Coffee and Collapse

These last few months we have seen enormous erosion in the stability of our democracy as we descend into a roiling pit of racism and division ahead of the true start of the 2020 presidential campaign. I bought a coffee maker! This isn’t the first time I have used a little retail therapy to soothe emotional distress—you know how it goes, bad day, buy a cupcake, rough work news? New shoes.  For the current constitutional crisis, I thought a coffee pot would be just the ticket.

I must admit, for a while, I just stopped watching the unfolding of our contemporary apocalypse. My eyes hurt, my brain hurt, and most of all, my heart was broken each day.  Unlike the news cycle that washes itself clean with the next big story, I was unable to forget the horrors of yesterday, last week, last year. Kids in cages, killer cops, deregulation, tax breaks for the wealthy, racist attacks, white nationalism. When reporting moves on, these situations continue to explode like strings of landmines left behind. Years after the Black Lives Matter movement’s moment has ceased to command top news status, cops that killed citizens are exonerated and justice is denied for the families and communities that have fought the respectable way through a justice system stacked against them. Boom. Gone are the riots in the streets and the mask-wearing protesters, gone the swing of national attention and concern.  Buried under the fold, at the bottom of the hour, a few sentences, a few seconds about the exonerated taking a  badge again, a second of dog-eared sympathy barely mustering a sigh before launching into celebrity news—Beyonce in Lion King—amazing! 

News wasn’t just depressing to watch, it felt like a daily push down a slippery slope. I felt less informed when I watched, felt like I was being spoon-fed just the hot sauce, just the frosting—the hot takes, shady snaps, and sweet endings that drive the most click-worthy content. Sure Trump is the master of distraction, but the opinion panels assembled to opine hours a day feed on the distraction even in their outrage. Like clockwork, Trump tweets outrageous bullshit Saturday evening, setting up the red herring all the Sunday shows will chase. The week is spent tweeting and subtweeting both on twitter and around the water cooler. We all compete for the hottest take, the sweetest rebuttal, and the most coveted prize of all—the best meme.

So time for a new morning ritual, one removed from the problems of the day. My coffee maker is small: I enjoy drinking coffee, but more than two or three cups a day has my heart racing like a racist Trump tweet. I figure I can save the environment by cutting back on styrofoam Dunk’s cups and straws. I pull a huge bag of beans out of the cabinet—super cheap due to the collapsing coffee market: what a bargain! Plus the ritual of grinding and making the coffee is a more soothing way to start the day than the latest headline about the crisis at the border. I have a small coffee grinder. It drowns out the sound of a Morning Joe segment on record heat waves. The coffee only takes a moment to brew, one Round-Up weed killer ad, one for pickup trucks. Coffee’s ready! Environment saved, I click on the a/c and hit my writing room.

I have a hard time writing about our current state of affairs without lapsing into hyperbole or tottering into fiction. I doubt my own understanding of what is happening on any given day. We’ve slid so far into the simulacrum that reality is not only relative but sometimes not even relevant. Multiple civil rights movements compete for headline space while the patriarchal white supremacy propaganda machine pumps out another generations’ worth of ignorance. Lost in the fog of our information war are the glacial gears grinding us all—capitalism, environmental collapse, technological determinism and a religious adherence to me-over-you on a tiny rock where it’s going to be all of us or none of us.

There is no neutral these days, though. Choosing sides is easy—drop into a social media circle where an algorithm feeds you only the kind of information you like. Not choosing is choosing too, to look away from what America is just now waking up to (again) is to sing its favorite lullaby. In every generation of America’s short life, black and brown people have battled to be free to live the American creed of equality and justice for all, and in every generation, the powerful machine of white supremacy that manufactured America has refused to produce a more equitable country. I am only the latest in a long line of people for whom this battle has always been, for whom it is always personal. So no there is no choosing, and no losing myself in endless self-care at the expense of my own responsibility to be informed.

I spend cup one pouring over the latest on the reparations debate. Some can barely understand why we should care about a debt so old and potentially overwhelming—in a country where millions are drowning in their own debt, the failure to flicker an eyebrow at life long debt seems not so out of pocket. Besides, how can we enjoy our best life if we’re always attending to the crushing debt we ignore like so many melting ice caps? Besides, no slave owner still lives. Though corporations—who of course are people per Citizen’s United, and in our hearts where our [brand] loyalty lies—that benefited from slavery can and do live on, fueled by the blood money of millions kidnapped and killed in the fields of early American capitalism.  Banking and insurance industries, shipping and trade found their foundations of success in trading humans. Some of those companies still exist, their books intact with the transactions that sold people like so many cattle plainly marked in fading ink. While individuals slave owners may be dead their capital lives one; trade of people created pools of generational wealth still tapped into today.

I like my coffee sweet, so today I, too, enjoy my legacy from the slave trade. Sugar, like another early staple cotton, fueled a boom so big it built the richest nation in the history of the world. On the one hand, it seems ludicrous that a product as prolific as sugar would be the basis of so insidious a trade, and yet it was because this trade was so prolific that sugar is the sweeter that sits on every countertop. Four hundred years ago only the rich could afford what was an exotic sweetener newly arrived on the tables of Europe. Now sugar is in practically every edible product but salt. Perhaps it is fitting then that America struggles with an obesity epidemic as we keep feeding on the fruit of our most toxic tree.   

