Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Civility Is For Losers

Bonnie Honig
Brown University
Public Things: Democracy in Disrepair

Grab ‘em by the pussy. They don’t resist. Well most of them don’t, anyway. Most give in; maybe it seems easier than fighting. Or they think it’s just the cost of doing business. “Here we go…” – they think. “Here we go!” he thinks, closing in for the kill. Will this one yield? Most do, or perhaps it is just many who do. Or maybe just a few (he does exaggerate). Why do they yield? They are polite, conflict avoidant, maybe a bit blinded by celebrity. They are also thrown off, taken aback by his complete abandonment of the usual rules. Why bother with consent when you can get compliance? Just get what you want. Reach over, she is right there, next to you on the plane, in your office, in the dressing room. There! For the TAKING!

Lie, promise things you know you won’t deliver, bluster, tell them how rich you are, say anything, do anything: whatever it takes. What if she says no? she won’t say no! and if she does, so what? Who will know? Just say you tossed her first! Or call her a liar. Or, better: Demand an apology from her! Ha! That’ll teach her. Most of ‘em let you, anyway. But what if later they complain? then what? No problem: throw some money at ‘em. "Here, don’t say I never gave you anything." "What? You think that was rude? I was just JOKING! Can’t you people take a joke?"

If that last paragraph was a bumper sticker, it would read: “Civility is for losers.” That’s us.

The owner of the Red Hen restaurant seems to be everything the President is not: serious, polite, and well-intentioned. She risked her business out of respect for her workers who, like most restaurant workers, are among those on the presidential hit list. The restaurant business, as Anthony Bourdain made plain, is particularly hospitable to non-conforming people. Perhaps it is the melee of the kitchen that provides an environment in which men – it is mostly men -- who don’t fit elsewhere, find a niche and maybe even thrive. Informed that the President’s Press Secretary was dining in her restaurant this week, The Red Hen’s owner consulted her employees, she did not tell them what to do, and then she represented them, she did not betray them. She took the press secretary outside, presumably to save her embarrassment in front of her friends, and to avoid a scene. “I’m not a huge fan of confrontation,” the Red Hen’s Stephanie Wilkinson said later. The desire to avoid a scene is often what leads to compliance. Not this time. Out on the porch, Wilkinson explained the press secretary would not be served dinner, then refused her money, and asked her to leave. The Press Secretary left (note: if you refuse, THEY may comply!).
 The story came out. The Press Secretary preened her moral superiority and said that when asked, she “politely left.” As for the owner of the Red Hen? “Her actions,” Sanders said, “say far more about her than about me. I always do my best to treat people, including those I disagree with, respectfully and will continue to do so.” This last statement alone beggars all belief given the almost daily barrage of snide prevarication from the podium. But beggaring belief is surely the point. If Sanders and her boss could, they would make beggars of us all.
 In a decent world, Stephanie Wilkinson’s decency would shine like a beacon. Sarah Sanders was right (even a broken clock is right twice a day): “Her actions,” Sanders said, “say far more about her than about me.” Wilkinson did not yell “fascist,” she did not tweet out the Press Secretary’s whereabouts and encourage a crowd to come protest her, she did not tape their dinner conversation. These are all tactics others might have employed, and all of them are defensible. But Wilkinson found her own way: she toed the line she could not cross, and she did so with civility. It seems to have done her no good. It has done her a world of good. It has done the world good. Yes, she has now resigned her position as executive director of the downtown business association, part of the fallout of her stumble into public life. And her business is attacked by Trump and his Press Secretary. Their aim is to raise the costs of protest and discourage others from such principled action. If no one is protesting, that must mean there is nothing to protest! Just like when an NDA secures a woman’s silence, and the conclusion we are told to accept is that the assault must have not happened. But Maxine Waters, who has known from Day One who and what we are dealing with here, congratulated Wilkinson, and called for more like her to step up. Waters called on all of us. Take courage from this example, she is saying. Take ‘em out on the porch. Don’t let it be business as usual. Don’t just let it go. And now it is Waters, not the pussy- grabber, but the one who dares to call him what he is, who is told she should apologize.
The audacity of civility. Power loves to police the tone of those who challenge it. To be sure, the tone is not the only thing policed. A man who has always taken what he wants without asking now has at his behest the forces of police, military, and the Supreme Court. With the full power of the US government, his game is to see how far he can go. Our obligation is to stop him. No one tactic will do. (VOTE!) No one else will do it. One at a time and all together is the only way forward.
 Stephanie Wilkinson has shone a light. Let us show we know the power of the shining beacon and have faith in the rewards of walking in its path: When Muhammad Ali was asked whether he regretted his draft refusal, given what it cost him (titles and money lost while he was effectively banned from the sport), he said: “I would like to say to those of the press and those of the people who think that I lost so much … I would like to say that I did not lose a thing up until this very moment, I haven’t lost one thing,” he said. “I have gained a lot. Number one, I have gained a peace of mind. I have gained a peace of heart.”
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