Below the Fold: The New Plessy versus Ferguson and White Privilege

Michael Blim

There is something odious about privilege. In this case, white privilege.

On June 28, the Supreme Court ruled in Parents Involved in Community Schools versus Seattle School District No.1 that using race as the sole criterion for assigning children to one elementary school or another violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. Chief Justice Roberts writing for the plurality of the Court set down their ruling is stark terms:

“Accepting racial balancing as a compelling state interest would justify the imposition of racial proportionality throughout American society, contrary to our repeated recognition that ‘at the heart of the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection lies the simple command that the government must treat citizens as individuals, not as simply components of a racial, religious, sexual, or national class.’”

The racial classification of students in creating diverse public schools, Roberts argued, violates the landmark Brown versus Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954) decision to require school districts, as the Court put it, “to achieve a system of determining admission to public schools on a nonracial basis.” (emphasis added by Roberts) Fifty-odd years of race-conscious remedies to provide African-Americans with equal educational opportunity, other than in cases of legislated de jure school segregation, have infringed upon the rights of each child to equal treatment under the law, whether he/she is black or white.

To mark the destruction of precedent, announce the end of an era spent searching for remedies to the historical disadvantages heaped on African-Americans during slavery and after, and perhaps to create himself a memorable, quotable line for the seven o’clock news, Roberts concluded his opinion for the Court with this exhortation: “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discrimination on the basis of race.”

In other words, just say no.

Justice John Paul Stevens, 87 years old, member of the Court for 32 years, and its elder statesman, spotted the slight of hand right away. How could Brown, a decision to remedy state discrimination against African-Americans, now be used against them in their quest for equal educational opportunity?

Justice Stevens put it this way:
“There is a cruel irony in THE CHIEF JUSTICE’s reliance on our decision in Brown versus the Board of Education. The first sentence in the concluding paragraph of his opinion states: ‘Before Brown, schoolchildren were told where they could and could not go to school based on the color of their skin.’ This sentence reminds me of Anatole France’s observation: ‘The majestic equality of the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal their bread.’ THE CHIEF JUSTICE fails to note that it was only black schoolchildren who were so ordered; indeed the history books do not tell stories of white children struggling to attend black schools. In this and other ways THE CHIEF JUSTICE rewrites the history of one of this Court’s most important decisions.”

Once more, as in Plessy versus Ferguson (1896), the Supreme Court has used the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment against African-Americans for whom it was written and designed to protect.

Privileged people never see the connection between their power and the powerlessness of others. One could say charitably that it is too threatening to their virtue. One could also say less charitably that many just don’t care. It is a liability to care or to assume responsibility. It tarnishes their self-justification. It picks at the myths that they carefully pin like manifestos on the murals of public life.

So, as Justice Stevens noted, Robeerts traduced Brown to make new law. In fact, this decision is Plessy versus Ferguson in a rather shabby and ignoble Brown versus Board disguise. The only problem they might have with Plessy is that the Court at least recognized the intent of the 14th Amendment as a pledge to blacks as a disadvantaged class and as a guarantee of “absolute equality of the two races before the law,” while ruling that it was never intended to abolish the social distinctions between blacks and whites. If states wanted to create race-segregated public transportations, schools, and other public places, they could do so. The black plaintiffs, the Court argued, were unwarranted in believing that segregation “stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority.” Moreover, the Plessy Court believed, the plaintiffs assume “that social prejudices may be overcome by legislation, and that equal rights cannot be secured to the negro except by an enforced commingling of the races…. Legislation is powerless to eradicate racial instincts or to abolish distinctions based upon physical differences…”

The Plessy Court concluded: “If the civil and political rights of both races be equal one cannot be inferior to the other civilly or politically. If one race be inferior to the other socially, the Constitution of the United States cannot put them upon the same plane…”

Justices Roberts, Alito, Scalia, and Thomas do not wish to recognize African-Americans as a class, and do not interpret the 14th Amendment as an explicit guarantee of African-American rights as a class in light of the historic deprival of their rights in slavery. Instead they construe the 14th Amendment solely as a guarantee of each person’s right to equal protection under the law. Thus, in the case before them, if a school district prefers a black child for admission to a public school because it seeks to integrate schools racially by administrative action, or in other instances seeks to re-assign black and white students to prevent their social isolation in all black schools, or seeks to create diverse student bodies under the belief that all students would benefit from the experience, the Court finds these kinds of actions impermissible. They violate the right of a white child to have access to educational resources that she or he seeks to enjoy because he or she is white.

It is a cleaner kill of the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection for African-Americans than was Plessy. African-Americans are no longer an historically disadvantaged group who lived almost 350 years as slaves and in renewed bondage under Jim Crow laws. After 388 years in America, only a minority of African-Americans since the mid-1960s have begun to live lives blessed by some measure of equal opportunity. For this Court, they have become individuals who happen to be black, one of a potentially infinite set of characteristics that defines each of them in distinctive ways. As such, their rights are no more important than those of any other persons.

Justice Thomas argues that the Constitution must be color-blind. “We are not social engineers… the Court does not sit to create an ‘inclusive society’ or to solve the problems of ‘troubled inner city schooling.’” Just as the majority in Plessy, he rejects the notion that African-Americans acquire a badge of inferiority when isolated from whites. In words that directly recall Plessy, he concludes that the Court cannot permit “measures to keep the races together and proscribe measures to keep the races apart.” He concludes: “the government may not make distinctions on the basis of race.”

