I moved to Portland in 2004 and couldn’t believe I was living in the same country. Everything here was different – strange and unfamiliar. The architecture was different, the trees, plants, culture, streets, food, clothing, everything. The one familiar sight was cigarettes. When I saw my first smoker, I was shocked. My only explanation for my shock is that I had completely unfounded expectations that Portland was a healthy, green-y kind of place, a place I would never expect to see cigarettes.
I was tempted to walk up to the smoker, grab the cigarette, and say “you don’t live in a tobacco-producing state, why are you smoking?” but I didn’t. It took about a month before that urge went away, but it did and now I only notice smokers in order to walk up wind. But I digress, so let me get to the heart of the matter: Portland and its educated, concerned, oft-oblivious denizens.
There are times when living here is wonderful, but there are also times when I wish I were the size of a planet so I could give Portland the proper level of side-eye. I’m talking about a city with a culture of self-awareness and social justice that goes about an inch deep – enough so that people feel a proper sense of outrage, donate money or clothes, maybe write a letter to the editor, march in a protest or sign a petition, Share or Like a Facebook post, and feel like they’ve done their part to throw a wrench in the machine, stand up to The Man, and support social justice.
By comparison, people here probably are more aware and more involved, so why do I say they’re oblivious? A couple of years ago, a friend invited me to the symphony at the Arlene Schnitzer concert hall downtown. The symphony is, almost by definition, a middle/upper class experience. It’s usually spendy, the music is more appealing to a certain level of cultural literati, and there are expectations around clothing and appearance. [Yes, I know this isn’t *always* true, but it’s true enough]
So. We’re sitting in hard, tiny seats, kind of squashed up on the people near us, getting ready to enjoy some type of musical performance. This was just after Occupy Wall Street began, maybe early 2012. A woman came onstage to go over the program and introduce the conductor and then, I’ll never forget this moment, then she said “Occupy the Schnitz!” and the audience roared with approval.
What. The. Everloving. Fuck?
Did no one but me see the phenomenal irony in a theater full of symphony-goers, many in (at least) the top 5-10% of Portland’s wage-earners, yelling in support of a movement challenging individual accumulation of so much wealth and the means used for such accumulation?
My mouth fell open and my eyes almost rolled out of my head. Here was the epitome of the Portland paradox. [Portland paradox: people who are simultaneously self-aware and interested in “issues,” but have minimal interest, desire, or motivation to critically examine their behavior or its impact on the very “issues” they support.]
I’m sure the people in the theater meant well, but did any of them go home and immediately divest themselves of stocks in those financial institutions responsible for the economic devastation? Did they quit buying from businesses with sketchy practices, or doing business with all those unconvicted Wall Street criminals? Did they go to shareholder meetings and demand accountability from CEOs and top decision-makers? If they were CEOs, did they immediately take an inventory of their business practices and make sure they’re doing right by their employees and their communities?
Who knows? I doubt anyone but me even remembers that evening.