Paul LePage and the complexities of anger

Sam Smith

There are plenty of reasons to fight with Maine’s new Republican governor – over immigration policy, energy, environment, and public education. But I’m not including his response to the NAACP’s reaction to his failure to attend some MLK Day events: “They can kiss my butt.”

I’ve spent much of my life listening to politicians from the White House down use tortured and tedious euphemisms for that phrase, and it is an odd – if somewhat perverted – relief to hear someone in public office actually say it.

Of course, the NAACP, Maine liberals, and the media didn’t like it because – like much of America – they prefer their leaders use semiotic subversion to verbal reality. Some even call it civility. But for those of us who have been unduly subjected to it on a regular basis, it’s like having to eat only Froot Loops three times a day – pleasantly colored and tasteless circles wrapped around exactly nothing.

The head of the Maine NAACP was typically huffy over LePage’s comment. I would have suggested in response to LePage’s proposal of amorous posterior proximity something more along the lines of, “I wouldn’t even think of it until he lost some weight, but I would like to take him up on his dinner invitation so we can discuss this seriously.”

Yes, LePage had, right after his butt bomb, invited the NAACP over for dinner along with his son:

“If they want to play the race card, come to dinner and my son will talk to them.”

Actually more like a semi-son. The LePages started raising Devon Raymond, from Jamaica, since he was 17. He is now a graduate student.

The NAACP huffed and puffed about that, too, accusing LePage of using the race card just as he had said of them.

But the fascinating thing about this story is that this is just its beginning. . . and therein lies a lesson about ethnic and other forms of conflict. The salvation is not to be found in superficial responses but in hidden complexities.

Maine Public Broadcasting was one of the few media to look deeper:

“LePage often refers to 25-year-old Devon Raymond of Jamaica as his ‘adopted son.’ And although the governor and his wife are putting Raymond through college, and Raymond has attended LePage family gatherings with the LePage’s other children on a regular basis since the age of 17, Raymond has not been formally adopted. He is also not a U.S. citizen.”

Not a U.S. citizen? That makes him a prime target of the US Customs service which puts all of Maine within its border boundaries for intrusive searches and questioning.

Further, there was this, as described by the Bangor Daily News

“In one of his first official acts, Gov. Paul LePage issued an order allowing officials in state agencies to question people with whom they come into contact about their immigration status, infuriating civil libertarians. . . LePage spokesman Dan Demeritt said the governor wanted to send a message to those who have heard it’s easy for illegal immigrants to get driver’s licenses and social services in Maine.”

Even assuming that Devon is perfectly legal, it still dumps him in the perpetually suspect bin of Maine residents.

And LePage’s inconsistencies don’t stop there. For example, he dubbed the NAACP a “special interest” to which he owes no special attention, but has spent his opening days meeting with other special interests known as businesses. The problem with the NAACP seems to be mainly that it doesn’t have “Inc.” after its name.

Yet behind inconsistency is often complexity and that certainly is true in LePage’s case. Consider this from a story by Tom Bell of the Portland Press Herald:

|||| When Paul LePage is sworn into office today as Maine’s governor, Maurice “Moe” LePage will be there, a witness to his big brother’s remarkable escape from an impoverished and abusive childhood. . .

Moe LePage, 56, grew up with Paul LePage and their 15 brothers and sisters in a four-room house on Lisbon Street in Lewiston.

Their only hot water came from a pot on the wood stove in the kitchen. Their toilet was an outhouse for much of their childhood. Their parents, Teresa and Gerard LePage, slept downstairs on couches while the children slept in the two bedrooms upstairs, four or five to a bed.

But those material hardships, Moe LePage said, were nothing compared to the terror that sprang from their father’s violent temper. A heavy drinker, he once slammed Moe’s head against a table so hard that he was taken to the hospital for stitches.

His father also beat Paul. Moe LePage recalls that when Paul was 11, his father sent him to the hospital with a broken nose. Paul ran away from home and never came back.

Moe LePage said he wouldn’t go to bed at night until he was sure his father was asleep, because his father — when he was angry and drunk — would sometimes stuff newspapers into a slipper and douse it with kerosene. He would put the slipper under the family’s old television, light it with a match and then leave the house. . .

There often wasn’t enough food in the LePage household because their father was too busy drinking, she said.

After Paul ran away and was taken in by another family, he worked at various odd jobs, such as shining shoes and delivering the local newspapers, the Lewiston Daily Sun and the Evening Journal. He would use some of the money to buy food, and for his brothers and sisters.

The family lived in a French-speaking section of Lewiston called Little Canada, and the children didn’t learned to speak English until they were teenagers. Paul was admitted to Husson College only after he was allowed to take an achievement test in French. He eventually received a Master of Business Administration degree from the University of Maine. Paul was the only one of his siblings to complete college. ||||

Add to this the fact that during the time that LePage was growing up, Franco Americans in Maine were still suffering at least some of the discrimination that has defined black life in America. In 2000, Franco Americans made up about 9% of the state’s population compared to less than 2% for blacks. And they had their own story to tell.

For example in 1925, the KKK had some 150,000 members in Maine. That’s over 30,000 more than the current number of Franco Americans in the state. Their target was heavily Franco Americans and other Catholics.

A Franco American wasn’t appointed to the state’s Supreme Court until 1954, about the same time as the black civil rights movement was getting rolling.

Discrimination is never neat. It targets the weakest in a particular place: blacks in the south, latinos in the southwest, Franco Americans in Maine. And it recruits heavily from the misery of those who aren’t, in fact, that much better off than those against whom they discriminate. Southern segregation depended in no small part on the white elite convincing poor whites that poor blacks were their real problem. And even today, that great sleeping political giant – a latino-black coalition – can’t be born in part because of each part’s suspicions of the other.

So it isn’t all that surprising that a once bitterly poor and abused Franco American from Waterville doesn’t know how to deal with the NAACP. But the solution doesn’t lie in scolding; it lies in the more secure helping the less secure evolve towards better ways. In effect, helping the LePages of the world rewrite their stories so they don’t keep blaming the wrong people for the wrong things.

A good place to start would be to remain cool about being told to “kiss my ass” and, instead, to just keep one’s eyes on the prize.

Which is why, far better than any MLK speechifying or memorial service or balling out LePage, will be a rally and march in Portland on Monday against the governor’s executive order on immigration. The battle is not won just with words but by action and not by just remembering but by creating.

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