Thomas takes Justice Harlan of the Plessy Court as his patron for a color-blind Constitution, quoting from Harlan’s Plessy dissent a rather odd declaration that he evidently finds supportive of his position. Justice Harlan in his peroration for a color-blind society says:

“The white race deems itself to be the dominant race in this country. And so it is, in prestige, in achievements, in education, in wealth and in power. So, I doubt not, it will continue to be for all time, if it remains true to its great heritage and holds fast to the principles of constitutional liberty. But in view of the constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. (words in italics omitted by Thomas)

This is an extraordinary comment to solicit an endorsement from Thomas. Here is Harlan, an apologist for white supremacy, denying disingenuously white dominance. Just as he refuses to recognize organized white rule, he refuses to acknowledge that African-Americans in 1896 were a caste. Color-blindness by Harlan is used here not simply as a dashing defense of individual equality before the law. In the context, it is an explicit rejection of the special status of African-Americans in the law, which even the Plessy majority accepted.

Justice Thomas and his colleagues follow Harlan’s reasoning precisely. Harlan’s white supremacist views are ignored doubtless as a recognition of the ignorance of the time.

Can Thomas and the other three justices be adjudged any less ignorant of their times? Can they be unaware of the desperate status of African-Americans today? Are they aware that as late as 1998, African-American family income was 49% of white income, and their net worth was 18% that of whites? Do they believe that 40 years of limited progress is enough compensation for 388 years of slavery and racism?

White privilege doesn’t allow these facts to come into evidence. After all, isn’t each African-American, and each American family for that matter, happy and healthy, or unhappy and unhealthy in its own way? To be so colorblind is to be so privileged that even facts are no enemy of your theory. You can actually deprive African-Americans of their rights again by ruling out of order any showing of their abundant economic and social inequality, and declare them theoretically equal in the eyes of the law.

This is the rhetorical trick of this insidious ruling.

Moreover, better to do it once and for all with a smashing opinion such as this one. Else, as Justice Roberts warned (and quoted above), people will start demanding racial proportionality throughout American life. That would put a bit of a crimp in the collar of white privilege.

In the case decided last Thursday, precedents didn’t matter. They stood Brown on its head. They converted the equal protection clause into another relatively harmless libertarian individual guarantee.

Characteristic of the far right wing in this period, they fall in with Margaret Thatcher: There is no society; there are only individuals. So use the law to strip out social missions from our institutions. Make the courts and the state simply night watchmen, there to protect property and haul off malefactors. In a game where whites start out more equal than others, if you are white, you have to like your odds.

And there is no telling what more this Court can do to pave your way.

3QD Interviews Craig Mello, Medicine Nobel Laureate

Harvey David Preisler died of cancer six years ago. He was a well-known scientist and cancer researcher himself. He was also my sister Azra's husband, and she wrote this about him here at 3QD:

Screenhunter_1_9Harvey grew up in Brooklyn and obtained his medical degree from the University of Rochester. He trained in Medicine at New York Hospitals, Cornell Medical Center, and in Medical Oncology at the National Cancer Institute. At the time of his death, he was the Director of the Cancer Institute at Rush University in Chicago and the Principal Investigator of a ten million dollar grant from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to study and treat acute myeloid leukemias (AML), in addition to several other large grants which funded his research laboratory with approximately 25 scientists entirely devoted to basic and molecular research. He published extensively including more than 350 full-length papers in peer reviewed journals, 50 books and/or book chapters and approximately 400 abstracts.

A year after his death, my sister started an annual lecture in Harvey's memory which is usually delivered by a distinguished scientist or other intellectual. The first Harvey Preisler Memorial Lecture was given by Dr. Robert Gallo, co-discoverer of the HIV virus as the infectious agent responsible for AIDS. This year, the lecture featured the most-recent winner of the Nobel prize in Medicine, Dr. Craig Mello, codiscoverer of RNAi.

Screenhunter_27_jun_30_1321Dr. Mello grew up in the Virginia suburbs of Washington D.C. and graduated from Fairfax Highschool there. He went to Brown for college and later got a Ph.D. from Harvard University. He then also worked as a postdoctoral fellow with Dr. James Priess at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washinton. Dr. Mello now runs his own lab at the University of Massachusetts at Worcester. This is from Wikipedia:

In 2006, Mello and Fire received the Nobel Prize for work that began in 1998, when Mello and Fire along with their colleagues (SiQun Xu, Mary Montgomery, Stephen Kostas, Sam Driver) published a paper in the journal Nature detailing how tiny snippets of RNA fool the cell into destroying the gene's messenger RNA (mRNA) before it can produce a protein – effectively shutting specific genes down.

In the annual Howard Hughes Medical Institute Scientific Meeting held on November 13, 2006 in Ashburn, Virginia, Dr. Mello recounted the phone call that he received announcing that he had won the prize. He recalls that it was shortly after 4:30 am and he had just finished checking on his daughter, and returned to his bedroom. The phone rang (or rather the green light was blinking) and his wife told him not to answer, as it was a crank call. Upon questioning his wife, she revealed that it had rung while he was out of the room and someone was playing a bad joke on them by saying that he had won the Nobel prize. When he told her that they were actually announcing the Nobel prize winners on this very day, he said “her jaw dropped.” He answered the phone, and the voice on the other end told him to get dressed, and that in half an hour his life was about to change.

The Nobel citation, issued by Sweden's Karolinska Institute, said: “This year's Nobel Laureates have discovered a fundamental mechanism for controlling the flow of genetic information.”

[Photo shows Dr. Mello with Azra and Harvey's daughter, Sheherzad Preisler.]

Just before his lecture, I had a chance to sit down in his office with Dr. Mello and speak to him about his work. On behalf of 3QD and our readers, I would like to thank Dr. Mello for making the time to explain his discovery in some detail. Asad Raza videographed our conversation:

Baseball, Apple Pie, and Bathtub Gin

by Beth Ann Bovino

A sailing trip touring the Croatian islands in the Adriatic Sea began with a gift from family. The skipper, a Slovenian man, brought out a 2 liter soda bottle to celebrate our sail, saying “it was made by his cousin”. The label and color of the drink seemed like we were being served some Canada Dry. It was wine, and not bad at that. What began the journey lasted through the trip. We finished the wine, and turned to much stronger stuff. (I’m not sure which cousin made this one.) It was a bottle of clear liquid with some kind of twig in it, probably to try and cover the taste. Upon each harbor reached, and we traveled to many, we would take another swig.

