Saturday, June 30, 2018

Of Politics and Restaurants

As I mentioned in passing yesterday, while I was otherwise preoccupied getting my knee fixed, a restaurant in Virginia joined the already famous Masterpiece Cake Shop in exploring the ethical dimensions of what kinds of customers to serve or not to serve. I refer, of course, to what happened when the owner of a restaurant in Lexington, VA, asked White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave her restaurant after a number of the restaurant's staff had told her that they were uncomfortable serving the official spokesperson for an administration that has behaved so appallingly toward immigrants, and other minority groups.

As Saint Paul famously pointed out to the Christians in Corinth, just because something is lawful does not make it wise or prudent. As a matter of principle, presumably, the restaurant, a private business not a public service or governmental agency, has the right to take such a stand. The real question, of course, is whether it is wise or prudent to do so, what good it does or doesn't do in regard to anything that matters, and whether it further undermines that increasingly elusive goal of political "civility." 

And these are, indeed, difficult questions to answer. As with so many such symbolic protests, the protest itself tends to become the subject of debate, not the reprehensible behavior being protested. It could even be argued in this particular case that such symbolic protest simply plays into the hands of the Administration - distracting attention from our government's aggressive use of state power against helpless parents and children on our southern border. This easily happens in a media culture of false equivalence, in which the "incivility" of inconveniencing the Administration's spokesperson's dinner plans is presented as somehow comparable to the "incivility" of separating children from their parents.

That said, I have long been of the opinion that such symbolic acts of protest seldom accomplish much - and at worst can become self-righteous substitutes for doing anything about the actual problem.  At the risk of overgeneralization, those on one side in American politics and culture wars tend to be better at focusing on what needs to be done - mobilizing political power in support of their agenda. Those on the other side tend to be better at expressive political actions rather than consequential political actions. Crudely put, the Right votes, the Left demonstrates. Demonstrations may indeed dominate short-term news coverage, but voting wins actual political power and produces political results that make a real difference in real people's lives. Wherever one comes down on the merits of any particular act of expressive protest, the priority has to be on practical political action.

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