A Failed Conversation at Starbucks

IMG_0164I experienced one of the few failures of conversation I have ever had in our Starbucks group last week. I had a position I wanted to sell. It is position the group almost certainly accepts in general, but they didn’t want to accept it this time. And it is the failure of the conversation I want to point to, not my own failure. Although… (see below)


I am accustomed to considering “blame” as a relationship of events. I know that the legal perspective, which requires that someone be found guilty or negligent or something, likes to find one person, but not the other, at fault. Most often, I don’t see it that way. If a heavy person sits on a chair, which collapsed beneath him, I might say that the person was too heavy for the chair or that the chair was too flimsy for the person. You could say it either way, it seems to me.

Similarly, I could say that the group at Starbucks (the Caucus) stubbornly refused to accept the point I was making or that I made the point so poorly that they, although it was in keeping with their usual values, did not accept it this time. Either form can be seen to be a form of blaming. The combination of the two is not a form of blaming. It simply points to the disjunction.

They will see it as a loss

caucus 1When I referred, above, to the position the group accepts as a general matter, this is the position I had in mind. People should be granted the right to feel what they feel. This means only that we understand that every decision is made on the basis of a welter of considerations, many of them contradictory. I would really like to have my son and his family nearby, but the best job offer is in a distant city and I know the family will be better off there. The Caucus would, as a rule, say that they “understand” my feeling of personal loss and that they “approve” my giving greater weight to the more important consideration. On the other hand, if I said that I am opposed to my son and his family moving to a distant city even though I know it would be the best thing for them and that my opposition is based on my own regret that they will no longer live near me, they would not approve. They might very well characterize my consideration as “selfish.”

I understand that weighing of values and approving the greater value even at the loss of the lesser value. How could anyone oppose that?

Well, it turns out that it is not that hard to do. Here are some possibilities.

  • People insist that “America” (the United States) [1] is better than all the other nations of the world, not just one more nation like all the rest.
  • The white working class in the decades after the Civil War [2] actively sought to demean black people because being “white” made them feel they had some merit.
  • Many Germans in the 1920s and 30s believed that violating the restrictions the Versailles Treaty imposed on them and invading their neighbors as soon as they were able, was justified because it was a way for them to reclaim their national honor.
  • Men may mourn the loss of easy camaraderie in their work group when a woman is introduced into the group as their new co-worker.

Here is how the Caucus and I feel about those situations. The hyper-patriot has every right to mourn a loss of that “special” designation that many generations of Americans have cherished, but they should set that small loss aside and choose to honor the greater and more important truth that every nation feels that it is “special” in its own way.

caucus 5The white working class of the post-bellum south has every right to mourn the loss of the one social advantage they had, but they should set that aside in favor of the much greater importance of racial equity and social justice.

The Germans of the 20s and 30s have every right to mourn the disdain with the German nation was treated at Versailles, but they need to assert strongly that their need for national affirmation does not justify the invasion of their neighbors.

Men have every right to value the easy relationships that can grow up in a men-only setting and to mourn the loss of that ease when a woman is added to the group, but they need to set those feelings aside and do everything they can to make the experience of this woman—their new co-worker—successful and satisfying.

That’s what the Caucus and I think. That is our “position.”

But that isn’t what happened that morning last week. I don’t remember clearly what the caucus 3trade-off at issue really was. It doesn’t really matter for this essay. Let’s say that it was the satisfaction that Trump voters feel is seeing “their guy” stand up to the enforcers of “sensitivity.” They, it seems to them, are forever being corrected by the Nazis of Political Correctness and they have to adopt new terms because the common old ones are now “offensive” and adopt tortured syntax to work their way around a word that can’t be used any more. They have to stammer and apologize and kowtow to criticisms. But Trump doesn’t. He just doesn’t. He faces the same forces that require us to submit and punish us if we don’t and he refuses to kowtow. How satisfying to see someone stand up to them!

Let’s say that’s how they feel. They feel exultant that someone—finally—has the guts to tell it like it is. [3] So what we think (the Caucus) is that they have every right to feel the way they feel, but these feelings need to be set aside in favor of larger and more urgent considerations. Many of the things we value about our lives would be undone by a Trump presidency. The Republican party would be wounded beyond repair. The full faith and credit of the United States would be ruined around the world. The U. S. leadership of the Western Alliance (including Japan, Vietnam, and Taiwan) would be tarnished. Domestic policies in the area of environmental protection, race relations, medical care and many others would be set back by decades.

Let’s just say that all those speculations are true. Just for now. On the basis of all those unbearable losses, we expect the Trump voter, who is just looking for a little respect, to lay aside his petty emotional hankerings, and cast the vote that an adult would cast—a vote for policies that are good for us all. We don’t deny the regret with which Our Great Spokesman has to be laid aside, but first things first. That is what the Caucus ought to want.

They didn’t want that on this day. They abandoned the whole idea that the lesser value must be abandoned for the greater. They simply denied the rightness or even the existence of the losses that these people must suffer—that they must choose to suffer.  It was as if some values are so bad, so worthy of disapproval, that there is no need to grant that they matter to the people who hold them.

I value the common good as much as the next guy—more, probably, from having lectured on its behalf for 40 years or so. But there is a human side, too. It is worth taking the time to notice that something is being given up. The working class hunger for respect, for instance, is perfectly valid. It is only pursuing that goal by pushing helpless black populations down that is wrong.

So I guess I’m after the collective good, but with a little empathy. That’s a position that normally wins out at our Starbucks. Not this time.

[1] If you are going to make an emotional argument, “America” is the way to refer to our nation. “The United States” seems dry, as if it were part of some larger classification. “America” is more a word of the heart.
[2] For the purposed of this essay, I don’t need to take a position on whether that same special feeling is still expressed today.
[3] In another essay, I speculated that this emotional resonance is the true meaning of “tells it like it is,” which is often said of Trump by his supporters.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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