There are some large scale matters I would like to address, but in light of the vigorous response to my praise of the expulsion of Sarah Huckabee Sanders from a restaurant, I think I need to say a few words about the matter of civility. First, let me observe that as examples of incivility go, this one ranks roughly with using a chopstick to scratch your nose in an upscale Chinese restaurant. The norms of public political discourse vary considerably from country to country, and even from neighborhood to neighborhood within a country. The British Parliament is much more raucous than the American Congress, and I will not even talk about the Israeli Knesset. Only in the world of the Washington elite does being denied service at a restaurant appear to be a violation of sacred norms calling for serious discussion of the foundations of democratic society.
But whatever the local norms of civility may be, it can always be asked under what conditions it is right, even required, to violate them as part of a political protest. A great idea has been written about this in the past few days. You might take a look at this column [or series of tweets – I am not sure which it is] by Jonathan Ladd. Ladd quotes from Martin Luther King’s famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail, which is far superior to anything I could write on the subject.
By the way, if you wish to put a little steel in your spine, read this account by Senator Elizabeth Warren of what she found when she visited some of the detention centers where little children are being held.
Representative democracy depends on the ability of persons representing very different constituents with different and even deeply conflicting interests to come together, negotiate, win sometimes and lose sometimes, all while preserving as persons, not merely as representatives, sufficient comity that they can meet again to negotiate further, and again, and again. The alternative, as Hobbes observed, is the war of all against all.
When is it right to violate those norms of comity and civility? When the policies and actions against which one fights are so vile, and the chances of overcoming them by the normal and accepted political actions so slender, that one must fight, however much the feelings of others may be hurt. Slavery was such an evil. Jim Crow and lynching were such evils. The denial of the vote to women was such an evil. So was the brutal treatment of anyone not acceptably heterosexual. And so too is the forcible internment of children torn from their families.
While it is morally permissible to use such tactics as marches, boycotts, and public shaming to fight these evils, it is not thereby always effective, and we can debate the practical wisdom of this or that tactic. But first, as that Columbia student said to me fifty years ago, you must decide which side you are on.
At this moment, I suspect [quite obviously, I cannot know] that a good many White House staffers are vulnerable to the embarrassment, the irritation, the discomfort of being publicly shamed and called out when they leave the White House to go home, go to a concert, stay at a hotel, or attend a public function. A heavy dose of that shaming might drive some of them to leave the White House, further weakening the president. If you believe, as I do now, that America is in grave danger of descending into an authoritarianism and incipient fascism from which it will not easily emerge, then the violation of norms of public civility is fully justified.