When Iran’s constitutional monarchy was toppled by the Islamic revolution in 1979, its new leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, quickly began purging his nation of all anti-Islamic art, meaning Western art and especially art depicting the female form. For the new theocratic republic, acts of censorship by the government constituted cultural reform. Any work of art not approved by the government was removed from galleries and was put into storage. As one Iranian critic of the new regime put it: “In Iran there is freedom of expression. It is freedom after expression that does not exist.”
Gov. Paul LePage’s decision as the state’s art critic-in-chief to have the mural at the Department of Labor removed, under the cover of darkness no less, because he objects to showcasing the history of the labor movement in Maine is not quite censorship — he is apparently content with the mural being displayed outside the state capital — but the governor’s decision does resemble the sort of Islamic edicts that were commonplace in post-revolution Iran.
In both cases, the inclination to declare what is and is not acceptable art is motivated by fear of competing ideas, ideas that conflict with the rulers’ own. Ayatollah Khomeini believed that Western art is fundamentally anti-Islamic. LePage sees the Maine workers history mural as fundamentally anti-business.
Khomeini instituted Islam as the only permitted ideology in Iran, LePage has instituted pro-business ideology as the only acceptable one in Maine. In both cases, autocratic rulers acted according to their own biases, not according to either an abstract idea like freedom of expression, or a democratic recognition of the legitimacy of plural representations.
LePage seems to believe that whatever the governor wants he should get. Adding “Open for Business” to Maine’s welcome sign after you enter from New Hampshire on I-95 is likewise the act of a dictator, not a democratically elected governor.
Declaring that BPA, the quite possibly carcinogenic chemical added to some plastic drinking containers, should not be banned because he is opposed to regulations on businesses, suggests he will sacrifice the people’s health on the altar of his pro-business religion. And then to make an off-color joke about women who are exposed to BPA growing beards further underscores a type of insensitivity characteristic of someone who sees himself more a ruler and less a public servant.
Rulers tend to be insensitive — or indifferent — to what citizens want, need or expect. Rulers delude themselves into believing that they know what is best for others and bristle whenever their judgment is questioned. “Kiss my butt,” remarked LePage when questioned by reporters. “Go to hell,” LePage indirectly said to the president of the United States.
LePage’s admirers mistake his crass language with blunt, direct talk. Some of these admirers, I suspect, do not understand nuance or ambiguity, both features of political language in a multiethnic, multireligious, diverse society with a tradition of trying to find common ground among all peoples.
LePage’s inappropriate and offensive remarks about the NAACP on the occasion of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday show as much as anything that our governor has no sense of history nor any appreciation of the racist treatment that African-Americans have had to suffer.
Art does not belong to any one person, governor or not, but to all people, some of whom just happen to be workers who have benefited from labor laws brought about by nameless citizens who refused to be abused by big business and by distinguished leaders like Frances Perkins. It is not within LePage’s moral authority to remove works of art that he happens to dislike from government buildings, even though he may currently have the power to do so.
Lest he be remembered as Maine’s Ayatollah, Gov. LePage needs to begin focusing on how to govern as a public servant for all the people of Maine.
Roger W. Bowen of Prospect Harbor is a political scientist.