Sunday, April 3, 2011

Businesses to LePage: "Tear Down This Painting!"

I have intentionally avoided writing about Republican Governor Paul LePage in this blog for two practical reasons.

First off, I am aware there are countless other bloggers in Maine focused almost exclusively on LePage, and I do not want to appear redundant. The Portland Phoenix, for example, has spent nearly every issue since LePage’s election commenting on his every move.

And second, I hate writing about Paul LePage for the simple fact it completely bums me out the man is actually our governor. LePage makes me genuinely embarrassed for my state.

Alas, recent events in Augusta have forced me to cave. Gov. LePage’s decision to tear down the now infamous worker mural in the Labor Department deserves Guerrilla Press’s attention. So here we go.

As of this writing the mural has been removed from the Labor Department’s walls despite the protests of Maine labor activists and artists on Friday. The removal came as a swift surprise. According to a story in the Portland Press Herald, LePage staffers will not disclose the mural’s current location. Initial speculation that the mural may be relocated to Portland City Hall has been dampened, as many of the Council members now express opposition to the move. The Council has delayed vote on the issue “indefinitely” according to the story.

(On Friday, when a local TV news network asked LePage how he would respond to protesters’ threats to literally block officials from removing the mural his response was typically juvenile: “I’d laugh at them, the idiots. That’s what I’d do. Come on! Get over yourselves!”)

On the face of it, it is easy to see how the mural controversy may seem like much ado about nothing. “It’s just a painting,” you may be thinking.

But the issue is about more than the painting itself. It is the piece of history the painting depicts. The mural is a celebration of the rich and involved history of organized labor groups and unions in the state of Maine—and how those groups have impacted the plight of working people here for the better.

However, it seems LePage and the big business interests he is loyal to would rather Maine residents remain ignorant of that history. In their view, workers should have no labor protections, union representation or any worker rights whatsoever.

As it is, many Americans are quite ignorant of the pivotal role labor unions played in shaping this nation. After the stock market crash of 1929, there arose a general consensus that free-market, laissez-fare capitalism had failed the country. Many Americans began to seriously consider socialism as not only a viable alternative to capitalism, but a far more desirable one.

It was during this time the railroad workers went on strike, protesting low wages and dangerous working conditions. Socialist leaders like Eugene Debs and Upton Sinclair rose to the forefront of American politics, with Debs running for president under the Socialist ticket five times—once from prison, after he was arrested under the Espionage Act for publicly denouncing World War I.

But try quizzing your parents or neighbor about the historical significance of people like Debs, Sinclair, Emma Goldman or Helen Keller (beyond the “Miracle Worker” story that is). They have likely never heard of these individuals. That is because the entire history of socialism and the labor movement has been mostly erased from history. Students learn about the Great Depression in high school history class, sure. But I learned about Debs largely through my own interest and independent study. (The late Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States gave me a fuller, far more complete understanding of American history than any class I ever attended in high school, college or graduate school.)

Whether or not it was his intent, LePage’s dismounting of the Labor Department mural is another step in this process of historical sanitation and corporate revisionism. Simply put, Big Business does not want Maine citizens to know the power of labor unions in helping organize and advocate for working people, because that power represents a threat to them.

One more note on this issue. Gov. LePage claims he removed the mural because it is “biased” against businesses and employers. (This, despite the fact the painting is located in the Labor Department—not the Chamber of Commerce.) “You cannot have workers without employers,” he tried to justify his decision in a recent news piece.

If the issue here is really about “balance,” and making the business leaders that frequent the Maine Labor Department feel “welcome,” why not simply add a business-oriented painting or picture of some sort elsewhere in the building (perhaps even directly beside, or across from the mural)? I have no idea what such a picture would look like (depict a corporate logo, perhaps?), but that is beside the point. You do not strike a “balance” by removing one aspect of history and replacing it with another. (LePage claims the mural will be replaced by a “neutral” picture, but this remains to be seen.)

Even LePage’s justification for removing the mural does not make logical sense. But then, very little our new governor says or does make any sense to rational, thinking people. Which is precisely why I do my best to avoid writing about the man. I have a headache now just thinking about it.

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