Reality, Eugene-style

Even a Seattle liberal can get that "not in Kansas anymore" feeling about a visit to Eugene, Ore.
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Even a Seattle liberal can get that "not in Kansas anymore" feeling about a visit to Eugene, Ore.

I was down there recently for a "Future of Journalism" conference sponsored by the Oregon chapter of Society for Professional Journalists and held at the Communications School at the University of Oregon.

I checked into a hotel within walking distance of campus the night before, and bumped into a fellow at the elevator who looked a bit like a bigger version of me: heavy and hairy. He asked if I was there for the "superhero" conference. I said no, what's that? Turns out, the university was also hosting an academic symposium called "Understanding Superheroes," featuring sessions like "Being and Super-Beings: Existentialism, Temporality, and Eschatology," "My Best Enemy: The Signifying Super-Villain," and "Queer Power: Superheroes and Sexualities." I immediately wished I could switch conferences.

Perhaps that encounter skewed my sense of Eugene, which seems like a nice college town, mostly remembered in Seattle for its export of black-clad anarchists during WTO. But like many college towns, it feels insular. There's wonderful college architecture and a campus filled with beautiful old trees, there's the commercial strip filled with college coffeehouses, ethnic eateries, and the Duck Shop. But you get the sense that their concerns are highlighted with different Magic Marker colors.

Over a dinner of Indian food in a restaurant patronized mostly, it seemed, by Arab students, I read through the excellent local alternative newspaper, Eugene Weekly. I understand the skew here: I edited alternative papers myself for nearly 15 years. I also attended Evergreen. Still, driving in from a city talking about viaducts, tunnels, crime, schools, and economic development, Seattle suddenly seemed not so progressive, but rather old-school by comparison, judging by the letters to the editor.

In Seattle, green mayoral candidate Mike McGinn talks about remaking the waterfront and Joe Mallahan talks about his progressive values and being pragmatic, but in Eugene, one letter writer says, elected officials are just fiddling while the planet burns: "If environmentally leaning politicians aren't provoking deafening shrieks of protest, recall referendums, and death threats, then they are not doing enough to prevent catastrophe."

And you thought politicians should read polls. But no, it's the death threats that let 'em know they're on track.

Another correspondent agreed that the world is run by "sociopaths."

Yet another letter concerned an article critical of the Tasing of a protester who sprayed fake pesticide at motorists.

Just another week in ELF-land, perhaps.

Another letter concerned a logger whose truck was broken down, and he threw a fit when he couldn't get help by cell phone, but apparently didn't think to walk to nearby homes to look for help. Reminding readers of a world before iPhones, Blackberries, and cell phones, the letter writer advised that actual human interaction is an option, and that readers should "turn off, tune in, and drop in."

A worthy message, not just for those who text while driving, but what about those Northwest pilots who missed Minneapolis by playing with their laptops?

Running right by Eugene is a major federal highway, I-5, built like the entire interstate system as part of an Eisenhower-era national defense project, packed with high-speed, fossil fuel-burning cars and trucks. It contrasts with Eugene's quiet streets and bike lanes. On this weekend, many from the the University of Oregon had left the "Future of Journalism" and the "Understanding Superheros" conferences behind to drive north and watch their Ducks stomp on the University of Washington's Huskies football team. Better to be beaten at football then have ELFers burn down UW buildings.

The freeway and football might have been a refreshing break from the cloistered progresso-anarchism of Eugene for some, but the greeting of the outside world wasn't entirely friendly. Just north of the Nisqually Delta in Washington, a railroad overpass had been repainted in U of O colors. "Fuck the Ducks" is said in giant letters.

Could have been painted by Bill O'Reilly himself.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.