The last night culminated with the purchase of some local wine. On the street, a guy was selling glasses of white and red, a 2 kunas each. We asked for a bottle. He gave our group samples, and asked for about 35 kunas or 7 euros, no negotiation. The ‘wine’ tasted like gasoline with a hint of apple. We walked off with our purchase and celebrated the find.

While savoring the wretched drink, the question became ‘what are we drinking?’ The answer, ‘Moonshine, of course.’

What is moonshine? What makes it legal here, if, indeed, it is? How is it made and what can it do besides taste really bad and get you drunk?

Moonshine, also called white lightning, bathtub gin, is homemade fermented alcohol, usually whiskey or rum. Moonshine is a word-wide phenomenon and is made in secret, to avoid high taxes or outright bans on the stuff. In most countries, it’s illegal.

In France, moonshining was tolerated up to the late 50’s, since having an ancestor who fought in Napoleon’s armies gave you the right. The right can no longer be transferred to the descendents.

In the Republic of Macedonia, moonshine is legal, and remains the liquor of choice, at leastaccording to wikipedia. In Russia and Poland it is illegal to manufacture moonshine, but the law against it is rarely enforced. A Polish woman I met told me about helping her granddad siphon off the flow at the age of 10, and recalled how her parents always had the a few bottles around to hand out as gifts or favors. She said back then, under Soviet rule, food rations were used to make the stuff; it was usually overlooked by the state. Home distilling is legal in Slovenia, a rare occurrence.

In the United States, it’s pretty clear-cut. It is illegal to make, sell, distribute, or be in possession of moonshine. However, like baseball and apple pie, most agree that it will always be around. It is tied to U.S. history in many ways. From the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794 to the Prohibition Era distillers and, now, the backwoods stills of Appalachia.

Shortly after the Revolution, the United States was struggling to pay for the expense of the long war. The solution was to tax whiskey. The American people, who had just gone to war to fight oppressive British taxes, were angry. The tax on whiskey incited the Whiskey Rebellion among frontier farmers in 1794. The rebellion was crushed, so many just built their own distillers to make their own, ignoring the federal tax.

Later on, states banned alcohol sales and consumption, encouraged moonshine. In 1920, nationwide Prohibition went into effect, to the boon of moonshiners. Suddenly, no legal alcohol was available, and the demand for moonshine shot through the roof. Easily able to increase their profits with losing business, moonshiners switched to cheaper, sugar-based or watered-down moonshine. Organized crime blossomed as speakeasies opened in every city.

When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, the market for moonshine grew thin. Later, cheaper, easily available, legal alcohol cut into business. Although moonshine continued to be a problem for federal authorities into the 1960s and ’70s, today, very few illegal alcohol cases are heard in the courts. In 1970, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms seized 5,228 stills, but from 1990 to 1995, only two stills were seized.

The law also chased down bootleggers, the smugglers who transport it and sell it. The name came from tall riding boots, where they would hide their product. Later, they raced cars packed with moonshine at night to avoid the police. They learned to drastically increase the horsepower of their vehicles to outrun the authorities. This created a culture of car lovers in the southern United States that eventually grew into the popular NASCAR racing series. The winner of the first ever NASCAR race, Glenn Dunnaway, had used the same car to make a bootleg run just a week earlier.

What about homebrewed beer and amateur winemaking? Since these activities are different from distilling alcohol, they were made legal in the 1970s. However, they can only be done in small quantities. So if you’re supplying half the bars in town with your “homebrew,” you might run into a few problems with the Feds. However, home distilling is definitely illegal in any amount. Since it’s too easy to make a mistake and create a harmful product, permits and licenses are required to ensure safety. That and the Feds want to get their tax money.

It’s All in the Mash


Corn is commonly used, though alcohol can actually be distilled from almost any kind of grain. Moonshiners during the Prohibition started using white sugar instead of corn meal to increase their profits, and the earliest makers supposedly used rye or barley.

The recipe for moonshine is simple:

corn meal




Sometimes, other ingredients are included to add flavor or ‘kick’. Once you make the mixture, called mash, you heat it for a bit of time in a still. The “Alaskan Bootleggers Bible” (Happy Mountain Publications, 2000) shows a number of stills, including the ‘two-dollar” still, using a crock pot and milk bottle.

“Drink Up, Before It Gets Dark”

Besides the several years it could land you in jail, (it could land you 5 years for moonshining, 15 years for money-laundering) what makes moonshine different from the whisky you find on the shelf at a liquor store? Aside from the obvious differences between something made in a sanitized production facility and something made at night in the woods, the primary difference is aging. When whisky comes out of the still, it looks like water. Moonshiners bottle it and sell it just like that (moonshiners’ code “It’s for selling, not drinking”). Commercial alcohols are aged for years in charred oak barrels, which gives them an amber or golden color to them. It also mellows the harsh taste. There’s no such mellowing with moonshine, which is why it has such “kick.”

There are a few other reasons why drinking moonshine can be risky. Since the whole point of making moonshine is to avoid the law, no FDA inspectors will be stopping by the backwoods at night still to check if moonshiners had wash their hands, and no one will be able ensure that all the ingredients are safe. It is not uncommon for insects or small animals to fall into the mash while it’s fermenting.

While a few furry creatures added to the mix wouldn’t likely kill anyone, you might have heard stories about people drinking moonshine and going blind — or even dying. These stories are true. During Prohibition, thousands of people died from drinking bad moonshine. I finished the sailing trip with both eyes intact. Though, one toast was “Drink up, before it gets dark!’

