Where Soy and Chai Meet Che and Mao

By Michael Gerson
Friday, October 19, 2007

At the newly opened coffeehouse near my home in Northern Virginia, caffeine is intended to fuel the revolution.

The shop features wall-size icons of Gandhi, the Dalai Lama and Martin Luther King Jr. But there is also an edgier tribute to Paul Robeson, who expressed his civil rights activism with a defense of the Soviet Union. The attached bookstore sells "Imprison Bush" T-shirts and features titles such as "10 Excellent Reasons Not to Join the Military" and "D.C. Poets Against the War." Upscale suburbanites can leaf through the "Che Guevara Reader" while sipping soy lattes and enjoying "serious" paintings that make German expressionism look cheerful in comparison. The patrons are a mixed group but skew toward 20- and 30-somethings with laptops; the women in bohemian wear, the men with shaved heads or buzz cuts and wispy goatees.

Because I like the buzz of crowds and coffee while writing, I have some experience with coffeehouse culture. This tasteful, color-coordinated revolutionary outpost, with its comfy armchairs and free WiFi, is sincere but not authentic. When I lived in Austin, I frequented an establishment devoted to the Zapatista revolution in southern Mexico that roasted its own beans and collected its faded couches entirely from street corners. Smoking was allowed, and the scent in the air was often not from tobacco. This is hard to imagine in the Northern Virginia version -- not because of the virtue of the patrons but because it might interfere with studying for the LSAT.

However you judge its authenticity, this brush fire of suburban radicalism is part of a trend. Mall mainstays such as Urban Outfitters have sold shirts sporting the CCCP logo (for the young or forgetful, this was an acronym for the Soviet Union), along with kaffiyehs to show solidarity with the Palestinians. Every store that hawks bath salts seems anxious to prove the connection between long soaks and social sensitivity. Images of Che Guevara adorn bikinis -- more than slightly incongruous for one of the fathers of the Cuban labor camp system. Last year, the actress Cameron Diaz got into trouble in Peru for carrying a purse decorated with a Maoist slogan in a nation that suffered 70,000 deaths from a Maoist insurgency. (She later apologized.)

Marketing experts call this kind of social appeal "emotional branding." Since it is difficult to gain consumer loyalty based on the virtues of clothing produced by the same Chinese manufacturers, companies compete for customers by reflecting their lifestyles and aspirations. People are shopping for "symbolic benefits" such as a feeling of sophistication, not just real benefits such as, well, coffee. And there seems to be a close tie between emotional branding and leftism. In the world of marketing, radical politics seems to be a symbol for rebellion, anger, individuality and artistic self-expression -- the main preoccupations of youth culture. I have never been in a coffeehouse that displayed posters of Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher.

Some on the left are suspicious of this trend, which social critic Thomas Frank calls "commercialized dissent." "It is," he told me, "symbolic of the eternal revolution of the market" and its "constant search for the new." "The ideology expressed is generally not liberalism; it is the ideology of the market, libertarianism." Political trendiness of the Body Shop and Whole Foods variety, in short, has little serious emphasis on economic or social justice.

But there also should be concerns on the right. On its current track, the emotional branding of the Republican Party among the young will soon be similar to Metamucil. The party's emphasis on spending restraint and limited government may be substantively important, but these themes are hardly morally inspiring. And the Iraq war is a serious drawback among younger voters -- except, of course, among those 20-somethings with buzz cuts who actually fight the war. Appealing to cause-oriented consumers will require addressing issues such as global poverty and disease, global warming, and economic and racial justice. This reality of the market is also a reality of American politics.

The most complicated question is why, as a rather serious-minded conservative, I am often found in bohemian coffeehouses, comfortable among the revolutionaries. Maybe it is because politics doesn't always predict lifestyle. Maybe because there is a bohemian impulse inside every writer, searching for a little quiet rebellion. Maybe I just like good soy lattes. Whatever the reason, and whatever the T-shirts say, I'll be back.


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