On Punching Nazis, Serving Sarah Sanders, and Matters of Civility
You’ve probably seen T-shirts or memes devoted to instructing others to “PUNCH MORE NAZIS.” This sentiment, which invokes Richard Spencer—who doesn’t call himself a “Nazi” or a “white supremacist,” but an “identitarian,” though that basically means he’s a white nationalist and doesn’t want you to know he’s a white nationalist—getting punched in the face by a protestor on the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration, is one that many of us can probably get behind. After all, who really likes Nazis outside of actual Nazis?
As sympathetic as we may be to the idea of Spencer and his ilk getting decked, however—or, for some of us, wish we could’ve been the ones to do it—just because we can punch more Nazis, does it mean we should? Political theorist Danielle Allen, in an August 2017 column for The Washington Post, emphatically rules for the negative on this question. She writes:
White supremacy, anti-Semitism and racism are false gods, ideologies to be repudiated. They must be countered and fought. We must separate the violence that flows from those ideologies from the ideas that animate them. Different tools are at hand for fighting each.
We need to counter extremism’s violence not with punches but with the tools of law and justice. Where hate crimes and acts of domestic terrorism are perpetrated, our judicial institutions must respond. We as citizens must make sure institutions do their jobs, not plan to take the law into our own hands.
When the legitimacy of legal and judicial institutions has come into question — as has occurred because of police shootings and mass incarceration — we must strenuously advance the project of reforming those institutions to achieve their full legitimacy. But to take the law into one’s own hands is only to further undermine legal and judicial institutions. It provides no foundation for reform.
As Allen sees it, we need to be thinking more Martin Luther King, Jr.’s brand of civil disobedience and nonviolence, and less, you know, Charles Bronson’s brand of vigilantism from Death Wish. In doing so, we must address the failings of major institutions—namely the courts, the criminal justice system, and the legislative branch—enduring the process of advocacy for reform. Punching Nazis, while perhaps providing more immediate satisfaction, doesn’t put us on the same long-term path of reform.
In fact, as Allen stresses, countering violence with more violence only takes us further away from the peaceful society many of us would envision — one devoid of white supremacists and their hate. It does not make our world anymore just than it was before we started throwing haymakers, rocks, and the like. It certainly doesn’t make it any more stable.
In other words — Danielle Allen’s words — “Once political violence activates, shutting it off is exceptionally difficult.” Her closing remarks reinforce this theme, with special attention to the morality of nonviolence as well as the impracticality of its opposite:
Why should anyone believe that people who have been committed to political violence will change their minds and recommit to peaceful forms of litigating conflicts? That kind of distrust erodes the foundations of stable political institutions. The path to justice always lies through justice, including the basic moral idea that immediate self-defense is the only justification for the use of force. We need moral clarity on this point.
Along these lines, violence is not the cure or negotiating tool we might conceive it to be. As the saying goes, it just begets more violence and makes people that much more predisposed to taking sides and fighting, rather than willing to change. When people are made to think of political and social matters in terms of a war, they treat it like one—casualties and all.
The topic of punching Nazis is an extreme example, but one that facilitates a conversation about how we as Americans try to interact with and otherwise react to people with whom we disagree on matters of culture, politics, and morality. Recently, Sarah Sanders was asked to leave a restaurant named The Red Hen in Virginia because of her connection to the Trump White House.
The owner of the restaurant, Stephanie Wilkinson, was home when she got a call from the chef that night, who expressed to Wilkinson the notion that the staff was concerned about Sanders’s presence there. For Wilkinson, Sanders’s defense of Donald Trump’s policies within her role as White House Press Secretary was a deal-breaker. As she (Wilkinson) feels, it’s a matter of moral standards. Compassion. Cooperation. Honesty. These are not the kinds of things that Sanders and her briefings are not known for, and as such, Wilkinson took a stand. What’s more, Wilkinson said she would do it again if given the same opportunity.
News of Sanders’s removal from the restaurant has prompted all sorts of reactions, many of them indicative of a political divide that events such as these only seem to help widen. If The Red Hen’s spike in popularity on Yelp is any indication, the actions taken by its owner have proven very polarizing indeed, with scores of 1-star and 5-star reviews being affixed to the restaurant’s online profile in light of the controversy. While I suppose the treatment of guests should be a factor in reviews of eateries, lest we call these new additions illegitimate, to say nothing of the other elements of the customer experience really seems like a waste of an entry. I mean, what if the trout Grenobloise is truly transcendent? You can say what you want about the owner—but leave her and her restaurant their fish dish, OK?
