Opinion

Hiding behind ‘civility’ in uncivil times

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Two women were recently kicked out of restaurants.

One holds a position of great power and influence. The other is a member of one of the most bullied and marginalized groups in our society.

One is defended by the president of the United States, the other is dehumanized by that same president’s policies and positions – attacked only because of the person she is.

One has sparked a discussion on “civility.” The other, well, was asked for her driver’s license just to use the restroom.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the press secretary to President Donald Trump, was asked to leave the Red Hen restaurant in Lexington, Virginia.The owner made the decision that she would not serve Sanders because she has supported policies, such as a ban on transgender people in the military and the separation of children from their parents at the border, that are hateful.

Charlotte Clymer, a transgender woman and staff person at the Human Rights Campaign, was kicked out of Cuba Libre Restaurant and Rum Bar in Washington, D.C., because she tried to use the bathroom.

The circumstances are not the same, morally or legally. In Washington, D.C., and in Maine, it is illegal to deny a public accommodation to someone based on their gender identity. It is not illegal to deny service to someone based on their actions.

But the two incidents speak to power – who has it, who doesn’t and how vulnerable people can be attacked while the powerful can hide behind a shield of “civility.”

I have no patience for calls of civility today.

And I have even less patience for the circular firing squad that too many Democrats and progressives are willing to form in this debate, shooting at one another because someone who they might share a greenroom with is made to feel uncomfortable for their actions.

If you’re a powerful, rich white guy with a gig talking on TV, you need to stop talking about civility. Because the incivility of the current political climate is academic to you, or you imagine a day when you might not be served a nice martini because you are a powerful White House figure. But for migrants, LGBT people, African Americans, and other vulnerable people, it’s all too real.

It is not academic to the transgender person who might be kicked out of the military, murdered because of growing intolerance or denied a place in public life.

Or the migrant children separated from their parents and locked in cages.

Or the gay couples whose rights are being rolled back, who are denied a cake because of who they love, who are told they can’t adopt a child who needs a loving home.

Or the millions of people who might lose access to health care, Social Security or Medicare.

Or the Muslims attacked because of their faith.

Or the veterans who are at risk of losing food assistance.

Or the athletes protesting racism and police violence.

Or the protesters who were physically attacked at Trump rallies.

Or the people who have to navigate aggressive and sometimes violent protesters outside Planned Parenthood just to get basic health care. Or doctors who face death threats (and actual death) to provide legal health care services to women.

As someone who was a spokesperson for a governor during difficult times, who has worked on campaigns to allow same-sex couples to marry, who ran a campaign to close dangerous loopholes in the state’s firearms background check system and to create a national monument, I can tell you firsthand that civility didn’t die when a restaurant in Lexington asked one of the most powerful people in the world to eat some place else.

It began to die a long time ago, its demise hastened by Trump, who encouraged violence among his supporters, chanted to lock up a political opponent, ridiculed a reporter with a disability and who has made clear that he views dissent as a crime.

As my mom used to say, if you walk with ducks, you get your feet muddy. Sanders is walking in the mud with the king duck.

If you empower a president and an administration, as Sanders does, that disregards forbearance for political opponents, that violates the norms of government to implement hateful and bigoted policies, that would roll back civil rights and voting rights to expand and hold onto power, you should not be surprised when people use the only power they have to hold you accountable.

I’m not sure I would have done what the owner of the Red Hen did, but I certainly understand it.

David Farmer is a public affairs, political and media consultant in Portland, where he lives with his wife and two children. He was senior adviser to Democrat Mike Michaud’s 2014 campaign for governor.

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