Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Coffee Houses vs. Bars as Gardens of Sedition

When coffee houses take off, the ruling power usually tries to suppress them because they breed sedition. The caliph made such an attempt in Egypt, as did most of the European kings. These attempts all failed, typically because powerful people were already so addicted to coffee and enamored of the coffee house that they nullified the banning order at the outset. To be sure, kings and caliphs found other ways to get coffee houses under control, especially by using spies. But the tension remained.

Kings do not seem to have the same problem with pubs and taverns. Muslim rulers, of course, do not quite have this problem, as alcohol-based public houses were forbidden anyway (though they could still be found). When coffee reached Europe, by contrast, alcohol vendors were well established. On most of the continent, the "caf├ęs" were co-opted into mostly alcohol-serving restaurants, which also served coffee. It was only in the English-speaking lands that coffee houses developed as full-blown alternatives to pubs. There the political contrast was drawn in clearer relief. When Charles II tried to suppress the English coffee houses as hot-beds of sedition, he promoted the good old English pubs as places where people drank without talking about affairs of state that were none of their business.

This history suggests to me an interesting contrast:

Coffee houses pose few dangers to the individual, but some danger to the state; bars pose few dangers to the state, but some danger to the individual.

In fact, a Machiavellian ruler might see bars as a useful tool to keep the population politically quiescent. A sports bar would be the perfect tool of a modern-day "bread and circuses" campaign.

If you want to organize a rally against the war, go to a coffee house. If you want to get people to call in against the coach, go to a bar.


Stuart Gordon said...

Here I was, happily avoiding both coffee houses and sports bars, and now I'm confronted with a choice!

halifax said...

So it's not religion that's the opiate of the masses, but opium that's the opiate of the masses.

Alan said...

Hmmmm..... Coffee houses or bars? Coffee houses or bars? Why choose? I believe that's technically called the fallacy of the false dichotomy. ;)

Stuart Gordon said...

Okay, coffee in the morning (can you get decaf?) and ales in the evening when the Tar Heels are on!

Mary Jo T said...

It fits: caffeine stimulates, alcohol depresses.

If you tried to have an intellectual discussion at a bar, you wouldn't last more than a few rounds before you start becoming less articulate.

Gruntled said...

Now if you can get gambling and sports into the bars, the masses will never come out.