Tom McLaughlin

A former history teacher, Tom is a columnist who lives in Lovell, Maine. His column is published in Maine and New Hampshire newspapers and on numerous web sites. Email: tomthemick@gmail.com

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Embarrassed Yet?

One would think they’d be embarrassed by now to display those Obama stickers. The Portland, Maine area, where I spend a couple of days each week, is a leftist bastion and the bumper stickers are ubiquitous. I see them while waiting at traffic lights, when I pull into a parking place at the supermarket, or wherever I go. Seldom do I see Gadsden Flags with a coiled serpent on a yellow background warning “Don’t Tread On Me,” a symbol of the Tea Party. They’re around, but are few and far between. Never do I see a Romney/Ryan sticker. There were some on display last year at this time but after Romney’s defeat Republicans must have removed them. It’s the same with McCain/Palin stickers; they disappeared shortly after 2008. I still see an occasional Kerry/Edwards sticker on old Volvos and Subarus even though they lost too, but I never see a Bush/Cheney sticker anymore either.

Why is that? Why aren’t Republicans nostalgic for Bush, McCain or Romney? Is it because none of those men was firmly rooted in old-fashioned, conservative, pro-life, small-government Republicanism? All three were big-government types who liked flirting with liberals. None had a strong philosophical core that defined their world view and inspired loyalty. Republicans put their stickers on because they perceived each as a lesser of two evils and willingly peeled them off after election day.
Is there loyalty to Obama in all the progressive Democrats and Greens in metropolitan Portland? I’m not sure. There is for some, but for others I suspect it’s more a loyalty to their leftist world-view which Obama’s rhetoric supports, if not his actions. Going to war in Libya, and now Syria without congressional approval runs counter to leftist thinking, but aside from a few “Code Pink” protesters I saw one day, there’s very little opposition.
Monument Square Portland this summer

Beside Obama stickers, important things for Portlanders are LGBT issues, hating Governor LePage, Opposing the Portland Pipeline Corporation, bicycling and recycling, and plovers. Locals here were absolutely horrified when a dog ate a piping plover chick on Pine Point Beach in Scarborough. What would they think about coyotes disemboweling deer? Put it out of their minds, I suppose. It dominated news for weeks and they’re literally making a federal case out of it.
Several times I’ve been asked to sign petitions to prevent the pipeline from reversing the flow of crude oil between its South Portland terminal and Montreal passing through New Hampshire and Vermont along the way. Though it has been operating safely for more than 70 years, progressives want to shut it down, which will happen when Montreal refineries get their oil from Alberta instead and don’t need crude oil from Portland anymore. They say they’re afraid of heavy crude coming down and polluting water bodies along its 236-mile route, but when I question them, it becomes clear they’re against oil in any form. They are true-believing, Prius-driving, bicycle-riding, vegetable-eating, organic people whose world-view was cast in stone during 1960s and 70s campus teach-ins. They believe only in windmills and solar panels, and nothing I say is going to change their minds. Their rural counterparts along the pipeline’s route near our home in western Maine have been out demonstrating as well.
Portland from across the harbor

Although I run into former students in the Portland area occasionally, hardly anybody knows me there. My column is published in newspapers with circulation only down to about Windham, Maine. It runs on a conservative web site called “As Maine Goes,” but that’s not a place Portland’s progressives tend to visit very often. When I talk to people at the beach, at parks, on the ferry, or elsewhere, they don’t know I’m really a mean-spirited conservative. I smile and let them direct the conversation, only asking questions if it veers into political territory and not stating opinions. Metropolitan Portland is an interesting laboratory in which to study the progressive mindset, and I don’t want to blow my cover.
Portland Pipeline pier at sunrise last month

Obama stickers are a badge of solidarity for members of Portland’s progressive tribe.  They love that Obama has blocked the Keystone pipeline and they’re determined to do their part and close the pipeline here. They don’t see any connection between America’s economic fiasco and Obama Administration policies. Conservative pundit Rush Limbaugh postulates that the president’s approval numbers haven’t fallen further because he keeps campaigning instead of governing. Obama may be in his second term, but he continues to make speeches around the country pretending he’s an outsider. He talks like he’d have it all fixed by now if not for former President Bush and conservatives in the House. They believe it’s Obama against Wall Street, rich Republicans, evil oil companies, the NRA, and all other racist, homophobic bigots like them. Things may be bad, but they’d be even worse if Obama weren’t out there campaigning, and thus they remain proud to display his name on their cars.

