyone expresses a feeling on the internet, the algorithms spring to life to feed you more solace for your feelings. The algos don’t exit to provide facts because it’s feelings that sustain clicks and clicks make money.
When the movie ended, I sat for a time staring at the blank screen. For a couple of hours, I had been somewhere familiar. Clean is the word that came to me. The relationships portrayed were uncluttered by instant communication and electronic paths to false certainty. There was no need to clutter the screen with text bubbles into the virtual world. With no immediate digital outlet for self-expression, impulses had to be contained, questions pondered. Humans benefit from slow. Digital speed exceeds our ability to understand. Spontaneous feelings take flight thoughtlessly. In the crowded New York sidewalk scenes, everyone was looking up, out and around. Awareness extended only as far as anyone could see. Beyond that point in the distance, everyone shared the same limitation. The world was a mystery.
I was awash in hope for the great American experiment. It is a wonderful notion, this idea that a wildly diverse collection of humans would gather to commit themselves to a creed, a collection of ideas. Through the flaws at its founding, the mechanism to correct those flaws and grow to the higher goods has served us well. But now we have learned there is a greater chink in the armor of our constitution. What was unwritten is as important as what is in the founding documents. The entire experiment always depended on the fealty of our leaders to the same understanding and desired outcomes. Tradition and the good intentions of people are the glue that held us together. That glue is gone. The unleashed passions and obedience to faction that the founders feared to their core now run wild. It pains me to write this, but I now believe the clock is ticking louder to the day which we will move from a representative democracy to an authoritarian rule minority. Here is the evidence that weighs heavily on my heart.
In my academic world, I have now spent decades trying to understand political polarization. I remained steadfast in my belief that the system, the people in it, would prevent a tipping of the scale. What I could not account for was the internet. Americans are now hermetically sealed into opposing narratives. Worse, as we have learned recently, the financial model of social media companies is to drive clicks by sustaining anger. They have studied our brains and know how to keep us apart for profit.
The other factor I could not imagine is the dissolution of one of our political parties. Republicans started their dance with the devil after the signing of the great society civil rights laws of the 60s. The polar flip of the south from Democrat to Republican was a racial response that has through line to today. I recommend: Wildland: The Making of America’s Fury by Evan Osnos. His analysis lives in a wonderfully nuanced story telling about 3 cities where he lived and revisited after living abroad for a decade. Core to the telling is how Karl Rove designed the Bush campaign’s takeover of solid Democratic West Virginia by exploiting race, class, religion, and culture. It’s a playbook the Republicans have repeated with brilliant success. What they hadn’t considered was that after inflaming the beast, it would turn on them with the appearance of a demagogue. Now, to maintain and accumulate power, they must hang onto the tail of the monster with all their might. And so, every traditional restraint has been abandoned. They now stand ready to fill out the power roles of an impending autocracy.
However, the Republicans have a willing partner in the dissolution of our liberal democracy, the Democratic party. The newly empowered progressive wing has no love for the American experiment. In fact, they are an engine for faction and division. Identity politics based on race and intellectual class are now their watchword. At the precise moment when we desperately need a doubling down on the constitutional creed, it is faction they seek, first within their party then as a utopian vision of how to reshape the core American beliefs. History tells us that all utopian communities fail. From the Shakers to Communism, utopias become dystopias, leaving the true believers shattered and angry. Witness the current argument over hard and social infrastructure. It is internecine warfare which Republicans watch with glee.
Let’s be clear, the election of Biden was not a mandate for a complete restructuring of the social safety net. This was not an FDR in the Great Depression moment where he swept into office with huge Democratic majorities in Congress. No, this was a rejection of Donald Trump. It was a plea to stop the daily insanity. Americans are, mostly, not programmatic voters. They vote for moods and individuals. Biden was a psychological salve. Progressive hubris is limitless. Democrats got killed in state and local elections in 2020. They barely hung onto the House. The wildcard of Trump gave them a 50-50 Senate by the slimmest of margins. To take the election results in 2020 as a mandate for a great social policy awakening is insanity. Biden is living an FDR fantasy, caught in the moment, and too weak to resist the hubris. Today, what Biden needs most in the world, a political necessity and wedge against impending autocracy is a big win. That win sits in the hands of progressives. The $1.2T infrastructure bill is a done deal. It would provide limitless political ammunition against Republicans now and in the midterms. Yet, there it sits, held hostage to Progressive hubris and utopian visions. Would more social programs be helpful? Yes. Did Americans vote for such programs? No. Especially in the suburbs and among independent voters? No.
What of Biden? He is the solace against the insanity of Trump. But he was always a transitional president. He said it himself. But we all see it. He is two steps slower now and fading fast. A powerful president would not dodge every opportunity to engage the media and make his case. He can’t do it. Every time he makes a teleprompter statement, then turns from the shouted questions; his weakness is on display. Republicans taste the blood in the water and are ruthless. Biden isn’t up for the fight. And in 2024? There is still no Democratic presidential candidate bench. Kamala Harris will never be President of the United States. She is weak tea with no innate political skills. Her public performances are even more cringeworthy than Biden’s. Reports are that her staff is a mess. She has hired new messaging gurus, a sure sign of the disarray. And here’s the truth that no one wants to hear. America might elect a woman president (too many women won’t vote or a woman) but, I’m sorry, America will not elect a woman of color. Obama taught us that the electorate is not post racial. In fact, his election super-charged the racial core of the current Republican party. In this pronouncement, I am not stating what is in my heart; I am being my best, most calculating, political hack. So, a thought experiment, who else do the Democrats have to take on Trump? Yea, I can’t think of anyone either.