There isn’t anything inherently dangerous about moonshine when made properly. It is very strong alcohol with a very hard taste, or “kick,” because it hasn’t been aged. However, some distillers realized that part of the appeal of moonshine was that “kick” and experimented with different ingredients to add more kick to the drink, many poisonous, including manure, embalming fluid, bleach, rubbing alcohol and even paint thinner. Occasionally moonshine was deliberately mixed with industrial alcohol-containing products, including methanol and other substances to produce denatured alcohol. Results are toxic, with methanol easily capable of causing blindness and death.

Besides poisonous ingredients, there are other manufacturing mistakes can poison moonshine. For example, only one pass through the still may not be enough to remove all the impurities from the alcohol and create a safe batch. If the still is too hot, more than alcohol can boil off and ultimately condense — meaning more than alcohol makes it into the finished product. Either can result in a poisonous drink. While it seems exciting to try (I was fascinated by the booze and I own a crockpot), chances are you end up with pure poison. Moonshiners often die young. If they don’t go blind, or the Feds get them. Better to just walk down to your corner-store for that bottle of Jack Daniels and soda.

Making Sense of Good Coffee

by Daniel Humphries

Coffee_2On May 29, at around 6:30 pm Eastern time, the program that runs the Best of Panama auction website stopped functioning unexpectedly. The bid price for this year’s top Panamanian coffee was stuck on $99.99 per pound. The program had not been designed to progress beyond that mark. Fifty dollars a pound was by far the most that had ever been paid for a pound of green coffee — and that price had been achieved or approached just a handful of times. Hacienda la Esmeralda, the prize-winning farm, had been producing astounding coffee for years, using meticulous and innovative growing, harvesting and processing techniques. Their famed gesha varietal, an heirloom plant from Ethiopia, created mind-blowing coffee, incredibly smooth and complex with the sweetness and citrus of an orange right off the tree. I tried the Esmeralda crop in 2005 and again in 2006. I remember remarking in ’05 that not only was it the best coffee I had ever tasted, it might have been the best anything I had ever tasted. Back in May, when the auction finally got up and running again after a three hour delay, the price went all the way to $130 a pound.

Does that sound absurd?

Anyone who tells you they fully understand the coffee trade is lying. Coffee, one of the most ubiquitous products of the modern world, comes from a thousand different places, and ends up in ten thousand more. People drink it as turkish coffee, cowboy coffee, or café crème. There are as many different ways to drink coffee as there are distinct cultures on Earth. This is well known.

What surprises many people is that there is also an incredible variety of different flavors and aromas possible in the bean itself, not just the mode of preparation. The blackened, over-roasted stuff, crying out for cream and sugar, that most people in the West have access to doesn’t suggest that coffee is a delicate agricultural product, sensitive to time and place. But it is, and resoundingly so.

I grew up in a rainy, northern town. The muscle tissue of every good citizen was saturated with coffee, usually from a can, prepared using a plastic-body “Mr. Coffee” (or similar) elecric drip machine. When the Millstone and Seattle’s Best brand coffee bins, with their whole beans bearing exotic names and their grind-on-the-spot machines, began appearing in the local grocery stores, it seemed like a glorious new age of consumer choice. It was a nagging question as to why some of the coffee had European designation (“French” roast, “Vienna” roast) and some Indonesian (“Java,” “Sumatra”), and others were even more inscrutable (“Midnight Blend,” anyone?). What were these designations meant to tell us? Where the coffee was grown, or roasted? Or perhaps something else entirely? These questions one shoved to the back of one’s mind, though.

My family’s choice was “French” roast. We thought it very unique at the time, our own little clan-defining consumer choice. Actually, dark or “French” roasts are exceedingly popular in the United States. There is a reason for this. And that one little fact speaks surprising volumes about the state of the global coffee trade.

In dollar terms, coffee is the second most-actively traded commodity in the world, after petroleum. This tells us it’s hugely popular, obviously. But it also tells us something else: coffee is a commodity. That is, it is traded —bought and sold on the international market— just as if it were gold, or crude oil. On Wall Street, no distinction is made between coffee grown in Honduras and coffee grown in India.

A staggering amount of coffee (and coffee abstracted in the form of capital) is changing hands, but much of it is controlled by just four companies (the “Big Four”: Nestle, Kraft, Sara Lee, and Procter & Gamble). Traditional, mountainside farmers in Kenya or Guatemala are forced to compete with huge conglomerate plantations in Brazil. In the 1990s, the global free trade regime convinced the government of Vietnam to replace enormous stretches of rice paddies with large-scale coffee plantations. Cheap, low-quality coffee flooded the market, driving already dismal prices into a tailspin, literally starving small farmers into switching crops (often to cocaine or khat).

Unfortunately, the process of Fair Trade certification is not the answer. The Fair Trade system quite admirably seeks to raise the prices that farmers get. It is certainly a step above the commodities market and I do not wish to denigrate the work done by TransFair USA. But ironically it ultimately traps farmers into the same system: coffee is treated as an undifferentiated commodity to be exported, like aluminum or diamonds, only with a slightly fairer price. Organic certification is also problematic as an indicator of an ethical product, though again I respect the work done by organic farmers and certifiers. Most people now understand that “organic“ does not necessarily mean small-scale or higher-quality or even fairer labor practices. It would be easier (though less fun and less personally enriching) to simply buy beans with the proper stickers slapped on it. But it takes a bit more thought, and in the end that is a good thing.

