Saturday, January 20, 2007


I was tagged by fellow blogger Dennis Hancock to come up with five odd facts about me.

1. In college, I knew the combination to the college's safe.

2. I once performed P.D.Q. Bach music at Lincoln Center in New York. We even made a record, the Liebeslieder Polkas, of the same renowned fictitious composer's work.

3. Despite teaching a coffee class, I only have one cup a day.

4. I am the richest man in the world (3 kids @ GNP of North America = oodles)

5. I drive barefoot.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Coffee House Debate is a Minority Calling

This morning our seminar on Cafés and Public Life met in our local coffee house to talk about whether public life needs coffee houses (or something like them), and whether most people need public life of the kinds that coffee house debate provides.

Our conclusions: Yes to the first, No to the second.

Habermas argues that society needs a robust public sphere in which the public critically debates the issues of the day. This creates public opinion, the necessary counterweight to the state and the corporations. Otherwise, public opinion is corrupted into propaganda and advertising.

Not everyone, though, wants to think critically about the Big Picture, about the structure of society and the relations of power. As several students said (possibly autobiographically) it is easier and more comfortable to live in a bubble, not worrying about the structures that shape ordinary life.

Those who promote a robust public life often imply that democracy itself is imperiled if the masses don't participate in public debate. As I read the history of attempts to achieve sustained mass participatory democracy, though, this is a utopian quest, and an overstated fear.

For the good of society, it is a good thing that a strategic minority critically debate the issues of the day. They stand over against the interests of powerful institutions – and often support them, albeit knowingly and critically.

For the good of people who want coffee house debate, it is a good thing that there are coffee houses and other third places.

I think, though, that coffee house debate and leadership in public opinion will always be a minority taste and a minority calling.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Coffee Houses vs. Salons

The English coffee house of the 17th and 18th century had its counterpart in the cafés of the continental nations. Jürgen Habermas, though, makes the case that, as far as creating a public sphere for critical debate goes, the real counterpart of the coffee house was the French salon.

The coffee house was public, admitting all kinds. The coffee house was rough, smoky, competitive, and its menu had the "hogo of sirreverence." Few women went there. The salon was private, held in a house, admission by invitation only. Women were not only admitted, they controlled the invitations and the setting.

The advantage of the salon in creating a distinctive public sphere was that it included women and men. The advantage of the coffee house was that included a broader range of classes than any invitation-only group would have in that era.

Now, of course, coffee houses include both sexes and a fairly wide class range. The task is to create critical debate among so varied a group.

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 "cafés" 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.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The Hogo of Sirreverence

In the 17th century, when coffee came to England, it was attacked by the traditional ale- and beer-men and women because it tasted terrible and stank. It is true that, in those days, coffee was made in a smelly way. The beans were hand roasted very unevenly, and the grounds were left in the coffee for a long time, often ending up in the cup itself. The many pamphlets against coffee said it looked and tasted like soot, or mud, or worse. Indeed, some said it had the "hogo" (haute gout, that is, scent) of "sirreverence." Sirreverence was a euphemism derived from the apologetic way a servant would describe excrement – "save your reverence."

Markman Ellis, who presents this wonderful expression in The Coffee-House: A Cultural History, says that there was a market in those early days of the modern cosmopolitan market for bitter, astringent, tough tastes and smells. The coffee house, which reeked of coffee and tobacco, served that market. This hogo of sirreverence was another part of the reason that the early coffee houses were overwhelmingly male environments.

Modern coffee houses mostly sell sweet, milk-heavy coffee drinks. But they have within them those who want the bitterness of coffee as it comes from the bean. I have been a mocha drinker since the beginning of the specialty coffee boom, but reflection on how little coffee there is in a large mocha has led me to switch this week, at least halfway. Cappuccino, anyone?

Monday, January 15, 2007

Coffee House Talk Favors Masculine Acquaintances

[I am in the middle of my Cafés and Public Life class, so I thought I would share some thoughts on cafés and coffee houses this week.]

Coffee houses as classic third places – neither home, nor work – where strangers can become acquaintances. Coffee houses promote a kind of sociability through which people from different walks of life can talk about public issues. The regulars in a coffee house may talk often about all manner of things. But the norm for that kind of sociability is that it stays in the coffee house, unless two people make an unusual effort to develop the relationship deeper.

In other words, coffee house comrades can remain at the same friendly acquaintance level for a long time – years, even. I have had a number of coffee house buddies over the years whose last names I never learned, or could recall. This did not diminish the quality of the relationship.

I think this kind of stable friendly acquaintanceship is more typical of men's than women's conversation partners. Ray Oldenburg, the sociologist who coined the term "third place," writes fondly of the group of retired men with whom he regularly gets together to "settle all the problems of the world." I have known many a men's coffee talk group, especially "old goats clubs" of retired men, that did just that sort of thing. They knew one another's opinions on public issues, but they did not know the details of one another's lives very well. The women's kaffeeklatch, in my experience, is quite different. There, the main subject of conversation is one another's lives and families. If a group of women talked regularly over coffee, but never got personal, I expect that most of them would think there was something wrong with the group.

The golden age coffee houses of the 17th and 18th centuries were overwhelmingly male environments. Today's coffee house is much more mixed. Still, I think the distinctive form of sociability of the coffee house as third places favors a more masculine than feminine conversational style.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

King at the Mason Temple

Martin Luther King's famous last speech, the prescient "I have been to the mountain top" oration given the night before he was assassinated, was delivered at the Mason Temple in Memphis. I had long wondered why a Baptist minister would be speaking in a Masonic temple. But, as I discovered when I started teaching about American religion, the Mason Temple is not connected with the Masons, the sometimes anti-Christian secret society. Rather, it is the central edifice of the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), founded by Rev. C.H. Mason.

COGIC is the largest black Pentecostal denomination in the United States. It might be the largest black denomination of any kind in this country. Sometimes they claim a membership of 5.5 million, which would make it a top-ten American denomination of any kind. However, that number is probably a highly optimistic estimate. Still, it is pretty big. There are more black Baptists in this country, but they are divided into several principal denominations, including King's own, the Progressive National Baptists.

In 1968, when King spoke at the Mason Temple, what was most important about the venue that night was not that it was Pentecostal, but that it was black controlled. Ministers of many denominations worked together for the larger cause of civil rights. Since the 1960s, though, Pentecostalism has boomed. My rough estimate (and it is rough, given the available numbers) is that there were probably more people in either of the two largest black Baptist denominations (both called National Baptist) at that time than there were COGIC members. Since then, though, Pentecostal growth rates worldwide have outstripped even the respectable growth rates of all kinds of theologically conservative Baptists. Pentecostal denominations, including COGIC, are only now starting to get the recognition that their numbers have long suggested.

In yet another, less expected way, King was prescient that night in Memphis. When he was speaking to the future of race relations in America, he was also, indirectly, speaking in a vital house of the future of black Protestantism.