Federal officers pepper spray a protester in a cloud of tear gas on Saturday, July 18.
Federal officers pepper spray a protester in a cloud of tear gas on Saturday, July 18. MATHIEU LEWIS-ROLLAND

Trump's deployment of the secret police to Portland, Oregon has produced his desired results. For one, it has claimed a good chunk of news space from the top story of the day, the pandemic, which is once again claiming 1,000 American lives a day.

Trump's secret police seemed to be operating on another level power, one that hovers above conventional laws—it's a zone of action that couldn't exist without daily confirmations from Fox News. It really is there. It's right in front of our noses. But access to it is blocked by the "do-nothing" left. The secret police wore combat uniforms, and this gave the appearance of a war between no-nonsense "law and order" and a mob of urban villains that Trump obsesses over, and that almost all of his voters have never seen in real life. Trump's Portland intervention marked his return to the part of the 2017 inauguration speech (written by Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller) that concerned "American carnage."

The structure of Trump's law-and-order narrative received a blow (not yet fatal) when Portland's Black Lives Matter protesters (now vastly increased in number) confronted the secret police on July 21 with a Wall of Moms and Dads With Leaf Blowers. Or, put another way: when Portland matched fascistic resolution with quirkiness. Tonight, the quirkiness will continue with a Chef March (slogan: "ACAB: We Spit in Your Food!")

In what remains of this post, I want to examine quirkiness and how it is different from whimsy.

In 2013, I wrote an essay that condemned the design of the then recently completed Beacon Hill Library. My point was simple and incontestable, but I happened to use the wrong word to make my point. I stated the mode of the library's design was "quirky," when it was in fact "whimsical." The protests in Portland have made the difference between quirky and whimsy apparent to me. The library's awful design has as its inspiration the latter and not the former.

Here is the core of my piece, "I Hate the Beacon Hill Library, and You Should Too":

If you can imagine that soul-crinkling mess, you can see exactly what's bad about the Beacon Hill Branch. It's trying ever so hard to be diversity.

Carlson Architects, a firm that got its big break designing Larry's Markets in the late 1980s, has also done solid and serious local work, such as the addition at the School of Social Work at the University of Washington and the Ballard Lofts. But judging from that work, and the work in their book Carlson Architects: Expanding Northwestern Regionalism, it's hard to believe they ever took a serious interest in diversity. That was not their thing. What they did well, what dominated their projects, was the industrial aesthetic. And so what did Carlson Architects fill this lack of experience with multiculturalism with? Please be prepared to weep, as this is really the tragedy of my story: They filled it with quirkiness. The boat in the sky like a weather vane, the upside-down hull-like roof, the scupper that's shaped like a beak, the poetry on the stones—all of this is quirky.


It is actually whimsical, which has no political content or potential at all. Anyone can be whimsical, it costs nothing, it adds nothing, it only wants to appear to be interesting—for example, Donald Rumsfeld balancing a chopstick on his upper lip.

Time Magazine:

These are things we know that we know — like how a photograph of a young Rumsfeld, a chopstick balanced on his protruding upper lip as he gazes at a giggling geisha — came to decorate packets of U.K. snack-food manufacturer Tyrrell’s Spicy Coated Peanuts. “All our packs feature imagery which aims to be rather entertaining, quirky and just a bit different from the norm of popping a slice of cheese and an onion on the front of a pack,” e-mails Oliver Rudgard, Tyrrell’s marketing director. “We thought this image was in line with our brand’s light-hearted and slightly eccentric view on life.”

Quirky is not right the word. A chopstick on the war-hawk's lips is whimsical. The swirling boat thing on Beacon Hill Library is just as whimsical.

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But not Dads With Leaf Blowers. Indeed, the Stranger's most literary critic, Christopher Frizzelle, calls it "high quirk." Merriam-Webster's online dictionary describes quirky as: "Unusual in especially an interesting or appealing way," and it associates the word with the production of art. As for whimsical, it results "from or [is] characterized by whim or caprice especially." One thing these definitions reveal is a distinction that's temporal. Quirkiness does not happen on a whim. It not only becomes in time but has in it the aspect of a method.

But why was this quirkiness so effective during the Portland protests of July 21? Because it exposed the secret police (their gear, their swirling gas clouds, their seriousness, their leader) as nothing more than a performance. The performance of the Wall of Moms has something to it. It has the joy and laughter and fortitude that a revolution needs for the long-term survival of its emancipatory principles. (The last sentence needs some unpacking, which I will do in a post that concerns the conclusion of the TV series Snowpiercer).

As for the Escape From New York-type look the secret police had going, it was as tired as recooked cabbage. Indeed, your connection with reality must be very weak, if there at all, if you believe that Trump's secret police will make anything better or provide the public with actual social goods, in Portland or Chicago.

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