Conservatives and coffee

J. P. Freire reports on a new “Conservative Cafe” in Crowne Point, Indiana:

“No, we don’t carry the New York Times,” [owner David Beckham -- not that David Beckham] assures me. They do, however, carry the Wall Street Journal and the Chicago Tribune. Meanwhile, café televisions are tuned to Fox News from open to close. As he describes his year-old venture, it’s clear that no fan of Starbucks would feel much at home in the Conservative Café. Then again, for Mr. Beckham, that’s the point.

“Nobody’s thought of starting a coffee shop that caters to more conservative thinking,” he stresses. But it’s not the thinking that seems to be at the center of his coffee shop’s experience. It’s the lifestyle. “We get a lot of curious people, but the majority of our clientele are conservatives. We’re in an area of Reagan Democrats. They’re over 30. They come with their families.”

Mr. Beckham’s coffeeshop sells t-shirts that use classic conservative shock-and-awe rhetoric, such as, “Silly Liberal: Paychecks are for workers,” and “Peace through superior firepower.” This comes despite his wife’s initial concerns that he would alienate half of all potential customers. “I told her that beauticians alienate half of their potential customers and they get by just fine.”

I’m all for letting a thousand flowers bloom, ideological diversity, small business, etc., but I’ve got to say: this sounds like an awful place. Just having TVs on in a coffee shop isn’t exactly a sign of vibrant intellectual life. But TVs tuned in constantly to FOX News? Ugh. As J. P. says, “There are no tomes of great philosophical or academic literature in the shop… Indeed, the portrait of TR pretty much precludes it.”

Left-wing shops like DC’s Busboys and Poets might not be much better; oddly, I never made it in. But at least they don’t exhibit this kind of anti-intellectualism. Selling the Wall Street Journal is great, but there’s no need to proudly shut out the New York Times. Sure, its editorials can be terrible, but the paper offers some of the best reporting in the country. A well-informed person ought to read it from time to time, not wear one’s dismissal of it as a badge of honor. (Today’s Republicans learn from the top, I guess.)

If conservatives would look into the soft lefty concern for the world’s poor expressed by many independent coffee companies, they’d see some intelligent commentary bubbling up. You know who offers the smartest critiques of Fair Trade? It’s not the conservatives and libertarians sneering at the label without a clue as to how coffee markets actually work. It’s the bean buyers who can tell you how Fair Trade is often an obstacle to improving farmers’ lives and how their own entrepreneurship has found better ways to reward farmers and raise standards of quality. They’re liberals, but they’re liberal capitalists. Their customers increasingly know this too.

And speaking of coffee, for a coffee shop owner Beckham says little about it. There’s no detail about his beans in the article and the cafe’s website isn’t very descriptive. It says they have four blends and that they are all roasted in Indiana. But the blends all come from individual countries: a Colombian, a Guatemalan, a Kenyan, and a Sumatran. So are they “blends” or are they single origins? And what do the “strength” ratings mean? Beckham doesn’t exactly sound like a coffee lover here: “We know what coffee is for. It’s to start your day. It’s not for sitting on a couch for 8 hours and looking for a friend on MySpace.” Or perhaps it’s for enjoying. Once again, this doesn’t sound like a place for the intellectually curious, in either its politics or its product.

I don’t want to slag this cafe too much. Coffee shops could use more diversity and I like to see small businesses succeed. For all I know, their coffee’s fantastic. Yet what I love about the best coffee shops is that they’re home to lively exchanges of ideas, not walled-off ideological conformity. If conservatives seem under-represented in them, that perhaps says more about conservatives than it does about coffee shops.

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