Vote or Quit Bitchin’ 2016
by Chris Busby
“Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel,” the 18th century British political essayist Samuel Johnson famously said. While that may have been true in Johnson’s time, these days it seems that religion has taken patriotism’s place as the blackguard’s final fortress, particularly among scoundrels of the political persuasion. Witness the perp-parade of public servants over the past few years — from John Edwards and Mark Sanford to Jesse Jackson and Kwame Kilpatrick — who’ve sought to fend off flack for their financial or sexual improprieties by declaring their fealty to the Almighty.
And witness Gov. Paul LePage. After making wildly inaccurate and baldly racist statements blaming black and Hispanic men for Maine’s drug problems, then calling a state legislator who questioned those racist remarks a “little son-of-a-bitch, socialist cocksucker” and fantasizing aloud about shooting said lawmaker in the face, LePage issued a press release in which he apologized to the legislator’s family and everyone else in Maine. “Furthermore,” the statement read, “the Governor has said he and his family will be seeking spiritual guidance as they move forward in finding closure themselves.”
“We always have been a family of faith, and we recognize that the grace and guidance from God can make us stronger in life,” First Lady Ann LePage said.
Taken at face value, the governor’s claim to be seeking divine guidance seems absurd, insulting, and sublimely selfish. Of all the billions of tasks humanity beseeches the creator of heaven and earth to perform every day — healing the sick, comforting the aggrieved, bringing lost dogs safely home — helping Paul LePage “find closure” for his outrageous behavior is surely at the bottom of the list, down there among prayers like, “Christ, don’t tell me they’re calling another parking ban!” and “Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes-Benz?”
But what if LePage is serious? What if he is earnestly asking God to lead him on a new political and personal path? What might such guidance inspire the newly enlightened governor to do?
While it’s impossible to say for sure, the Christian tradition LePage professes to respect offers some strong hints. For example, LePage’s demonization of refugees would have to end, pronto. When Mary, Joseph and Sweet Baby Jesus fled to Egypt to escape King Herod’s murderous regime, they were refugees. It’s hard to believe that LePage’s push to deny food and housing to other families fleeing violence in the Middle East sits well with the Big Guy in the Sky, especially when you consider our country’s sinful history in the region.
LePage is, reportedly, a Roman Catholic, so perhaps Pope Francis’ words could help steer him back on track. In August, a couple weeks before the governor’s most recent meltdown, the Pope made news when he pontificated that, “Terrorism grows when there is no other option, and as long as the world economy has at its center the god of money and not the person.” Young people in Europe who’ve been left unemployed and “devoid of ideals” by global capitalism “turn to drugs and alcohol or enlist in [ISIS],” Francis added.
So, the scourges of terrorism, drug addiction and alcoholism are results of an economic system that values profits over people. What’s needed is a system that serves everyone in society, not just the priests of mammon. Which is to say, we need socialism. If the Pope is right and LePage is wrong on this point, things could get awkward for Paul when he shows up at the Pearly Gates (St. Peter: “You called your Christian brother a what kind of cocksucker?”)
Of course, the governor is not the only one who could use a little divine guidance this election season. We’d all benefit by pondering the spiritual significance of the choices before us on the ballot, which is why The Bollard is framing those choices in spiritual terms for this year’s Voters’ Guide. We’ve taken a Unitarian Universalist approach, assessing the five citizen initiatives based on values nearly all religions share, like truth, peace, justice and equality. Whether you live by the 10 Commandments or follow the Eightfold Path, you know it’s wrong to murder, steal and covet stuff. Now if we could just get our elected representatives to practice what they preach…
Question 1: Do you want to allow the possession and use of marijuana under state law by persons who are at least 21 years of age, and allow the cultivation, manufacture, distribution, testing, and sale of marijuana and marijuana products subject to state regulation, taxation and local ordinance?
Answer: Hell yeah!
Cannabis has been revered as a mystical plant for millennia. From ancient Hindus to modern Rastas to Father Bob, that Episcopal priest you knew in college who played acoustic guitar and had a collection of dusty records by dreadful soft-rock bands like Bread, holy rollers of all sorts have embraced and extolled marijuana’s benefits. So the spiritually informed response to Question 1 is an emphatic “Hell yeah!”
After all, who are we, mankind, to declare any of God’s grasses, trees or creatures “illegal”? From a spiritual perspective, pot prohibition is heresy.
From a societal perspective, it’s been a catastrophe. We’ve prosecuted millions of petty offenders and blown billions of hard-earned tax dollars in a prudish, stupid and patently futile attempt to keep people from catching a buzz. Meanwhile, the War on Weed has enriched and empowered legions of real criminals: murderous cartels, street gangsters, jerks in jean jackets who peddle dime bags of catnip to kids. Legal marijuana sales in Colorado totaled nearly a billion dollars in 2015. By that yardstick, it’s quite possible that Maine, which has a quarter of Colorado’s population, could pull upwards of $250 million out of the black market every year and put that cash to legitimate and productive use, supporting local growers and head shopkeepers, creating jobs and generating about $25 million in taxes for our collective benefit.
