The Common Good

We Can Do Better

In those thrilling days when coffee was migrating from diner joe to urban cool, I visited my brother in Seattle, the Xanadu of high-end java.

Latte photo, Dubova,
Latte photo, Dubova,

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He recommended we go to Seattle's Best. It's better than Starbucks, he said, and twice as cool. Indeed it was.

Later, of course, hipsters moved on to boutique roasters. They dismissed chains, as one put it, as the "suburbs of coffee."

In that pioneer moment, though, when Seattle's airport didn't smell like roasting coffee and no one walked around carrying a grande caramel soy half-caf whatever like a coat of arms, Seattle's Best seemed divinely inspired.

Imagine, then, my dismay when Starbucks acquired Seattle's Best. Now I read that Starbucks is positioning Seattle's Best as the working-class brew, to be sold in everyman locations like drive-thru windows at Wal-Mart parking lots.

Welcome back, joe! No more $4 concoctions.

Catch the wave, folks. Pretentious is out. New tech startups are springing up in basic-flavor locations like Detroit. Downtown lofts in old warehouses are hot. As post-IPO tech firms are alerting suddenly wealthy employees, driving expensive cars is so yesterday. Indeed, fewer than half of 19-year-olds even have drivers licenses.

Today's "sizzle" in tech is basic gear that works. McMansions languish, while smaller rental units thrive. State universities and community colleges have a new cachet, as the entitlement ethos of elite private colleges wears thin.

Are we seeing an outbreak of common sense? Perhaps. Hipsters closing in on middle age? Wakeup calls from the bank account? It's hard to say; cultural trends usually defy explanation, but they do invite response.

Watch for fewer Hollywood galas in this fall's presidential campaign and more factory and family venues. Look for more down-to-earth entertainment offerings like cop shows and awkward-friends comedies. Watch for more interest in public schools.

Money is a factor, of course. With one-third of Americans living in poverty and real incomes of all but the 1 percent stagnating, jobs still feeling tenuous and many have been cutting back to the basics. But I suspect the basics were gaining ground anyway. Ostentatious living was losing its appeal even while over-the-top was still affordable.

Nowadays, "values" is no longer just a code word for the religious right's assault on cultural trends they don't like. "Values" are cropping up in all political and cultural camps. The acquisitive life simply isn't sustainable. Consumerism becomes dull, and non-stop partying seems shallow.

Interesting people read books, play challenging games (Scrabble is surprisingly hot), and enjoy long meals in quiet places. Even in colleges — the last bastion of anything-goes — poetry readings, bike treks and mission work are encroaching on beer blasts. Canning your own vegetables is suddenly en vogue.

The dynamics are similar to our growing distaste for religious extremism and the politics of hatred. We have seen ourselves up close and decided we can do better. Pouring a lifetime of earnings into showy living becomes embarrassing. Turning religion into shouting matches and rampant bigotry doesn't pass any gospel sniff test.

Disdain toward post-imperial imperialism is mounting as we seek a more mature sense of national pride. Being all-powerful hasn't made us feel any safer, while standing for freedom and justice matters more.

Purveyors of right-wing paranoia must sense the tide turning toward reason. Their latest conspiracy theories have seemed desperate. Mitt Romney can hardly wait to "etch" his way back to a "sketch" of America worth believing in. President Obama is visiting factories and daring to console victims of gun violence.

Better days lie ahead. Better coffee, too.

Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of Just Wondering, Jesus and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.

Latte photo, Dubova,

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