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A Pox Upon Portland
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A Pox Upon Portland

Progressivism is killing the city.

A local business posts a sign in response to comments by then-Attorney General Bill Barr that Portland is part of the "Anarchist Jurisdiction,” September 28, 2020. (Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

Dear Reader (especially any of you who might have a $1 trillion coin hiding in your couch cushions),

I’m on a plane heading home from Portland, Oregon. I was there for some personal business (don’t worry, it’s a good thing). Because of some logistical confusion, I couldn’t file the Wednesday G-File. So, I’m gonna do something a little whacky. If you want to read my stirring defense of partisanship and parties, click here

Now, let’s talk about Portland, a dying city. 

Nearly a quarter-century ago, I wrote a G-File about how Vancouver, Canada, was the great Skeeve Capital of the Northwest. A skeeve, according to a dictionary, is an immoral or repulsive person. That’s a bit too broad for me. I didn’t know at the time—or until a few minutes ago—that skeeve (formerly “skeevie”) is probably derived from the Italian schifare, “to loathe.” What I meant then was someone who had deteriorated past hippie and filthy hippie or punk or skate rat or moperer or some other louche degenerate, to a certain kind of grubby, dangerous, generally able-bodied but drug- or booze-addled drifter type. So while I think that, say, Roger Stone is an immoral and detestable person, I wouldn’t call him a skeeve. 

Vancouver and Seattle were full of the real thing: Young, seemingly able-bodied, overwhelmingly white men who weren’t simply down on their luck or homeless. Many were abrasive, angry, and inclined more to demand money than to appeal to charity. 

Having grown up in New York and living in Washington, D.C., I was hardly a stranger to a wide variety of homeless people and drug addicts. I left New York during the Golden Age of the Squeegee Man, after all. But this crowd seemed different both in quantity and quality. 

Go west, young man.

Anyway, I remember my dad called me to talk about my dashed-off piece. He had an interesting theory that I think has a lot going for it. The introduction of the railroad brought with it a new term for a new kind of laborer: The hobo. 

Hobos were a transient bunch of down-on-their-luck laborers. Yeah, they were homeless, but they weren’t what people called “tramps.” As HL Mencken explains in The American Language:

Tramps and hobos are commonly lumped together, but in their own sight they are sharply differentiated. A hobo or bo is simply a migratory laborer; he may take some longish holidays, but soon or late he returns to work. A tramp never works if it can be avoided; he simply travels. Lower than either is the bum, who neither works nor travels, save when impelled to motion by the police.

By the way, the Wikipedia page for hobos is pretty great.

Let me pause to say I want my $2. Let me also pause to say I think the English language has suffered from the effort of various social egalitarians to homogenize and destigmatize the rich diversity of different types of social misfits. It would be a really cool project to recount the story of how waves of social psychologists, public health officials, and various other “helping professions” found it in their interests to sanitize the various ranks and platoons of have-nots—and haves!—into a handful of socially acceptable terms. I suspect that effort was helped enormously by early Marxists, who did so much to consolidate the various strata of society into a handful of categories: the proletariat (or “workers”), the bourgeois, the ruling class, the Joooooooz, etc. 

There’s an irony to that project because Marx himself was a fantastic chronicler of the different social subspecies when he put his snob hat on. In The Communist Manifesto, he just uses “lumpenproletariat” to describe “the dangerous class, the social scum, that passively rotting mass thrown off by the lowest layers of old society.” But in his earlier The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte he itemized their ranks: 

Decayed roués [cads, lechers and rakes] with dubious means of subsistence and of dubious origin, alongside ruined and adventurous offshoots of the bourgeoisie, were vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni [an Italian term for goons-for-hire], pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, maquereaux [pimps], brothel keepers, porters, literati, organ grinders, ragpickers, knife grinders, tinkers, beggars—in short, the whole indefinite, disintegrated mass, thrown hither and thither, which the French call la bohème.

Where was I? Oh, right. Railroads. While I’m sure there were more than a few sketchy folks who rode the rails east to New York and Boston, the bulk of the drifter migration drifted or migrated West, literally to the end of the line in places like San Francisco, Seattle, Vancouver, and, yes, Portland. 