Beyond reputation assassination via social media from anonymous sources, there are other issues raised by Sarah Sanders getting the boot from The Red Hen and subsequently calling out the restaurant on Twitter. For one, Sanders did so in her official capacity as Press Secretary, and that’s an ethical no-no. According to Walter Shaub, former ethics chief under Barack Obama and Trump, Sanders’s condemnation of a business for personal reasons using her government account can be construed as coercive and a violation of a corollary to the ban on endorsements that someone like Kellyanne Conway has blatantly disregarded in the past. As Shaub reasons, Sanders can “lob attacks on her own time but not using her official position.”
Also, people have drawn a comparison between the way Sanders was refused service for her political positions and the way some businesses have sought to refuse service to homosexuals, claiming “religious freedom.” As far as detractors on the right are concerned, this is just bigotry on the part of the left, but this is a false equivalency; since it has come up frequently enough, it’s worth addressing. Sanders chose her line of work and accepted her current position, and continues to serve as Press Secretary of her own volition. Gays and lesbians, on the other hand, don’t choose to be gay. It’s who they are. The best argument one can try to make is that Sanders, were she to proverbially fall on her sword, would put her career and her livelihood at risk. Still, that’s a stretch when considering the ostracism members of the LGBTQ community have faced over time.
The issue that appears to loom largest here, however, is the matter of whether or not owners of establishments should refuse service to patrons based on their political beliefs or their association with a disinformation machine like the Trump White House. This is where I’m a little unsure that Stephanie Wilkinson’s choice is the right one. Now, it’s one thing if Sanders and her group were actively trying to cause distress to members of the staff or other patrons, or they were trying to espouse discriminatory views. If I were a restaurant owner, I wouldn’t want, say, Ku Klux Klan members waltzing into my place and ordering cheese and crackers. There are limits to freedom of expression, to be sure.
Assuming Wilkinson has the right to ask Sanders and Co. to leave, though, whether or not she should ask them to leave is a subject worthy of debate. It’s like refusing to serve or otherwise accommodate someone wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat. In April, a New York City judge ruled a bar was legally allowed to refuse service to a man wearing a “MAGA” hat, as it wasn’t discriminating based on country of origin, race, religion, sexual orientation, or other demographic characteristic. It also didn’t help the man’s cause that he reportedly was verbally abusive to staff. In Sanders’s case, meanwhile, there is no indication that anything more than her presence was the source of unrest. Even in the court of public opinion, this seems like less of an open-and-shut case.
What especially gives me pause is that few people seem to be on Sarah Sanders’s side on this one, and I’m not sure if this is my failing in my refusal to join in, or just the left looking to stick their tongues out at a Donald Trump supporter like the White House Press Secretary in the midst of the administration’s flagging popularity, and as we plumb the depths of a crisis facing immigrant families which feels less like border security and more like ethnic cleansing.
Other Trump administration officials have met with similar treatment, with DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and senior policy advisor Stephen Miller both being met with protests as they ate at—irony fully noted—Mexican restaurants. It’s not just Cabinet members and racist advisors to the President, either. A video of New York-based attorney Aaron Schlossberg berating and threatening employees of a restaurant with deportation because they spoke Spanish went viral, and condemnation and ridicule were soon to follow. Heck, a GoFundMe page was even erected to pay for a mariachi band to play outside the man’s office. At a moment in time marked by visible tension between groups, especially whites who support the President vs. minority groups and their defenders, everyone seems to be fair game. The racist rants of yesteryear now run the risk of damaging people’s careers.
In all, there doesn’t seem to be much sympathy for Ms. Sanders—and I don’t know that there should be, quite frankly—but despite what someone like Rep. Maxine Waters would aver, maybe these officials shouldn’t be kicked out of restaurants, and definitely, I submit, they shouldn’t be harassed. That is, if one were to convey his or her opinions to them in a civil manner, it’s one thing, but it’s another to shout epithets at them while they try to eat enchiladas.