But enough about reality — back to the spirit world. For many, marijuana is indeed a gateway drug: a gateway to a greater appreciation of the wonders of creation, be the object the Milky Way Galaxy or a Milky Way bar, the veins in your hand or the veins of a leaf. It’s sparked countless epiphanies, liberated minds worldwide, and made The Beatles a much better band. Without weed, the cosmos would not contain Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Case closed.
Question 2: Do you want to add a 3% tax on individual Maine taxable income above $200,000 to create a state fund that would provide direct support for student learning in kindergarten through 12th grade public education?
Answer: Sure, why not?
This ballot question is an effort by liberal do-gooder groups and the state teachers’ union to pressure legislators in Augusta into providing more money for local schools. The measure specifically states that the funds raised by this surcharge on the rich must be used to buy materials and equipment for classrooms, and to help pay teachers, school nurses, and what the organization backing the measure, Stand Up for Students, calls “critical public school personnel” — by which they mean, to paraphrase, “not the administrators drawing big salaries at central office.”
The spiritually inclined voter is inclined to support this. What guru would exhort their followers to shortchange the enlightenment of the young just so the wealthiest members of the flock, whose purses are already bursting with shekels, can keep a few more coins? No guru, that’s who.
Problem is, I consulted my guru, a wise man with a long white beard who lives in the mountains of Maine (political columnist Al Diamon), and he pointed out that the Legislature would not actually be bound by this initiative to fund education at the level it’s already legally supposed to meet, which is 55 percent of the total cost. And it seems to me that requiring local school boards to somehow set aside a chunk of state funding for the exclusive use of everybody but the eggheads at district headquarters could also be problematic.
So though the intention is noble, in practice this initiative’s effect will most likely be akin to that of the lotus-scented breeze that briefly flutters the leaves of the banyan tree without causing it to cease fruiting its foul-tasting figs. That said, defeating the measure is akin to telling state lawmakers we don’t have the stones to demand they fulfill their legal obligation to Maine’s children. We do have the stones. We just don’t have the power, yet.
Question 3: Do you want to require background checks prior to the sale or transfer of firearms between individuals not licensed as firearms dealers, with failure to do so punishable by law, and with some exceptions for family members, hunting, self-defense, lawful competitions, and shooting range activity?
This measure will undoubtedly make it harder for some people who shouldn’t have a gun, like domestic abusers and others convicted of violent offenses, to get one. It will also undoubtedly cause some people more hassle and expense than they care to endure to procure a deadly weapon. To which the bodhisattva replies, “Tough is the way of the shit.”
Most spiritual traditions originated in the time before it was even conceivable that mortals could take a life merely by flexing a finger. Such godlike power was reserved for deities who supposedly had the wisdom to exercise it with judiciousness. Sharing that power with humans — susceptible, as we all are, to foolish pride and irrational fears — had serious consequences. Just ask Prometheus, himself a deity who, according to Greek myth, was chained to a rock and suffered the daily torture of having his liver pecked out by an eagle for having stolen fire from Mount Olympus and given it to mankind against Zeus’ wishes. This myth is now reality in America, where each new day brings gut-wrenching news of another senseless slaughter abetted by easy access to firearms.
The federal gun-control law known as the Brady Bill requires that a criminal background check be performed on buyers when a firearm is bought from a licensed dealer. Since the law was enacted in 1994, it’s blocked over 2.8 million sales to people prohibited to pack heat, according to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. But researchers have estimated that 40 percent of firearms are obtained with no such safeguard, including purchases made online, at gun shows, and from citizens who may sell a gun now and then, but are not technically “engaged in the business” of dealing in instruments of death.
Critics of efforts to implement “universal background checks” like to point out that they’re not universal, and that’s true. Criminals, by definition, do not heed laws intended to reduce crime. But the existence of criminals is a remarkably weak argument against the need to do a better job keeping guns out of their hands.
While we’re at it, how about implementing what one might call “global background checks”? For example, if Saudi Arabia’s rulers were subjected to a Brady-style background check before the U.S. government approved another multibillion-dollar arms deal, do you think they’d get the green light? A truly spiritual approach to gun control would recognize that the ultimate goal is a world without any weapons whatsoever.
Question 4: Do you want to raise the minimum hourly wage of $7.50 to $9 in 2017, with annual $1 increases up to $12 in 2020, and annual cost-of-living increases thereafter; and do you want to raise the direct wage for service workers who receive tips from half the minimum wage to $5 in 2017, with annual $1 increases until it reaches the adjusted minimum wage?
