False Moral Equivalence from Democrats

Stephen Rockwell • 30 June 2018
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Last week there was much hand wringing amongst Democrats and centrists about the Red Hen restaurant refusing to serve Sarah Huckabee Sanders.  Folks who disagreed with the action generally are coming from a good place of wanting to maintain some degree of normal political dialogue in a toxic environment that Trump and scorched Earth conservatism created.  Folks are rightly concerned that every norm of decency has been discarded through childish insults and undermining American democratic institutions, while eroding the international institutions and policies that United States has championed for over a century.  While the desire to maintain "normalcy" is rooted in good intentions, the arguments fail to fully comprehend the reality that we now find ourselves.  Indeed, I fear centrists do not fully grasp the nature of the threat to the republic. This isn’t a mere set of political differences. This is fundamental difference on human rights and who we are as a nation. 

We have entered into a different zone and we need a new playbook for activism and politics. These conversations are important to determine what tactics work in what situations.  Over the last week, I spent some time breaking down these arguments.

Argument 1: We should not be harassing people in their personal lives for their political views.  

Many folks were calling Sara Sanders treatment at the Red Hen (and that of Stephen Miller and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Neilsen in restaurants) as harassment. Is it actually harassing when they are creating and defending and lying about child abuse and human rights abuse or is holding a high ranking government official accountable for the lies and defense of abuse that she herself does?  I would not call these acts harassment. Instead they are confrontations with public officials who defend and lie about human rights abuses of children. 

Sarah Huckabee Sanders lies on behalf of those with the keys to the cages. She defended the policy for weeks. She was confronted by the press about her own humanity and being a mother and she rolled with some legalistic "Christian" mumbling that further dehumanized the immigrant families. She should be confronted wherever she goes. 

Concerned citizens have a duty to vocally confront public officials, letting them know she is complicit in the human rights violations of children. Indeed, most city councilors would say they have trouble going to the grocery store, without getting an earful about a particular vote or issue.  Why shouldn't we ask Trump officials like Sara Sanders why she continues to defend and lie about much graver issues? If she said she and the administration were wrong and resigned, than that changes the conversation. If not, I would have told her human rights abusers are not welcome in my establishment. Silence is complicity.

In short, harassing is not the same as holding a top government official accountable for building, defending and lying about a policy the abuses children. No peace for these folks until justice is restored and human rights are restored.

Argument 2: Such confrontations only keep our political discourse uncivil at the level that Trump has sunk our politics.  

My first question to folks is how have all other attempts at civility and politeness worked out with Trump and his supporters? Has anything gotten better in his or their behavior? Or in fact has it gotten worse? Let’s not scapegoat those who are choosing confrontation for folks on the other side who find new depths to depravity and decency with each new day.

What is the nature of this debate?  I don’t think some detractors understand what kind of scrum we are in. We are not talking about an every day political disagreement about what the tax rate should be.  Children are separated from their parents lying on concrete floors not knowing when they will see their parents.  This is not a normal situation nor should be normalizing such abuses moving forward by treating Trump officials like we have a political disagreement.  The children ripped from their parents and put into cages are our children. If this is just about political difference, you are missing it.

Slip into Fascism. I have little time for conspiracy theories or over the top political hyperbole.  However, we have to admit to ourselves that there is darkness to this zero tolerance policy, in which we can at least whiff the evils of fascism.   Wealthy Quaker Henry Cadbury of Haverford, a founder of the American Friends Service Committee (one of the organizations in which I work), writing in the New York Times in 1934. He was catastrophically wrong.

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This letter is written in 1934. What was happening? The first set of laws limiting Jewish participation in German life. No families were separated yet. No kids were put in camps yet.  We are a few steps down the road of fascism with the dehumanizing of others, attempts to delegitimize the media etc. These aren’t normal times but and we can not offer normal responses that normalize what Trump and his folks are doing. The Irish Times had a good piece that speaks to these fascist trial balloons that Trump makes to test how far he can push the system (https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/fintan-o-toole-trial-runs-for-fascis…) The answer to how far he can push is how far we will allow him to do so.

Recourse for Human Rights Abuses. When it comes to human rights violations that putting personal responsibility and accountability on those who make the decisions is an important precept. In an international context, the ICE officers likely wouldn’t be tried at The Hague but the decision makers would. The Trump administration has taken us farther down the road to fascism with these dehumanizing actions. We don’t have the reach of the ICC here in the US nor does left or democrats hold any real institutional power. In that context, how do we as the people best hold decision makers to account?  

In an otherwise powerless position should citizens confront public officials who are engaging in human rights abuses when they see them?  Confrontation must be part of the picture as well. We’ve shouted no justice no peace. This is the no peace part. Don’t normalize human rights abuses by treating those responsible with respect. They deserve our scorn until they change their ways.

At protests we shout no justice, no peace. This is the no peace part. If you are responsible for the abuse of children we will hold you accountable. 

In this case, we are talking about children who are alive being ripped from their parents unwillingly by both parent and child. Good people can’t see this differently. If you support ripping children from parents you aren’t a good person. We have seen this before with mass incarceration recently and also historically in Japanese internment, separation of Native American families, and separation of enslaved African families. This shouldn’t be normalized and when we make it about mere politics, we are making an argument that makes the current situation normative. 

