2016-08-01 / Opinion

Refugees in Rutland: Politics at the expense of democracy

By Meg Hansen

In 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.

Reports 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.

Louras 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.

In a June Rutland Herald article, Jim Sabataso deigned 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, polyandry, and bestiality without fear of widespread condemnation.

Commentary 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 loon?

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.

In 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 “juvenile.” 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.

Meg Hansen is a cultural critic based in Windsor, Vermont. The Vermont House Republican Caucus consults with her communications firm, Pierson A. Harleth & Co.






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