June 26, 2018
Red Hen Press, an independent publisher based in Los Angeles, has spent days refusing to carry food to Sarah Huckabee Sanders
by Ian Dreiblatt
Someday, historians may have to explain why, in the hot summer of 2018, a number of American conservatives grew incensed at an independent literary publisher for failing to promise to bring them food.
Consider the following tweet, addressed to indie stalwarts Red Hen Press:
Of course, one cannot bring one’s family of seven in for a nice dinner at Red Hen Press, the non-profit publisher of such titles as John Domini’s Talking Heads: 77 and Tom Hayden’s Rebel: A Personal History of the 1960’s. Red Hen Press, like virtually all book publishers, fully lacks a kitchen, dining area, menu, restaurant license, and waitstaff. Their response:
One last plea for sanity:
But, as Aretha Franklin once asked, who’s zoomin’ who?, because:
And the pièce de résistance:
(This wasn’t the end, by the way, but seems a good place to cut away for now.)
I believe it was Thucydides who first raised the immortal question: “The fuuuuck?”
Let us begin at the beginning.
So, in case you’ve been in a sealed capsule at the base of the Mariana Trench, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders kicked up a duststorm this weekend when she went public with the news that her family had been denied service at a restaurant in Lexington, Virginia called the Red Hen. The reason was straightforward — as the restaurant’s owner, Stephanie Wilkinson, explained to the Washington Post’s Avi Selk and Sarah Murray, her staff had not wanted to serve Sanders, whose day job involves publicly defending the “inhumane and unethical” Trump administration and demeaning journalists. Wilkinson, who seems pretty conflict-averse, explains, “This feels like the moment in our democracy when people have to make uncomfortable actions and decisions to uphold their morals.” She asked Sanders to leave.
Now. Ok. It’s no surprise that this did not play well to the MAGA crowd. That’s fine. I mean, it doesn’t really make sense—these are, in most cases, folks who support the right of businesses to decline service to particular costumers on the basis of their religious beliefs, and Sanders’s day job is to trounce moral scruples and ethical imperatives of the kind found in nearly all religions—but it’s to be expected. Trump’s approval rating has just fallen to forty-one percent, which suggests that much of the country considers his staffers to be deserving of restaurant service.
What is surprising, though, is how little some of those angry Trump supporters appear to care which “Red Hen” they’re vituperating. A completely unrelated DC restaurant, also called the Red Hen, was egged over the incident. A restaurant called the Olde Red Hen in Collingwood, Ontario—in another country entirely—received a flood of online harassment. And Red Hen Press, our LA-based partners in publishing Steve Almond, and a restaurant in no sense whatever, has been fielding attacks on Twitter, Facebook, and the phone.
When one user threw out a meme urging supporters to “advertise their bigotry,” tagging the press and the DC restaurant, Red Hen responded, “Red Hen Press is a non-profit book publishing company based out of Los Angeles. @RedHenDC is also not the correct restaurant. Hens are popular logos!” (The restaurant jumped in with a spirited Yas Queen gif.)
From the looks of things, this must be getting exhausting:
It should be noted that some of the affronted MAGAites, on learning that the LA-based non-profit publisher Red Hen Press has no say in who gets served at a random restaurant in Virginia, have been reasonable, cordial, and even downright friendly, apologizing for the mistake and moving on. But others have continued to load flaming garbage into the typhoon, which shows no sign of abating.
Anyhow, we reached out to Red Hen HQ, where, flaming garbage typhoon nothwithstanding, spirits seemed to be holding up. Deputy director Tobi Harper explained that the tweets haven’t been the worst of it: “We came into the office this morning to find eight voicemails on various departments’ phones, ranging from polite discontent to rage fueled yelling. Considering how these customers googled us, missed the fact that we’re a publisher, and then listened to our voicemail to be routed to departments such as ‘editorial’ and ‘media,’ it would be funnier if it wasn’t so alarming.”
An official statement from the house reads:
“Red Hen” is not a restaurant franchise, it is a name incidentally shared by many independent and unaffiliated companies. As for us at “Red Hen Press” (a book publishing company, not a well-named panini shop), we’re reminded of an excerpt from our recently published Bad Stories by Steve Almond, “In a broader sense, our embrace of the Internet has deregulated the social contract. In our quest for open source knowledge we have created a public forum plagued by unsourced misinformation. In our yearning for connection, we have fashioned digital bunkers in which citizens sit alone for hours expressing primal negative emotions without fear of consequence, even with some hope of acclaim. This ethical bifurcation is the psychic fingerprint of the Internet. We have come to accept cruelty and deceit as inevitable in our civic life, and our leaders.”
Truly, ours is an age when the comedians envy the journalists. To our friends at Red Hen: stay strong. Sorry you’re dealing with this. We are with you in Rockland.
Ian Dreiblatt is the director of digital media at Melville House.