Yes, Trump is running on 2024. It will happen like this. The Democrats cannot overcome their internal battles to defend the House in the midterms. The Republicans will pick up 1 or 2 seats in the Senate. Controlling Congress, Republicans will stop the 1/6 commission and unleash a blizzard of conspiracy theory-based investigations. Have you forgotten how Republican investigations work? My best guess is that, purely out of revenge, the House will vote impeach Biden. They will dominate the media landscape. False narratives will supplant truth, already in short supply and at the core of those narratives will be the reincarnation of Trump. He will ride the wave to announce his campaign. Democrats, in disarray, with no clear leadership and a still slipping Biden will be political roadkill. The state elections apparatus in every Republican state is now, or soon will be, designed to invalidate Democratic electors. They are busy rigging the game now. Close states Biden won will fall to vote suppression and tricks. Trump is the next president.
Once in power, the Trumpists will correct every mistake they made in his first term. There will be no guard rails, no protectors of the constitution. If there are riots and marches, he will invoke the Insurrection Act. (The Woodward/Costa book says we are very close in 2020.) Troops will deployed as the generals who saved us last time will be purged. Only loyalists will be in any position of power. The Republican congress will act in concert with the Trump administration, gleefully removing the filibuster to pass legislation at will. We have seen this show in Europe and Asia. Under the cover of “democratic” elections, America will be an autocracy. Three years left. Tick tock.
The only thing that will prevent Trump’s return is him dying or ending up in jail. Even then there are a willing crew of authoritarian Trumpists waiting in the wings. They may be more dangerous, as they are smarter and uniquely focused. The path is now open. The only question is who will set forth on the journey.
The only way to prevent this is for the Democrats, in the next 18 months, to be as relentless as the Republicans. Democrats don’t like hardball politics. Get over it. They will have put aside utopian dreams and realize than in the dystopian future, none of what they think possible will even be considered. Yea, what a bummer, but this is not a time for inter-party policy fights. The threat is upon us. Democrats need to align with every anti-Trumpist Republican they can in the battle. The enemy of my enemy…. This is now a game for cold-eyed political killers. The Democrats need their own Mitch McConnell. Only a beast can face down a beast. And yes, Democrats will need to suck it up and become unabashed patriots.
Thomas Paine said it long ago.
THESE are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value.
And, in our day’s vernacular, I offer this clip from a guy who was right about Trump from the beginning.
The two small boxes could not have been more different. One was a neat, glossy, rectangular wooden box. Simple, but nicely made. The other was tin metal with a paisley flower pattern on the outside. In another life, it would have made a good tea container. Since January 2112, they had sat together, first on a shelf in our kitchen, then on a shelf in the basement above the dog’s kennel area. Sally had moved them. I don’t know when. But it was Sally who finally said it was time to scatter the ashes of our much-loved dogs on Mt. Tabor. I agreed.
I devoted a tear-soaked chapter to the passing of Bodhi and Luna in my memoir. It was there that I thought I had worked this all out, the sudden death of our dogs in the same week. When Sally brought the boxes up from the basement and put them on the dining room table, I mused on how strange it was we hadn’t done this sooner. How had we lived with the ashes for so long? Part of me thought it unkind to have not completed this circle. It turned out the act of omission was a conspiracy between the two of us.
Sunday morning, I took the wooden box down to my workbench to remove the screws that held it together. When I turned it over, I saw the printed label. Whoever did the label had misspelled Bodhi into Budhi. That evoked a flash of anger. Not annoyance. It pissed me off. Had I not seen this error before? Inside the opened box was a compressed grey cube of remains in a plastic bag. I had an odd thought. Do bigger dogs get bigger boxes or is this one size fits all? I put the Bodhi cube and the Luna tin in a Walgreens paper bag, and we got in my car to go up to a spot of Sally’s choosing.
Sally is the morning dog walker, has been since our first to dog Ziggy, whose ashes we spread on the little cinder cone hill a long time ago. I have never seen the morning dog walk. I hear about it. It’s an almost sacred time for Sally and the dogs. They roam the park in all weather. During winter, it is still dark when they get up there. The meticulous “doggie mama” puts blinking lights on the dog’s collars so that even off leash in the fog and growing light she can track them. I have heard tales of remarkable sunrise moments on bitter frosty mornings, just Sal and her dogs. So, naturally, Sally chose the ultimate resting place for Bo and Lu on the south side of the hill, facing the sun, just outside the large dog park. She told it was there she sometimes let them off leash to sniff and play.