It does not have to be like this. The taste of a given coffee is enormously sensitive to how it was grown, when and how selectively it was harvested, how it was washed and processed, how it was stored, how it was shipped. If you want to preserve the incredible beauty of a unique coffee, every step along the way must be undertaken with great care and diligence. For instance, a naturally sweet cup of coffee (no sugar needed) is the hallmark of beans that were harvested selectively, only when each individual cherry was ripe. It’s a mind-changing experience to drink, but until recently, very few people have had the opportunity to try it.

Descriptions of the flavors of beans from various parts of the world can raise a few skeptical eyebrows from people accustomed to bad coffee (that is, most people) or elicit snide comments about dainty epicureanism. But once one tastes the coffee in question, especially side-by-side with something radically different, all suspicions are allayed. Did you know that the volcanic soil of El Salvador gives the coffee there the sharp and pleasing tang of iron? Or that the Yirgacheffe region of Ethiopia produces delicate, lemony coffees while the Harrar region is famed for pungent berry flavors? And among those that care about such things, there is a spirited, friendly debate about whether the unmistakeable wet-earth taste of Sumatran coffee, a byproduct of peculiar local processing, is a flaw that masks the beans true taste or a delightful, unique trait to be preserved.

Commodities markets are indifferent to all this. Coffee is coffee, whether it tastes like liquid mold or liquid gold. So the quality of beans that end up in, for example, the United States, is highly variable. This is where dark roasting comes into play. Dark-roasting coffee is like stewing meat. If you have a prime cut of free-range, grass-fed beef, you can pan-sear it for a few minutes and end up with a divine steak dinner. If all you have is gristle and it’s starting to go bad, you can just stew it for hours to make it palatable. Both are technically the same thing (cow meat), but, of course, there’s really no comparison.

Similarly, over-roasting coffee is a way of hiding the flaws in your coffee. If it was carelessly harvested, processed sloppily, and sat in a steamy tropical port city for way too long before being shipped, it’s going to taste bad: sour, musty, and literally like dirt. But if you then roast that coffee black as coal smoke, it will taste sort-of adequate in a smeared-palate way: smoky, bitter and maybe, if you are lucky, a bit caramelly. (I have simplified the case here a bit. A skilled artisan roaster can actually produce a lovely, controlled dark roast using high-quality beans. You may rest assured, however, that this is the exception to the rule.)

The taste of coffee is also highly dependent on how it’s prepared. So even a very fine coffee, properly roasted, can taste terrible if someone pulls a 60-second shot of espresso with it (as opposed to a more skillful 28-second shot, for example). With all these variables, it’s no wonder many people prefer the darkest possible roast then combined with the most possible milk and sugar (or Splenda, or cream, or creamer, or soy, or vanilla syrup, or frappuccino powder or anything to mask the fundamental nastiness of the beans).

The great news is that truly good coffee is eminently accessible to people living in the West today. For the end consumer, it doesn’t cost appreciably more than the low-grade stuff, and it’s often considerably cheaper than the medium-grade stuff passed off as “gourmet” at the chain stores (or in those supermarket bins). Because the phalanx of faceless commodities-market middlemen are cut out of the equation, the farmers receive a much greater portion of the final sale price, and the whole thing, from field to cup, is done on a more human scale.

More and more coffee in this mode — carefully produced, ethically sourced, fresh, and delicious — is reaching our shores every year, and more baristas and roasters are learning how to skillfully prepare it. It can be hard to imagine that this movement will become more than a footnote to the monstrous global coffee trade. Especially as the big companies begin to take notice and start to parrot the language of artisinal coffee without changing what they do, people are understandably very confused about what they are buying. But we have yet to even approach anything like a ceiling for how far we can take it. Perhaps skepticism about how big a difference it makes is rooted more in a failure of the imagination than in the supposedly ironclad laws of capital. And if you pay more attention to taste than to packaging or verbiage or stickers, you are off on the right foot. Ultimately, it is still only a consumer choice, if we choose to treat ourselves to better coffee. I can’t pretend it’s anything else. Of course, it’s also a consumer choice to drink bad, commodity-style coffee, or to remain in the dark about the difference.

La Esmeraldas jaw-dropping $130/pound is clearly an anomaly. Certainly the name cachet (and quite possibly the sheer, giddy lunacy of the moment) drove up the price. I dont think anyone believes it is literally dozens of times more delicious than, for instance, Panamas second-place coffee. But it was a watershed moment for growers around the world: a recognition of the worth of skill and dedication. A price that high is not sustainable, even for the wealthy West. But it is a beacon of what is possible. Coffee farmers deserve far more than they have received in the past, and they are beginning to get it. To continue this promising trend though, people must come to view their coffee in a new light, not as undifferentiated rocket fuel, but as what it is: a unique and ever-changing product of specific places, specific plants, and specific hands that work the soil.

For a good primer on how to find, purchase and prepare great coffee, try this series by tonx on dethroner. People in the New York region may be interested in the New York Coffee Society.

Daniel Humphries is a professional barista trainer and coffee sommelier living in New York City. His homepage is here.

‘The Speewah Ballad’

Australian poet and author Peter Nicholson writes 3 Quarks Daily’s Poetry and Culture column (see other columns here). There is an introduction to his work at and at the NLA.

Since one should always take art seriously (Duchamp, anyone?), there is always the danger of then taking yourself terribly seriously too. Therein lies the error. You must laugh at yourself and the world. That is essential. Laughter is, as is said, the best medicine.

