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  • Allan Classen

Is it all for nothing?



A few years ago, I began having trouble “reasoning together” with some fellow Portlanders, particularly some with whom I share many political values.


Most notable was my first conversation with Suk Rhee in 2017, early in her tenure as director of the Office of Neighborhood Involvement. We sat down for an hour-long conversation that was cordial throughout, as well as confounding. Although she was unfamiliar with Portland neighborhood associations and their history, she was utterly uncurious about what she did not know. Nothing of past neighborhood association victories, pitfalls or lessons I had drawn seemed to matter to her. She brought a different point of view that she never modified that day or at many subsequent public speaking appearances.


Rhee was not the only one with whom I seemed to have lost the capacity to engage fruitfully. Was it something in the water? A new package of views and arguments was rising among local activists and people in city hall. It was also mirrored in the national media.


The social goals advocated were familiar to me, but we parted on the means to get there. My faith in democratic processes, free speech, compromise, cooperation and “the best ideas” leading to progress were passé to this new way of thinking.


What was I missing? It began to make sense when I realized that they lived in a zero-sum reality. There was no such thing as progress for all; the gains of one group depend on equivalent losses by another. Competition and conflict are what matters, and the niceties of rules and deliberation are just covers for raw self-interest.


This is my interpretation, anyway. Advocates of the new way do not apply the zero-sum metaphor.


Which is not to say there were no clues. A member of the citizen advisory body Rhee appointed to oversee the transformation of the old neighborhood association program into a social equity agency said Rhee explained why neighborhood associations were not invited to participate in the process: If the same groups enjoying power and privilege were included, they would again dominate the discussion. To bring about equity (the new term for equality), those on top would have to be held back so those on the bottom could gain ground.


I-win-you-lose is an ancient approach buried under centuries by progress owing to classical scholarship, The Enlightenment, science and other modern concepts such as individual liberty and democracy. Zero-sum thinking describes prehistoric tribes endlessly raiding each other’s wealth or nations warring to conquer territory.


How is the Neanderthal eye-for-an-eye mentality overcoming progressive minds in places like Portland? That’s too big a topic for this space, but the charge that stumps liberal Portlanders today is that American founders were wealthy, slave-owning white men and therefore hypocrites whose writings were merely justification to hold onto power.


It makes perfect sense from a zero-sum perspective.


If, however, imperfect people create structures to balance self-interests, resolve differences peacefully and promote the common good, why not apply them? I don’t care if the inventor of the wheel lived a pure life.


When “I win, you lose” thinking is applied to groups, the ideas from another population sector or identity group must be distrusted. Outsiders can offer help only by listening and saying amen.


Zero-sum situations exist, but as a theory on how complex modern societies work, it fails. It has short-term utility for shaming tolerant people of goodwill, but it leads to conflict and division. Is it any surprise that Portland has arrived at such a place?


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