By now I am sure that you are familiar with the kerfuffle surrounding the manager of the Red Hen Restaurant (a farm-to-table restaurant in Lexington, VA) recently denying service to Sarah Huckabee Sanders, President Trump’s White House Press spokesperson, and asking her to leave.
Sanders brought this to the Nation’s attention by tweeting about it on her official U.S. Government Twitter account. This caused Trump to use his official Twitter account to try to ruin the Red Hen’s business. What fun.
The Red Hen’s refusal prompted Editorialists, Pundits, and Facebook posters to opine about the line between civility to all and the personal choice to deny service.
These opinions often included specious comparisons to bakers refusing to make cakes for gay weddings, abortion protests, and screening party affiliation before letting people in the door. Let me clarify my disagreement with these points.
Gay marriage does no harm to anyone else in society. If you think that gay marriage contributes to society’s moral decline and corrupts the institution of marriage, you are much too late for that train. Instead, I suggest that you focus on things that produce real harm in marriages such as spousal abuse.
Abortion clinics and abortion providers have been subjected to picketing, customer harassment, and violent, sometimes fatal, assault. This level of confrontation does not equate to quietly asking someone to leave your restaurant.
No one has started denying service based on party affiliation. Sarah Huckabee Sanders was singled out as an individual who has a prominent public role in the Trump Administration. She was singled out because of her active support in actions that cause harm to others. Adam Gopnik wrote in newyorker.com:
… many have sided with the Red Hen on the grounds that, on this week in particular, a week which featured the Trumpites’ cruellest organized exclusion of others to date, to not exclude one of the organizers, or at least the mouthpiece, of that exclusion would amount to a moral failure.
So where do I draw the line between being open and inclusive and deciding not to include someone at my table?
My first thought was that the Red Hen went too far and everyone should be able to be served, even though they are involved in a reprehensible regime. After all, Ethical Humanism attributes worth and dignity to everyone without exception. Then I read some opinions that challenged my stance. I found another part of Adam Gropnik’s newyorker.com post particularly persuasive:
As a moral duty, we should share the pleasures and conversation of the table with as many people of as many views as we can—and, even when we can’t, we shouldn’t grumble too nastily under our breath at our kids when someone at a nearby table takes up the case for the Donald. (A self-directed moral rule, this.)
On the other hand, the Trump Administration is not a normal Presidential Administration. This is the essential and easily fudged fact of our historical moment. The Trump Administration is—in ways that are specific to incipient tyrannies—all about an assault on civility. To the degree that Trump has any ideology at all, it’s a hatred of civility—a belief that the normal decencies painfully evolved over centuries are signs of weakness which occlude the natural order of domination and submission. It’s why Trump admires dictators. Theirs are his values; that’s his feast. And, to end the normal discourse of democracy, the Trump Administration must make lies respectable—lying not tactically but all the time about everything, in a way that does not just degrade but destroys exactly the common table of democratic debate.
That’s Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s chosen role in life—to further those lies, treat lies as truth, and make lies acceptable. This is not just a question of protesting a particular policy; in the end there are no policies, only the infantile impulses of a man veering from one urge to another. The great threat to American democracy isn’t “policy” but the pretense of normalcy. That’s the danger, for with the lies come the appeasement of tyranny, the admiration of tyranny, and, as now seems increasingly likely, the secret alliance with tyranny. That’s what makes the Trump Administration intolerable, and, inasmuch as it is intolerable, public shaming and shunning of those who take part in it seems just. Never before in American politics has there been so plausible a reason for exclusion from the common meal as the act of working for Donald Trump.
And what about civility? Well, fundamental to, and governing the practice of, civility is the principle of reciprocity: your place at my table implies my place at yours. Conservatives and liberals, right-wingers and left-wingers, Jews and Muslims and Christians and Socialists and round- and flat-Earthers—all should have a place at any table and be welcome to sit where they like. On the other hand, someone who has decided to make it her public role to extend, with a blizzard of falsehoods, the words of a pathological liar, and to support, with pretended piety, the acts of a public person of unparalleled personal cruelty—well, that person has asked us in advance to exclude her from our common meal. You cannot spit in the plates and then demand your dinner. The best way to receive civility at night is to not assault it all day long. It’s the simple wisdom of the table.
My view shifted. I have not lost my ideal that everyone has worth; however, in this case, I came to see how someone’s active participation in a corrupt administration that purposely causes real harm to real people is sufficient grounds to allow a restaurant owner to not serve them and ask them to leave. The real incivility comes from supporting actions that cause great harm to others. Public officials who support heinous actions must face consequences.
Charles P. Pierce in esquire.com summed it up nicely:
This debate is stupid. It’s also dangerously beside the point. SarahHuck is the lying mouthpiece of a lying regime that is one step away from simply hauling people off in trucks. That she was politely told to take her business elsewhere is a small step towards assigning public responsibility to public officials that enable a perilous brand of politics. There are bigger steps to be taken, but everyone in official Washington is too damn timid to do what really needs to be done about this band of pirates.
The Red Hen incident is a distraction from the real work toward change that remains to be done.