In ancient Israel, once every year a goat was selected and led to an altar where a ritual was performed that transferred all the sins and wickedness of the people onto the animal. The goat was then driven into the wilderness, its exile bringing atonement for those whose sins it carried. This is the origin of the word “scapegoat.”
In ancient Greece, in times of plague, famine or natural disaster, a beggar or cripple – one of the lowest members of society – was often chosen to be publicly beaten, stoned and executed or exiled in order to purify the population. This ritual was called a “pharmakos,” from which we now derive the word “pharmacology,” our more modern, humane method of combating disease.
UNJUST SINGLING OUT
Throughout history and across cultures, this theme has reoccurred, with superstitions and prejudices used by those in power to turn attention away from the real causes of people’s problems and shift the blame to those who are least able to defend themselves. Their unjust singling out and persecution serves as an outlet for frustration and gives people a false sense of control over their world.
In its most extreme form, this dynamic pervaded the totalitarian regimes of the last century and it still underpins, for one example, the current imprisoning and torture of gays and lesbians in Russia.
The scapegoating impulse also echoes in some of the recent actions of the administration of Maine Gov. Paul LePage.
This is especially true when it comes to public assistance and anti-poverty programs – and particularly his recent attacks on General Assistance for asylum seekers and undocumented immigrants (who just so happen to have the least ability to protest or fight back against being targeted).
It doesn’t have to be this way. During his campaign in 2010, LePage proposed some downright compassionate policies around public assistance, including a five-tiered system to lift struggling Mainers out from poverty and up to a living wage.
He abandoned this idea soon after he took office, however, and now speaks only about cuts and punishment rather than about helping people get on their feet. In part, this may be due to a realization of just how powerful scapegoating the poor and immigrants can be as a way of unifying and motivating his tea party base.
MEANS OF DISTRACTION
Scapegoating is also a way to distract from the effects of LePage’s economic policies – Maine has one of the lowest rates of job growth in the country over the last few years, and things are even worse in rural areas where many of his core voters live.
The cynical, political nature of LePage’s actions is made obvious by the amount of effort expended for what even the governor admits is a relatively paltry return.
LePage’s optimistic estimate is that cutting off these immigrants (about 1,000 families, according to his figures) will save the state about $1 million (not taking into account the training required to turn so many town officials into de facto immigration enforcement agents and the costs of the lawsuits resulting from what Maine Attorney General Janet Mills has determined to be an illegal move).
To put things in context, that’s the same amount of money LePage was willing to pay for the bogus Alexander Report. Last week, he announced that he’s still letting Gary Alexander walk away with half that sum despite submitting flawed and plagiarized work.
MUCH GREATER HUMAN COST
The human cost is much greater. GA is the final resort for families who desperately need shelter and food. LePage’s edict even denies emergency aid to victims of domestic violence (who don’t leave their house or their country with a briefcase full of papers); to children (who often don’t have documents at all), and to victims of human trafficking (whose papers, if they exist, are often being held by their captors to keep them in involuntary servitude).
LePage’s scapegoating is also incredibly shortsighted economically and demographically. Maine is the oldest state in the nation, and the energy and entrepreneurialism of these new Mainers represent one of our best hopes for securing a prosperous future. We should be helping them get on their feet, not kicking them while they’re down.
The deep-seated psychological impulses to assign blame, distrust others and think in terms of us versus them that were with us at the dawn of history are still with us today, but we don’t have to let them govern our actions. We know better.
Let’s move beyond the superstitious scapegoating of our ancient past and focus on what matters – the policies that bring us together and build a better state for everyone.
Mike Tipping is a political junkie who works for the Maine People’s Alliance. He can be contacted at: