This Washington Post editorial — “Let the Trump team eat in peace” — provides a useful platform for intelligently discussing the recent instances where Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller have encountered resistance while trying to dine out in D.C. area restaurants. The WashPo editorial counsels that:
We nonetheless would argue that Ms. Huckabee, and Ms. Nielsen and Mr. Miller, too, should be allowed to eat dinner in peace. Those who are insisting that we are in a special moment justifying incivility should think for a moment how many Americans might find their own special moment.
While reasonable, what the WashPo editorial board (and much of the current reporting and punditry) gets wrong is in conflating the experiences of all three of Sanders, Nielsen and Miller. The important distinction is that nothing objectionable or remarkable happened in the cases of Ms. Nielsen or Mr. Miller: they simply were on the receiving end of public protest. Ms. Huckabee’s case, however, is different because she was subjected to a different type of discrimination, with a long and terrible history in this country — the prejudicial denial of service. We should be able to recognize and discuss this core distinction, and not mindlessly lump all examples together.
For example, Homeland Security Secretary Nielsen was not denied any service but instead, having (incredibly, and I believe provocatively) gone to a Mexican restaurant in the midst of this border policy crisis, had to endure listening to the protest and political speech of citizens who disagreed with her policies. As one article describes:
Protesters entered a Mexican restaurant in D.C. on Tuesday evening to heckle Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen. She appeared to sit quietly with her head down for more than 10 minutes listening to the protesters chanting “Shame!” and “End family separation!”
Protesters, roughly 10 to 15 of them, entered MXDC Cocina Mexicana about 8 p.m. while Nielsen finished her meal with one other person. The restaurant’s general manager, Thomas Genovese, told The Washington Post that Nielsen had been dining for about an hour when the heckling began.
There is nothing objectionable about Ms. Nielsen hearing this criticism. Indeed, it is commendable and necessary, and the fact that this occurred in a restaurant is utterly irrelevant. Mr. Miller likewise only had to listen to some heckling while finishing his meal (again at a Mexican restaurant(!)) And, again, the fact that this public protesting occurred in a restaurant is meaningless.
By contrast, Ms. Huckabee Sanders experienced something different in that she was, arguably at least, subject to a denial-of-service — she was told that she was not welcome in a public accommodation business and (again, arguably) denied service. That places Ms. Huckabee Sanders’ experience — and only hers — in a different, fraught light because this country has had to struggle with and overcome a history of prejudicially denying services to certain groups. As just a few obvious examples, African Americans have been denied service at lunch counters, restaurants, bathrooms, pools and damn near everywhere else. Homosexuals and interracial couples have been denied hotel lodgings, and recently homosexual couples have been denied wedding related services. And as we all know, this urge to discriminate in the public square remains a strong desire among many, just looking for an excuse to discriminate freely again without restraint. And although a person’s political leanings do not entitle them to any “protected class” rights, folks like the WashPo can reasonably raise the issue whether any denial of service trend based on political beliefs is a healthy development for the body politic.
This distinction is crucial and important. It is ludicrous and damaging in the extreme to link the discomfort of two administration officials in having to listen to public protest to the long civil rights movement seeking to eliminate discrimination in the public space generally. In addition, the whole premise of the WashPo’s outrage is linked to the elitist notion that there is something particularly special and protected about the ability of high elected officials to enjoy dining out in “fancy” restaurants. That is almost a parody of elitism. And it directly leads to absurdities like EPA Director Scott Pruitt demanding First Class air travel because he does not like listening to the protests of “commoners” flying coach.
So, please, junk the manufactured connections to Ms. Nielsen and Mr. Miller. But lets have a smart conversation about whether, and why, it may be acceptable to deny services to Ms. Sanders but not to an African American or gay diner. And whether even if it is permissible, it should be encouraged. But let’s not allow the Trump administration’s penchant for whining and victimhood to pollute a vital and on-going civil rights debate.