A reader writes:
I’ll leave readers to decide how convincingly Mark Oppenheimer made his case about liberal puritanism, but as a proud Stumptowner, I gotta call BS on dragging Portland into it. Like so many local issues, when an essayist just grabs a headline and lazily uses it as a metaphor for some larger theme, his whole premise is undermined by misunderstanding what actually happened.
So here’s what actually happened. Flouridation has gone down at the ballot three times here - 1956, 1962, and 1978. Oregon, like other Western states, was red until the Clinton years. The voters who defeated these measures through the decades were not the hipster stereotypes you see on Portlandia. In this year’s election, the proponents outspent opponents 3 to 1 and represented a lot of the bedrock liberal interests that fuel Portland’s liberalism.
The reason voters rejected it is the same reason they always do: they have a romantic love of the natural beauty of Oregon and are enormously proud that their water comes straight from the Bull Run Reservoir in the Mt Hood wilderness. It arrives completely untouched and untreated – pure Cascade spring water. Most Oregonians are immigrants who were attracted to this region for the natural bounty, and Bull Run water is a powerful testament and metaphor for that purity. The measure failed by 20 points, not because radical lefties were afraid of fluoride (even in Portland, you don’t get 60% on far-left votes), but because of the idiosyncrasies of tap water. Lots of random Oregonians voted to save the water in its natural state. That’s how we roll.
(For the record, I voted for fluoride.)
Update from a few readers:
“It arrives completely untouched and untreated – pure Cascade spring water.” Bullshit. All tap water in the country is treated. One hiker with giardia taking a dump in the watershed and the whole city, well, you get the idea. (The watershed is generally off-limits, but still.) From the City’s website:
The 102 square-mile protected Bull Run watershed collects water from rain and snowmelt that then flows to the Bull Run River and its tributaries. The river drains into two reservoirs, where more than 17 billion gallons are stored. The Portland Water Bureau treats the water before it enters into the three conduits that transport it to Portland. The water moves through the system by gravity, requiring no fossil fuel consumption to move water from its intake to the main storage reservoir at Powell Butte.
The other reader:
With all due respect to my fellow Portlander, my read of the anti-fluoride vote was very different. I didn’t see it as a romantic desire to preserve the natural beauty or the clear water coming from Bull Run and helping maintain our PBFs. Rather, I saw it as exactly the kind puritanism the author of the original piece so justifiably pointed out.
I wrote a piece for Skepchick on the subject and posted it to my Facebook wall and my circle disseminated it widely. When I was interviewed by the Oregonian (local paper) about the issue, friends of my partner at PSU started asking why I was “shilling for the chemical industry” and accused me of the most sinister motives. I didn’t “care about children” etc. It is the psychology of purity and taboo in run completely rampant.
The left has entered into a love affair with the naturalistic fallacy which, at times, is equally infuriating and amusing. Infuriating because there’s no scientifically supportable reason to be anti-fluoride, anti-vaccine or anti-GMO and the hypocrisy of leftists who mock right-wing partisans for their global warming denial or their evolution denial is just a little too rich for my tastes. It is amusing because Whole Foods and other companies have discovered that the primrose path to the wallets of liberals is marked by the signs “Natural” and “Organic”. Put those words on your product and lefties will beat a path to your door to give you their money. There’s a very cynical part of me that gets a chuckle out of it. Then I remember the public policy implications of neither side being willing to be “humble before the data” of the real world and I face-palm and despair for the kind of mess we’re going to burden my grandchildren with.
Now, I say this as a committed liberal (although I like to think of myself as a Burkean Liberal, by which I mean that my public policy commitments are, on the whole, pretty in line with social democracy but tempered and held in check by a rather pessimistic view of human nature that we are not perfectible as a species and we should, where possible, look for incremental changes instead of radical lurchings pillar to post in public policy). Above all we should try not to break things because as many ways as there are to have a society, there are far more ways to have a bad society than a good one.