Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Debate Gets Weird

The Debate

In December, Howard Shaffer and I debated James Moore of VPIRG and State Senator Dick McCormack (formerly on the VPIRG board) about Vermont Yankee. I blogged about it in my post The Debate Goes On. If you have the time, you can even watch the entire debate on that post. Little did I know that the debate recently caused James Moore to call the Vermont Attorney General's Office and the Montpelier Police Department, believing he had received a death threat.

The death threat did not happen during the debate. It apparently happened in a newsletter, written by John McClaughry, the head of Ethan Allen Institute. The Energy Education Project, which I direct, is part of the Ethan Allen Institute.

The Statement

Back to the debate with Moore and McCormack. At least twice during the debate, James Moore said that Vermont Yankee hadn't killed anybody "yet" with an emphasis on "yet." The implication, of course, was that the plant was about to kill someone. During the debate, I found this hard to answer.

Moore had made a a bizarre statement, when you think about it. What he said is true of just about anyone or anything. My lawn sprinkler hasn't killed anyone "yet." I haven't killed anyone "yet." I presume James Moore hasn't killed anyone "yet." By saying "the plant hasn't killed anyone yet," Moore managed a soundbyte that was threatening but ultimately meaningless. Moore didn't give a reason or method that Vermont Yankee might kill someone in the future, he just said that it hadn't happened "yet."

Aftermath, Part 1

For a few days after the debate, at random moments, I had random thoughts. Some of my thoughts included:
  • I should have challenged Moore. I shouldn't have let him just say that with no explanation. I should have asked him why and how he expects the plant to kill someone.
  • I should have asked him if they should never open the Kleen Energy Plant in Connecticut because it already killed six people when it blew up shortly before opening.
  • Or maybe a natural gas plant gets to kill someone and it's okay. Maybe if a natural gas plant kills someone already, that is better than a plant that has not killed anyone yet.
  • I should have....
After a while, though, I forgot all about this exchange and all the answers I did not give. I am bit of a worry-wart. I am always sure I could have done a better job of debating. Or a better job of whatever I do. After a while, I let it go. You might say that I let "yet" go.

Aftermath Part 2: The Joke

However, what I worry about, others think is funny. Apparently, someone watched the video and made a joke to John McClaughry. This person said that the plant hadn't killed anyone yet, and he hadn't killed anyone yet, either, but he was thinking about James Moore as a candidate. McClaughry published the remark in his newsletter. To see the original joke within the newsletter, follow this link and look at the bottom of page 6.

Aftermath Part 3: The Police

Anne Galloway of Vermont Digger saw the remark in McClaughry's newsletter. The comment about the debate was two sentences long. She notified James Moore and then posted a lengthy blog about what happened next. An excerpt follows:

When I asked Moore about it earlier this week, he hadn’t seen the newsletter. But when he read the comment, he immediately called the Vermont Attorney General’s Office and the Montpelier Police Department.

“Most people agree that we should not tolerate violence in public discourse, much less promote it,” Moore wrote in an e-mail. “This kind of threat is really irresponsible and runs counter to Vermont’s proud history of community debate and discussion. The Ethan Allen Institute should know better than to spread this kind of dangerous rhetoric through its official newsletter.”

McClaughry’s response? “I think Paul Burns (VPIRG’s executive director) should lighten up.”
“It was a droll remark made after Moore introduced the subject of killing,” McClaughry elaborated.

Moore said it isn’t the first time VPIRG staff have been threatened, though not this personally in a long time.

He was somewhat relieved to hear that McClaughry said it was a joke, Moore said: “There are people out there who aren’t mentally stable.”

Bob Stannard, a lobbyist for Citizens Action Network, an anti-Yankee group, who has worked with Moore for three years, said McClaughry crossed “the line of civility here in Vermont.”
“It is unconscionable that John McClaughry would publish this quote with emphasis on YET,” Stannard wrote in an e-mail. “McClaughry has made a career of being a public figure. He knows the rules. He’s either getting old or is much more vicious than most people would be inclined to believe. At the very least he owes Mr. Moore an apology.”


Now, I haven't been hiding under a rock for the last few weeks. I am fully aware that we are more concerned with the dangers of death threats against public figures since the horrible event in Arizona. Still, two sentences in a newsletter doesn't seem to me to be worth quite this much angst. We aren't talking about stalkers, people who are obsessed with other people, or anything like that. It was clear to me, reading the newsletter, that the sentences were a joke.

However, the sentences were not directed at me, so I admit it was easier for me to see that they were a joke.

Even if they had been directed at me, though, I would look at this a little differently. John McClaughry is a former Vermont Senator, and a man who has held many responsible positions. If he had heard a real death threat against Moore, he would not have taken it lightly. Someone made a joke, McClaughry published the joke, and meanwhile...

Meanwhile. Times changed. A gunman in Arizona changed everyone's opinion of what is or is not a threat.


And yet, even with Giffords in our minds, I think this entire incident is overblown. I am truly sorry Moore felt threatened. I also wonder how much he exaggerated the idea of being threatened for his own rhetorical reasons. I don't like to hear McClaughry described in nasty ways. I wish none of this had ever happened. I had forgotten about all the "yet" business, and I plan to forget it again. It's all too bizarre.

However. I think it's all going to get even more bizarre around Vermont as the winter and spring roll forward. I am pretty sure that I haven't seen anything yet.

Image of The Crystal Ball by John William Waterhouse, 1902. From Wikipedia. Trying to discover the events that haven't happened yet.


Anonymous said...

I think if I were going to post/publish a joke about that comment in the debate, I would have more closely 'mirrored' Moore's comment.

I can agree that a statement about *yourself* not killing anyone, *yet*, presents more threat than about something or someone else.

So, I might've made a joke along the lines of "James Moore hasn't killed anyone, *yet*."

That's not threatening because I'm not in a position to control James Moore. I can, however, see how Mr. Moore and his friends might see a threat in someone talking about *themself*, saying they haven't killed anyone yet, because people do control themselves, and so would be in a position to be able to make it happen if they wanted to kill someone.

And, yeah, the timing was particularly unfortunate - I don't think the national zeitgeist, right now, is going to find much funny in jokes about killing people who you disagree with.

Meredith Angwin said...

Jeff. I completely agree. "James Moore hasn't killed anyone yet" would have been much better. Still, I think that John M heard the joke that he heard and published it. I also suspect that this remark is going to get immense amounts of play as a "death threat" when it was nothing of the kind.

J Wheeler said...

So ... it is acceptable for James Moore to suggest that it is only a matter of time before the dedicated people who operate Vermont Yankee will "kill someone," but it's NOT ok for a supporter of the plant to (in jest) to fire back with an equally ridiculous assertion?

If James Moore is not willing to take it, he should not be dishing it out. Give me a break!