Sal was emotional all morning. I was not. We walked up, and I pointed out a small tree that seemed the right place. There was a breeze. I reminded Sal to stay upwind lest we become a scene from the Big Lebowski and coat ourselves in the dogs. I took Bodhi, who was my constant companion. Sally removed Luna, the dog that stole her heart. Sally, in tears, said we should each spread half the ashes. Sal is wise like that. Ignoring my Lebowski caution, Sal began pouring the ashes standing in the wind. I eased her to turn as the first grey puff was already on her shoes. We both said how we liked that the inseparable pair of girls were mingling on the ground. It troubled me that the swath of remains seemed so large. Grey dust, speckled with shiny white bits of crushed bone, extended out from the tree trunk in the wind’s direction. I put the empty plastic bags into the paper sack, and we embraced. We said words over the grey swath, reminisced a bit. Then, as we departed, I became uncomfortable about how visible the ashes were. I am not sure why, but I kicked over some covering leaves. The futility of effort was immediately clear, and I returned to walking out with Sal.
Still near the tree, I looked over and emotion hit me like a thunderclap. You see, I made a mistake the day we lost my big dog Bo. I’ll not retell the entire story here, as I did it better in my book, but there was a point when it was clear she was dying and I decided we needed to go home to get Luna, so Bodhi’s companion knew what happened. I should have stayed with Bo while Sally got Luna. I didn’t. That regret washed over me as I looked at the grey line in the bright sunshine. We both walked in tears back to the car.
Blackwood men talk most freely while sitting in their cars. It turned out so do Blackwood women. Sally and I both had secrets we had held from each other for almost 10 years. Sally was alone when the cancer burst in Bodhi’s gut, causing her to bleed out internally. Sal called me away from an evening event I was at with the commissioner. I rushed to the emergency veterinarian. I always thought Bo’s crash had been fast. What Sally had spared me was how it was slow. That night, she had called the vet twice for advice and given her pain medication. Bodhi, the athlete, was always spraining something so that what we did all the time. But Sally had believed the drugs were the problem. Sally had spent hours watching and panicking over Bodhi’s decline. She never told me to spare me that pain, that image. She also said she should have forced me to stay with Bo while she got Luna.
While I had written in the past that I should have stayed that night, sitting in the car, I finally revealed the lingering depth of my shame. That awful night, I was having panic attacks and getting away from that pet hospital was, insanely, a relief, a chance to collect myself. My longtime mental health issue, not my love of my big dog, was calling the shots. And there was one more secret I kept. Luna had mouth cancer, but it was slow illness. A few days after Bodhi died, I woke to find Luna alone upstairs, in the middle of the floor, panting. We went to the same emergency clinic, same damn vet, and she coldly said Luna was dying. Sally and Luna shared a heart. What I didn’t tell Sally was that I never believed it was the cancer. I was sure that Luna died of a broken heart. Without her rambunctious mate, she just gave up. I never wanted to burden my wife with that thought.
Now, parked in the garage, Sally and I unburdened ourselves. She said she always thought it was best for Luna to be with her sister. Her immediate passing had given Sally comfort. I told Sally that it was all my decision not to stay with Bodhi. I was too deep in shock, and more afraid of Sally not being there with me. I told her she did her best that night. She told me the same. And then we looked at each other and knew. We finally understood why those two boxes had sat on shelves for so long. We both had secrets and lovingly avoided what would surely come if we opened those two boxes and set our dogs free. When we had exhausted the life of our secrets, we had another realization. Those boxes, symbols of pain and love, had become a silent anchor, holding us in this house and this place. Now, Bodhi and Luna are where they should have been all the time, and we, well, we are now also free to leave this place and make something new.
Have you ever been to a show with a band you love and about halfway through the set you are done? Maybe the line-up changed. Perhaps the new album was an awful dance-beat nightmare? Or maybe, to your surprise, your tastes had changed, and the old songs didn’t give you the former buzz. About three quarters through the set, you think about what’s in the refrigerator at home. When the leftover lasagna calls, you take one last look at the stage and walk out. Well, that is how Sally and I feel about Portland now.
There are parts of my memoir that are a love letter to Portland. Or, are those sections a peon to a certain version of the city? I met Sally here, so I can’t argue with that. But about a year ago, we looked around and asked each other, “Why are we still here?” I think my big revelation was that as I roamed the city taking photographs during the depths of the lockdown, I realized that what I really liked was that all the people were gone. The quiet streets were seductive. The lack of traffic created a certain ease. The endless stream of hipsters dressed in black had disappeared. Stripped down, Portland became a list of things I didn’t need anymore. And, what remained, the grime, the homelessness, the narcissistic graffiti bubbled to the top. Covid meant that Sally no longer had to be here to work. The stars aligned.
I can’t live in a place without being well informed. I read online news, formerly newspapers, and stay plugged into the ebb and flow of politics and power. I was so committed to the city that I switched careers and devoted long hours to a job in city hall. However, it was in the last year there that I saw the city’s philosophy move away from me. A classic liberal with a streak of economic conservatism, I saw the first wave of dogmatic progressivism crash into city hall. Slowly, and now completely, thought became governed by a series of progressive litmus tests. I love to challenge narratives, question authorities, and encourage broad thinking in policy discussions. Merely having that mindset has become a problem in Portland. Viewpoint diversity evaporated in a new group think with its sanctions for violating the emerging dogma. Comity and negotiation, the search for balanced solutions, has been replaced with the certainty of the advocate. If I have learned anything in my years, it is that such absolute certainty is cutting the trail for hubris. It now pains me to read about our city’s government.
