Taking The Cake

With Alyssa, Alexis & Ashley: October 2016

If I had wanted to bake the cake for my seventieth birthday party myself, I would not have been allowed to do so. For reasons of liability insurance, a catered event at Troon properties does not allow privately created confections, the risk of food poisoning (and consequent lawsuits) being presumably too great. That was fine with me, and the manager and I agreed that ‘Baked With Love’ (who had provided the cake for my sixtieth birthday party) would be an excellent choice as authorized purveyor of dessert comestibles to the St. James gentry. I thus made my way into Southport that same afternoon, cheerily greeted the owner, and presented my request.

But I was to be rejected. She did not recall the order of 2006, and dourly told me that she could not meet my request, as she now only baked for ‘regular customers’. My first flippant thought (apart from the Pythonesque ‘this is a cake shop, isn’t it?’) was that you can’t get much more regular than every ten years, but as I made my way through the door (having been recommended by her to try a couple of alternatives), another thought occurred to me. Would she have been entitled to reject my request if I had said that I was planning a gay wedding? Or the annual solstitial celebrations of the Southport Atheists’ Society? Don’t small business proprietors like her have to be very careful these days?

Now my first instinct is that a family-owned small business – or even a larger one – should be free to develop and market its products as it thinks fit, with as little government intervention as possible. As an example, Neuwirth Motors, the Chrysler/Dodge/Jeep/RAM dealership in Wilmington, North Carolina, advertises its business every night on the local TV news programme with the relentless slogan: ‘Where God, Family and You come first!’  Apart from the fact that I am uncertain how one can have this unusual trinity all in first place, and I do not understand what role the Almighty has in the selling of motor vehicles, this does not worry me unduly. (I do not take the micro-aggression too personally.) All it means is that I am permanently discouraged from even considering Neuwirth as the supplier of my next means of private transport, as I would feel very uncomfortable walking into a dealership where I might get quizzed on my understanding of the Thirty-Nine Articles before I was let in to the showroom. But that is fine. There are many other reputable car dealers in Wilmington (although, sadly none for Lexus yet, which could be the subject of another whole blog), and I occasionally wonder how many prospective customers the dealership loses rather than gains through its evangelism, and whether the top honchos at Chrysler approve of  ̶  or even encourage  ̶  this marketing technique.

Yet that is surely not enough. I am too reminiscent of the landladies’ signs of ‘No Irish. No Blacks’ in the streets of London when I was growing up, and am sharply aware of the prejudices that have been exerted against minorities in this country – especially in the South, where I now live. It is clearly unacceptable for someone to be turned away from a business because of who he or she is (or appears to be), and I strongly deprecate such practices. But should a proprietor be forced to participate in a cultural undertaking to which he (or she) is strongly unsympathetic? If I am employed as a registrar of marriages, and gay unions are legal in the state where I work, my beliefs indisputably should not be allowed to interfere with my civic responsibility, and entitle me to refuse to administer such an event. But as a private entrepreneur, may I decline to ice a cake that celebrates such an occasion? Alternatively, irrespective of whether I am a member of the American Civil Liberties Union, should I be able to decline the order of a cake from a well-known Ku Klux Klan member? Or only when that person requests an objectionable but legal slogan on the cake itself? Or never?

Even the U.S. Supreme Court struggles over these matters, and how far the push for free speech can be extended into a legal resolution. It is perhaps regrettable that these disputes find themselves in legislative territory, as they could in many cases be avoided by good manners. By that, I don’t mean to suggest that racist speech can be hygienically cloaked in etiquette, but that sensible persons do not go out of their way to upset other people. I would not try to prove a point by wanting an irreligious message iced on a cake, and going round the bakers of Southport trying to find a willing purveyor. (I doubt whether I would find one.) And I know that if I paraded heathen bumper-stickers on my car around Brunswick County, I would be bound to get key-scratches on it before you could say ‘Billy Graham’. I was brought up more on a philosophy of ‘Live and let live’ (homespun proverbial), ‘It isn’t wrong, but we just don’t do it’ (the Reverend W. Awdry), and ‘There’s nowt so queer as folk’ (from my Wearside grandmother). (I should add to that the acquired and very un-English technique of confronting anti-social behavior the first time it occurs: this sometimes causes immediate friction, but offers the best chance of changing such behavior. I seriously regret the occasions when I have not done that, but have had no second thoughts about the situations when I have followed the principle.) But so much of today’s discourse is about rights and entitlements and grievances and identity and micro-aggressions and cultural appropriation and oppression and victimisation that contrary values are bound to provoke some stepping on other people’s toes.