Cup two and it’s on to news of massive ICE arrests just days after a domestic terrorist targeted Latinos first in his manifesto using words borrowed from a Trump stump speech and later with bullets in a Walmart as parents and kids shopped for bulletproof backpacks and crayons for back-to-school. Crying children are left homeless and parentless, registering a weak tick on the sympathy chart. Kids in cages, kids shot by police, kids molested, kids shot in school. Showing sympathy for kids being crushed by the systems we adults create and execute is becoming a full-time job. Better to turn the page, perhaps another cup. Good coffee, grown in Guatemala. The picture on the package shows green mountains—with no sign of the struggle so many are seeking asylum from—must be lovely this time of year!

Cup three is always a push, leaves me feeling a bit jumpy—too aware of all that I need to ignore to get through a workday. But it tastes so good I drain the cup, feeling myself tilt like a patron on a sinking ship. Is it the coffee or is the world tilting? At the back of my mind the strains of nearer my god to thee sound a titanic tune for going down. From my precarious perch on the edge of cup three, I can see too much. I watch a week of mass shooting coverage like I am reading tarot cards. 

I notice the newscasters’ eyes shine where the breaking news is hot and fresh. Wolf Blitzer appeared suited and booted in CNN’s headquarters in under an hour of the El Paso shooting, claiming the news desk from the second-string Saturday anchor to get that juicy coverage airtime. Twenty-four hours after the El Paso shooting, bodies still lay in the aisles of Walmart but we had already moved past them to take up familiar positions: gun control, mental health, Trump, Trump, Trump.

There is a breathless excitement at the traumas of the day. There is little information beyond soundbites—many newsrooms were long ago gutted by cutbacks and media consolidation. Each news story is a sip of bitter and sweet, hits of content like a drip of a drug where the high has long been replaced by addiction to the ride itself—shock and horror, followed by thoughts and prayers topped with a dose of the viral good vibe of the day to keep you coming back. Delicious! A little sugar has always sweetened this country’s bitterest chapters.

We are too busy turning our crumbling world into killer content to think clearly about what is happening.  We are deconstructing reality to build the inter-webs of our fantasies with nary a glance at what we are becoming. There are too many likes to be had to do the boring grunt work in, say, door-knocking or book-reading, or critical thinking. I see the crisis clearly—headlines and think pieces abound for you to see too, in case you haven’t heard of our imminent collapse. And yet I feel deeply the chasm between the world we are narrating and the world we live in. Like you, I wring my hands and wonder what can we do; I try not to focus too much on Trump, on the individual slights…but I like my steak in the matrix, too.

Even as I write these words I sip on the seeds that planted all this catastrophe. My coffee and sugar, my SUV and my lawn care, my a/c and my social media rants—my life is not separate from the systems that are wreaking havoc on our nation. It is easy to focus on where the news cycle tells us to, but harder to acknowledge the ways the fabric of our own life is used to build the world.  It’s not just the leader of the legislature it is all the ways that we structure power. The world created by those structures gave rise to what we see now. It is in our daily rituals, our common habits, snaking throughout our whole culture.

One day if all continues, Trump won’t be president, and we will still be America, addicted to consumption and clinging to our sacred individuality. No tweet-able position will right this ship, only a return, a rethinking, and rebuilding can make us seaworthy enough to travel towards our better stars. Beyond the clickbait is a longer and more difficult conversation about who were are to become that we need to have.  We don’t have to wait for things to get better—or worse, more likely—before we begin in our own sphere of influence, wherever that is, to build a new world

Let’s practice every day. Let’s talk outside of talking points. Let’s think and read and learn beyond the story of the day. You have a responsibility to be informed about the world you live in and the impact your choices can have in that world. You can do that with the same internet connection that brings you our beloved memes. You can do that today, wherever you are, and talk about what you learn with whoever you see.

Let’s think about what really matters—and live our lives that way. Just because our country is out of whack that’s no excuse to throw your own code to the wind. Make connections between your own behavior and the systems we seek to change. Act in ways that align with your beliefs.  Do what you are good at—knit for resistance or bike to end hunger—to encourage others to do the same

Let’s get real about the problems of our nation and let’s bear careful witnesses to the daily injustices so that we may stop them. Let’s call a thing a thing and stop letting the propaganda machine redefine what it means to be free. Stop checking out and show up. Talk, donate, act, join, walk, shelter, feed, and manufacture with your words and deeds a reality that we might live in a world that is more than a house of cards against the wind.

I’m off the sugar.  I’m paying attention. I am writing this to me as much as to you. This is a daily practice. This is a grueling workout. Yes, it will wear you out but I’m here to tell you that you—yes, you— are alive at this moment for this very purpose. 

If you read this far, you are a champ! Thank you! -sxj

Susan X Jane

Susan X Jane is a diversity educator, speaker, and trainer. A former professor and youth worker, she now consults with organizations looking to make sense of our current cultural shift. She thinks a lot about media and race…a lot, and writes and speaks about media…and race... and generally encourages everyone she meets to think about the way our identity shapes our experiences, ideas, and beliefs about the world. If you're reading this, she wants you to think about it too. Want to talk about it? Let's go.

3 thoughts on “Coffee and Collapse

  1. Hi Susan, Just landed on your brilliant distribution. I am a coffee fans and working on the different coffee features. Looking for some new experience online and found your coffee and collapse story. This is terrifyingly great experience share. I got through the entire telling and impressed so much. Thanks for publishing such an comparative collaboration.

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