We’ll just have to wait and see how long that delusion persists.

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Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Quite A Fix

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” is a Yankee proverb.

“If it ain’t broke, keep fixing it ’til it is broke,” is a government proverb.

A hundred years ago, the federal government “fixed” the mouth of the Saco River in Maine by building a jetty. They started the project around 1825 when textile mills a little upstream were thriving. The idea was to deepen the river channel and allow ships to travel up to the mills. By the time the Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) finished nearly a century later, the mills had begun their decline. As the Portland Press Herald reports: “‘All this made the jetty seem like a good idea at the time,’ said Patrick Fox, director of Saco's Public Works Department. But the jetty no longer seems to be the solution it once represented; in fact, it has become a very expensive and controversial problem.”
Because the jetty altered ocean currents, dozens of houses north of it in Saco have washed into the sea and dozens more are threatened. So now the government is going to “fix it” again, spending $27 million to build still another jetty 750 feet long and perpendicular to the one they finished a century ago. Then they’ll haul in 400,000 cubic yards of sand to replenish the beach, a process they’ll have to repeat every 3-10 years at a further cost of $3 million to the city of Saco each time. “The Camp Ellis [Saco] beach shoreline has shown continued erosion since the early 1900s. We have a problem that we have some responsibility to correct,” says the ACOE.
Patrick Fox says, “It won't be permanent in (the sense) that it'll be fixed forever. It will always require maintenance; it will always require funding.” Fox sounds dubious and who can blame him? It’s his town and whatever the feds do there ultimately becomes his headache.
Consider the “help” Saco and Biddeford Maine got from the feds over the centuries for their relatively small community, then think about how the feds are now “fixing” our nation’s entire health-care system. Consider also that the man who wrote most of the plan, Senator Max Baucus (D-MT), described this government fix as a “train wreck."
The "Affordable Care Act" is a misnomer to begin with because it's driving up costs even before full implementation. Like the Saco River project, Obamacare is making things worse, and it will add costs to local communities for generations to come.
Then come government plans to “fix” the entire climate of the planet and stop oceans from rising. Talk about hubris. Their insistence that climate change is caused by humans and can therefore be reversed by humans, is cited as one justification for their newest Saco River “fix.” Lost on them is the historical fact that all the sand they’re trying to control was deposited by glacial melt during the massive global warming 10,000 years ago when there were very few humans around anywhere to cause it.
Now government plans to fundamentally change our entire economy to reduce or eliminate fossil fuels in favor of windmills and solar panels in their effort to fix the climate.

And on it goes.

Government forces banks to send us endless letters explaining how they’ll guarantee our privacy, then it saves all our emails, phone calls, and internet searches in a massive data bank.

Government forces teachers, nurses, hospitals, counselors, and countless other professionals to maintain the privacy of every student, patient, or client with whom they work, then it amasses all our digitized records and saves them all in a huge data bank. All this data is accessible by the IRS - the same agency that leaked private information on political opponents of the Obama Administration, then persecuted and harassed anyone who disagreed with the president.


Government insists that it won’t read our emails or listen to our phone calls unless we’re communicating with a foreign terrorist - and expects us to believe it. Trust us, they say. We won’t abuse this information. We’re only doing it for your protection.

