Refugees in Rutland: Politics at the expense of democracy
April, Rutland Mayor Christopher Louras revealed that the city would
accept 100 Syrian refugees, declaring
that Vermonters must welcome the new residents who would bring the
cultural diversity “that we so desperately need.” His call to
exercise tolerance in the face of diversity was ironic, considering
that he went to great lengths to ensure that differing opinions would
not sully the resettlement deliberations.
show that Louras had begun talks with the Vermont Refugee
Resettlement Program (VRRP) as early as January 2016, but
intentionally excluded the public and its elected representatives –
the Board of Aldermen and State Legislators. In his efforts to flout
democratic process, he found an ally in VRRP Director Amila
Merdzanovic, who wrote
in an email, “If we open
it up to anybody and everybody, all sorts of people will come out of
the woodwork, anti-immigrant… anti-anything.”
Defending the insinuation that the people
of Rutland are too prejudiced to
deserve the right to vote on issues that directly and significantly
impact their lives, Louras stated,
“We don’t get to vote on who lives in our community.” What he
means is that he
– and not the average citizen – has the right temperament to
single-handedly determine what is best for Rutland.
could have shared relevant information, encouraged open debate, and
strived to win public support using the courage of his convictions.
Instead, his actions betray an astounding paternalistic arrogance
and disdain for the democratic rights of Vermonters. The ends may be
cited to justify the means in a fascist dictatorship, but the same is
not true for a representative democracy as that of the United States.
The appalling lack of respect for the agency and intelligence of
Rutland residents is further evidenced by the manner in which
citizens expressing genuine concerns regarding the impending arrival
of refugees, are maligned.
a June Rutland Herald
article, Jim Sabataso
to “wade through the muck” of opposing voices on social media in
order to find just enough eccentric examples that would justify his
desire to paint all dissent with the broad brush of crazy. Unhinged
reactionary elements exist on both extremes of the political aisle,
but they are seldom invoked to undermine the credibility of the left.
Consequently, left-leaning publications like The New York Times, The
Atlantic, and Salon can
feature bizarre stories in support of pedophilia,
fear of widespread condemnation.
lauding the mayor’s decision as the “right thing to do” abounds
in the local media. However, debate addressing the many social and
financial issues related to the resettlement are conspicuously, but
predictably, absent. After all, who wants to be shamed as an evil
It is very unfortunate that ad hominem attacks against those
with differing opinions have proven effective in shutting down public
dialogue. By casting extreme reactionary voices as the face of the
opposition to the refugee resettlement, government cronies and
self-appointed arbiters of ‘societal good’ pathologize dissent,
which allows them to dismiss all critics as paranoid, hateful and
selfish bigots suffering from psychiatric phobias.
For example, Sabataso attempts to
discredit the opposing faction by describing it as “right-wing”
and “Christian,” or as implied by the subtext, anti-immigrant and
Islamophobic. However, in light of the many recent and horrific
attacks by ISIS-influenced Syrian refugees in France and Germany
(nations that have admitted large numbers of asylum-seekers from the
Middle East), Americans are justified in voicing concerns about
safety. Those that deny the legitimacy of these anxieties as baseless
fear mongering may claim moral superiority, but in truth, they are
simply engaging in political posturing.
defense of democracy, the Board of Aldermen unanimously voted to
investigate whether the Mayor’s unilateral and secretive actions
have violated state law. Louras, who showed no qualms about keeping
Rutland’s elected officials in the dark for months, condemned his
exclusion from the hour-long meeting earlier this month as
Here again, tolerance does not cut both ways.
Whether or not the results of
the inquiry will influence the State Department’s decision on the
resettlement (expected in September) is unknown. What remains clear,
however, is that the complete disregard for transparency and
democratic processes, and intolerance of dissent renders an enormous
disservice to the primary stakeholders in the refugee resettlement
issue – the citizens of Rutland.
Hansen is a cultural critic based in Windsor, Vermont. The Vermont House
Republican Caucus consults with her communications firm, Pierson A.
Harleth & Co.