Last summer, in bed with the windows open, I heard the sound of attacks on the police office about 15 blocks from our house. Now, occasionally, I hear gunfire. There is a new game on NextDoor: Was that fireworks or gunfire? Streets I walked at all hours in our neighborhood, and even downtown, are dangerous. I am a city guy who loves to get a slice of pizza at 1AM after a show. I have a well-developed street radar to avoid trouble. I have seen a stabbing, fights, drunken stupidity and macho posturing but at no time did I think I didn’t want to be there in the clarifying flow of the night. No more. Being in the heart of this city, the chance to be in the wrong place at the wrong time is much higher. Formerly transitory homeless camps are now locked down mini sidewalk cities. Systems have failed. I look down to make sure you are avoiding human excrement and up to gauge the intentions of the violent mentally ill. Moments after a building vacant, graffiti locusts descend, adding to the dystopia. Even the attempts to bring downtown back to life seem forced and fanciful. Oh, it may come back, but no time soon.
When Sally and I drive around the city, we kvetch, sometimes in sadness, other times in frustration. A few days ago, we wanted to pop into a fast-food joint on Hawthorne. Sitting at the lights, we looked out at a spaghetti of lines drawn on the street. Red zones, green zones, dashed sections, solid blocks, lights for cars, lights for bikes, new humps in the street for busses and pylons poking up from the tarmac. Sally’s question was simple, “How do I turn right?” I began to complain, but stopped and we both looked at each other and said, “Drake.”
There is a scene in Aliens where the troops are desperately firing and running from the alien creatures. The troops are being slaughtered. Finally, the combat tank arrives and the doors open. Corporal Hudson, wounded, yells at the last guy in the fight, the rear guard. “Drake! We are leaving!!!” Moments later, the creatures kill the last guy standing, and the survirors escape just in time. Sally and I have taken that scene as our mantra. When frustrated and about to fall into another rant, we say, “Drake.”
We have requirements. To age in place (lord willing and the creek don’t rise) we want a single level home. I want a newer house. Almost 100-year-old homes are charming, but I am tired of keeping this one from falling down. We will not be within the Portland city limits. I don’t want to think about this place. However, we have agreed that we want to be 30 minutes to downtown. That is the outer limit of reasonableness to catch a show or a movie at the Hollywood Theatre. That also puts the Pickles and Hops in easy striking distance for medicinal baseball. Sally must replace Mt Tabor Park. Nature that close is soothing. Little things, room for my dahlias, light streaming into the kitchen, a covered patio eventually. We have the list.
For months, we have been throwing stuff away and making trips to Goodwill. We have a ‘not going’ list too. The new place will be smaller. But, for all our preparation and my grieving for what I will lose, Covid and a housing bubble have made it nearly impossible to find a new place. It’s crazy. Like everyone else, the wacky times capture our life change. For months, there is nothing to buy. We have gotten Zen about it, mostly. We have the happy problem of trading in one nice place for another when the right thing comes along. We have worked hard and been frugal, but we know we are fortunate. So, for the time being, here we are, anchored to our past and present, anticipating the future. There’s a word for that. DRAKE!!!
I instinctually avoided this book until I could arrive at my own conclusions. Once I posted “The End of America,” I dove into this frightening little tome. The credits are funny. The authors are academics who thank their editor for stopping them from sounding like the college professors they are. I think the editor mostly won that battle. The book is readable and in sections feels like the scariest thriller you have ever picked up. It is important to keep telling oneself that they wrote this book after Trump won and published in 2018. Even these prescient authors could not expect what would happen next.
The first surprise was the about 50 pages that relate the history of political and social polarization in America. I have studied and written about the topic since I saw the Reagan revolution up close in DC in 1980. If you genuinely want to understand the deep roots of our current crisis, that history alone makes the book worth the price. They rightly trace our current divide to two pieces of legislation that began to right the greatest American flaw: The 1964 Civil Rights Act and The Voting Rights Act of 1965. That legislation flipped the South from Democrat to Republican and turned Black voters into Democrats thus turning the party into an urban entity. Add the politics of the Vietnam War and the lasting division of the two parties was set in stone.
The authors compare America to several countries that have slipped into authoritarian regimes. They don’t merely focus on Germany of the 1930s. They spend most of their time with Central and South America. Yes, it is now simple to compare us to the classic “banana republic.” There is a predictable pattern to how democracies fail. In a clear 4-part chart, the authors create check boxes for authoritarianism. 1. Rejection of (or weak commitment to) democratic rules of the game. 2. Denial of the legitimacy of political opponents. 3. Toleration or encouragement of violence. 4. Readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including media. If that list didn’t put a chill down your spine, then you are not paying attention.