My dad’s theory was that there was a century-old tradition and culture of purposefully underemployed able-bodied young men (and no doubt some women) in these cities and that the skeeves I was complaining about were the inheritors of this grand tradition. The better climate alone probably had a lot to do with it. Most people who have the option of continuing down the line to San Francisco don’t voluntarily opt to sleep in the open air during a Midwestern winter. Though clearly some did

Anyway, it seems to me that whatever was once romantic about the old hobo culture didn’t survive the modern welfare state, modern drug culture, and the political monopoly of urban progressivism.  

Portland (like Seattle and San Francisco) has many problems common to many American cities, homelessness being just one of them. But it’s different here. I say that as someone who has never lived anywhere without a shameful number of homeless people. 

I’ve walked all over downtown Portland, and there are parts that feel like scenes from Escape from New York. When I say “parts” I don’t really mean “neighborhoods” or “sections,” though I’m sure those exist, too. I mean parts of otherwise prosperous blocks. It’s like Portland is a pretty face with pox all over. Not a pretty face with a deformed ear or nose. 

I don’t care that my modestly upscale boutique hotel is adjacent to some old strip clubs. But I was shocked when my wife and I asked the receptionist where we could get a little dessert nearby. She gave us a recommendation and made it sound like a cool bakery or sweetshop, but it turned out to be a ramshackle grocery store with bars on the windows surrounded by dozens of drugged out, loud, and dangerous people. A smaller mob was there this morning and afternoon. Again, I’m not squeamish about urban environments, but the fact that she thought nothing of sending two tourists to this place knowing that this was normal was remarkable. 

The restaurant we went to Wednesday night was a hipsterish Japanese place and it was great. But the glass door was boarded over with a sign telling us to look out for broken glass. My hotel room window looked out at a parking lot next to a gleaming Scientology center. I found myself looking out the window like it was aquarium glass. All manner of altered people parade by, sometimes alone, sometimes in groups. They’re singing, screaming, dancing, or just standing vacant. At night the light from a barrel fire surrounded by a whole camp of revelers kept catching my eye. Wandering around, I was yelled at by young men for not giving them money. One was angry that I didn’t give enough. Eyes looked out from tents as if to say, “Why are you violating my privacy?”

I know all of this is anecdotal. But it also seems to be representative. 

Again, Portland had many problems 20 years ago, but it also seemed like a city that cracked the code. It attracted young people, particularly to its booming foodie culture. Now it’s a dying city because it let a dysfunctional, yet manageable, subculture become the dominating culture. I have relatives who live nearby who enter the city by surgical strike, if it all. Even the liberal politicians who once fought the notion that Portland was rotting now concede the problem: “Everybody hates Portland.”

The coming boomerang. 

I’ll spare you all of the familiar arguments about how Portland got this way—from anti-police policies, to the coddling of Antifa (the military wing of skeevedom), to the stupidity of various housing policies and the rest.  

Instead, I want to make a point about populism and reaction. Lots of things can happen with cities. They can die. They can decay for a very long time. They can also provoke waves of populism far outside their borders. Revolutions are born in cities, after all, and counterrevolutions are created by them, too. 

Now, I don’t think we’re going to have any revolution coming out of Portland, though I’m sure there are a lot of Antifa types who disagree. But the failure of cities, particularly cities run by one party for decades, can invite backlashes. This is a vital point for a lot of folks on the right and left to understand. There are no permanent victories. And the more you act like you’ll always be in power, the quicker your defeat will come. Radical excess radicalizes the opposition. Some of the most crazy right-wing Trumpers I’ve ever met were once liberal Obama voters. Some of the most crazy left-wing Never Trumpers were once card-carrying Republicans. 

I think a lot of right-wing and left-wing populism these days cannot be understood without grasping the rise in urban populism. The two most important populists of the 21st century so far were a Jewish socialist with a thick Brooklyn accent and a billionaire(?) celebrity realtor from Queens. I’ve long argued that you can’t understand Fox News’ role in our politics without understanding that it was always more populist than conservative. Donald Trump’s success came in large part because he was a fusionist figure, merging the bridge-and-tunnel populism of the Bill O’Reilly types with the more traditional “real America” populism that drives most of their audience. 