I guess I’ve seen the episode of Seinfeld where Elaine thinks she’s contracted rabies several times now, yet it still makes me laugh out loud. ‘I don’t need you to tell me what I don’t want, you stupid, hipster doofus!’ she barks at Kramer when he tells her that she doesn’t want to get rabies because it can be fatal. Please don’t give me any guff about being ‘oppressed’ by American cultural product. I’m quite capable of recognising Elmer Gantry when he comes in through the door, or the screen. There may not be any laughs when listening to Mahler, and you unlikely to guffaw in the middle of Kafka, but art is contradictory in that way. Often, in implausible places, laughter can get hold of you and bring you haughty stares. Getting overcome by a sense of the ridiculous at some earnest art installation; Queen of the Night journalists who think they are remedying, rather than discussing, complex problems with their columns; some chefs, having mistaken themselves for artists, making a giant fuss about meals you wouldn’t feed to a brown dog; fashionista stick insects dressed in clothes that might have been lifted from an alley bin—everyone could go on to make their own list. We need satirists to show us our foolishness, nowhere more so than in our political certainties or lifestyle choices. For example, there seems to be a new fashion amongst some for going up into space with astronauts, or getting ‘buried’ in space. Can’t you see the comic possibilities here. ‘I’d like to walk on Mars on your next expedition.’ ‘O.K. That’ll be 50 gazillion dollars thanks.’  Having done a comprehensive job of wrecking everything on Earth, manimal goes forth in his/her quest for future dominance. What a prospect. Let’s hope the newly-discovered earth ‘double’ isn’t too close for comfort. 

Have a look at Uncyclopedia—the ‘content-free’ encyclopaedia—sometime, the parody of Wikipedia. You encounter some very politically-incorrect writing, but we’re all grown up enough to get past that, aren’t we. Try the article on the slate industry in Wales. If that doesn’t give you a laugh, not much will, though humour is, like everything else, a matter of taste.   

Australian humour tends to be cynical of established orders or of anyone who is seen as getting above themself, which has both positive and negative aspects. The larrikin spirit, defined in the convict, colonial years, has had many a poetic devolution in present times. Here is a poem that parodies, not unkindly I hope, the bush ballad tradition, made famous by ‘Banjo’ Paterson, among others, with its sturdy carapace, perhaps predictable rhythms and thumping rhymes. You can’t expect the fine shadings or metaphysical heft of a Rilke or Milosz in verse like this, but the Australian ballad form can be enjoyed on its own terms, reflecting, beneath the broiling and sometimes mannered surface, shadows, ambiguities. Speewah refers to an imaginary outback station, what Americans would call a ranch. 


                       The Speewah Ballad

It had come to my attention in the local boozers’ pub
   That my yarns were getting hoary and my wit had missed the mark,
They were getting tired of hearing all my macho, matey turns
   And wanted something different to raise their spirits as they worked
For bosses who looked down on them and found their habits slack;
   My name is Terry Overall—my humour’s pretty black!

One chap, old Stubby Collins, had touched me for a shout,
   Said, Now get on, you young galoot, your tales are up the spout.
But as I rolled on home that night reviewing what I’d told
   I thought that I was really quite a sentimental cove
And Collins was right up himself, for who was he to tell
   My stories couldn’t bore them least of all in that hotel.

I left the bar round tennish, walked past the closed-up shops,
   Called out Debbie’s name when home and cursed the booze bus cops
Who took away my licence—I’d only knocked down two—
   Because one evening after work I’d got into a blue;
One’s in a wheelchair now, he’s great, his splints are off his legs,
   The others got a compo cheque but can’t remember facts.

Debbie, I call out once again, and then I see a note
   Left on the kitchen sink beside a half-drunk can of Coke:
I’ve left you Terry, you’re no good, you’ve bashed me up too much.
   I’ve got the kids and I’m sure glad I’ve left this dump at last.

Well I’ll be blowed, I cogitate and scratch my sweating brow,
   I never was much keen on that two-timing Goddam cow.

Then down I sit and exercise my mind on lots of things,
   There’s rubbish on the unmown grass and murder in the wind,
But what’s the good of hitching ’bout a woman who’s like that;
   I’ll go and visit Micky out on Speewah’s lambing flats.
He said he’d like to see me last time he was in to town,
   He’s a lark, this mate of mine, a bonzer, strapping clown.

He almost drowned at Bondi once when we were at the beach.
   He swam way out, then got cramp, was almost out of reach,
When in the nick of time a surfer helped him back to shore;
   Better than a shark, he said, but hell my guts are sore.
He always sees the bright side, even off his scrawny pins—
   I’d told him not to eat those greasy, cold dim sims.

Well anyhow next morning I packed my bag to go,
   Made sure the ute was ready for a thousand miles or so,
Rang the boss and asked for leave, I told him I was sick—
   I work down at the abattoir, Jesus it’s the pits.
He wasn’t pleased but when I told him what had really happened
   He softened up and told me that I really must feel flattened.

And so I left the suburbs—my place is in the west—
   You need a car to get about, it’s hot, you get depressed.
I feel much better knowing that I’m leaving for a while
   (The house is still unpainted, the yard looks like a sty),
And now the wife has left me I think I’ll chuck the lot,
   Leave the place as well as get myself another job.

Soon the city vanished as I shot off down the highway,
   The road was beaut to drive on, you could speed down there quite safely;
I gave a few slow motorists a scare or two at times—
   Without the licence handy I still avoid the speeding fines!
The coppers never touched me, I was lucky to escape
   Their nosy parker checking of bald tyres and number plates.

After an hour of travelling I picked a hiker up
   Who said he was off to Melbourne for a talk on a chap called Bart—
It didn’t make much sense to me, but passed the time of day.
   He was full of himself, this fellow, I thought he could’ve been gay,
But later on a female hiker came into our view;
   We stopped for her and he soon implied that it might be nice to smooch.

She took up the offer quickly, her hands were on his crutch,
   And soon I had to stop the ute because of all their thrust.
I let them out on the grass beside the highway’s steaming tar;
   They finished off their business then while flies about them buzzed.
At last they hitched their jeans back up and brushed the ants away,
   Leaning by me tiredly as the miles blurred into haze.