Right.
Government will protect our secrets just as it protected national security secrets like the highly-classified Stuxnet computer virus US and Israeli intelligence used to forestall Iranian nuclear weapons development. According to a Monday article in The Washington Times, the Obama Administration leaked that secret to the New York Times, and then leaked details about the Seal Team Six raid on Osama Bin Laden “to burnish Mr. Obama’s credentials as commander in chief as the 2012 election approached.”
Remember when government spent $1 trillion in stimulus money to fix our economy and it didn’t fix our economy? Economist Thomas Sowell insists it wasn’t stimulus money because we got no stimulus. Quoting Abraham Lincoln, he said: “If you call a dog’s tail a leg, how many legs does the dog have? Four. Calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg.”

Wish government would stop fixing things for us? I sure do.

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Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Wanting My Scalp

Of all the groups who came after me as a teacher, it was Indians who hit hardest in terms of sheer numbers. It all started with a column I’d written ten years ago on what was called the “casino referendum” in Maine. Some of the tribes here wanted to build a casino and, unlike tribes in other states, they needed Maine state government to approve it. My column didn’t expressly involve my teaching or schools, but one of the local newspapers in which it appeared ran a little blurb at the bottom mentioned that I was a teacher.

Political ads urging Mainers to vote against it used arguments about gambling attracting the seedier elements to our state like prostitution and other criminal activity, and that casinos didn’t fit with Maine’s image of a bucolic, outdoor vacationland and might therefore threaten tourism, which was our number one industry. I went at it from a different angle in my column, reflecting on why Indians were able to open a gambling facility that would be illegal for anyone else. I questioned whether white guilt about Europeans “stealing their land” was a factor and made the argument that various Indian tribes had been stealing each other’s land for millennia before Europeans arrived. What really set them off most, however, was when I pointed out that Indians were fully as savage to one another as Europeans ever were to them after Columbus arrived. That I used the word “savage” in the context of Indian history really put them on the warpath leading to little Fryeburg, Maine.
The first indication of their attack was hundreds of emails in my inbox one morning from all over the country - including Alaska and Hawaii. I didn’t have time to read more than a dozen - all of them vitriolic - before I had to leave for school. Picking up the Conway Daily Sun on the way, I noticed some were published in there too as letters to the editor, again from all over the country. Halfway through my morning classes, I looked up to see the superintendent outside my classroom door. That was unusual as his office was a mile down the street and I was usually summoned there if he needed to see me. I said, “Excuse me, class,” and stepped into the hallway.
“You’ve stirred things up again,” he said with a sly smile.


“Indians? I asked.

“Yes,” he said. “I’ve gotten lots of angry emails from just about everywhere.” Later he told me they totaled over a hundred and that the school board also got some.
This superintendent was not easily rattled and I’d grown to like him. I had no idea at the time what his politics were, but he seemed more amused than disturbed by the protests. He had read the casino column and he knew by both its content and by the tone of the protesting emails that there wasn’t much substance to the attacks. He was also an attorney and had explained to several previous complainants about various issues that my status as a teacher didn’t abrogate my First Amendment rights to freedom of speech or of the press.
Still later that morning, my building principal told he’d gotten a call from an Attorney consulting with the Maine Department of Education Certification in Augusta who had also been swamped with approximately fifty emails, many accusing me of racism. She had questioned the principal about me and he told her I was an excellent teacher who didn’t use his classroom as a forum for my personal political beliefs. “She’s going to be contacting you herself,” he said, which she did a day or two later. She sent me an email instructing me to send her a copy of my column. After a few days I emailed back back describing where she could find the column online. Then she called me inquiring about several things, including whether I’d instructed students with the material in the column. I told her we hadn’t discussed the casino referendum in class. She seemed to be looking for a reason to put the Indians off and avoid becoming involved in the kerfuffle. After a while I asked for a copy of whatever report she was making to the then Maine Commissioner of Education and she said that unless she heard anything untoward from my superintendent, the matter would be closed.
Indians continued to contact me, however, some challenging me to debate on a radio talk show somewhere in upper New York State. I agreed to appear but they never followed up with specific arrangements. Other Indians called me a “wasichu” and I had to look that up. It’s a Sioux word meaning “one who takes the fat.” It’s a derogatory term for white people and can also mean “evil spirit.” There was one telephoned death threat which I reported to the Maine State Police.  After about ten days, however, they all seemed to have forgotten me. Their coordinated attack had been fierce but short-lived, the only result being I was entered into Indian annals as one of those palefaces who have spoken or written critically of them over the centuries.