History tells us that democracies rarely die in a single dramatic event. More likely, is the relentless erosion of norms. Our constitution has always depended on unwritten rules, what the authors call “guardrails,” that act as the glue to keep the system running. How many times have you heard the media say, “Trump is defying all norms?” Authoritarians save the direct assault on the written constitution for last. First comes the erosion of the rules that make government work. And the most important, maybe final assault: removing public faith in the results of elections. Remember, they wrote this in 2018. The authors still believed, or hoped, that we could keep this last boundary intact. They were wrong.
One guardrail is the actions of the political parties. They assumed that, given history, the Republicans would eventually turn on Trump and reject the path to authoritarian government. What we know now is that Republicans looked down into the abyss and said, “Okay, that’s fine by me.” Democrats do not have a partner to stop the end of democracy. They have a dedicated foe.
While the book captures the importance of the right-wing media sphere in keeping the Republican base angry, it completely miss the power of the internet and social media. I made this the core of my previous essay. Remarkably, these academics seemed to miss this one as Trump’s Twitter was raging for years before he was elected. A piece struck me this week in the Oregonian about the “Greater Idaho” movement to divide Oregon by ideology. Even in that article people were quoted as saying the real problem was when folks went home and spent the night staring at Facebook groups and YouTube videos. We are sealed into thought worlds now.
This is an important book. If you love America, it is a frightening book. But if you are already concerned, knowing what exactly to look for is essential. What is happening now for most Americans is the classic frog boil. Raise the temperature of the pot slowly enough and lull the frog to death.
The book ends with 3 possible outcomes. I am not sure I completely agree, but I think they could have nailed the possibilities. First, Trump fails and is rejected. We know this is not the case. With a willing Republican party, one with a goal of a permanent minority rule, Trump is mostly unscathed. Second, Trump and the Republican win outright. They take congress again and Trump runs and wins a second term. If that happens, it is game over. However, I don’t think they go far enough here. The mini-Trumps waiting in the wings are smarter and more committed to the cause of authoritarianism that Trump. As bad as he is, we escape some of the worst outcomes because he is lazy and a narcissist. The next Trumpist won’t have those flaws. Finally, we live in a democracy without guardrails. The tribal warfare of the polarized parties and electorate is relentless. We bounce from one set of governing principles to another. The frog boil.
How Democracies Die tries to end with some encouragement. It makes a call to restore the norms, our essential guardrails. They call on Democrats to deal with the economic inequity to regain the trust of part of white, blue collar America. Biden was seen with a dogeared copy of this book. He gets it. They caution against doing what many Democrats want now and be just as evil and tough as McConnell and his henchmen. History tells us that road only hardens the opposition. Get rid of the filibuster now and when the power flips, it’s game over. I wondered if the authors had painted themselves into a logical corner and realized that they had no way out. My take is that we have one shot. Republicans continue to build structural ways to maintain power at the state level. Democrats lost the last election. That’s right. Biden’s victory was lipstick on a pig, as was the victory of 2 senators in Georgia. Don’t be fooled. Voter suppression can be defeated. Hard to vote still means that everyone can vote. The only way to give our democracy a fighting chance is to crush the Republicans at the polls in 2020 and 2022. Top to bottom, from the local school board to the White House. Democrats need to be ruthless in ignoring all distractions. They are not good at this. To save our democracy, they have to stop playing internal games and focus only on those actions that lead to total electoral victory. In this, they must become Republican-like. To govern, first win.
I doubt that the middle can hold. Circumstances the founders could not have expected are unleashed and what we know of as America hangs by a precarious thread.
The founders knew this form of government was an unlikely concoction. In fact, they collectively had a deep fear of democracy. Historically, attempts to form democratic governments had been unmitigated failures. The Roman Republic was their worst case. So, James Madison, and he was the primary author, created a constitution that explicitly seeks to parcel out power via interlocking checks and balances. It is a bit of a kludge that has mostly served us well. While it didn’t fix everything immediately, slavery and women voting for example, it was constructed in a way that even those onerous flaws were mitigated. We move toward justice.
Our democratic republic is like a steady middle infielder who never bats above.245. (Of course, a baseball metaphor) Such a player is essential because they grind out at bats with the occasional home-run and play defense that consistently saves runs. Any given day, they can dazzle, but most are the core of any excellent team. I think the problem with current perception about America is that we expect it to be a phenom, the star. Kind of silly that. The founders were audacious, but they weren’t idiots.
There is an old word at the core of Madison’s assumptions: comity. Here’s one definition: a state or atmosphere of harmony or mutual civility and respect. America was playing hardball, 2-party politics as early as 1800. Vicious attacks and outrageous claims were in newspapers and pamphlets. Still, when the dust settled, even the worst political enemies shared a baseline loyalty to the system, Enlightenment liberalism, and most importantly, the constitution. Differences existed under a single name: American. I have studied political polarization for decades and have remained an optimist about the resilience of the American experiment, but now I must admit that I may have been wrong.
