Week's End Thoughts & Reflections, June 30, 2018


In 1618 the Protestant Bohemian estates rebelled against the Catholic, Counter-Reformation Hapsburg dynasty. Following an old custom in cases of political protest, they began by throwing several of the emperor's officials out of a window in Prague castle (Hagen Schulze, Germany: A New History, p. 62). Perhaps the Trump officials who were heckled, harassed, and asked to leave restaurants last week should consider themselves fortunate.

The debate rages on. Should morality trump civility? With the passage of a few days for reflection, I have become more favorably disposed toward Stephanie Wilson, owner of the Red Hen in Lexington, Virginia, who asked Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave her restaurant. She acted courteously and graciously on the basis of what she felt was a moral imperative. I remain uneasy about it.

Francine Prose argues forcefully that our obligation is to morality over manners:

We need to be able to speak up and tell them what we think, to quote Maxine Waters, "in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station”" anywhere we see them. It’s as American as apple pie to hold public officials accountable for their actions. That is part of their job, what they signed on for. Their obligation to represent us – to answer to us – is the condition of their employment, especially when their duties require them to uphold and implement heartless and morally indefensible positions. Changing their minds seems unlikely; no one imagines that Sarah Sanders will mend her ways as a consequence of being denied service in a Virginia restaurant. Still, we need to speak up – if only for ourselves, to remind us of who we are and what we believe in. We have a right to express our opinions about how our government is being conducted, and no one, not even Donald Trump, should be able to warn Americans to be careful. (Manners or morals? The choice is easy when the stakes are this high, The Guardian, June 28, 2018)

The appeal to moral obligation is powerful. It can also be dangerous when, steeped in the righteousness of our cause, we forget that we too are capable of cruelty and injustice. We too can get things wrong. I make a distinction between confronting someone more or less individually as Wilkinson did and a crowd gathering to harass an individual in a public place or at a private residence. As I have said before, at some point the latter begins to smack of mob action and vigilantism. That is a rathole I do not want to go down. Let Trump and his people own it.

Mike Huckabee, father of Sarah Huckabee Sanders, claimed that Wilkinson followed the Sanders family when they left her restaurant and organized a picket against them at another restaurant. The Snopes fact-check on the incident reports that one member of the public briefly held up a sign outside the other restaurant. Wilkinson had nothing to do with that. She did not organize a picket or protest, nor did she personally picket Sanders. Whether Huckabee is lying or merely willfully ignorant is a moot point.

The lies of the president, House Speaker Paul Ryan, and others who charge Congresswoman Maxine Waters with calling for violence should not pass without note. The congresswoman has stated explicitly that she believes in "peaceful, very peaceful protests" and has not called for harm to anybody. Nonetheless, her call for people to confront and harass Trump staffers in public spaces was intemperate and I think ill-advised. While not advoctating violence, her remarks contribute to a heightening of rhetoric and tensions that makes for an atmosphere where violence becomes more likely, not less.

The president issued a vaguely ominous warning to Waters to "be careful." CNN reported Thursday that Waters is canceling events due to an increase in threats and "hostile mail" to her office, including "one very serious death threat" (Ashley Killough, Maxine Waters says she's faced increased threats, cancels attending 2 events, CNN, June 29, 2018). Does it go too far to speculate that some of his followers took him to heart?

Back at the Red Hen, the restaurant has been subjected to protests, had eggs and excrement thrown at it, and Bikers for Trump planned to gather outside today. Another business in Lexington received a bomb threat. These are the president's people in action.

Symptomatic of the times, the restaurant's Facebook page is awash in vitriol spewed from all sides. A welcome exception comes from my old Atlanta friend Mark Kelmachter, who wrote that he would eat there no matter what color hen they served. More heartening is the report that a nearby florist has been inundated with orders for bouquets that were left at the Red Hen to show support for Wilkinson. (Adam Gabbett, A visit to the Red Hen restaurant, where death threats mix with letters of support, The Guardian, June 29, 2018)

The confrontation issue is not only a question of right and wrong. The efficacy of the tactic matters too. To whatever degree the Trump camp manages to turn the conversation from administration policies that harm immigrant children and their parents seeking asylum to harassment of government employees doing their jobs, the public and the media are distracted from more pressing issues. Among other things that makes it more difficult to put pressure on senators from red states and representatives from red districts to resist the administration's hard line.

An unnamed source informed us of a crisis brewing in Oklahoma after citizens of that well-armed state voted on Tuesday to legalize medical marijuana. It seems that use of marijuana, whether for medical purposes or just to get a buzz on, runs afoul of federal laws governing possession of firearms and ammunition. If you hold a medical marijuana card you are presumed to be a user, and if you are a user you are prohibited from possessing, transferring, or shipping firearms or ammunition. It can be a felony for a person trying to make a private sale to someone known to be a medical marijuana license holder. Gun owners are up in arms, so to speak.

For the record, I am a little dubious about some of the claims for medical marijuana, whose advocates can come off like snake-oil hucksters peddling it as a cure for anything that ails you. Legalization of marijuana more generally, while regulating and taxing the heck out of it, makes sense for all sorts of reasons. Nonetheless, it remains well down the list of issues I would go to the wall on.

While we are on the subject, does it sometimes seem that NPR, or maybe it is just Oregon public radio, is operating as the public relations arm of the cannabis industry?

The president and his running dog lackeys are talking up a Red Wave in November. Are they blowing smoke? Or does the president know something? What is on the agenda for that July summit with Vlad Putin?

Anthony Kennedy's decision to step down from the Supreme Court is grim news. His legacy is mixed from my point of view. It was not enhanced by recent votes or by the timing of his resignation.

There is not much the Democrats can do about his replacement. They should not seek or even advocate holding off a vote on Trump's nominee until after the November elections. Mitch McConnell was wrong on Merrick Garland. The Democrats would be wrong to follow his precedent.

Immigration and November. "Nitroglycerine. That’s how one long-time political strategist recently explained the politics of immigration to me. It’s one of those issues, he said, that can just as easily explode in your face as it can blow up the other side." (Amy Walter, Are Democrats Ready to Make Immigration an Issue in the Midterms?, The Cook Political Report, June 26, 2018)

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 28-year-old democratic socialist and former Bernie Sanders campaign organizer who knocked off incumbent Joe Crowley in Tuesday's primary in New York, comes off as quite impressive in the bits I've read about her and the snatches of interviews I've heard. Also impressive was Crowley's gracious concession. He deserves kudos for that, as does Ocasio-Cortez for her gracious acknowledgment of it.

Racking up Democratic wins in November matters more than whether the winners are established Democrats or progressives. I still fret that not all Dems understand this.

Keep the faith.

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