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Wednesday, August 07, 2013

New View On The World

Once I forgot to take my camera with me to our city house. We’d driven all the way there before I realized it, and it gave me a sick feeling that I wouldn’t have a camera at hand to record some aspect of the beauty I knew I’d be seeing over the three days we would be there. It’s crazy, I know, but part of me was hoping I wouldn’t see any so I wouldn’t have the feeling of loss that not being able to record it would bring. I got through it, but resolved never to forget it again.
Old man at Bug Light, South Portland, Maine with the D7100

Shooting a beautiful schooner with perfect light in Casco Bay last weekend, I noticed a spot in the viewfinder that I couldn’t get rid of by cleaning the lens, the filter, and the mirror, so I brought it to Photo Market in Portland for advice. They tried unsuccessfully to blow it out and said it would take a $50-dollar cleaning to remove it. That meant I’d have to leave it there for twenty-four hours, and it made me realize how much I needed a back-up camera. Oh I have a little Nikon Coolpix that takes pretty good pictures - but I mean another digital SLR. For lay people, an SLR is a single-lens-reflex in which you can look right out the lens of the camera instead of through a viewfinder or at the screen on the back when you’re framing your shot. After shooting with an SLR for more than forty years, I can’t go back unless it’s an emergency. It’s just not the same.
Cottage road in the rain at Lovell, Maine with the old D-60

After shooting for years with a Nikon D-60, I’d been pining for a new 24-megapixel camera and after getting a bonus last week from a client, I sprung for the D-7100. After downloading the first day’s pictures I was thrilled. I had sat on South Portland’s Willard Beach in twilight and shot whatever came my way, which was a lot. Schooners and draggers made their way in and out of the channel. People of all ages ran, walked, and swam by my field of vision. The sun came in and out behind me to my left and I felt great snapping away. I could frame it all any way I wished with an 18-270mm zoom lens. There was nothing before me I couldn’t shoot.
View from Willard Beach with D-7100

This may sound funny, but it took me back to when I first walked in the woods with a .22 rifle. I felt like I could hit anything I chose. Older men used to tell me they preferred taking a camera with them instead of a rifle and now I understand. It felt as if I could capture anything. I could capture its essence without hitting it, and my range is infinite. The 24-megapixel resolution is so high that after downloading images onto my laptop, I notice details I didn’t see through the lens.
Willard Beach boys with D-7100

Some purists I know refuse to alter their photos in any way after shooting them because they feel that to do so wouldn’t represent objective reality. Part of me respects that and I used to hold the same view, but not anymore. As my visual acuity diminishes with age, I use glasses which are trifocals. Wearing them, my perception changes with the tilt of my head. If I wore the kind that automatically darken in bright light, that would further alter it. If I put on sunglasses, it would change still again. Things look different in morning mist and at twilight than they do at high noon. Visual perception is always changing, so if I further modify it with a photo-editing program, am I sinning against reality? I don’t think so. I’m putting my own interpretation onto it. The way I rearrange that particular digital configuration of zeroes and ones is my own perspective on God’s creation, and man’s.
Granddaughter Lila with old D-60

As a writer, I respect the editing process and I’m not sure there’s an limit to it. Any configuration of words can be improved by editing, and I suspect that’s true with visual editing as well. My dream is to organize my life so as to be able to spend hours a day editing a few hundred of the thousands of images I’ve taken and which I love. Editing photos is indeed like editing words. I could do it endlessly. Without deadlines or other responsibilities, I believe I would. (Although none of the photos on this post have been edited - yet)
Leaves with old D-60

Good technique trumps expensive equipment every time and I’ll always love the inspired shots I’ve taken with all my cameras, but I’ll be able to do so much more with this one. I feel like a kid on Christmas morning who found just what he wanted under the tree.

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