For several years in the 1950s, Senator Joseph McCarthy smeared anyone and everyone he could while conducting his hunt for communist sympathizers in the United States government. As he did so — destroying lives and careers in the process — he was afforded a level of respect and deference all Senators receive. His work, however unpopular, however unethical and however criticized by some, was treated as if it were legitimate, ordinary and within the normal parameters of his role as a member of Congress.
All of that changed on June 9, 1954. Not because McCarthy’s colleagues did anything to stop him. Not because he broke a law or admitted to his overreach and his cruelty. It changed because, on that day, someone called him out for what he was.
His name was Joseph Welch, an attorney representing the United States Army, defending a junior attorney at his firm whom McCarthy put on blast for his own alleged communist sympathies. When McCarthy did this, Welch disposed with the usual behavior an attorney before a Senate committee is expected to display and called out McCarthy directly, with his now famous words, “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”
Those words marked a turning point. The point after which McCarthy’s excesses and overreach would no longer be tolerated. The point where his work and his words were no longer seen as an acceptable part of political discourse and debate but were, quite correctly, seen as aberrant and unacceptable within the context of a liberal democracy. McCarthy’s deplorable career and his deplorable work effectively ended that day. They ended because someone decided that they could not be tolerated and did something that was outside the bounds of what, in the moment, was expected. They ended because Joseph Welch disposed with deference and decorum. In short, he was uncivil.
Over the weekend, President Trump’s press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, was dining at the Red Hen restaurant in Lexington, Virginia. Multiple members of the restaurant’s staff told the owner that they objected to the administration’s recent actions leading to the separation of children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border and asked the owner to refuse Sanders’ party service. The owner politely asked Ms. Sanders to leave and she left. The restaurant owner explained her reasoning to reporters. It was not about a mere, narrow political disagreement as such. It was a matter of ethics and morals and her and her staff’s belief that the Trump administration had crossed a line into the “inhumane and unethical.”
Not surprisingly, the matter has blown up into a huge controversy, with conservatives and Trump supporters likening it to Jim Crow-era discrimination and opponents casting it as a matter of conscience. Also, not surprisingly, much of the political establishment has sought to cast it in terms of “civility” and a failure of people to agreeably disagree about the matters of the day.
It’s expected that the partisans would read this or any other controversy in a way that casts themselves as hero/victim, but the putatively neutral arbiters focusing on the lack of “civility” here as the real problem are the ones who truly get this wrong.
As Joseph Welch demonstrated, there comes a time when it is necessary to step out of one’s expected, ordinary mode of behavior and say “no, this is not normal, this is not acceptable, and I refuse to behave as if it were.” A time when we are not witnessing two sides debating in good faith regarding the correct path of the nation at which point we should no longer afford one of those sides the deference they expect. A time when we must speak up and make clear that their behavior and their views are not within the normal bounds of reasonableness and that they are not entitled to a seat at the table, figuratively or literally.
Saying such a thing tends to bother people because we’ve all been taught that we are all entitled to hold whatever political views and carry out whatever political acts we desire. And, of course, we are. We have come to assume, however, at least implicitly, that our right to do so carries with it an obligation of others to respect our political views and meet them head-on in good faith debate. That is simply not the case.
However shocking it may be for people to hear it, there is a finite spectrum of acceptable political values in this society. It’s a wide spectrum in this country — wider than in almost any other society in human history, I reckon — but it is finite. We would not and should not accept into polite society someone who advocates for legalized murder, slavery, rape and genocide, for extreme example. Such people would not be given an editorial in a respectable newspaper or a seat at a town meeting and, I would hope, we would not allow such people into our homes or places of business. If you take issue with that, this is probably a good time to stop reading, but I presume most folks don’t take issue with that. The point is, there is a line that one can cross where one is not merely espousing an “alternate viewpoint” which should be respected and at which point they are not entitled to deference and civility, even if there are still laws which prevent us from knocking them over the head with a well-seasoned cast iron skillet.
But surely there is a point before “legalized murder, slavery, rape and genocide” when such people can be and should be shunned, right? There is a spot on the political spectrum that is more extreme than “this person and I disagree” and less extreme than “this person literally wants me and everyone I love to be murdered” where it’s quite alright to call them out as pariahs and refuse to accept them as merely one voice in grand political discourse, no? I sure hope so, because people who truly want to legalize murder, slavery, rape and genocide are probably gonna start a bit smaller than that. Slides into tyranny are almost always incremental. As such, it’s best to nip such impulses in the bud.
We have a habit of painting our political adversaries as extremists, even when they are not particularly extreme, so there is always going to be a “you cried wolf” element to this sort of business. The fact is, though, we are now being ruled by extremists. I’m not talking about people of a certain political persuasion finding themselves temporarily ruled by folks of a different political party. That’s a feature of our system, not a bug, and if you can’t handle that you’ve got your own set of problems. No, I’m talking about extremism in the form of an administration, its enablers in Congress and its supporters around the country which hold no regard for basic liberal democratic values which both political parties in our country have long claimed to cherish.
What follows are not political opinions. They are basic, observable and incontrovertible facts regarding the Trump administration which should offend both Democrats and Republicans alike:
- Donald Trump is nakedly and unapologetically racist, and is carrying out policies which he has not even attempted to justify beyond base xenophobia while exploiting the xenophobia in others to achieve his ends;
- He is openly calling for the suspension of the rule of law in any number of contexts, all of which would work to his personal and political benefit;
- He is aiding dictators in the destruction of a liberal political and economic world order that has held, more or less, for over 70 years;
- He is personally corrupt, having used his office to enrich himself and his family members and he likewise has turned a blind eye to members of his administration doing the same; and
- He has lied about all of this and just about every other matter of substance, at every turn, in the most obvious, shameless and disprovable ways, utilizing classic tools of mid-century fascist and communist propaganda and Newspeak to accomplish it.
As a matter of simple fact, these are all acts and positions which are beyond the pale and which we have long considered to be utterly unacceptable in civilized American society. Under no circumstances are people required to respect it or afford it a place in the arena of normal, civilized political discourse. Under no circumstances are we required to be “civil” in the face of this base and reprehensible conduct by these reprehensible people.
The folks who own the Red Hen embodied this notion when they denied service to a key member of Trump’s political and propaganda machine. Their act of incivility is already being overblown, of course, because denial of service in a restaurant carries a lot of historic and symbolic value, but it was the small way in which the folks at that restaurant had any power to lodge a protest against acts and views which fly in the face of the values of a liberal democracy. It was a limited act within the world they inhabit but which made it clear where they stand and what they stand for.
Those of us who do not own restaurants can and should react similarly. That does not necessarily mean denying people service or making grand gestures — people should do what feels natural and right to them in any given moment rather than adhere to some sort of proscribed campaign — but it does mean, like Joseph Welch before us, we should call out indecency when we see it and demand leaders and institutions which are moral, ethical and just, calls for civility be damned.
We must do so even if most people are inclined to pretend as if things are perfectly normal when they most assuredly are not. Perhaps especially so.