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I Yearn for a Society in Which Civility Rules, But These Are Not Civil Times

On the sound of the world’s smallest violin

Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao confronted by protesters challenging her and her husband Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in Georgetown last month. (Image Source: YouTube screenshot)

A number of years ago, at the height of the whole Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky insanity, a certain someone figuring prominently in the right’s exploitation of the scandal occasionally lunched with friends of theirs at a restaurant where I hung out on a near daily basis.
 
To those of us who were regulars, admittedly a progressive sort of crowd, the person in question was loud and overbearing, obnoxiously bragging about the major role they were playing in the whole sordid affair. It put us right off our turkey sandwiches.
 
Finally having had enough, we all quietly complained to the owners and one of them had a word. That person never returned.
 
You may think we were out of line, effectively denying that person’s right to dine, but this is New York and they had a ton of options, lots of eateries in which they could infuriate the other customers. We were polite and did not make a scene. The owners could have ignored our request but they might have lost our business and they weren’t crazy about the person being in their establishment either.
"Complacency is what got us into this mess in the first place."
 
Our ban was requested not on the basis of race, age, creed or gender orientation but on the simple notion that bad behavior should not be tolerated or rewarded – and that the person in question’s behavior, in and especially out of the restaurant, far exceeded whatever negative feelings you may have about what my pals and I did.

Flash forward to 2018 and a time when the idea of civility is being debated against the backdrop of the American republic’s destruction. People who side with the resistance have been confronting members of the Trump administration, Republican members of Congress and their more public supporters in restaurants, coffee shops and bookstores.

In some cases, demonstrators have appeared outside their homes. Valerie Ploumpis, national policy director for Equality California, an LGBT rights organization, posted fliers in the Washington apartment building where Trump’s nativist henchman Stephen Miller lives. “I’m a polite person, I’m a D.C. person, I have very strong political views and I’m a very strong progressive Democrat—but I’ve never been confrontational until this time,” she told The Washington Post. “I just think this administration is literally dismantling our democratic institutions in real time, in our name, on our watch. And I just don’t think it’s appropriate, for those of us who are watching and seeing this happen, to be silent.”

In the past few weeks, these encounters with Miller, now ex-EPA chief Scott Pruitt, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, Steve Bannon and others have become more widespread with the Trump White House’s brutal separation of children from families trying to cross the Mexican border into the United States. You’ll recall that this all began the night press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and companions were asked to leave a suburban Virginia restaurant called The Red Hen, where presumably the eggs dished up are more cage-free than the little ones being held in ICE and Border Patrol detention centers. 

 The request was made by the restaurant’s owner, who did so after taking a vote of her staff. It was done politely without a fuss or an all points bulletin to the press. She even comped the offending party’s cheese plates. 

Except that Huckabee Sanders chose to make it a big deal, using her official White House Twitter feed to spread word of the incident, and then President You-Know-Who fired his Magic Twitter Destructo gun at it, which led members of the GOP to commence hysterically bellowing like elephants in a circus fire. They’ve been joined by some media members, especially in Washington, who have primly tut-tutted at those who would dare confront the powerful with their sins. 

Excuse me while I rosin my itty-bitty bow and commence a concerto on the world’s smallest violin. Remember, those Republican players making so much noise about civility often are the same crowd screaming, “Snowflake!” every time someone objects to the strident, often violent language and actions of the right. Add the seemingly increasing confrontations between white racists and people of color. Remember, too, that we have a chief executive who thrives on being the biggest bully in the history of the presidency’s bully pulpit, a man who has told his rallygoers, “Part of the problem… is nobody wants to hurt each other anymore, right?” and said of a protester, “I’d like to punch him in the face!”
 
But much worse are the deeds of this administration and Congress. Words pale in comparison.
 
Yes, start with the deprivations of the children and their families at the border, separated, with kids being shuttled off to facilities all over the country, unsure if they’ll see their parents again, reunions stymied by the combination of meanness and incompetence that characterizes this entire administration. 
 
New horror stories emerge each day. Our judicial system seems the only hope for happy endings and even its justices are throwing up their hands, stunned by Trump’s attempt to allow long-term confinement of undocumented immigrant children—what US District Court Judge Dolly Gee called,“a cynical attempt... to shift responsibility to the judiciary for over 20 years of congressional inaction and ill-considered executive action.”
 
Of course, the ability of our courts to fairly administer justice is additionally at risk, and another cause for loud dissent, as Trump crowds the circuits with conservative judges who will set us back decades. These include the second of two Supreme Court picks the president has made in less than two years—both in the wake of Mitch McConnell and the Republican Senate’s refusal to allow before the 2016 election a hearing or vote on Merrick Garland, Barack Obama’s choice to replace the late Associate Justice Scalia. 
 
And so we have the conservative Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court bench and unless serious opposition coalesces and fights back, prepare to welcome Trump’s replacement for retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy—Brett Kavanaugh, yet another conservative strict constructionist who may help reverse Roe v Wade, continue the concerted campaign to suppress voting rights, beat back organized labor even further and fight any serious efforts at campaign finance reform that would stop the moneyed few from choking democracy every minute of the day. Not to mention that in his writings Kavanagh seems to think that the president is too busy be bothered with the possibility of his own indictment and criminal prosecution. 
 
“All the recent talk about civility should not stop opponents of a right-wing court from doing everything in their power to keep the judiciary from being packed with ideologues who behave as partisans,” EJ Dionne recently wrote. “There is nothing civil about rushing a nominee to replace Kennedy before the midterm elections. And no rule of civility demands the confirmation of justices who would leave an abusive president unchecked and use raw judicial power to roll back a century’s worth of social progress.”
 
What’s happening is just part of the systematic deconstruction of rules, regulations and programs that protect our citizens from environmental threats and personal disasters, plus the demolition of the western alliance accompanied by an embrace of the world’s worst dictators. All of these are grievous insults to the body politic. And you’re wringing your hands over someone being snarky to Steve Bannon in a bookstore? Please.
 
I yearn for a society in which civility rules, but these are not civil times. When checks and balances cease to exist, when Republicans allow their party to be subverted by a buffoonish, egotistical wannabe dictator and lack the courage or principles to take a stand because they want their agenda to be the law of the land or cower for fear of voter reprisals, the rest of us have to speak out. Complacency is what got us into this mess in the first place. 

If that means a Trump acolyte or two or three get snubbed and rebuked at Starbucks, so be it. Cue the tiny violin. We have work to do.

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Michael Winship

Michael Winship

Michael Winship is the Schumann Senior Writing Fellow for Common Dreams. Previously, he was the Emmy Award-winning senior writer for Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, a past senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos, and former president of the Writers Guild of America East. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWinship

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