In response to the killing of social worker Lara Sobel and three other women, Governor Shumlin has issued a plea for change. But he’s not calling for tougher gun laws or even better enforcement of the ones we have*. He’s not calling to boost staffing to make the Department of Children and Families more effective. Heck, he’s not even calling for better security arrangements for state workers — although he has “ordered a full review of our security procedures,” so we’ll see where that goes.
*Reportedly, Jody Herring should not have been able to acquire the gun used in the murder spree.
The real problem is “hateful speech” delivered on “anonymous blog sites and unfiltered social media.”
I realize the Internets provide an easy target in times like these, especially for a politico capable of writing “anonymous blog sites” without a trace of irony. But even aside from that inelegant phrase, there’s a real “You kids get off my lawn” feel to the whole piece.
Yes, “anonymous blog sites” can be wretched hives of scum and villainy. But is this our real problem? Was Lara Sobel’s death triggered by “anonymous haters who use vicious language to incite public ill-will toward others,” as Shumlin seems to argue?
Well, two points.
— If it’s true, as gun-rights advocates proclaim, that “guns don’t kill people — people kill people,” then how much more true is it that “words don’t kill”?
— Vitriolic speech is nothing new, as Shumlin seems to think. America has a long tradition, sometimes brilliant, sometimes horrific, of over-the-top rhetoric. Just browse the political writings of Ambrose Bierce or read accounts of any 19th Century political campaign, and you’ll see that “hateful speech” is, for better or worse, part of the fabric of our society. I’m not endorsing it, I’m just saying it didn’t start with social media or “blog sites.”
Okay, three points.
— Can the Governor actually draw a line between the sometimes intemperate language of the blogosphere and the (alleged) actions of Jody Herring? There are much more obvious suspects: her interactions with DCF, her own violent and criminal predilections. Somehow I doubt that her killing spree was touched off, directly or indirectly, by something she read on Facebook.
All right, sorry, four points.
— Governor Shumlin himself has been an instigator of negative attitudes toward our fine public servants. Whenever political convenience or necessity has dictated, he has bashed public sector unions — and by extension the workers — without remorse. Repeatedly throughout his governorship, he has used public sector workers as scapegoats.
In times like these, Shumlin puts on his Compassionate Leader pants and lavishes praise on state workers, for the hard work they do, for their dedication to their jobs. But his day-to-day actions belie that sentiment. And, I would argue, do more to stoke anti-public sector anger than any “anonymous blog site.”
Shortly after Tropical Storm Irene, a few dozen state workers sought extra pay for their displacement from the Waterbury state office complex. Shumlin blasted them for “doing an extraordinary disservice to the rest of our employees” by seeking double-time pay when “they don’t deserve it.”
You want to see vitriolic comments on “blog sites”? Just check out the Governor’s own Facebook entry announcing his response to those workers. The commenters write about “whiny, spoiled” “greedy thieves” whose actions are “appaulling!!” Of course, he’s not responsible for those comments; but he certainly stokes the fire.
Not only by his statements, but by many of his actions, Shumlin has validated the anti-public sector worker sentiment boiling beneath the surface. He has sought, more than once, to reopen a VSEA contract. One of those occasions came in February 2014, “with the ink barely dry” on the contract.
And of course, this year, his response to the budget gap was to seek renegotiation with the VSEA and try to cut education spending. Which may be a necessary thing, but it’s part of a pattern. And his Administration refused to consider VSEA’s ideas for greater efficiency in state spending.
He also threw his weight behind a bill to ban teacher strikes, when teacher strikes are extremely rare in Vermont and have no significant effect on the system. But they are a convenient whipping boy, aren’t they?
In his essay, Shumlin writes of his intense, personal reaction to the shootings:
I have spent hours speaking and meeting with the families of the victims. I also met with Lara’s co-workers at the Department for Children and Families on their first day back at work after the tragedy. I told them that I am deeply proud of their unshakable commitment to the well-being of our children and families, and I know that if we work together we can ensure safer working conditions and communities.
Did those co-workers thank the Governor for his noble sentiments? Did any of them ask why his Administration has failed to increase staffing at DCF in response to three separate 2014 reports calling for more social workers? Did any of them point out that an adequately-staffed system might have been able to soften the harsh realities that led Jody Herring down her destructive path?
I sure hope they did, because the Governor’s words ring hollow in light of his many statements and actions toward state workers.
But at least now we know where the real problem lines. “Anonymous blog sites.”