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Summer 2005


Gordon B. Dodds-- Learning and scholarship, Historians -- Oregon -- Biography, Portland State University. Dept. of History, Oregon -- Historiography


In the latter part of his public career, after a lifetime of studying and thinking about the region and its people, Dodds began to write about “the tragedy of the lack of tragedy” in the lives of Pacific Northwesterners. Life had been relatively easy and perhaps “too successful” for the region’s citizens, “especially if one were a Caucasian,” wrote Gordon Dodds in the epilogue to his 1986 regional history, The American Northwest: A History of Oregon and Washington. Pacific Northwesterners had mastered their few difficulties with relative ease and their undemanding past may have left them unprepared for the adversities that lay ahead. Whatever vague foreboding Dodds may have sensed when he wrote those words in the mid-1980s, the adversity he alluded to was not long in appearing. With the passage of the property tax limitation Measure 5 in Oregon in 1991, whatever fragile regional consensus existed regarding the public funding of education and social welfare programs came crashing down. The passage some 15 years later of Measure 37, which essentially dismantled Oregon’s nationally acclaimed land-use planning system, completed the apparent sea change in regional self-understanding. Whatever reputation Oregon had previously enjoyed as a bastion of environmental commitment and liberal sentiment was now defunct. A brave new world of libertarian values and minimal government intrusion (or support) was ready to greet any new arrivals. While the changes in political sentiment in Oregon reflected the rise of conservative values nationally, they seemed especially pronounced here given the state’s prior reputation. All this, of course, begs the question of whether or not, given these apparently great changes in Oregonians’ social and political self-understanding, the past in any sense could have served as prelude to someone who wanted to trace a vague outline of the future before it was thrust upon us in its present form. Were the seeds of Oregon’s current dilemma buried in its past? Could an alert and curious historian who knew where to look have predicted the current state of affairs, in which every session of the legislature, for example, pits proponents of public education against supporters of social welfare programs for an every-shrinking revenue pie? What happened to the Oregon that, despite its eccentricities and contradictions, many of us knew and loved before 1991? And was its rapid demise predictable?


Originally appeared in the Summer 2005 edition of Metroscape, published by the Institute of Portland Metropolitan Studies, Portland State University.

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