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Fear and Loathing in Cascadia

The bioregion at the intersection of liberal hipsterdom and white nationalism

In 1995, a Portlander named Alexander Baretich was in Eastern Europe studying nationalism when he conceived a flag for Cascadia, an area encompassing the Pacific Northwest and sometimes beyond, depending on who you ask. He designed it with three horizontal stripes of blue, white, and green for the colors of nature, expressing the conviction among Oregonians that Cascadia is perfect in its natural state. Then he overlaid these stripes with a Doug fir to symbolize resilience against “catastrophic change,” reaffirming the region’s long-standing fear of contamination and dislike of interlopers.

It’s no surprise that the Pacific Northwest produced a man like Baretich who’s proud of his birthplace and enraged over threats to the land. In September, while I was visiting my family in Oregon, a fifteen year old from Vancouver recklessly threw fireworks into the Eagle Creek Canyon along the Columbia River Gorge. Forty-eight thousand acres of Cascadia burned in a fire that now has its own Wikipedia page. Public outrage ensued and for weeks irate Oregonians, including my mother, demanded the kid face stiff consequences.

Among the people posting lamentations on social media was Jack Donovan, the alt-right leader of The Wolves of Vinland’s Cascadia chapter. Some months prior, Donovan had purchased several acres of land to “serve as the spiritual and cultural home in the Cascadia bioregion.”

Named for its cascading waterfalls, Cascadia is considered a heaven of fresh water, rushing rivers, and dense foliage. Gary Snyder, the poet and essayist, describes the waters of Puget Sound as “salmon-rich” and the forests as “a marvelous expression of wild.” Although writers often refer to Cascadia as a utopia and a source of harmony, Joel Garreau, a former Washington Post reporter and editor, once observed on a visit to Oregon that “Paradise, as it turns out, smells like bee glue.”

Then, in the 1970s, David McCloskey, an ecological studies professor at Seattle University, defined Cascadia in terms of the bioregion and Cascadia began to morph from simply being a geographical area to representing a socioeconomic and cultural movement, one that believes landscape should inform lifestyle and political thought.

The clear message of Secession Cascadian Dark Ale, literally bottled up and presented as a hipster product, was that Cascadia could be its own country.

Today, Cascadian iconography is deeply engrained in the Pacific Northwest’s liberal, hipster culture. Responsibly sourced coffee roasters and craft beers “brewed on site” incorporate Cascadia’s name, its flag’s insignia, and its devotion to all things locally sourced. The Cascadian flag is flown at gay pride parades, Occupy protests, and by Portland Timbers soccer fans.

Yet this liberal spirit veils the Cascadia brand’s nationalistic undertones. In 2009, Hopworks beer released Secession Cascadian Dark Ale. As expected, the beer was organic, sustainable and handcrafted. Its label featured a map of Cascadia floating alone, superimposed over the Cascadian flag. The clear message, literally bottled up and presented as a hipster product, was that Cascadia could be its own country.

If we trace them back, we find that ideas of Cascadian secession go back to around the time Cascadia was defined as a bioregion by McCloskey. In Ernest Callenbach’s 1975 novel Ecotopia, a journalist visits the seceded region of Washington, Oregon, and Northern California. And despite Baretich’s claim that his flag doesn’t represent glory, hate, or blood, the very act of waving a flag can infer a chauvinism and pride for one’s identity or affections. Timbers fans are nicknamed Timbers Army, after all. So, while the flag may not yet represent a nation, it rallies like-minded people.

Some of these people, like the Cascadia Independence Party, are pushing secession. The CIP, I was told, wants to forego left-right party ideologies and unite Cascadia as an independent country defined by the natural border of the landscape. Donald Stevenson, its interim chairman, wrote me on Facebook that he supports independence because “The east does not hold the same values we do and we have people that ‘represent’ us that have never set foot in the PNW. I know America is diverse but the PNW is much different from the rest of America.” Many native Oregonians complain about Portland’s mass influx of transplants, specifically Californians, tech companies and yuppies in yoga pants and Mercedes. I called Jason Sorens, a lecturer at Dartmouth College who has written extensively about secession, to ask him whether this cocktail of preservation, ecology, and feelings of superiority could fuel secession. “I could certainly see how the types of people attracted to the Pacific Northwest might have a strong environmental ethos and might have hostility to population growth and outsiders,” he told me. His reasoning reflects a paradox I’ve heard from some non-native Oregonians, who expect the environment to remain as pristine as when they arrived even as their presence stimulates change.

