Casino gambling in Massachusetts: the dice heard 'round the world

Massachusetts should reject this false elixir for revenue.

The legislative push to bring casino gambling to Massachusetts has faltered – for now – but the prospects of what supporters say would be 15,000 permanent jobs and $355 million in annual state revenues will be hard for state lawmakers to resist going forward. Gambling has been the central force dominating Governor Deval Patrick’s agenda since 2007. No matter what happens in November’s election, the issue isn’t going away.

Amid a budget shortfall and high unemployment, people see policy primarily through the lens of money and jobs, as if Mammon is the only god left to worship. They do not see casinos as lasting institutions that will dot our landscape – and erode our culture – forevermore.

If sanctioned, casinos may well claim legitimacy for generations to come. Should Americans come to think of Massachusetts as a place where they once played roulette, rather than the place where they learned about early American history and values at places like Old Sturbridge Village, Plimoth Plantation, and Boston’s Freedom Trail?

Massachusetts is one of the wealthiest and most-educated states in the country, yet it is still racing to “get in the game” alongside gambling-friendly neighbors Rhode Island and Connecticut to pursue a false elixir.

Why should Massachusetts settle its economic troubles by trodding down the paths of others?

Birthplace of modern democracy

The “shot heard ‘round the world” in Concord, Mass., which ushered in the first battle of the American Revolutionary War, is in my view the most significant event in Massachusetts history. It defines Massachusetts eternally as the birthplace of America and concurrently the birthplace of modern democracy. It follows that Massachusetts set its own course and did not follow the lead of other colonies in seeking independence from Britain’s tyranny.

The phrase “shot heard ‘round the world” was coined by Ralph Waldo Emerson. One of the most influential American philosophers, Emerson founded Transcendentalism and offered Henry David Thoreau his land to build a camp near the shores of Walden Pond in Concord.

Both Emerson and Thoreau would aggressively oppose casinos in their beloved Commonwealth.

To those who would banter and bray that casinos would create thousands of good-paying jobs, Thoreau would retort, “Most men would feel insulted if it were proposed to employ them in throwing stones over a wall, and then in throwing them back, merely that they might earn their wages. But many are no more worthily employed now.”

This quote comes from Thoreau’s essay, “Life without Principle.” It informs us that we cannot make work just to make work.

To those that side with resort casinos and all of those “good jobs” that they would bring – namely bar tending, bar waitressing, gaming cashiering – is there anyone among you who would vouch for the dignity of such jobs? Governor Deval Patrick? Senate President Therese Murray? Senate President Pro Tem Stan Rosenberg?

At the top of Senator Rosenberg’s website is a quote that should give opponents of gambling – who often feel outspent and outshouted – reason for confidence: “The best way to win someone’s trust is to tell the truth; clearly, forcefully, directly.”

Don't work for 'low ends'

Thoreau writes further in “Life without Principle”: “The aim of the laborer should be, not to get his living, to get ‘a good job,’ but to perform well a certain work; and, even in a pecuniary sense, it would be economy for a town to pay its laborers so well that they would not feel that they were working for low ends, as for a livelihood merely, but for scientific, or even moral ends.”

Work at a casino will precisely be working for low ends.

In 2008, the Massachusetts House strongly rejected casinos, voting against them 108-46. This past April the House supported casinos 120-37. This shows that a question of morality, philosophy, and principle is being answered largely on the whims of the state of the economy – and on the fact that the governments of Rhode Island and Connecticut are making money that casino supporters say Massachusetts is losing out on. A change in legislative leadership also contributed to the new roll call.

Casinos came to Las Vegas’ barren land and gave it life and lights, as its wasteland had nothing else to offer. But if casinos eventually come to Massachusetts’ lands , they will bring only cultural death and darkness.

How would the historical treasures that line the quaint New England towns of Massachusetts feel in the company of glinting resort casinos just down the road?

They surely will not be the same.

Brian Wolfel, a graduate of Cornell University, is pursuing a Master of Public Health degree at the University of Arizona. He grew up in the Berkshires region of Massachusetts.

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