At the end of the day, we may find the positions of Nielsen and Miller reprehensible, but they’re human beings. Like you or I or the immigrants who live in fear of the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy, they still need to eat and spend time with family. While I suppose Sanders and her group could have just gone, say, to a Chili’s instead, to try to abnegate the humanity of one because of his or her own abnegation of another’s humanity is to make two wrongs without making a right. It might feel good for a spell, but as with punching Nazis, it doesn’t put us on a path to reform.
To boot, for those looking to discredit people on the political left as intolerant in their own right, the decision to ask Sanders to leave The Red Hen has the power to turn her into somewhat of a sympathetic figure, and given that she’s served as the mouthpiece of an administration which doesn’t seem to have the word “sympathy” in its vocabulary, such is a regrettable turn in these cultural conflicts because concern for her feels unearned.
It comes on the heels of criticisms levied on her by Michelle Wolf, for which members of the media were quick to come to her (Sanders’s) defense, a defense not only unearned but undeserved given that Wolf was only pointing out Sanders’s role as an enabler and liar for President Trump. Thus, when Sanders tweets to say that The Red Hen’s owner’s actions say “more about [Wilkinson]” than they say about her and that she tries to deal respectfully with those with whom she disagrees, you tend to hate that she seems even somewhat credible—compromised ethics and all.
I know my position is liable to be upsetting to some people because it screams Democratic centrism to them (Chuck Schumer, among others, has criticized the desire to harass Trump administration officials). Believe me — I don’t wish to be lumped in with moderates when the Democrats’ refusal to move further left is one of my chief frustrations as someone trying to become more engaged with politics. And I certainly don’t wish to appear as if I agree with Donald Trump, who, though he has much more important things to do — facilitate peace on the Korean peninsula, help Puerto Rico, reunite kids with their families, etc. — felt compelled to rant about The Red Hen’s decision on social media. Say what you want about POTUS, but he’s consistent, you know, in that he never misses a chance to point a finger in a petty way.
Or some might just plain disagree. Ryan Cooper, writing for The Week, defends incivility toward Trump administration officials with points such as these:
- In the situations recounted above, no one beat up these officials, broke any property, or threatened them in any way.
- If anyone is “uncivil,” it’s the con artists, criminals, and/or racists of the Trump administration and people of a like mind such as Rep. Steve King of Iowa.
- President Trump is, like, the most uncivil of us all, and he has a platform much bigger than any dissenter on the left.
- This is a natural and perhaps unavoidable reaction to a lack of immediate electoral solutions or an absence of meaningful legislative representation.
- Fretting about civility on the left internalizes the belief that it is pointless to try to appeal to people on the right, especially the far right, on moral and rational terms. Moreover, it sows division within “the Resistance.”
Cooper also dismisses concerns about incivility from the left being used as political capital for Trump and other officials, and while I agree to a certain extent that one shouldn’t necessarily worry about the feelings and potential votes of others in the course of public discourse, I also think that these definitions of “civility” and “incivility” are somewhat vague and get muddled with moral judgments. Being “civil” doesn’t necessarily relate to the moral rectitude of your behavior or your speech, but merely to formal courtesy and politeness in their expression. By the same token, however, “political civility” isn’t exactly the same thing as civility as per the dictionary definition, so maybe the problem is simply with our specificity of expression and how we delineate the terms, first and foremost. The line is an apparently fine one, and who is using this terminology is as important as what words are being used.
Plus, for those decrying this fussing over civility as just a ploy to stifle free speech, while addressing how to reach people in the face of carelessness or lack of composure is critically important, and while not all calls for civility are equal considering the source—this can’t be stressed enough—this doesn’t strike me as an occasion to participate in relativistic exercises. So Trump’s henchmen and henchwomen are uncouth. Does that mean we should all up and call them “feckless c**ts” in the style of Samantha Bee? Even if I feel Bee, like Michelle Wolf, shouldn’t feel duty-bound to apologize, her use of profane language didn’t make her argument more credible. At least we should be able to agree on this point.
I get it—so many of us are angry at Donald Trump and his enablers, and heartbroken about the plight of immigrant children, and feeling powerless with the midterms months away and 2020 still seeming remote, and tired of the onslaught of bullshit day after day. It’s not easy. Then again, it never was going to be easy, and for all the hemming and hawing about civility, if this is not to be the goal, at least we can aim for precision of language and factual correctness. Even in the face of haphazard tweets and “fake news,” rationality and truth yet have value.