This is my sixth attempt at writing this column. Normally I would never reveal such industry secrets, but in this case I think a peek behind the curtain is helpful. I’m writing about the specific dynamic of people in power avoiding accountability by claiming they’re powerless victims of the people they’re supposed to serve. Like a wealthy banker begging for pity, so overwhelmed by all the farms he’s repossessed.
I’m having a hard time putting this together because I try to write funny stuff. Our systems are inherently absurd, and many of those seeking power often conduct themselves in ways that beg to be mocked. So, I oblige. Admittedly, sometimes for my own sake, but also a laugh can be the teaspoon of sugar. The problem is that if the powerful can convince you they are somehow helpless victims, mocking them can be called divisive.
The inarguable reality is that we are divided not by jokes or criticisms, but by systems. In Portland, as in the rest of the country, the haves will do and say things that reaffirm or strengthen those systems, and the have-nots will do and say things in an attempt to lessen or eliminate those divisions. The haves will, in turn, respond with revealing and transparent clichés frequently lacking any self-awareness. Sometimes the jokes just write themselves.
For example, a Portland city councilor was recently quoted in the Press Herald saying, “I am very happy to have hard conversations, but they’re not conversations when all you’re trying to do is shame somebody who doesn’t see it the exact same way as you.” This was said without a hint of irony and it begs the reply, As the old saying goes, when you wag your finger at someone else, there’s three more wagging back at you. But there’s that problem. If you believe this councilor is simply a stalwart public servant out to do the lord’s work for the good of all people, then any criticism of our systemic divisions can be dismissed. Even the funny ones.
Recently there was a City Council forum featuring at-large candidates Roberto Rodriguez, Brandon Mazer and Stuart Tisdale. When asked, “What does affordable housing mean to you and how do we make it real in the city of Portland?” Tisdale began his answer with, “Well, OK, well, on the upside, heh, on the upside of the affordable housing crisis, the value of people who presently own homes is — is gone up tremendously. So all of us who own homes in Portland, our value has risen. So, that’s not a bad thing.”
Now, I want to say something like, There’s that ear-to-the-ground, man-of-the-people attitude Portland’s been waiting for! Why worry about the 99 percent when we could all be congratulating the 1 percent? If you are so comfortable within the system that you speak that way, then you could only view criticism as attempted division.
Brandon Mazer’s campaign literature talks about him being in-house council for a “local brewery” without mentioning the brewery is Shipyard, an industry giant with global distribution and revenue sizeable enough to afford in-house council. But, sure, also a “local brewery.”
Mazer frequently mentions having been born in Portland and growing up in Portland and being “from here.” Meanwhile, his website says he went to school in Westbrook through fourth grade, at which point he and his family moved to Iowa. Again, according to his own website, Mazer moved to Portland sometime after he graduated from law school. Now, it doesn’t matter where anyone is from, but his insistence on setting a standard that he himself openly fails to meet is funny to me. I also recognize that while I find my own giggle sounds impish and childlike, others could find its tone divisive.
During that same forum, Mazer answered a question about Portland’s persistent problem with its glut of Airbnbs. Three times he referred to these Airbnbs as “illegal,” finally ending with, “We need to enforce the policies we have in place to crack down on the illegals.” On its own, that’s an odd phrase to use in reference to Airbnbs, but it also sounds a certain kind of way when you have a penchant for careful language, a curiously deliberate focus on being “from here,” and a strong opponent whose name is Roberto Rodriguez.
These types of distractions are nothing new. Victim-playing, elitism and glibness have been the tactics of the politically self-interested from the beginning. Calling them out may not sound nice or feel particularly comfortable, but is not now, nor has it ever been divisive. On the contrary, shining light on their actions is the first necessary step toward mending the divisions we already have.
Samuel James is an internationally renowned bluesman and storyteller, as well as a locally known filmmaker. He can be reached at email@example.com.