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Battle Over Censorship of Maine Murals Part of a Larger Struggle for Basic Rights and Justice

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Maine Gov. Paul LePage and Fox broadcaster Glenn Beck not only share right-wing political views, but they both fancy themselves art critics. Two years ago Beck went on a rampage attacking murals on New York City buildings, including Rockefeller Plaza, for depicting "communist" propaganda. Now Gov. LePage is following in Beck's footsteps, ordering the removal of a 36-foot, 11-panel mural by Maine artist Judy Taylor from the foyer of the Maine Department of Labor in Augusta because, he claimed, it is "too one-sided", pro-union, and anti-business.

Who could have predicted that a mural in Maine would become the latest battleground in the war of ideas, money, and power triggered by America's right wing forces, including the Tea Party, Fox News, the Republican Party, and big business?

The Right's escalating attack on workers, unions, government, and the middle class is taking some strange twists and turns, and triggering a backlash that seems to have finally energized progressive forces. From the huge protest rally in downtown Los Angeles last Saturday, to the ongoing protests in Wisconsin and Ohio, to the attempt to stop a stealth Tea Party-backed candidate (Sean Baggett) from winning a School Board race in Pasadena, California, there's evidence that the Right, full of hubris, has gone too far. Polls show, for example, that most Americans firmly reject the Wisconsin Governor's decision to kill collective bargaining rights of the state's public sector employees.

All Americans concerned about First Amendment rights, censorship, artistic freedom, and political democracy should be outraged by what Maine Gov. LePage did last weekend.

If you're curious about this controversial mural, you can view its vivid colors on Judy Taylor's website. It has great photos of the mural and explains what each panel is about. Installed in 2008, the mural shows important events in Maine labor history, like a 1937 shoe factory strike in Lewiston, loggers in upstate Maine, ice-cutters, child labor, "Rosie the Riveter" at Bath Iron Works, and Frances Perkins, an occasional Maine resident who was the trailblazing Secretary of Labor during FDR's New Deal and who is buried in Maine.

Gov. LePage -- who was elected in 2010 with just 38 percent of the vote and Tea Party support -- also wants to rename several conference rooms in the state Labor Department, including one named for Frances Perkins and another honoring Cesar Chavez, who led United Farm Workers union in the 1960s and 1970s.

The Maine mural controversy is generating a lot of attention in newspapers, magazines, and blogs around the country and the world, including Steve Greenhouse's interesting article in the New York Times, Robert Reich's wonderful column in Salon; and this poignant letter-to-the-editor to a Maine newspaper, linking the mural flap to the recent 100th anniversary of the tragic Triangle Fire.

The Taylor mural was commissioned in 2006, when Maine consolidated several labor offices into one facility in Augusta (saving $300,000 each year). Under the One Percent for Art law in Maine, about $60,000 in federal funding was set aside to decorate the foyer.

Various private and public organizations (including the Portland, Maine City Council), and several colleges and universities, have offered to buy and/or exhibit the mural. But there's a fight-back to restore the mural to the Maine Labor Department building in order to stop Gov. LePage from winning this battle and setting a dangerous precedent. LePage has refused to disclose the mural's current location.

This is not the first time that a mural depicting workers' rights and progressive causes has generated controversy.

A similar controversy occurred over a mural by the great American painter (and former union organizer) Ralph Fasanella (1914-1997). Fasanella spent three years living in the Lawrence, Massachusetts YMCA, in order to paint scenes of New England mill towns, including his now-iconic 5-foot by 10-foot painting, "Lawrence 1912: The Great Strike" (also titled "Bread and Roses -- Lawrence, 1912"). The painting was purchased by donations from 15 unions and given to Congress, where it hung for years in the Rayburn Office Building hearing room of the House Subcommittee on Labor and Education.

Following the 1994 elections, the new Republican majority in Congress eliminated "labor" from the committee's name and evicted Fasanella's painting from the committee's hearing room. It now hangs at the Lawrence Heritage State Park, not far from the Maine border. It is unlikely that Maine Gov. LePage knows about this precedent for his own action. (You can learn more about Fasanella at this website and from this article.

The mural movement in this country was inspired in the 1930s by the great Mexican muralists Jose Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Diego Rivera, who supported the Mexican revolution and leftist causes. In 1932, Siqueiros lived for seven months in Los Angeles, where he painted the incendiary mural "América Tropical," that was so controversial it was painted over soon after he finished it. Rivera's mural, "Man at the Crossroads," commissioned for Rockefeller Center in 1933, was destroyed in the middle of the night because of its depiction of revolutionary figures and events. Not surprisingly, right-wing broadcaster Beck has devoted several shows to attacking progressive murals on New York buildings, including Rivera's "Man at the Crossroads".

Where is President Obama as the Tea Party, the Koch brothers, the Republican right-wingers, Fox News, and the Chamber of Commerce try to steal the country and assault basic political, economic, and artistic rights that were won over the past century? If there were ever a time for the president to use his "bully pulpit" to challenge the right-wing bullies who are trying to unravel many of the progressive reforms of the past century -- including Obama's own health care reform legislation enacted a year ago -- that time is now. If he's looking for lessons from the past, Obama might read about what President Franklin Roosevelt said when he was running for reelection in 1936.

Taking office in March 1933, more than three years into the Depression, FDR inherited a nation that had lost faith in itself and in the social order. More than 13 million Americans were jobless and most banks were closed. Right-wing demagogues competed with a burgeoning radical movement of angry farmers, veterans, workers, and others for the loyalty of the American people and politicians. FDR had not run for President as a progressive and even when he took office he had no bold plan to lift America out of the Depression, but he was willing to experiment, to listen to his close advisors (which included several progressives, including Frances Perkins, Henry Wallace, Harry Hopkins, and Rexford Tugwell as well as his wife Eleanor), and to warn that without bold reforms, the country could be subject to even deeper chaos and potential revolution from the right or left.

FDR recognized that his ability to push progressive legislation through Congress depended on the pressure generated by protesters -- workers, World War I veterans, the jobless, the homeless, and farmers -- even though he didn't always welcome it. The well-worn story that ends with FDR telling a group of activists, "I agree with you. Now, go out and make me do it," has never been documented, but it is emblematic of the New Deal era. As protests escalated throughout the country, FDR became more vocal, using his bully pulpit to criticize big business and to promote policies to jump-start the economy, protect the needy, and expand workers' rights.

With labor unions and other grass-roots groups mobilizing support on the ground, FDR instigated economic and social reforms that saved and humanized capitalism, despite the barbs of many critics, including most newspapers and business leaders, that his New Deal agenda was leading America to socialism. Indeed, running for re-election in 1936, FDR was called a "socialist" and a "traitor to his class" by the entire conservative spectrum, from the extreme right-wing like radio priest Father Charles Coughlin (Glenn Beck's counterpart), to various hate groups (the equivalent of Tea Party), to the major business lobby groups, to most Republicans in Congress.

In a speech during his 1936 re-election campaign, FDR didn't mince words: "We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace -- business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering. ... Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me -- and I welcome their hatred."

Many Americans are angry about the attack on our living standards and basic rights by the right-wing forces around the country -- of which the Maine mural controversy is but a small part. It is time for President Obama to give a major speech attacking those forces and providing those struggling on the ground the "audacity of hope" that was, and still could be, his promise.