The Internet is killing us. I was one of the earliest adopters of internet. A bit of a nerd, I was part of a small group who hacked our ancestral home PCs to behave like the UNIX systems in universities. After days of tinkering with an unbelievably slow modem, I recall the rush of seeing my screen slowly paint a web page from Switzerland. I yelled for Sally to come look. “Look… Look I am in Switzerland now!!” To which I believe she responded, “I don’t know what that means.” We few nerds rambled on endlessly about sewing the world together over one big internet. Veterans of dial up Bulletin Board Systems, we already understood virtual communities, but this was going to be different, free, universal. We were fools.
I am now sure the single most important factor in the coming dissolution of our republic is the internet. Social media is a collection of isolated cells of festering malice. We don’t use the tool to expand our personal universe and challenge our own assumptions. No, aided by the social media companies and malign actors (are those the same) people gather to confirm what they believe. “Believe” is the key word. The internet has vast wells of empirical knowledge, but our current internet exists to aggregate misinformation and support new religiosity. To believe is to commit to articles of faith. On the right, that is the cult of Donald Trump. Remarkably, Evangelical Christians have found in this swindler a new messiah. On the left, as critical theory has exploded into universities, what has emerged under the label “woke” is a secular religion where founding beliefs can’t be questioned. Both extremes define heretics then hunt them down on the internet, and increasingly, with violence on our streets. What both share is the resolute rejection of the single most important characteristic of our founding, the emergence of the independent, liberal human.
Quoting Andrew Sullivan:
The genius of liberalism in unleashing human freedom and the human mind changed us more in centuries than we had changed in hundreds of millennia. And at its core, there is the model of the single, interchangeable, equal citizen, using reason to deliberate the common good with fellow citizens. No ultimate authority; just inquiry and provisional truth. No final answer: an endless conversation. No single power, but many in competition.
Simply, the internet has made us all more stupid. Social media exists in the world of primal stimulation. The best way to keep your eyeballs on the screen is to tell you what you want to hear and poke at the basest emotion: anger. Love can motivate, anger keeps us clicking and clicks are money. The economic incentive of the internet alone is enough to dismantle over 200 years of comity.
The current version of the Republican party sprang to life in about 1980 with the election of Ronald Reagan. The Democratic party was the midwife of that birth. Reagan Democrats. That’s what we called those blue-collar voters who abandoned the Democratic party. The welfare state wasn’t helping them and all those promises of the Great Society had left them behind. Democrats abandoned God and started building ideological bastions in the big cities. Smart Republican operatives immediately understood the new game. Democrats, as usual, not so much. The victim and anger machine cranked into high-gear. AM radio, Rush Limbaugh and soon Fox News, took up the message. And election after election, Republicans pumped up the rubes in time to vote. Make no mistake, the smart Republicans always saw those would become Trump voters as rubes. Both parties looked down on them but the Republicans believed they could manage the mob with inter-splicing red meat issues like guns and abortion. But like the day that the Frankenstein monster left the lab, there came a point where the monster was hungry and angry at both parties. Toss in a black president to externalize white race anxiety and soon the call was, Fuck them all!!! And Trump responded, “Yea, fuck them all!” To fight Trump, the always clueless Democrats sent forth one of the most hated politicians in history. The coronation of Hillary became a revolution. Only Trump could embody the race fear of the mob so completely. At last, someone had their backs. And here we are.
I was waiting for a single event before I came to this horrifying conclusion. It wasn’t the January 6, 2021 insurrection. That one didn’t surprise me. They had telegraphed the attack for months. No, the single event that has now confirmed, for me, the unraveling of our democratic republic was today’s vote by the Republicans in the senate to kill the January 6 Commission. It is the refined essential oil of everything that has preceded it. Recall that the Republican votes in the 2 impeachments were couched in process. Those were not up and down votes on the core of the matter. There were long arguments about “jurisdiction” and “standing.” Republicans stood behind those thin ramparts. This time it was different. This time they had been personal witnesses to the crimes. They had run for their lives. This time the vote was achingly simple: Truth or Lie.
The audacity of the vote against the Commission was pure and clarifying. This was a vote to secure and maintain power. They didn’t hide the fact. Senator McConnell, who will be seen as the most powerful politician of the first part of the 21st Century, told us, told his caucus, told anyone who was listen. This vote was about the 2022 midterms and taking back the House and Senate. Truth sought by a majority of Americans would be an impediment to regaining full control of Congress. Truth would upset Trump, and more importantly, Trump is the essential filter through which almost all money for the Republican Party flows. Small donations from Trumpists are the lifeblood of the party now. McConnell, offended that he may have been on January 6, is above all the perfect transactional manager of power. I admire his singular focus, like I admire the ruthlessness of the Roman Emperors. He understands the inherent weaknesses of the Democratic leadership and is running the country as the minority leader of the Senate. It is a monumental accomplishment.
Here is what you are not hearing in the media now. So, what is the Republican plan? Trump lost them the Congress and the White House. Why stick with him? Democracies die when a minority party takes power and governs beyond the will of the majority of the governed. Almost nothing in the thin agenda of Republicans has majority support. They know they are a demographically shrinking and localized party now. It is only getting worse. But they also understand the greatest flaw of Madison’s design is that he never completely considered a threat to the nation would originate from within. His mechanisms to balance power assumed comity, the ultimate allegiance to the experiment itself, over the narrow interests of a single group or party. Madison didn’t know about how tight information bubbles, impermeable to facts or reason, could be wrapped around a motivated minority of Americans. Madison and the founders wrote about their fear of the tyranny of the majority. It never occurred to them that there could be a tyranny of the minority.