It wasn’t what I’d planned of course, and I felt pretty slack,
   This trip was getting stranger and time felt out of whack.
At last I reached the turnoff and I had to wake them up—
   Sorry, turning off here. Hope you’ll have some better luck,
And left them thumbing lazily beside a dusty corner,
   Making off for Speewah as the afternoon drew nearer.

Then suddenly I thought, The dog! My God I haven’t got the dog!,
   I’d left him in the yard at home, the poor old pooch, poor Trog;
The neighbours will look after him and give him cans of Pal,
   I hope he doesn’t bark all night and give the whole street hell.
That dog is worth a dozen Debbies, so much better than the missus,
   That if I had to choose between them, sure as eggs, he’d come up roses.

Now as I travelled westward the weather grew quite blustery,
   The sun shone in my bloodshot eyes, the road became real uppity.
Then all at once the countryside seemed different and remote—
   The east had had a bit of green but now the land seemed broke,
Dead branches lay beside the road and bones were everywhere;
   I wasn’t one to worry but this country had me scared.

Last time I’d gone to Speewah I had come another way,
   But that was several years ago in summer, Christmas Day.
Now it’s late in autumn and the days are so much shorter
   You wouldn’t think the place the same—maybe I’m just getting older,
Though I’m only thirty-three and still got all my marbles;
   This time it sure seemed different as the distant thunder rumbled.

Soon I was low on petrol and the sky was getting darker
   And so I kept a lookout for a garage or a parked car
From which to siphon off a bit in case I couldn’t find
   Out on this lonely country road a service station sign,
But strike me lucky, there was one not half a mile ahead
   Set just beneath a ring of hills whose sides around me reared.

I pulled into the bowser and got out to stretch my legs,
   A cold wind stirred the eucalypts as blackness round me spread,
I looked about in hope of finding someone who would fill
   My ute with oil and petrol so that I could cross those hills.
Then out of the blue a hand descended, gripping me on the  shoulder,
   And when I turned my stomach churned and through me went a shudder.

Before me stood a shrunken form in khaki dungarees,
   With hollow face and staring eyes, he seemed to be diseased,
But he was just a loner, not complex or a pain—
   West of the Great Dividing Range that sort of bloke remains
What city folk are wary of, though country types are sure
   They’ve got it over big smoke types—they tell it through the year.

Of course back in the city people couldn’t give a damn,
   As long as the fridge is chocka, then bugger-all the farm.
Their usual way of spending time is spending money freely
   On objects that technology deems right for yuppie needies
Distinguished for their empty chat at groaning restaurant tables,
   Whinging through three courses on the subject of tax rebates.

Read more »

Come see Morgan Meis dance…

At the Third Annual 3 Quarks Ball…


That’s Mr. Meis in the photo at our 2nd Annual bash.

Not all the details are completely worked out yet, but the party will be bigger and better than ever, with an amazing live band, in addition to drinks/dancing/DJs, and this year it will be in Manhattan (most likely on the upper west side). So reserve this date, and more details will be forthcoming:

9 pm, Saturday, August 25, 2007*

*This also seems a good time to let 3QD readers know that my wife Margit Oberrauch and I and our cat Frederica Krueger will be moving to Italy at the end of August. We will be living in the South Tyrol in the very north of Italy (a German speaking region–wünschen Sie mir Glück mit meinem Deutsch) just a few kilometers south of the Austrian border in a small alpine village. 3QD should remain unaffected by our move, and we will be back in New York City well in time for the Fourth Annual 3 Quarks Ball. This is just a sabbatical.

All the News That’s Fit to Print Out

Jonathan Dee in the New York Times Magazine:

Screenhunter_31_jul_01_1337When news broke on May 8 about the arrest of a half-dozen young Muslim men for supposedly planning to attack Fort Dix, alongside the usual range of reactions — disbelief, paranoia, outrage, indifference, prurience — a newer one was added: the desire to consecrate the event’s significance by creating a Wikipedia page about it. The first one to the punch was a longtime Wikipedia contributor known as CltFn, who at about 7 that morning created what’s called a stub — little more than a placeholder, often just one sentence in length, which other contributors may then build upon — under the heading “Fort Dix Terror Plot.” A while later, another Wikipedia user named Gracenotes took an interest as well. Over the next several hours, in constant cyberconversation with an ever-growing pack of other self-appointed editors, Gracenotes — whose real name is Matthew Gruen — expanded and corrected this stub 59 times, ultimately shaping it into a respectable, balanced and even footnoted 50-line account of that day’s major development in the war on terror. By the time he was done, “2007 Fort Dix Attack Plot” was featured on Wikipedia’s front page. Finally, around midnight, Gruen left a note on the site saying, “Off to bed,” and the next morning he went back to his junior year of high school.

More here.

Legally Sweet

Roald Hoffman in American Scientist:

Screenhunter_30_jul_01_1325As I write this, a Philadelphia jury is learning some chemistry as it ponders a lawsuit brought by the makers of Equal (Merisant) against Splenda’s manufacturers (McNeil Nutritionals). The jury members will also be probing our attitudes toward the natural and the unnatural, parsing words and getting at the essence of advertising.

It’s about money, of course: the $1.5 billion market for artificial sweeteners. Equal’s share of the market has fallen; Splenda’s has risen dramatically, to 62 percent of the U.S. market. Equal’s Merisant accuses Splenda’s McNeil Nutritionals of gaining its edge by misleading consumers into thinking Splenda was somehow natural. Splenda’s ads say “made from sugar, so it tastes like sugar.”

First the facts: Ordinary “sugar,” whether from sugar cane or beets, is sucrose, whose structure is shown on the facing page. Equal’s active ingredient, aspartame, has a clearly different molecular structure from sucrose. Why it tastes sweet (much sweeter per gram than sugar), or to state it a different way, how artificial sweeteners work their biochemical legerdemain on our taste buds … that is a fascinating story. We now know the receptors involved and understand roughly how it can be that the receptor proteins respond to the diversity of chemical structures represented in sweeteners.

