Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Wake up and smell the coffee

Today's cafés too quiet, bars too noisy to ignite revolutionary fervour

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It's hard to plot to overthrow a government with a throbbing dance beat in the background.


It's hard to plot to overthrow a government with a throbbing dance beat in the background.

BOSTON -- On Dec. 16, 1773, a group of young men dressed as American Indians dumped three boatloads of tea into Boston harbor. It was the most brazen act of a long campaign of political disobedience planned by the Sons of Liberty from the safety of the Green Dragon and Salutation taverns in the city's North End. Today, you can still find the Green Dragon in the North End, a spiritual successor at the site of the original colonial tavern. But this Green Dragon is filled with throbbing music, making it a headache to plan and co-ordinate so much as a one-night stand (or so I've been told).


Sixteen years after the Tea Party, on the night of July 12, 1789, journalist Camille Desmoulins stood on a table at the Café de Foy and called on his fellow Parisians to smash the monarchy before it smashed them. The ensuing riot climaxed two days later with the storming of the Bastille. In the U.S. in 2014, you'll find no shortage of urban cafés, but jump up on a table and you'll break little more than the silence -- and perhaps an unlucky Macbook Air. Then management will invite you to leave.

A noise gap has developed in American public life, and it's a problem. The bars -- at least those frequented by people under 40, who historically drive bottom-up political movements -- have gotten louder. How loud? In 2012, The New York Times found that bars in that city regularly reached decibel levels so dangerously high that they violated federal workplace safety standards.

All that noise makes it hard to conduct a meaningful conversation, which is actually the idea. Bars have gotten louder at least in part in response to research showing that louder music encourages patrons to talk less and drink more. By rendering conversation obsolete, the loud atmosphere also nudges people towards imbibing past the point where intelligent conversation is possible. It's not easy to find a large, crowded bar in an American city where conversation isn't drowned out by music or a sports telecast. In fact, the Saloon on U Street in Washington, D.C., has made its name by refusing to play loud music and forcing patrons to stay in their seats, making conversation possible.

The cafés, meanwhile, have gotten quieter. For centuries, coffee was used as a conversation stimulant. But in the present-day U.S., it functions primarily as productivity booster. Coffee long ago penetrated the workplace, and now cafés themselves have become workplaces -- not just for eccentric writers and artists, but for knowledge workers of all stripes, who are often plugged into headphones that are plugged into laptops.

In 2011, a Gizmodo writer found it rude that people were talking near him at a café and tweeted, "Etiquette question: Now that coffee shops are basically office spaces, do you have to be quiet when you're in them?" At the Bean in Manhattan's East Village, as in several other New York coffee houses, management has instituted a laptop-free zone. A few tables tucked in a corner of the shop, the Bean's computer-free zone may as well be memorial to the late, great café atmosphere.

The shift in both scenes amounts to more than just a loss for conversationalists. For centuries, bars and cafés around the world have fostered dissent and bottom-up political action. Cafés, especially, have bedeviled the authorities as long as they've existed. In 1511, worried about loose political talk stimulated by coffee, the governor of Mecca ordered all of the city's cafés to shut their doors. In 1675, Charles II of England condemned coffee houses as sites where "False, Malitious and Scandalous Reports are devised and spread abroad, to the Defamation of His Majestie's Government, and to the Disturbance of the Peace and Quiet of the Realm." He ordered all of them disbanded by January. Neither ban proved enforceable.

In the history of the United States, the bars have played host to much of the action. Both the international labour and LGBTQ movements can trace their roots to American watering holes. The U.S. labour movement first took hold in the beer halls of industrial cities. The 1886 Haymarket Rally, which ended with 11 fatalities, was planned at Greif's Hall in Chicago, a hotbed of labour agitation, by a group of anarchists and activists. Prosecutors went on to characterize the meeting at Greif's as the "Monday Night Conspiracy," and its participants were convicted as accessories to the murder of the police officers killed at the rally. The events inspired the communist and labour movements' observation of May Day.

The LGBTQ rights movement began in earnest in the summer of 1969 with a rebellion against a police shakedown at the Stonewall Inn, a mob-run gay dive bar in Greenwich Village. Though the Stonewall riots were spontaneous, much of the organized movement that sprang from them was planned at gay bars from California to England.

This isn't coincidence -- a variety of factors have made bars and cafés the spaces where potent political change begins. Alcohol loosens inhibitions and caffeine stimulates conversation. The spaces offer a meeting place for people who don't have access to private clubs, boardrooms and the halls of power -- people, in other words, who are less invested in the status quo. Crucially, these are also semi-public spaces that can deliver a measure of privacy, a place where it's easy to congregate yet hard for authorities to monitor.

But that sweet spot can only be achieved at a certain level of din: A bar or café needs to be quiet enough that you can engage in conversation but loud enough to create both the perception and the reality that you won't be too easily overhead by the wrong people.

Not that the authorities won't try. Louis XV's spies haunted the cafés of 18th-century Paris. The NYPD's controversial 21st-century infiltration of Muslim neighbourhoods in New York City and beyond sent plainclothes officers to spy in cafés where they eavesdropped on conversations about politics, cricket, and kebab. It's this din, created by a large number of people closely congregated and engaging in regular conversation, which has been increasingly hard to find in our coffee houses and beer halls.

In part, the noise gap has developed because the Internet has become our new gathering space. A lot of those people ignoring their neighbours at cafés are on their computers, and some of them are surely using those machines to engage with politics. But the Web cannot play the same role as bars and cafés. It can't match the intimacy of those physical spaces or their potential for spontaneous mass gatherings. For all the hype about social media's roll in the Arab Spring, cafés still played a role, and an important one. Al Jazeera presenter Hassan Ibrahim has said of Egyptian protesters, "Electronic media, and the Internet played a vital role, but actually, they met in coffee shops. All political movements in Egypt started in coffee shops."

Maybe all this country needs to deliver the periodic rebellion the founders counted on is a few more good proprietors willing to get Americans talking, confiding and subverting again. I'd drink to that.


-- Slate

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 22, 2014 D4

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