In American culture, the adjective “soul crushing” is generally reserved to describe two things: labor and ABC’s new fall lineup. Setting aside for the moment the existential threat posed by America’s Funniest Videos, Shark Tank and Dancing with the Stars (Ryan Lochte and Rick Perry? Really? What, did two bigger pricks bow out at the last minute?), let’s look at low-wage work through our spiritual lens.
The light through this prism is divided. Most religions caution believers not to covet material things — your neighbor’s house, for example, or every object ever photographed and published by Maine magazine. Materialism is generally considered the antithesis of spiritualism. Zen Buddhism goes further than most. For the devout monk, dropping fries into the fryolator isn’t grunt work — it’s a golden opportunity to practice mindfulness. All those short-tempered customers in line? Emptiness. They suffer because they strive for illusory satisfactions that only cause more craving. Better to content oneself with a bowl of rice and a chipped glass of the rainwater dripping through the roof, right?
On the other hand, fuck that. Quick reality check: The so-called “real wage” (income adjusted for the rising cost of goods and services, or “buying power”) of most American workers has barely risen at all since the 1970s, even while their productivity has skyrocketed in tandem with the compensation of corporate executives. The lowest-paid workers have actually lost about 5 percent of their purchasing power since Ronald Reagan took office, according to an analysis by the Economic Policy Institute. Seven dollars and fifty cents for an entire hour of someone’s one-shot precious life just doesn’t cut it in Maine these days. The modest increase proposed in this initiative is estimated to benefit only the bottom fifth of Maine’s workforce, but that’s still over 120,000 people who’ll have a little more money to buy presents come Christmas 2020.
Not to get all Pope Francis about it, but have you noticed that the biggest businesses operating in Maine often offer the lousiest wages? In a sane (and spiritually attuned) economic system, a job at a hugely successful corporation like McDonald’s, or Wal-Mart, or Home Depot, or Whole Foods, or whatever Dutch conglomerate currently owns Hannaford would be one of the best-paying gigs in town. There are days, particularly during the holiday season, when the Whole Foods in Portland and the Hannaford by Back Cove each bank upwards of a million bucks’ worth of business through the checkouts. After toiling through an eight-hour shift, shelf-stockers and cashiers there earning the city’s recently increased minimum wage ($10.10) walk out with barely over $80 of that $1,000,000. Soul crushed.
There’s more than enough revenue being generated at these workplaces to ensure every worker has a high standard of living and the corporation remains sufficiently profitable to weather any future downturns. Why isn’t that happening? Because the handful of board members and executives of these corporations decide every day that it’s more important to further enrich themselves and try to placate fickle Wall Street investors than to invest in the people whose labor actually generates the capital. The rate of pay for workers is the bare minimum necessary to prevent walkouts or riots. The rate of return for investors has no limit. Welcome to Income Inequality 101.
Some proprietors of Maine’s mom-and-pop retail shops and restaurants complain that the “poverty wages” paid by corporate chains make it harder to compete with them. Even the owner of a relatively large Maine business, like Jim Wellehan of Lamey-Wellehan Shoes, who helped launch this initiative campaign, cites that as a challenge.
Many small, locally owned enterprises are struggling, and their owners are understandably worried about the need to increase payroll (and/or prices) to bring all their employees up to at least $12 an hour over the next three years. But the biggest reason most are struggling in the first place is the fact those “poverty wages” have decreased their customers’ buying power. When the locals can spend more, local businesses benefit.
You don’t have to be Hindu to appreciate the elegance of that self-propagating circular cycle, though you do have to make a conscious effort to support the home team. Most dollars spent at chains, franchises and online monsters like Amazon fly out of this local loop and never return. The larger spiritual lesson here is that voting is but one of the ten thousand things necessary to maintain a sustainable community.
Question 5: Do you want to allow voters to rank their choices of candidates in elections for U.S. Senate, Congress, Governor, State Senate, and State Representative, and to have ballots counted at the state level in multiple rounds in which last-place candidates are eliminated until a candidate wins by majority?
If Maine had instituted ranked-choice voting before the 2010 election, Paul LePage would never have been our governor. Eliot Cutler would have won that race. Ranked-choice ballots cast in Portland’s last two mayoral elections resulted in wins for Mike Brennan and Ethan Strimling, respectively.
So I suppose you could say the oracle’s a bit foggy on this question. Magic 8 Ball says, “Reply hazy try again.” This is an issue worth pondering — the math can be a bit tricky in some scenarios — but spiritually speaking, the answer must be affirmative.
Ranked-choice voting gives independent and third-party candidates a fighting chance to win elections by removing the fear that voting one’s hopes will usher in the End Times. For example, were it instituted nationally this year, the enlightened electorate could express its displeasure with Hillary Clinton’s misguided economic and foreign policy positions by ranking her second on the ballot, beneath the Green Party’s Jill Stein, without worrying that they just helped put a soulless wraith from Hades in charge of the Free World. Should Stein finish behind her major-party challengers, those votes would be added to Clinton’s column. You wouldn’t have to rank the wraith at all. Amen.