A pluralistic society (not a ‘multi-cultural’ one) is supposed to be able to deal with such conflicts, recognizing that private beliefs may not be reconcilable but should be allowed to exist so long as they do not break the law (no polygamy, for example). As Isaiah Berlin wrote: “That is why pluralism is not relativism – the multiple values are objective, part of the essence of humanity rather than arbitrary creations of man’s subjective fancies.” But when private values invade the public space too boldly, tensions arise. And we see a lot of that these days. From the traditional right, for example, come jingoistic flag-waving, ‘right to life’ protests, demands for freedom to carry guns, pressures for prayer in schools, and calls for ‘creationism’ to appear in science text-books. And from the left, claims for broader abortion rights, demands for hunting bans, and appeals for strident minority entitlements, including special legal accommodations for all manner of tribes and ‘communities’, including unauthorised immigrants. All these complemented recently, of course, by the question of whether religious attire should be allowed to conceal one’s features in public spaces.

Some believe that these twin pressures can lead to authoritarianism. Isaiah Berlin again:   “ . . . some values clash: the ends pursued by human beings are all generated by our common nature, but their pursuit has to be to some degree controlled — liberty and the pursuit of happiness, I repeat, may not be fully compatible with each other, nor are liberty, equality, and fraternity. So we must weigh and measure, bargain, compromise, and prevent the crushing of one form of life by its rivals. . . .  One cannot have everything one wants — not only in practice, but even in theory. The denial of this, the search for a single, overarching ideal because it is the one and only true one for humanity, invariably leads to coercion.”  That the pressures inevitably express a dawnist yearning may be an exaggeration, but they certainly make that space in the middle more precarious. In a pluralist society, one should be able to engage in discourse with strangers without knowing their ‘identity’, or their ethnic origin, or their religious beliefs, or their political persuasions – or even their sexual personae and preferences, namely all the attributes that belong in the private sphere, and which should better be uncovered gradually as two persons begin to explore each other’s territory, without stereotypes or prejudice. But the gently regal ‘Have you come far?’ has more often been replaced by the brusquely interrogative ‘Where are you from?’ As I like to respond: ‘We are all out of Africa’.

(Note the following item from the New York Times of December 25: “Before 2003, believe me, my neighbor didn’t know what I was. No one could ask, are you Sunni? Or Shia? Or Muslim? Or Christian?” [Mosul Christian Haseeb Salaam])

The outcome was that I ordered my cake elsewhere, at the Side Street Bakery in downtown Southport. See http://www.downtownsouthport.org/side-street-bakery/.  And very good it was. I had my gâteau and ate it, too (well, not all of it). The party went off very well, I believe, and everybody seemed to have a good time. My playlist of ‘The 100 Best Soft Rock Songs, 1960-2000’, relayed by the magic of Bluetooth from my iPad to the sound system, was soon drowned out by the chatter of the guests. About fifty friends attended, but sadly none from the UK. My brother and his wife were regrettably not able to make it, but Sylvia, Julia and I were delighted that our son, James, travelled from California with his eldest daughter, Ashley, for the event. (His wife, Lien, had to stay home with the twins.) Here are Ashley at the Beach Club, she and James, and she and I at the party location, the Founder’s Club at St James.

I also set up, on the back of the menu, a topical quiz, which turned out to be far too hard. (If you are interested, see here.)

All in all, apart from certain political developments, a satisfactory year. I completed my doctoral thesis, and successfully defended it. I signed my book contract, and supplied the publisher with the typescript at the end of this month, so that the item should be available in time for the centenary of the Russian Revolution. I also learned – though not yet officially  ̶  that I had been elected a Vice-President of the Whitgiftian Association, the administrative body of my alma mater. Not an earth-shattering achievement, but one that gives me pleasure, as it reflects some measure of how I must have contributed to the success and reputation of the school. Unless, of course, it was all a hoax. This was, after all, the year of Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize, and the appointment of Wonderwoman to be the ambassador for women’s empowerment to the United Nations. That prompts me to recall a classic Private Eye cover, from April 1980, just before we emigrated to the United States. It can be seen here: http://www.private-eye.co.uk/covers/cover-479. Doesn’t that take the cake? On that note I wish all my readers a very happy 2017.

P.S. For all the thousands of eager readers around the world who are pleading for the next installment of Sonia’s Radio  – be patient! I know the suspense is almost unbearable. As one reader wrote to me: ‘Sonia’s Radio makes The Old Curiosity Shop seem like press releases from the Department of Work and Pensions’. Quite so. The saga will be resumed next month.

As is customary, the Commonplace entries for the month appear here.

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