WHEN STEPHANIE WILKINSON, the owner of the Red Hen restaurant in Lexington, Va., asked White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave that dining establishment last Friday, she opened up yet another front in America’s ongoing cultural war.
Those on the right and some on the left have bemoaned the decline in civility reflected by Wilkinson’s decision. “Let the Trump team eat in peace,” wrote the Washington Post editorial board, which expressed concern that “justifying” such “incivility” will leave only the most “zealous” to pursue a career in public service.
“Kind of amazed and appalled by the number of folks on Left who applauded the expulsion of @PressSec and her family from a restaurant,” tweeted former Obama campaign manager David Axelrod. “This, in the end, is a triumph for @realDonaldTrump[’s] vision of America: Now we’re divided by red plates & blue plates!”
These arguments are understandable. Norm-shredding begets more norm-shredding; incivility begets more incivility, and it is anyone’s guess to where this path will lead us. The problem, however, is that we are already on a dangerous, anti-democratic road.
And Wilkinson — in a singular act of civil, political protest — has offered a useful, alternative path forward.
In an interview with the Washington Post, she said that several of her employees are gay and are bothered by Sanders’ defense of the president’s ban on transgender people serving in the military. Others are troubled by Sanders’ complicity with the White House’s monstrous family separation policy. They asked Wilkinson to ask Sanders to leave. And so, she told the White House press secretary that the Red Hen “has certain standards that I feel it has to uphold, such as honesty and compassion and cooperation” and politely but firmly told Sanders was not welcome there.
Her actions should be applauded.
It’s not because we should ostracize those with whom we have political and ideological differences. Rather, it’s that there is a moral and humanitarian crisis unfolding on the nation’s southern border. Protesting and ultimately undoing this barbarism must take precedent over the kind of political civility that we should all take for granted in a normal, functioning democracy.
After all, America today is not a normal, functioning democracy. Differences of opinion over the separation policy are not like disagreements over tax policy or health care. Forcibly removing children as young as three months from their parents is a policy of vile brutality; of prejudice and dehumanization; and it shocks the conscience — or at least it should. There are not two sides here. There is right and there is wrong — and Sarah Sanders is on the wrong side.
We’ve been through these situations before — slavery, Jim Crow, bigotry toward the LGBT community, war, and torture. Those moments, like now, demanded that citizens make their voices heard in protest. To not speak up; to not shame those, like Sanders, who are aiding and abetting this barbarism is to remain silent in the face of inhumanity — and that’s frankly un-American in a country that prides itself on freedom of speech.
Critics will rightly point out that this is a slippery slope. What’s to stop conservative restaurant owners from refusing to serve politicians who support abortion? But then again, what’s to stop abortion supporters from refusing to break bread with those who work to restrict reproductive rights? The answer is probably nothing. Perhaps that is the divided future to which we are heading: though somehow through angry political debates over the past several decades we’ve, by and large, avoided such situations. Let us not spend our time in a philosophical cul-de-sac debating about what could be, and focus instead on the here and now.
If Trump and his ilk think they can get away with forcibly separating children from their parents, barely lifting a finger to reunite them and face no significant backlash — be it political or personal — how far will they push the envelope the next time? Should there be no accountability for their actions? One can agree that the kind of shunning that Sarah Sanders experienced over the weekend should not become a new norm, but if ever there was a time for an exception to the usual rules of political protest and social activism it is this one.
Let’s also remember that Wilkinson and her staff weren’t thinking about the slippery slope of misbehavior that might come from her action. They were ordinary citizens who felt that their conscience demanded something be done to register their revulsion with a woman who is enabling wickedness on a daily basis. Good for them, and good for any American who has the courage to stand up and say “not in my name.”
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.