As with people, cities tend over time to acquire particular reputations that belie their true nature. Prevailing mythology says that Eugene, former stomping grounds of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, is frozen in place as a kind of progressive hippie utopia — a throwback to the peace-loving ’60s, where personal freedom and lefty politics reached their American apotheosis. Reality, unfortunately, says otherwise. Beneath Eugene’s faux-gressive veneer of eccentricity and liberalism — more Halloween than hallowed — lurks an alarming undercurrent of intolerance, inertia and the kind of crony political system that is more nepotistic and autocratic than truly democratic.
Our mayor plays figurehead to the city manager, and the city government operates with a disturbing lack of transparency. Our most famous icon and benefactor, Nike founder Phil Knight, donated exclusively to Republican campaigns this year. The city is not exempt from Oregon’s long history of racism, and though we give lip service to diversity, we are more white utopia than anything else. It’s not unusual to see Confederate flags flying from the back of jacked-up trucks these days, and let’s not forget that, in 2010, Republican VP candidate Sarah Palin came to Eugene — not Springfield, not Redmond — for a big-money campaign fundraiser. Right-wing money hides in the hills here, as does a lot of the kind of aggressive, retrograde bigotry that we conveniently associate with Appalachia.
None of this is good or bad but thinking makes it such, but let’s stop pretending we’re anything more than a small college town (go Ducks!) with the kind of half-assed Libertarian leanings that spring from white disenfranchisement and despair. We are more Twin Peaks than Berkeley, more Aberdeen than Austin.