The essay sent the Internet into titters on Monday. But though it may have seemed little more than an amusing distraction ahead of a much-needed holiday, it was actually an instructive intervention into the “civility” conversation that has occupied the intelligentsia for the past two weeks.
It’s easy to laugh at the image of Dershowitz, whom many see as a Trumpist lackey after his repeated televised defenses of the president against investigation and impeachment, wandering lonely through an island whose elite no longer welcome him at their dinner parties. The entire episode reeks of privilege: Why should anyone feel entitled to attend glitzy gatherings in an expensive and exclusive locale?
It is hard to feel sorry for a man cloistered enough to think a piece whining about such a plight would receive a warm reception — especially when thousands of immigrant children apprehended at the border still haven’t been reunited with their families, when the president’s forthcoming appointee to the Supreme Court could pitch in to roll back abortion rights within 18 months, and when . . . well, the list goes on.
But it’s striking that Dershowitz has received nothing but scorn while Sarah Huckabee Sanders earned sympathy even from those who disdain President Trump when the owner of the Red Hen restaurant in Lexington, Va., asked the White House press secretary to leave two weekends ago. The Red Hen’s employees, working men and women, engaged in the same sort of act of conscience as the vacationers who’ve said they’d rather not dine with Dershowitz, thank you very much. (Disclosure: Dershowitz taught a freshman seminar I enrolled in at college and wrote an internship recommendation for me. It was a different time.)
So why the different reactions? It’s actually pretty simple. Even most of the establishment anti-Trumpers who stood up for Sanders under the banner of “civility” can’t relate to Dershowitz and the swankiness of summering on Martha’s Vineyard. Many of them can, however, relate to eating at farm-to-table restaurants.
There’s an expectation that, when you’re prepared to pay a certain amount for a meal, you deserve a degree of deference. The Red Hen smashed this norm; that worried people who consider a code of polite conduct essential to a functional society. But this particular code really only exists for the type of society whose members see dining out as part of day-to-day life.
Similarly, the outrage over Michelle Wolf’s speech at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner came at first mostly from members of the media. They were appalled because it was their club that had suddenly lost a bit of its chumminess.
“Oh yes,” David Axelrod tweeted amid the Red Hen hullabaloo. “Let’s get REALLY tough and deprive the Trumpies of Chanterelle & Scape Risotto! That will change EVERYTHING!” But the thing is, for the Red Hen’s employees and for the Americans who supported them, it never was about risotto. It was about how the smashing of norms leads to real harm in the lives of real people.
In this way, “civility” is a luxury, just like a well-balanced cheese plate. Alan Dershowitz spending an evening alone on Martha’s Vineyard doesn’t bother many people because it doesn’t seem to threaten their way of life. Sarah Huckabee Sanders being forced to say a premature farewell to her meal did, by tearing down some trappings of the upper-middle-class social order. Those fighting to stay in the country, or hold onto their health care, or simply pay the rent, probably don’t care much about either.