The meaning of the Oregon Country Fair
by Sam Porter
In 1969 the Oregon Country Fair began, its website says, as a benefit for an alternative school. Alternative art, performance, education, land use and philanthropy characterizes OCF’s history.
OCF is about nourishing the spirit, living artfully and transforming culture in “magical,” joyous and healthy ways. Its purpose is to entertain, foster craftsmanship, serve healthy food and share information.
But when one looks at the cultural circumstances of its birth and growth, OCF not only shares information, it generates meaning.
As we need sex, human beings need meaning. We are suspended in webs of meaning we ourselves have spun over millennia — whether drawn from humanity’s ancient rivers of religious and philosophical tradition or from the small-scale or alternative streams of consciousness of, say, Native Americans or the modern romanticism of Whitman, Ginsberg, Kerouac, Kesey and Dylan.
No one person or party is the answer to the perennial question of life’s meaning, though some would relieve you of all responsibility to think for yourself.
Sometimes chaos threatens — as it did during the ’60s and on 9/11 — to break in on our world. Such shocks compel us to break through the limits of the meanings we take for granted and shift the accent of reality to alternatives.
The birth of OCF did not happen in a vacuum. It occurred in the context of a fundamental questioning of the legitimacy of the established order — a politically and morally charged cultural earthquake of social change echoing aftershocks still today.
Centering on the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movements, the nation’s moral fabric unraveled in the 1960s.
Activists and writers such as Martin Luther King Jr., Michael Harrington, Betty Friedan and Rachel Carson articulated and demanded new ethical standards about how people of color, the poor, women and the environment are treated — challenging their fellow Americans to at least live up to the moral purposes our government claims to represent.
The erosion of the legitimacy of major American institutions — business, government, education, religion, family — set in, particularly among ’60s youth, the generation that gave birth to OCF.
OCF is a response to this crisis of meaning marked not only by the profound hypocrisy and injustice black people, other people of color, the poor and women have long suffered in American society, but also by a flat, utilitarian society.
In a heavily utilitarian society, OCF’s “intention” to transform culture in “magical” ways makes a lot of sense.
In other words, OCF is part of an effort — that includes the hip, psychedelic and radical political wings of ’60s youth — to re-enchant and transform American society toward something more in line with the revolutionary spirit of the founders, Lincoln’s vision of a united nation that is not half-slave and half-free, FDR’s social liberalism, Kennedy’s idealism and King’s dream.
The ’60s shocked America’s national psychology and shifted the accent of reality to an alternative — but no less American — part of what historian Richard Hofstadter called the American political tradition. OCF shocks us in this way annually.
Yet the last 40 years have been a near-continuous reaction against progressive change. We now have a neo-conservative establishment — which transformed the U.S. into a brutal imperial republic abroad and a soft despotism of the wealthy at home — the polar opposite of what the ’60s, OCF and the American political tradition mean at their best.
But OCF holds up an alternative model of reality representing hope, not naïve optimism. We take for granted the world of everyday life. We accept it as natural and associate a pragmatic attitude with it. The natural attitude of our routine, rational, work-a-day consciousness is based, however, on a suspension of doubt that things might be other than they appear — a doubt rooted in OCF’s origin in alternative education.
It is a doubt Bob Dylan’s 1965 “Ballad of a Thin Man” expresses well: You’ve been with the professors / And they’ve all liked your looks / You’ve been through all of / F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books / You’re very well read / It’s well known / Because something is happening here / But you don’t know what it is / Do you, Mister Jones?
OCF claims no monopoly on the (moral) meanings of life. But it quenches our hunger for meaning as it continues to generate rich webs of alternative meanings feeding our heads and souls as well as stomachs.
Thirty-nine years since OCF’s birth, many citizen groups throughout American society continue to work for a different kind of society — an alternative kind of world. In many ways OCF remains a handbook for such groups.
Sam Porter, Ph.D., is a Eugene native who has taught in the UO’s Department of Sociology and currently works at Northwest Survey & Data Services.