The liberals calling for Cascadian independence invite all ethnicities and races to join and make a point to condemn hate. But the Pacific Northwest is overwhelmingly white. According to 2016 census numbers, 87 percent of Oregonians are white and 80 percent of Washingtonians are white. So, making Cascadia its own utopian country would be unintentionally granting white supremacists their wish to create a white ethno-state.

It’s not surprising, then, that white supremacists have co-opted the Cascadia brand. The far right is known to appropriate pop culture imagery, particularly for recruitment and to mitigate their viewpoints. But Alexander Reid Ross, a professor at Portland State University, explained that Cascadia, “a really important movement in the Pacific Northwest,” is targeted specifically for its link to bioregionalism. “It implies a territorial imperative but doesn’t necessarily involve anti-racism, according to the far right, so fascists appropriate it,” he told me of Cascadia.

White supremacists have coopted the Cascadia brand specifically for its link to bioregionalism.

The appropriation began at least as far back as 2004, when a flag suspiciously similar to the Cascadian flag appeared on the cover of Harold Armstead Covington’s book, A Distant Thunder. In 2008, Covington founded the white nationalist group Northwest Front, which calls for an “independent and sovereign White nation in the Pacific Northwest.” The group later penned a disturbing rhyme on its website about this flag, the Tricolor flag, using language similar to Baretich’s:

The sky is blue, and the land is green. The white is for the people, in between.

Cascadia appropriation has snowballed since then. In 2016, a man adopting the moniker Herrenvolk, a German word for “master race” used by the Nazis, helped form Cascadia, the “foremost” alt-right group in the Pacific Northwest. According to its website, its mission is to “regain our sovereignty and prevent foreign influence on our people.” That goal correlates with the narrative of Cascadia as quintessential, and it echoes the groaning around Portland about newcomers spoiling the city.

Jeremy Christian, who killed two men on the light rail in Portland last year, posted a call on Facebook for “Cascadia as a White homeland.” This past December, several Antifa groups accessed Discord chat logs of white supremacists in the Pacific Northwest. The white supremacists were operating under the name Cascadian Coffee Company, which happens to be a real café in Roseburg, Oregon (the owner told me he didn’t know why the alt-right chose their name but assumed it tied into the café’s principles of freedom). And Andrew Oswalt, a graduate student and former member of student government at Oregon State University recently arrested for hate crimes, had both a Confederate and a Cascadian flag hanging in his room, a vision of racism and hipsterdom intertwined.

White supremacists relish connecting their ideals with hipster culture.

Many liberal supporters of the Cascadian movement won’t admit it’s tinged with white nationalism. The only explicit admission I found was in a paper exploring soccer culture and Cascadia. The authors, Hunter Shobe and Geoff Gibson, write, “We suggest that Cascadian identity narratives have nationalistic tropes and dimensions.” When I spoke to Baretich, he denied such an undertone. Andrew Engelson, the editor of Cascadia Magazine, toys with the idea of Cascadia as “its own nation,” and boasts on his website how its annual GDP would be near a trillion dollars. However, he begins the next paragraph by backtracking. “But Cascadia isn’t really a nationalist movement,” he writes, as if to defend and rebuff.

White supremacists, however, relish connecting their ideals with hipster culture. In a radio interview last year with the alt-right program Red Ice TV, Herrenvolk said, “A lot of these white liberals who move here like the Pacific Northwest for the same reasons we do.”

One reason, apparently, includes environmentalism, the backbone and main unifier of the Cascadian movement. Ecologists, liberal hipsters, and the alt-right in the Pacific Northwest resist some sort of outside taint. Does that make them at all similar? Not in their goals, but if we continue to deny this overlap, the right’s takeover of Cascadian ideologies could balloon.