Oregon Before Portlandia

Oregon Before Portlandia July 25, 2018

The missus and I just finished another very good Netflix documentary, Wild Wild Country, about the Bhagwan Rajneesh and his followers attempt during the first Reagan administration (the early 1980s) to establish a commune in the high desert of Oregon. Here’s one brief description of the series:

Directed by Chapman Way and Maclain Way, Wild Wild Country is the 6 part documentary TV series on Netflix that tells the story of Bhagwan Rajneesh (also known as Osho, and Rajneesh), a religious guru from India. He, along with his followers, known as either Sanyassians or Rajneeshees, made their way to the sleepy town of Antelope, Oregon in 1981. When these newcomers enter the small town, buying a large plot of land while dressed in all red, they began what is known as the Rajneesh movement and cult. What follows is an ensuing struggle between the citizens of Antelope and the newcomers, on the ownership and who gets to stay.

Given Oregon’s contemporary reputation, thanks in part to another series available on Netflix, Portlandia, most viewers would have trouble imagining that today’s Oregonians would oppose the Rajneeshees and seek their removal. (This review is one of the few I’ve seen to make this point implicitly.) First, it’s a case that involves religious freedom. Aside from some enormously bad behavior by Rajneeshees (like poisoning food at restaurants) and plotting the assassination of government officials (federal and local), the group went to Oregon chiefly to practice their faith, a combination of eastern mysticism, New Age psychology, sex, drugs, and parties (though they avoided the drugs and parties long enough to build a city with its own police force, mayor, and I presume, dog catcher). Second, the Rajneeshees raised the very contemporary issue of immigration; in fact, the government’s case against the group chiefly was that they had violated federal immigration laws. In today’s never-Trump climate and the rise of sanctuary cities in the U.S. for immigrants and refugees, can anyone imagine that Oregonians would take the federal government’s side against a religious group led by a man of color (the Bhagwan hailed from India).

Mark Hemingway, a few years ago, wrote a telling send up of Portland’s cultural progressiveness in ways that make you think the Rajneeshees should have found a neighborhood in Oregon’s largest city (rather than settling in the desert):

In 2009, the Wall Street Journal reported, under a Portland dateline, that despite there being few jobs in the city, “the Hipsters just keep on coming.” The piece is worth savoring for its comically inane anecdotes about young Portlanders defining down what it means to “live the dream”: “He was attracted to [Portland’s] offbeat culture and hungered for change. Mr. Singer’s plan was to get an editing or writing gig at an alternative weekly newspaper. .  .  . Seven months later, the 26-year-old is still without a steady job.”

To the extent that the Journal tried to explain Portland’s appeal to young bohemians, it offered a “hard-to-quantify blend of climate, natural beauty, universities and—more than anything else—a reputation as a cool place to live.” In Triumph of the City, Glaeser makes a related observation—that modern cities must have “consumer” appeal. “Today,” he writes, “successful cities, old or young, attract smart entrepreneurial people, in part, by being urban theme parks.”

…But let’s not get carried away with the idea of Portland as America’s hipster theme park; the analogy is spectacularly off in one crucial way. Theme parks are sanitized, family-friendly environments. Portland, by contrast, has become a decidedly immoral place.

I’m well aware that the one unforgivable sin among America’s enlightened urban liberals is to be a moralizing killjoy. But since I’m already out on a limb complaining about Portland’s lack of laissez-faire economic policies, I’ve little to lose by complaining about its laissez-faire approach to civic virtue.

If you don’t think this is a problem for Portland, I invite you to hang out in the parking lot at Pussycat’s Puffing Palace at 11 a.m. on a Thursday and tell me you don’t feel a bit scuzzy. Pussycat’s Puffing Palace is just a few doors down from the Vegas VIP Room and a bit further down the street from Secret Pleasures. I was there to meet Lisa Leithauser of SOS Oregon, a group dedicated to “work[ing] with cities and counties to establish simple basic zoning laws, and to enforce these laws for all businesses.” Leithauser refers to this stretch of Southwest Canyon Road in the Beaverton suburb as the “Tour de Porn.”

