The Problem with Portland’s Lawn Sign


Dog walking around my neighborhood I see dozens of Portland’s favorite lawn sign. It must have a generic, shorthand name known but to a few. I ain’t the few.

There was a time when I was a Unitarian. I enjoyed their spirituality but ultimately was driven away by their politics. There’s a joke about Unitarians that not much gets done because it takes too long to organize the committee and once assembled no one can agree. I think of this joke every time I see one of these lawn signs.

Here’s how I think the committee created the lawn sign:


Immediately, the committee decided to take a divisive approach and redefine their ideology as a separate country. It’s the sort of “feel good” affirmation that mostly works because it excludes broad swaths of America. There is no separate country. We only have one. It’s a geographic republic conceived as a liberal democracy.


The committee could have stopped there but we have to believe that this line isn’t so much an affirmation as it is an accusation. The Founders made this point repeatedly but they were not fools. They knew this idea was aspirational. With no little irony, slaveholders joined abolitionists in embracing the idea. The context was not lost on them. There is both hope and hard work in this statement.


Aging hippies in the room no doubt. Evidently, this imaginary country is a place were love is the overriding value. However, would they love their neighbor if they had a Trump sign in their front yard? Really?


Certainly. This is the slogan of a movement, a historically important movement. But now the sign is begins to veer into the tricky narratives of identity politics. And this is just the start.


This idea is certainly topical. It reminds me of the long list of grievances in the Declaration of Independence. When you read that document now, there are parts that soar and sing. The lists? Not so much. America has always had a love/hate relationship with immigration. Last one off the boat…or jet…or truck…is always the problem for someone. I am reminded that 25% of Latinos voted for Trump. Welcome!


Does anyone else find this language particularly numbing and strange? Don’t we want to respect and empower the person and not the disability? And, what about the invisible disabilities like mental health issues? You can almost feel the committee straining to find a way to include another group.


I read somewhere that the original concept for this sign came from women. As a second wave feminist, I couldn’t agree more but this line continues the parsing of the population of this imaginary country. If in this mythical place everyone were equal why would you need to make this point? As the bubble of identity expands the walls get thinner and thinner. We know what happens to bubbles.


They had to go to the ampersand to get that one in. Any good Unitarian committee has to have a few socialists. My dog walk sample of the location of these signs tells me that some of the folks expressing this sentiment may have more than a passing relationship with good old capitalism. The truth is that almost ALL of us have looked the other way to live a first world existence. But by all means keep the ampersand line in mind while boarding any jet to a sustainability conference in India.


And there it is. In the final statement the committee embraces the big. I worked in the engine room of liberal Portland and it did not take long for me to realize just how narrowly diversity was defined. If you acted and thought in the approved fashion, you were everyone’s buddy. Challenge the dominant dogma in the slightest way and you were glad tarring and feathering was no longer a thing. Though the social sanctions could be just as painful. Try this. Most City Councils in the nation, and Congress for that matter, begin with a prayer. Can you imagine the backlash if a religious person proposed that here?


Since I left the world of local politics, I have been reminded what a small planet that world is. While most of Portland isn’t paying attention, the politics here are very much identity politics. This is a road to hell littered with good intentions. A couple of years into my service, I coined the phrase “liberal conceit” to describe how most liberals absolutely believe they are open-minded and welcoming. Certainly, nothing like those conservative cretins. Couldn’t be farther from the truth. Judgment knows no political persuasion. Tribalism is deep in the DNA. It takes determination and compassion to overcome what is deeply human about us all.

Portland’s favorite lawn sign is about identity. It is a signifier,  not unlike the red MAGA hat. Every team has its colors. Team members believe that their symbols are values statements. The sign is shorthand for telling everyone around you that we are not one of “them.” It’s a little smug and a lot about the tribe. It does not attempt to reach out and embrace people with legitimate social, religious or political differences. It might as well be the other sign I just saw on my walk: BEWARE OF DOG. That’s the sort of crisp, clear message that the left seems incapable of doing.

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