The mid-October street brawls in Portland, Oregon between Antifa and the Proud Boys happened just around the corner from where I used to work. This was back in 1984, and my place of employment was the Downtown Deli, one of two establishments owned by the Papas brothers, entrepreneurial Greeks with matching moustaches. They came to Portland by way of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where they earned degrees in restaurant management. They employed Greeks, Brazilians, Ethiopians, and a few wandering New Yorkers like myself.
The Downtown Deli on Fifth Avenue shared a wall with Camera World, which occupied the big lot on the corner of Washington and Fifth next door to Kelly’s Bar, which is where the recent mayhem broke out. Kelly’s Bar was a dive where shoeblacks eked out a living in the foyer. Camera World was more upscale. One of my fellow musicians worked there like a mole in the establishment, a guy named Dale Moerer. Dale played guitar in Squad 51 and liked the Psychedelic Furs, or at least the early Psychedelic Furs, before commercial success blighted their genius. Immediately south of the deli stood a small jewelry shop, kept by a tall, elegant woman of around 30. Today, the Camera World, the Downtown Deli, and the jewelry store are all gone, replaced by the bland façade of E-Trade Financial.
Portlanders of a certain age are in perpetual mourning for their city. To the eyes of those who knew it back then, downtown appears to have been hit by a tidal wave of money, transforming whole blocks, leaving in its wake uncommunicating office buildings, elaborately restored warehouses, fancy condos, and a horde of hollow-eyed orphans. Gone is the caravanserai of record stores and bookstores, cheap eats, independent movie houses, hole-in-the-wall galleries, and nightclubs that made the city seem infinitely hospitable.
The process started during the 1980s with the Californication of the neighborhood known as Northwest Portland. One by one the old places went under: Rose’s Restaurant, Quality Pie, Café Oasis, Music Millennium, Montgomery Ward . . .
The big money brought educated workers with refined tastes. Rising housing costs pushed ordinary workers farther and farther out into the ’burbs. It seems the cops and firefighters went with them (over 80 percent of Portland police now live outside the city limits). The changing economy took a toll on the vibrant underground rock scene. Satyricon, the city’s legendary punk mecca, closed in 2003.
A group calling itself Rose City Antifa established itself in this booming vacuum in 2007. The Proud Boys are more recent arrivals. They aren’t native Portlanders; they come from places like Vancouver, across the Columbia River in Washington state.
The Portland I remember was the remnant of a society proud of its pioneer stock, mixed political opinions, and lively libertarian streak. The economy was iffy but life was affordable. Challenges abounded, but a sense of civic responsibility flourished thanks to leading figures like Senator Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.), Oregonian publisher Fred Stickel, and businessman Bill Naito. The faculty, administrators, and trustees of the city’s colleges and universities were likewise civic-minded. A number of churches were active in the community, doing good works. Openness is a word that comes to mind. The statues, parks, and fountains had an open beauty about them.
Back to the future. It is 2018 and a violent strain of political insanity overruns the streets near E-Trade Financial. Masked neo-Marxists clash with thugs whose girlfriends wear “Hammer of Thor” necklaces, while the homeless drift aimlessly around. The real problem is the homeless, but the rival gangs command a vastly disproportionate amount of media attention. The city government cannot afford to hire the social workers it needs. Bloated pensions have consumed the city coffers. Democratic Mayor Ted Wheeler can extract only so much money out of the local corporate players without driving them away. Leaving the East Side to rot, this handsome, athletic man is reduced to showy gestures, like his rapid fire of loudly progressive Tweets.
The Glamour of Violence
On the stage of Portland’s moral collapse, Antifa and the Proud Boys have become famous, a riveting sideshow for a society addicted to entertainment. The glamour of violence is on display and actively recruiting.
Still, there is the little matter of whether or not our civilization will prevail. What do we do about it? It’s my side versus your side, after all. To make actual progress, we might have to consider the indispensable role of good fathers, or the downside of technology, or what we really mean by social justice. We would definitely have to revisit the challenges faced by communities whose economies are being rapidly transformed, sometimes in ways that leave ordinary citizens displaced.
Portland failed in just that respect. It sold itself to the highest bidders.
Unfortunately, we are addicted to politics in exactly the same way that we are addicted to entertainment. The figures of politician and entertainer are fusing in a blinding apotheosis of cultural power. But here is a difference. The volcanic energy of the underground bands I knew in 1984 could not be readily appropriated by Left or Right politics. I seem to recall a general wariness of political power in all its forms. The stakes were existential, not political. Politics was for politicians. Music (though no one wanted to admit it) was sacred. Entertainment was a joke. Is it any surprise that Portland’s music scene declined as the city’s politics got louder?
Though we cannot fully understand what is happening to Portland, the past affords moments of relative clarity. In this respect, the current lack of human infrastructure stands out. Some of this infrastructure used to be Christian; none of it was aggressively anti-Christian.
Such practical ecumenism found little traction among the carpetbagging hipsters who destroyed the thing they loved. As the hipsters moved in, the colleges and universities obligingly shut down the free exchange of ideas. Portland is located in the once-solidly Republican Multnomah County, which today is only about 12 percent Republican. Among the intellectuals, the Christian basis of the secular humanist vision—the major source of our tolerant, moral, and progressive capacities—was denounced as intolerant or simply ignored. In effect, the new Portland managed to thwart the capacity for human caring that it desperately craved, and now it is learning the hard way that iPhones cannot do the job. The real virtues that keep things going are unpopular or unknown.
Good art is no stranger to loss. But in a world of loss, the artist’s effort can be constructive. Over a lifetime, this civilizing labor is the price of survival, of not wasting one’s talent or dying brilliantly lost. So my advice to the gang of young writers is not to be a gang. Make yourself the object of your own anger, call your own bluffs, and get a grip on who you really are and what you really need in life. Do this on some basis other than what social media are screaming at you. Meet people with views that challenge your own. If possible, befriend them. Conservatism and progressivism are permanently competing ideas, dialectical, inescapable. But we need to recover them in the concrete, in our own habits and dependencies. We need to wrench the authority back from popular entertainers and reclaim it for serious thought and justifiable commitments. Maybe a good laugh is in order. In any case, we need to restore our society to health.