There are few things on television today that are as beloved by we denizens of the Rose City as IFC’s Portlandia.
While I believe that quite a few people in other parts of the country find it amusing, I’m not entirely sure that it can truly be appreciated by those that have never lived in the Pacific Northwest. It’s very premise is the bizarre creative offspring of Fred Armesin (who comes from the mainstream mainstay SNL) and Carrie Brownstein (who co-fronted for Evergreen College’s critically acclaimed riot grrl indie band Sleater-Kinney). The result is a purposefully pretentious hipster sketch comedy show that skewers the purposefully pretentious hipster lifestyles of the Pacific Northwest. The two sketches from Portlandia’s first season that are the most talked about locally might not even make sense to someone from Biloxi, Toledo or Duluth:
The first is that is commonly known here as simply “the restaurant sketch,” where a Portland couple try to decide what to order from a ridiculously detailed menu. They consider ordering the local free-range organic chicken that has been sheep’s milk, soy and hazelnut fed – but first are compelled to visit the farm to make sure that the chickens are encouraged to live happy and free lives before being slaughtered.
The second, which is really a series of sketches, take place in the fictional feminist-lesbian bookstore Women and Women First Books. The humor in the bookstore sketches is kind of like inside baseball to us Northwesterners. (There are two classic lines that most Portlanders know by heart: The first is when one of the store’s owners scolds a female customer for pointing at the book she’d like to purchase, “Every time you point I see a penis!” The second is this monotone riddle: Q – How many feminists does it take to screw in a lightbulb? A- That’s not funny.) The very concept of an overly serious feminist-lesbian bookstore feels natural enough to be a Pacific Northwest neighborhood cliche, even in neighborhoods that don’t have an overly serious feminist bookstore. More generally, the idea of an independent store asking people to buy things while being purposely rude and unhelpful for the sake of not having a “chain mentality” is actually a thing ‘round these parts. In fact, Portland’s internationally famous bookstore – Powell’s – is known amongst Portlanders both for having the greatest selection of new and used books anywhere and for having a staff that sighs and sneers whenever a customer asks where to find a book.
All of which is to say that while I love the Pacific Northwest and would not choose to live anywhere else in the country, I recognize that our overly-hipster mindset is not always a good thing. It’s actually a good thing that we have the rest of the country to keep us grounded.
There aren’t many things that are people here at the League by and large agree on. But if there’s one common thread I’ve noticed, it’s the concept that localized power and bottom up ideas are inherently good, and nationalized power and ideas are inherently dangerous. And in many cases, I think this is certainly true. A national demand for workplace safety standards is good, but the ability for states and local communities to attempt to find the best ways to achieve them allows for greater innovation and eliminates having to choose between, say, Earthquake standards that might be too lax in California but overly expensive overkill in Wisconsin.
Yet I’m not entirely comfortable with the idea of states and even regions being islands unto themselves. To me, Portlandia’s free-range chicken sketch is a hoot (cluck?) precisely because there is more than a thread of truth to it. Were the FDA to be eliminated in favor of state choice, I could actually see Oregon and Washington getting carried away with legislation surrounding how food sold here is raised – and I can see such legislation creating a system where upper and upper-middle class food costs would be reduced by increasing the volume of local-organic everything, but at the expense of food costs for lower income families increasing to the point of hardship. We are a purposefully hipster lot in this part of the country, and we have a track record of allowing the flying of our hipster colors to interfere with running an affordable and manageable state bureaucracy. But it’s not just us. Frankly, I’m not convinced that other regions aren’t sometimes better off having their immediate local preferences curbed by the rest of the country.
Orson Scott Card’s Enders Game has a special place in my heart, but not from my own reading. The young-adult science fiction novel was assigned as in-class reading for our oldest son’s 7th grade English class. Up to that point, our son had never really had an interest in reading, despite (because of?) my and my wife’s constant pushing him to read more. The day they read the first chapter of Ender’s Game, however, my son shocked his teacher and his parents by asking if he could take the school’s copy home with him that evening. His teacher said yes, and by midnight that night he had finished it. That led to his reading The Giver, which led to all seven of the Harry Potter books, which led to The Outsiders, which led to Youth in Revolt. While he still prefers gaming to reading, he will now read whenever a book catches his fancy – but it took Enders Game for him to learn that a book could catch his fancy.
In South Carolina last week a public middle school teacher was put on administrative leave for reading part of Ender’s Game to his class. The parent that reported him to the school district complained that the book was pornographic; that same parent also asked the local police to file criminal charges against the teacher. As of today, the police have not yet decided whether or not to file charges (which is probably a good sign that they won’t). The school district, however, appears to agree with the parent, is considering firing the teacher and will be eliminating the book from the school.
Commonsense Media does say that the book has some violence and should be read by children over 12*, but the children in this class were 14. I also want to note that the book is one of the American Library Association’s 100 Best Books for Teens. I mention these things not because I think that you should allow your kids to be raised by Commonsense Media or the AMA, but to point out that a book is being removed, a teacher is being suspended (and may yet be terminated), and criminal charges are at least being considered over a book that clearly isn’t Debbie Does Dallas: The Complete Novelization or even Lady Chatterly’s Lover.
In the same way that I can’t imagine the Southeast Coast ever going overboard with hipster-based locally grown food laws, I cannot imagine any school district in the Pacific Northwest ever having this kind of reaction to a complaint about a nationally recognized quality young adult book being pornography. And just as I think it’s good for us up here in Portland to have folks in the South mockingly say, “Wait – you want us to pay X amount more dollars for chicken so they can be happy?,” I think the people of South Carolina are better off for having the rest of the country shame them into some sense of perspective when it comes to Morally Correct State-Approved Books.
Don’t get me wrong. This is not a call for any particular policy change, and more than anything I’m just thinking out loud here. I’m not arguing that a Federally mandated “approved” list of books for school libraries is the way to go. (Though if I’m being honest incidents like the one in South Carolina make me wonder if such a thing would really be so bad.) But for all the talk of our country having been made into one bland homogenized culture, it seems to me that we continue to be a vast group of different subcultures, each with our own strengths and weaknesses. And while I don’t like the idea of having a Federally-Mandated Everything, I’m not yet convinced that every single community doing whatever it wants is the way to the best America possible. As in most things, finding a way to strike a balance seems the prudent way for all of as a nation, and as regions, and even as cities and local communities.
*By the way, in every story I have seen about the Enders Game suspension it is mentioned that Commonsense Media says inappropriate for kids under 12. However, I think that in order for there to be some sense of perspective it should be noted that Commonsense Media gives an identical age qualifier to Harry Potter & The Deathly Hollows, Huck Finn, I Am Number 4, Call of the Wild, The Old Man & the Sea, Sounder, Dickens’ works, The Hunger Games series, To Kill a Mockingbird, the Tolkien books, and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.
Greek myths, Shakespeare, Frankenstein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Animal Farm, and The Sun Also Rises are all considered by Commonsense Media to be inappropriate for kids that until they are a few years older than the 12-year bar set for Enders Game.
(H/T to Alyssa Rosenberg, who always finds the coolest media stories, for the Enders Game thang.)
UPDATE: There was, after my post here, some fairly wild accusations about the teacher put on leave for reading Enders Game. There were also a number of people here and elsewhere that argued that this episode proved the school district’s system “worked.” An update on all of that here.