Elected Democratic Leaders Don't Seem to Get It. Our Democratic leaders are no better and normalize what ought not be normal.  Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi and Bernie Sanders all criticized Maxine Water's advocacy of confronting Trump administration officials and the Red Hen restaurant.  The white septuagenarian Democrats don’t seem to get what kinda scrum we are in. We are already a couple steps down the road to fascism. Perhaps Mussolini is a better example than Hitler, but ICE is doing check points on the highway in Maine asking for papers.  Young children are sitting in camps not knowing when or if they will see their parents. A Muslim ban was ruled constitutional. Unions have been completely upended. Trump doesn’t have to be Hitler for the nation to be spiraling towards fascism.  While I am generally a practical policy guy, this is the world we are now living in. It requires a number of responses to resist, not all of which should be conventional.

Racism and privilege.  These calls for “civility” have been used in the past and they are often attempts to control oppressed peoples and people of color though social pressure. That’s why Maxine Waters and John Lewis get it while Nancy Pelosi, Bernie Sanders and Chuck Schumer don’t.  I was glad to see the Congressional Black Caucus stick up for Maxine waters against establishment white Dems who criticized her statement.  If it was your child sleeping on a concrete floor not knowing when or if you will see your child again, these calls for civility would go by the wayside.  I appreciated the moral clarity and urgency in Mari Uyehara's article on the topic: https://www.gq.com/story/trump-administration-blacklist-them-all

What the condescending, confused political establishment misses is that the restaurant industry have a duty to its immigrant community, the same men and women who harvest our tomatoes, pack our meat, pick our crab, milk our cows, clear our tables, wash our dishes, and cook our food. 

This compelling argument about the racial dynamics of this conversation.  We are talking about privilege and white privilege.  Judging others and their form of protest comes from a position of privilege. Your kids are not separated from you, not knowing when or if you will see them. You don't have to live in fear that an ICE raid will snatch your parent away, or figure out who will take care of your children when they come for you.  That’s also privilege.  Most folks would not be talking about civility if it were their kids and families in that position.   Because of privilege or because people don't viscerally feel the need to be active, we disagree on the means of protest because we disagree on the severity of the offense. 

If there is a gap in our civility and political discourse it was made by those who rip children from their parents. There isn’t middle ground for compromise on human rights.

 

Argument 3: Kicking Sara Sanders out is the the moral equivalent of not baking a cake for a gay couple and what if people opposed to abortion did the same thing.

Trump and allies are spinning the equivalency argument for sure.  But many on the left made the equivalency argument in a joyful spitefulness, that I don't believe is helpful.

Not serving because of who they are (something they can’t change) is not the same as declining to serve a high ranking government official who just spent the last few weeks lying and defending child abuse. Those are choices she made and she could unmake those choices at any point. The point of public shaming and shunning is to convince someone to make different choices moving forward. 

The extreme right wants a white only nation. The left wants health care for everyone. The far right intimidates with guns brought to rallies. The left participates in civil disobedience to end poverty. The equivalency is misguided and puts the noble reasonable centrist as the valued group. MLK’s letter from a Birmingham jail addresses your position better than I could.

The abortion issue was brought up by many including the Washington Post claiming that pro life proponents could handle the private sphere the same.  However, good people can see the abortion issue differently and the fact is that there is a large contingent of anti-abortion activists that have anything but civil over the years...

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Argument 4: This isn't strategic action and potentially plays into the hands of Trump.

Ahh telling others how and when to peacefully protest...

I am sensitive any time I hear folks telling people how and when to protest. We hear this from the Right a lot.  "Don't take to the streets.  Don't stop traffic.  Don't kneel.  Don't protest on this day. etc." However, some folks on the left also offer their critique.  If the staff as the Red Hen and others have the courage to confront those in power we ought to thank them not sit on the sidelines criticizing.

My ask of progressives who have seen a lot is to have a big tent approach to those who have the courage to resist in ways big and small. My advice in general to white baby boomers (who are often the ones making these arguments about strategy and tactics) in term of effectiveness is go talk to your peers who largely gave us Trump. Start peeling more folks off for the sake of the republic and spend less time criticizing tactics of other resisters. Some methods may be more strategic than others, but clearly this small act of resistance created a good deal of cognitive dissonance amongst the center-left (especially amongst white boomers) and that's a good thing. Discussions like this are positing how to channel the urgency in confronting the pre-fascism acts of Trump. That's good to the degree that we don't land one size fits all solutions.

Also, there is an armchair component to folks who criticize protest from afar but do little themselves to confront the human rights violations.  I also hope we’ll see all those who don’t like confronting Sara Sanders in a restaurant out protesting ICE installations and confronting what you would consider “fairer” targets and times to stop the abuse of children.   

The truth is that all tactics of protest can be cast uncivil, even kneeling for example.  The Atlantics made this case well (https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2018/06/the-civility-insti…) in that  of MLK as not civil, but militant in peaceful protest and civil disobedience.

I also don’t think the tactics of direct confrontation are mutually exclusive with what others are suggesting.  Yes, there must be political movement building. Yes, we must register folks to vote. Yes we must do solid community organizing. Marches and demonstrations are part of it as well. But direct confrontation can and should be part of the overall resistance movement picture as well.

My message is: Don’t criticize others with the courage to confront the perpetrators of human rights abusers directly.  You do whatever tactics work for you, but do something.  

 

Other Articles on this that spoke to me.

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/25/opinion/trump-sarah-huckabee-sanders…

http://www.philly.com/philly/columnists/will_bunch/supporting-incivilit…