The statistic that gets tossed around a lot is that with its 56 strip clubs, Portland has the most per capita of any major city in America. I have no idea whether that’s accurate—much to the relief of many reading this, the sex industry is not a font of detailed information about its business practices—but it could well be. For a frame of reference, Las Vegas has around 30 strip clubs and Seattle has 4.

Granted, Portland is not Oregon. But if Oregonians (especially law enforcement officials and politicians) were as outraged today about cultural trends in Portland as they were about the Rajneeshees thirty years ago, Portland might resemble Anaheim.

Indeed, given Portland’s reputation, it makes no sense that the state once sent the evangelical, progressive Republican to the U.S. Senate. Hatfield has become for some evangelical historians, a “saint.” Chris Gehrz bestowed that blessing and used the L.A. Times’ obituary as justification:

Hatfield, the bedrock of Oregon’s once-robust tradition of moderate Republicanism, was a devout evangelical Christian who opposed prayer in the public schools and for years managed to negotiate common ground among the contentious environmentalists, loggers, anti-abortion activists, death penalty opponents, business owners, farmers and antiwar protesters who were his constituents in a state famous for its rollicking political diversity.

As chairman of the Senate Committee on Appropriations during two terms, Hatfield infuriated his party’s leadership by opposing the wars in Vietnam and Iraq and cast the deciding vote in 1986 against a proposed balanced budget amendment, while championing such typically “liberal” issues as handgun control and family medical leave. In the midst of the shrink-government era of Ronald Reagan, Hatfield said he saw his appropriations chairmanship as a golden opportunity for “sending dollars to social programs in desperate need.”

All of this is true, but let’s not forget that even Hatfield could use opposition to the Rajneeshees to gain re-election, like in 1990 when he ran an attack ad on his Democratic opponent for having defended the Bhagwan and his followers:

In the new commercial, the gnarled face of Wasco County Judge William Hulse appears on the screen to say: “Six years ago I was poisoned by the followers of the Bhagwan. A week later Harry Lonsdale wrote to the attorney general asking him to disregard the law and go easy on the Rajneeshees.”

Hatfield’s ad in the Oregonian reprinted that letter and another from Lonsdale, a Bend businessman of wide-ranging intellectual interests, on the same day the newspaper’s front page reported a new indictment of seven followers of the late Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh for plotting to murder U.S. Attorney Charles H. Turner in 1985 as investigators were closing in on the Bhagwan’s commune near Antelope, Ore.

“I conclude that Rajneeshpuram just may be the happiest town in America,” Lonsdale said in the Aug. 23, 1984, letter to state Attorney General Dave Frohnmayer. “They must be doing something right!” In a November 1985 letter to the Bulletin in Bend, a few months before the Bhagwan’s chief lieutenant was convicted of electronic eavesdropping, arson and mass poisoning, Lonsdale said “the harassment and abuse heaped on this gentleman is something that all of us, as freedom-loving Americans, can be ashamed of.”

Lonsdale appeared at a Hatfield news conference today on the Bhagwan affair to demand a debate, but Hatfield ignored him.

Lonsdale is already broadcasting a commercial calling the Hatfield charges “hypocritical and desperate” and quoting a 1983 Hatfield letter defending the right of Bagwan followers “to practice their faith unencumbered by government intrusions.” But the fierce Hatfield counterattack appears to have halted Lonsdale’s rise in the polls, reestablishing for Hatfield a small but apparently growing lead.

Please resist the temptation to hold this against Hatfield or his admirers. That’s not the point.

The point is how much Oregon has changed, perhaps thanks to Portland. Hatfield’s opponent in 1990, Lonsdale, was Oregon’s future. Hatfield was part of the state’s Republic and evangelical past.


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