The Republicans are moving to rewire the voting process. Their greatest success in 2020 and 2021 has been to convince a minority that elections are all corrupt. Do you think that should a Democrat be elected president in 2024 that a Republican majority in Congress would affirm that election? When Putin injected himself to get Trump elected in 2016, he did not know how he was setting the predicate for Americas to destroy their own Republic.
I am bereft of optimism now. Sedition, and this is what is happening, requires ruthless toughness from an opposition to suppress it. Democrats have much of their own party who explicitly reject the American experiment as an existing failure. The progressive left are ambivalent about the current threat. They naively, arrogantly, believe they have a better way. But, have you ever asked a woke advocate what system lives at the end of their deconstruction rainbow? They don’t have a clue.
Fools like Manchin are still looking for 10 good Republicans. Oh stop. Do you think that once in power McConnell would hesitate to kill the filibuster? He baited the Democrats to remove the filibuster for court nominees and they fell for it. The right now controls the courts.
To paraphrase Orwell, the most important thing is to see what is right in front of one’s eyes. Don’t rationalize. Don’t equivocate. The Republican party is now a populist, authoritarian, minority power regime in waiting. With the Commission vote, they admitted it. We are on the edge of a battle over power that could become a real civil war. At the very least, this moment is as close to the bombing of Fort Sumter by Confederate cannons as we have been since that day. The evil is clear. All the authoritarians need is complacency and distraction for them to complete their quest. I fear we have gone too far; the impediments are too institutionalized for the middle to hold.
After the 21st time I saw “land back” spray painted on buildings and toppled monuments in Portland, I mused on this popular notion of rethinking colonization. There are folks who are now decolonizing almost everything. Decolonize mathematics. Decolonize science. I have spent much of my life studying history both on my own and in various university settings. Of course, I understand the human catastrophes that can occur when one culture with advanced technology meets another who may be sociologically and spiritually sophisticated but haven’t turned the corner to develop contemporary technology. (News flash: Tech wins.) Look at the number of science fiction stories based on advanced aliens showing up on earth to herd and eat the backward humans with a fine chianti. But, as I studied the current advocates of critical theory views of colonization, it occurred to me that there are gaping holes in their premise. As is often case: time and context. So, let’s try something different, an idea that I, a retired dude in the wind with no need to please an employer, can do with abandon. Let’s build the Colonization Game. I will base this on what I think I know. I am not citing sources… okay.
In the dusty past of my undergraduate years, the sociology department did a two-day exercise called: Simulated Society. Scattered around an academic building, we gave teams the basics of an imagined world. They then had to grow their society and interact with the other societies (folks in other rooms) in increasingly stressful circumstances. The controller of the scenarios was a skinny, bearded, acid infused, speed freak, Dead Head, senior who was wound way too tight. He, of course, anointed himself “God.” (BTW he never completed his senior project after a psychotic break while staying awake for 5 days on speed. But I think that makes the “God” name even more apt.) Still, he probably ended up making a pile of dough and is currently ensconced in a luxurious condo on a golf course in Florida.
Baring the chaos of speed and acid, what if we were to design a college class where the students divided into competing groups of colonizers from about the 14th to 18th centuries? Then we put them in imaginary sail boats and have them set off for Africa and the Americas. Much of the term would have to be spent setting the historical context of both the existing cultures of the target lands and the full range of historical characteristics of the soon to be colonizers. The game would require the students to make all choices based solely on the moral, ethical, economic, political, scientific and religious knowledge of the empires they represent. Monarchies of various flavors were universal. The guiding question is: If colonization is de facto evil, then students, given the historical context, what would you do differently? No cheating. No 21st century knowledge allowed. When you stepped ashore, what would you do?
I have concluded that the most important missing part of the current critique of colonization is religion. Pick a tribe. Islam, Christianity, even animistic belief systems, religion is both an essential motivating factor and provides the basis on which colonists would judge the (shall we call them natives?). Native, as in native to a place and time. Religions, in part, exist to define the other. Heathens or infidels, anyone who was not associated with the dominant religion was, by definition, inferior. A native could only hope to attain any status by submission and conversion. Their existing religious beliefs? Meaningless. That’s the context. Much is made in the 21st century that natives, either as individuals or communities, were not seen as human. Yes! Students, your only choice in the Colonialization Game is to see every native person you meet as inferior, if not evil, as they do not understand monotheism. Much colonial brutality begins in religion.
It is easy to forget that all life in those historical periods was short and brutal. Even in their countries of origin, other believers were subject to institutional dehumanization. It was common to punish humans in the most grotesque ways. Boiling alive, skinning alive, impalement, slow death by dismemberment. In the old-world, life was cheap, and the degradation of humans was a happy public spectacle. Even before they set foot on the boats, the intrepid explorers were a scary bunch. However, based our understanding of native cultures so where the peoples on other continents. Human sacrifice was a common activity. As was conquest and slavery. The game would teach students to let go of the native paradise myth. Alas, humans were human everywhere.