More here.

‘But, Herr Einstein, that’s nonsense’

Tibor Fischer in The Telegraph:

Screenhunter_29_jul_01_1315Like me, you probably don’t associate the traffic lights on Southampton Row with the end of the world.

But it was while waiting there in 1933 that the Hungarian polymath Leó Szilárd conceived the idea of a nuclear chain reaction, and thus the creation of the atomic bomb. Szilárd is one of a generation of exceptional Hungarian scientists and artists that Kati Marton examines in The Great Escape, a study of nine Hungarian Jews who fled their homeland.

Four of the scientists – Szilárd, Eugene Wigner, John von Neumann and Edward Teller – also feature prominently in PD Smith’s Doomsday Men, which lays out the science of superweapons and their depiction in literature and cinema.

Why Hungary exported so much talent in the 1930s is hard to explain.

The emancipation of the Jews in the Austro- Hungarian Empire and the ruthless gimnázium system are standard suggestions, but it was very odd how one small country produced so many Nobel Prizewinners in one swoop – and then practically nothing. Szilárd was especially gifted.

More here.

Kapuscinski, Herbert and the Debate on Lustration

Thomas Urban in the Süddeutsche Zeitung. (Translated in Sign and sight.):

So Ryszard Kapuscinski was at it as well! The famous reporter and prize-crowned author, whose books on the Orient, Africa, Latin America and the Soviet Union have been translated into numerous languages, also wrote reports for the SB, the Polish secret police, under the code name ‘Vera Cruz’ and ‘Poet’. He is the last in a line of intellectuals who have recently been outed as informers: the novelist Andrzej Szczypiorski, the poet Zbigniew Herbert, the novelist, poet and dramatist Henryk Grynberg, and one of the greatest narrators of Jewish suffering and founder of the famous Wroclaw mime theatre Henryk Tomaszewski. The philosopher and sociologist Zygmunt Bauman was even an officer in the secret police during the Stalin era, and kept very quiet about it.

The Kapuscinski case has added fuel to the Polish debate on lustration, the process of x-raying its citizens for evidence of secret police involvement. And there we were thinking it had all come to an end, with the recent decision of the constitutional court to squash great sections of the lustration law which the ruling Kaczynski twins were trying to push through. Now only civil servants can be subjected to examination, not, as the government intended, journalists of all types, from editors of local rags, to political chat show hosts. Foreign commentators celebrated the court’s verdict as an end to the witch hunt – ignoring the thousands of informers and opportunists in the media, writers’ associations and universities who stand to profit from the decision, including names that are famous in Germany.

I didn’t know of this case of another “informant”, but it seems oddly poetic, no pun intended:

The poet Zbigniew Herbert, who died in 1998, even succeeded in elegantly duping the SB. He filled his reports, for example, with interpretations of the poems of the Nobel Prize laureate Czeslaw Milosz, who lived in exile and was hated by the regime, as well as long-winded cultural-philosophical observations which undoubtedly went well over the heads of the leading officers. It was his resistance against an insensate system. And he never harmed or betrayed anyone.

All Hail America?

From The Washington Post:

Hail America’s basic founding myth describes us as a people selected by Providence to found a new world of liberty and hope, not just for ourselves but for the entire human race.

This myth of American exceptionalism has led to self-deception as well as a moral progress. On the Fourth of July we one can tell the traditional story that “all men are created equal,” or the counter-story of a constitution that treated slaves as three-fifths of a person, broken treaties with native inhabitants, and a doctrine of manifest destiny used to legitimize aggression against Mexico. As Anne-Marie Slaughter, dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School, points out in her thoughtful, and well-written bookessay, both stories may be true at the same time. In a nation held together by ideas rather than ethnicity, fierce debates over values “have driven our history forward. Democracy once meant suffrage only for propertied white men. At the dawn of the Revolution, liberty meant slavery for 20 percent of the population. Equality once meant segregated schools. And justice has often not been for all. Successive groups and generations of Americans have challenged the meaning and the implementation of these values — calling on our government to make good its promises and also disputing precisely what was promised.”

More here.

Wild Earth No More?

From The National Geographic:

As of 1995 only 17 percent of Earth’s land remained free of direct human influence, as seen in this map of the vast networks of shipping lanes and roads that crisscross the planet.


“On average, the net benefits to humankind of domesticated nature have been positive,” the authors write in tomorrow’s issue of the journal Science. For instance, leaps and bounds in agriculture have increased food supplies and made for easy access to energy-rich, easily stored grains.

More here.

How to Make Enemies and Destroy Cities

Saifedean Ammous in his blog, The Saif House:


On my news feed, a few days ago, next to each other were two items that demonstrate two incredible, and not all too unrelated, phenomena that tell you a lot about America today.

New Orleans Pursues Foreign Aid
Washington to Increase Military Aid to Israel

As New Orleans struggles to rebuild itself, and the Federal money that was supposed to fund this rebuilding is trickling far slower than it was promised, President Bush announced an increase in the aid package to Israel and secured it for the next ten years.

More here.  [In the photo, Jenin, in the West Bank, is on the left; New Orleans is on the right.]

Wake Up: You Are On Stage with the Arcade Fire

John E. Uhl in his personal blog:

Af_newyorker_2The stage production of recent performances only exacerbates the turgid subject matter, overpowering the viewer (who already had enough to look at during the Funeral tour, when the Arcade Fire was seven somberly dressed musicians) with more lights, horn players, neon reproductions of the new album cover, amplified megaphones and tiers of video screens that replicate and magnify every note and movement of the performers — presumably a kind of comment on advertising and surveillance in the age of terror that succeeded only in making me dizzy (and sick of looking at the performers).

More here.