Brunetti Speaks Out ! What price, what role, for civility in the Trump-era? Re-visiting the Red Hen incident ...

This piece by the brilliante Brunetti should be read alongside the States of Mind piece (read here) written last week on the same topic. The States of Mind position is that you can't compromise with people who don't want to compromise, whose objective it is to trample democratic and humanitarian values: that's how we lose. Our task is to change and convert them back to democratic values - not throw these values away in order to strengthen the enemy. Brunetti delivers an insightful and more nuanced position. Fraternity includes civility but that doesn't mean rolling over.....

Brunetti speaks..." Damned if you do and damned if you don’t, hey? What’s a restaurateur to do when a racist in tooth and claw comes in and sits down in your establishment - as happened twice in a week last month at the height of the storm over Donald Trump’s imprisonment of immigrant children - one time at the Covina Mexicana in Washington DC and then at the Red Hen in Virginia.

First, Kirstjen Nielsen, the Homeland Security Secretary, was heckled and booed by protestors at the Mexicana. Then Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the President’s press secretary and daughter, too, of that seething conservative presidential wannabe Mike Huckabee, was asked to leave the Red Hen - all this some months after a baker’s refusal on religious grounds to make a gay couple’s wedding cake was upheld as lawful by a federal court. 

Well, the US commentariat erupted in, well, commentary. What was more important, civility or free speech, politeness or protest? 

I take a pragmatic line on these things. I mean, who gives a fuck? Do what you like. No one can force you to bake a cake for gay people. No one can force you, inside your own establishment, to serve people whose politics you despise. I’m a libertarian in this respect. But I also despise bigotry. So I wouldn’t be giving my custom to that baker again. But nor would I appreciate being asked to leave a restaurant because of my wet-left political views. 

Okay, the issue was the separating of children from their illegal immigrant parents and detaining them en masse, sleeping behind wire in warehouses, on the floor, covered by - what? Tin foil? I get that. Heinous. 

But there are various ways in which we have to judge how to behave in the febrile atmospherics of the Trump administration, or in Brexiting Britain, or in Matteo Salvini’s ‘round up the Roma’ Rome. Indeed, when in Rome, what is a good Roman to do? There are a few questions to be asked here and some of them are merely practical because eating your principles makes for thin gruel.

Let’s be tame for a moment. Is a private restaurant a place for public dissent and protest? I suppose that’s up to the owner to decide. But either think fast, or think it out beforehand. The Mexicana episode came out okay because Ms Nielsen did the smart thing and, after standing her ground long enough to demonstrate a respectable defiance, she walked. The restaurateur didn’t have to get into a Mexican stand-off or reverse the result of the Alamo. 

Red Hen was a bit more speckled. Ms Huckabee Sanders was asked to leave. Which she did, not making a fuss. And for five minutes back there, the restaurateur must have felt like she was upholding the dignity of her refusenik chef and getting behind the issue de jour in a very right-on kinda way. Must have felt good. 

But perhaps this moral triumph for the Red Hen was simply pyrrhic; the place hasn’t reopened in almost two weeks and one wonders whether it ever will again. The place is being boycotted by the right and there are never going to be enough people on the left to sustain its business, and anyway, wouldn’t they soon be turning it all veggie and and whatever? Who wants to go to a restaurant for its politics? Great evening. We ate lentils and discoursed on Mao’s little red book. Meanwhile, the chef at the Red Hen is out of work, as are the waiters, the manager, and the owners have just ploughed their investment into the dirt. Just feels wasteful. The dogs have barked, and the caravan has moved on, and the man by the roadside is left empty handed. 

I would say this to a restaurateur: if someone produces a camera in anger, order everybody out. Your establishment is yours to decide what happens in there and protest is not on the menu for diners. If they want to stick it to each other, fascists and bleeding hearts alike, take it out on the street. It’s like the. West. NO SHOOTING IN THE SALOON!!

What I’m saying is, be careful about standing up on your hind legs when other people’s livelihoods are at stake. Trump’s administration is vile and its worst damage has been to the quality of public debate, and the moral succour it gives to America’s worst instincts, its ugly underbelly of white supremacism and xenophobia. But we’re only going to beat it back by understanding, reinterpreting and readjusting the value base of America’s founding values. I loved Ayn Rand as a writer and loved her books, but not her ideology, her worship of brutalist individualism, her hatred of the state. It is her philosophy that has gripped America by the throat; there is no such thing as fraternity in her weltanschauung, just extreme liberty, and to hell with equality, let the devil take the hindmost. In a country of 350 million people, big as it is, closing in on itself is simply is not going to work. It’s not Ayn Rand America has to rediscover, it’s the Roosevelts. Teddy for screwing the robber barons, Franklin for putting America back to work. Even, God help me, LBJ and his Great Society. 

Il Dottorre has spoken here of liberty, equality and fraternity. Yes, the first two live in constantly shifting, uneasy disequilibrium. But it’s fraternity, itself immeasurable, that we are losing, not just in America but everywhere in the West, the oxygen that gives our democracies the air they breathe, and contains the hope of something kinder. So - Red Hen, Mexicana, the baker’s shop - wherever it is, whatever the moment, pause in it - and think: will what we do that adds to the sumum bonum, that goes high when they go low, and lives beyond the headline? What will we add that has civility? Because we have to kill Trumpism with civility."

Brunetti

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Being civil doesn't  mean we need to give the uncivil right an easy ride...