Trump and Fox took nostalgia for Rudy Giuliani’s mayoralty and translated it to a national program. 

As I wrote in 2017:

Giuliani’s politics were a nostalgia-laden homage to the memory of a Big-Apple-that-was and a kind of conservative common sense. His greatest ally in the press was the urban-populist New York Post, which always could be counted on to take the side of the little guy and the tots (innocent children) against Mordor’s army of pervs, reprobates, pimps, fat cats, and corrupts pols. Giuliani’s promise was, in effect, to Make New York Great Again. And, again, he largely succeeded. Just as important, he humiliated his enemies in the process.

Anyway, I don’t want to go too far afield. But the mismanagement of Portland is idiotic and tragic not only on normal terms—wasted lives, wasted money, reduced quality of life, etc.—but on progressivism’s own terms. Decades of one-party rule—Portland last had a Republican mayor in 1980; Oregon last elected a Republican governor in 1982—have made this city worse for “the most vulnerable” and for the middle-class and upper-class people who are the lifeblood of any city.  

I will never understand why so many progressives have a hard time being tough-minded about some obvious things. I get mandating living wages and bad zoning and all the economic stuff. I get supporting LGTBQI rights and most of the social issue stuff, too. But is it really so hard to say that people shouldn’t be allowed to defecate in the street? That open drug markets, particularly in public parks or in the business district, are unacceptable? It’s amazing to me that so few progressives can grok that the cities with the most “compassionate” homelessness policy have the most homeless people and the places with the most “just” crime policies have the most crime.

I don’t know any normal Democrats or progressives who live in such places and actually want to live this way. But these one-party cities have their own form of demosclerosis, in which activists and agencies that benefit from the problems they create get to set the agenda. It would be smart for some progressive to run against the Democratic machine. They could say all the right things about the environment, racial justice, etc. But they could also say we need more cops. We need fewer drug addicts living on our streets. We need more businesses and a climate that attracts them. Dropping a deuce under the swings at a playground isn’t a civil right or valuable self-expression. The longer it takes for a Democrat to say this stuff, the more likely it is that one day a Republican will start making hay with all the former Democrats.  

That’s the great thing about democracy—eventually everyone gets punished for their bad ideas. The bad thing about democracy is it can take a very, very long time and a lot of people don’t have that kind of time to spare. 

Various & Sundry

Canine update update: I got a lot of complaints last week that I didn’t include pictures of the beasts. I apologize for that. Part of it was a timing thing. But part of it was I honestly wanted to see if anyone would complain. I don’t get a lot of feedback about the dog pics when they’re included so I wanted to see if I got feedback when they weren’t included (I apologize for using you as guinea pigs). I also get complaints that I link to Twitter pics. I get it. But it’s just way, way easier to do it that way. If someone has a suggestion for an easy alternative I’m all ears.

Canine update: The girls are good. The Fair Jessica got home yesterday and they were in fine fiddle. They did not like her being gone, though. It’s amazing how they hold grudges the second you take out the luggage. On the other hand they had a wonderful time with Kirsten, aka the Spaniel Tickler. Zoë was such a good girl hanging out with Warren. Just to be clear, Warren is another one of Kirsten’s clients. Whenever I post pictures of Zoe and Pip with other dogs, someone asks, “Did you get another dog!?” Trust me, when I get another dog everyone will know about it. 

In more important news, on Wednesday (January 18) we marked the ninth anniversary of our adoption of Zoë. This is relevant because the canine update was born when we got Zoë. At first it was just raw puppy content pandering. But very soon, it became more somber because the poor girl was very, very sick with Parvo and almost died. People were emailing me constantly to find out how she was doing. So I came up with the canine update to answer everybody’s questions all at once. It’s been a wild nine years with the dingo. She’s so much mellower than she was in her youth. But the dingo is always lurking in there. 


And now, the weird stuff

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.