It is my custom when I am in an unfamiliar area to make that area as familiar as possible through observation and study. As someone who has typically viewed life from the point of view of an outsider, I find that in most places and situations my view is somewhat less charitable than the view of an insider would be. In most places and situations, there is a wide difference between the way that an outsider is treated and how an insider is treated. The wider the gulf between the love and openness that insiders are treated with and the way that a friendly outsider is treated, the greater my suspicion and anxiety concerning an area or institution. I have always viewed the true worth of a society or institution by the way it treated the least of these, the outcasts and outsiders, and I have generally found much to criticize and much room for institutions and societies to improve by this standard.
In keeping with this native proclivity, I have sought to understand the culture of Oregon, as it definitely qualifies as an alien land and culture to what I am used to. This is not necessarily a bad thing–in fact, it is something I would like to get used to at least as I have encountered it so far. Probably the first way that Oregon struck me as alien was in its behavior towards pedestrians. As someone who tends to walk around a fair amount, I have spent most of my life living in areas where my main concern was in knowing where cars were located around me so that I could avoid the threat of being run over by impatient and aggressive drivers. This has been true in areas that were deliberately unfriendly to pedestrians in the general absence of sidewalks and crosswalks (Thailand and Central Florida spring to mind), as well as in places that officially had laws giving the right of way to pedestrians but had apparently forgotten to clue the drivers in on this important point (Los Angeles). This does not mean that everyone in Oregon is aware of this fact (a pedestrian was killed just last week in the mall across the street), only that I have had to be alert to drivers stopping when I approach an intersection to wave me across. It is my habit to wave back and quickly walk across the street. Old habits die hard.
Even the political culture of Oregon is a bit unusual, in a good way. For example, most of the local candidate ads I have seen have been positive, focusing more on what they want to do than on pointing out that their opponent was an ogre who wanted to eat babies and kill their own grandparents in order to gain or maintain power, as is the fashion elsewhere. In fact, the general absence of SuperPACs as well as political parties in the advertisements of most candidates is striking. It is difficult, in fact, to tell the difference between the ideals and goals of candidates from the two main parties (and smaller parties), and this is not entirely a bad thing.
Likewise, citizens here have a lot more to vote on than I am used to. Oregon gives out a nearly 150 page pamphlet full of information for its general election. These include bios of all candidates for national, state, and local offices, technical details and for and (sometimes) against arguments and endorsements for various ballot issues, and a bewildering variety of local issues. As an example of the breadth of decisions that local voters here have to decide, voters in the city of Gladstone (in Clackamas county) have to vote on whether to authorize the city to incur up to $7.5 million debt to build a new library, even though it would require no new taxes. Voters in Oregon City (the county seat) will have to vote on four annexation measures (3-416, 3-417, 3-418, and 3-419) that are supported by the property owners and neighborhoods, and the guide not only includes the text of the measures but also helpfully includes maps showing the existing city limits and the territory that would be annexed in each measure. Quite frankly, I am not used to this sort of citizen involvement in the affairs of governments and institutions, but I like it. I’m not the sort of person who turns down opportunities for increased involvement and participation in institutions and government, even if I am not particularly ambitious for offices and power.
From my book knowledge of history and culture, it would appear that the high levels of citizen involvement (and probably also idealism) in Oregon spring from a dominant culture of New England Yankees, a culture that I am not particularly used to living around, having spent most of my life in its archrivals of the Deep South. It just so happens that I spring from that part of the Appalachians that has the closest relationship with Yankeedom (Pennsylvania), and so it’s not too surprising that I found a general affinity between my own ethos of citizenship involvement, love and concern for other people, a fiercely egalitarian spirit, and generally high ideals and standards and areas that seem to reflect the same general ideals, despite a certain disagreement as to the specifics of those ideals and standards. But the devil is always in the details, even if there are few disagreements that decent people of respect and concern for others cannot overcome through kindness and consideration for the thoughts and feelings of others.