Some years ago a coworker pushed a phone in front of me to show me a video. Several men in a fishing boat were reeling in a large shark they’d caught. As they pulled the creature in closer, a man entered the frame with a handgun, pointed it at the shark’s head, and shot it. The shark convulsed, its tail kicked hard back and forth, and it fell into the water, dead, as the men laughed. Pulling the phone away, my coworker was laughing as well.
I later learned this was an annual event, the shark shoot. Embarking from a marina in South Portland, a small group of upper-income men drank beer, caught sharks, and shot them for pleasure. Their families gathered for a party every year to celebrate — a group of suburban husbands, wives, and children, reveling in the pointless slaughter.
They even had t-shirts made for the parties, with sharks and guns on them — “Shark Shoot 2014” or some such nonsense.
I’m a big fan of sharks. I think they’re amazing and beautiful, and learning about this was shocking to me. But more than the fate of the sharks, my shock came from the abject human cruelty shown by this group of otherwise unremarkable people. There are some around us with such a startlingly different set of values, cruel people who delight in the suffering of others, and that’s an uncomfortable thing to come to grips with.
As our state begins a transition from one political party’s control to another, I think it’s important to remember that value systems are real, and consequential. When power is assumed, it’s not merely the minutiae of tax policy or bureaucratic organization that receives a new author; our state leaders project a values system that has consequences in every corner of our lives.
The LePage era was marked by an unfathomable collapse of values. The difference between former Gov. Paul LePage’s cadre and the rest of us was not merely political, but moral. And their example impacted the values system of our Maine culture as a whole.
LePage and his followers, for instance, held a horrifying perspective on race. LePage declared that black people were coming to Maine to kill us. He said black people and Hispanics were “the enemy,” and that you’re supposed to shoot the enemy.
LePage seemed to take pleasure in denying aid to poor people. He defied the electorate and fought in court to prevent low-income Mainers from having health care. And he tried to keep drug addicts from accessing life-saving overdose medicine, quipping that such medicine only served to prolong apparently unworthy lives.
In the eight years since LePage took office, the foundation of our common values system crumbled. Maine went from a place where the rights of the marginalized were fought for to a place where open racism was accepted as a quirk of an eccentric governor. We went from a state of neighbors helping neighbors to a state that demonizes, scapegoats, and strips the most basic needs of food and healthcare from children and our most vulnerable.
So it matters, then, who is in charge. Because, just as there are creepy suburban professionals who think it’s fun to shoot sharks in the head, there is a cruel minority of people within our politics, mostly congregated in the Republican Party right now, whose humanity is so warped that they derive satisfaction from the suffering of their neighbors. And the only way to fight this kind of “Lord of the Flies” cruelty is to reassert a more unified common decency.
It’s been a long eight years, but I think we elected the exact right person to get us back on track. I think Janet Mills is a good human being with an inspiring personal morality that will make a difference in how we function as a community. Maine won’t change in a day, but I hope the example of a state government guided by compassion and not by cruelty will act as a salve as we retreat, at last, from the LePage era.