What of disease? Both in the old and new worlds, no one understood how disease worked. Cures comprised incantations, herbs, and bleeding out the evil. Often in the discussion of colonization, a key point is the genocide of the natives. But we now understand that the death of native civilizations was first, and foremost, an accident of biology followed by conscious destruction. Native Americans were already dying in plagues before the first Europeans set foot on the now eastern American coast. Northern east coast tribes were exposed to fatal diseases that worked down from current day Canada. Disease essentially eliminated the Caribbean natives. But this was always going to be the case… right? At some point, immune cultures were going to travel and meet immunocompromised people. Plague was always coming. It was just a matter of when. The natives had a good run, 10,000+ years, but their immune systems were a ticking death clock. Students, how do you as a colonizer deal with disease and the sudden disappearance of the native population? Remember, wars back home in your Europe are expensive and your charter, your sworn holy duty, is to ship back anything of value that will keep your monarch afloat in the many European wars. Given your job, your religion, and the disappearing labor pools, what do you do?
Well, slavery, of course. Students let’s consider that at this moment on the planet there are about 40 million slaves and indentured servants. Our collective ability to look away from that data is remarkable and consistent. It’s a practice virtually eliminated in the former colonial powers. Now the centers are in Northern Africa, the Middle East, Indian sub-continent, and Asia. Slavery was, and is, a labor multiplier. Conquest always had as a benefit, free labor. Water-powered mills were function specific. Before the invention of the steam engine, there was no way to concentrate labor except slaves in concert with draft animals. (Disclaimer: Slavery always bad.)
In the Americas, slavery was common. Our Pacific Northwest tribes had slaves along the Willamette. They disfigured the slave bodies so there would be no confusion as to the person’s status. The Native Americans who were marched east on the Trail of Tears took their black slaves with them. Only recently have those descendants in Oklahoma resolved legal claims to the wealth that tribal leaders tried to take away from them. Besides working any diseased survivors to death, the economic imperative of the colonizers was to replace that labor, thus the slave trade with Africa. The slave trade was well established in Africa before colonization. In fact, Europeans quickly learned that the most effective way to collect humans was to use the existing human trafficking system. So, imaginary Conquistadors and Virginia settlers, with the tools and morals of the time, what do you do about slavery? Was there any chance that a higher, or different morality, could have affected such well-established economic practices?
Few intellectual exercises are more flaccid than applying 21st century morals and ethics to the past. To be sure, one can draw winding and direct lines from the processes of colonization to the current world. Exploring the discrete outcomes is a useful endeavor. However, painting the world with the banner of all colonialization bad is not a useful path. It’s a meat cleaver when a scalpel needed. And, if one insists on applying the label of colonization then I think there is an obligation to broaden the lens and recognize the commonality of the practice. Humans have always expanded geographically and politically. There is nothing unique about the European experience. Spend some time looking at empires, the Romans, the Greeks, the Ottomans, the Visigoths, the Egyptians, the Carthaginians, Imperial China, and you will discover patterns in the application of power that are not unique to any culture or time. Colonization is an inevitable and natural human social process.
I believe the Colonization Game would challenge students in 2 ways. First, it would force them to reckon with progress. Cultural encounters are often defined by technical advantages. The power of the Roman army was its ability to build roads and military tactics based on the short sword and shield. Arguably, their invention of concrete was a pillar of their empire. It is most useful to examine the juncture of technology and cultural clashes beyond implying those who possess the advanced technology are morally bankrupt.
The second challenge would be for students to grapple with colonialization as a natural human process. Yes, I am going there. As I have played the game with myself; I have discovered that in context what happened was always going to happen. I can’t account for individual cruelties. If anyone has an idea how to do that, then let me know because there is genocide and organized rape happening today in northern Africa. We saw the same in the break-up of Yugoslavia in Europe just miles from the great European capitols of the world. And that was an event with direct connections to the Muslim colonization of parts of Eastern Europe. To dehumanize the Bosnian Muslims, the Serbs called them “Turks.” All colonization echoes.
Waving the flag of “colonialization” in our current context is rarely helpful. I think it feels good for some. It’s a rhetorical tactic with some effect. The problem is that it also seems that making colonialization the enabling narrative is another way to stay stuck. We have gained much in western Enlightenment. Most importantly, empowering the individual over the tribe. We need better enriching and layering of all historical narratives. We need more history, not less.
The process of cultural expansion is often brutal and murderous. Try this thought experiment. If the Aztecs, at the height of their civilization, had discovered metal forging, shipbuilding, the chemistry of gunpowder, and used their considerable understanding of the heavens to fill those ships and sail to Europe, would we have had the colonization in reverse? If they could have been expansionist, why would the outcome have been any different?
It turns out that the Colonization Game is about empathy. What? To truly understand history, one needs to empathize with both the conquered and the conqueror. Embrace their collective ignorance, the limits of their times. That’s a tough one, but humans are resoundingly confusing. We should overlay more complexity on geopolitics. I think the Colonization Game would help us better understand that complexity by forcing students to spend some time in the boots and boats of the explorers.