Can a country as divided and polarized as ours be united? Is there any issue — just one — on which we can agree? Will anything stop the downward spiral of political discourse into a rhetorical food fight in which words are hurled like hot grits and decorum is regarded as a weakness?
We are living in a country where thousands have affiliated themselves with the Tea Party movement, some of whose members wave signs depicting President Obama as a dictator, while some of the more volatile among them turn up at meetings openly armed and advocating secession and the total destruction of the federal government.
We live in a country where thousands profess a religious-like devotion to talk-radio personalities and cable television entertainers who vitriolically brand anyone who doesn't subscribe to their politics as "the enemy."
Can there be an antidote to this malaise? Well, Annabel Parks, a soft-spoken first-generation Korean-American, riffed on her Facebook page recently that what she thought the country needed was an alternative to the bombast and theatrics of the Tea Party.
Tea? Nah, she reasoned that we could be a bit more indigenous. "Let's get together as communities and sit down to talk with one another about politics over a cup of coffee," she said. Thus, the Coffee Party was born, and, while the concept still has some catching up to do with its predecessor, interest in this movement — a genuinely grassroots one compared to the Astroturf of the Tea Party — has been steadily percolating throughout the Internet on social media outlets.
The Memphis Coffee Party began brewing up a storm last Saturday, when approximately 50 people assembled at Otherlands Coffee Bar in Midtown for a kickoff meeting. It was encouraging to see how many were willing to step out on a cold, dreary day for a lesson in civics and a chance to speak with and listen — yes, listen — to their fellow citizens.
A visitor from Atlanta who had found out about the local event on Facebook started by admitting he had voted for Obama and lamenting how badly the president had disappointed him by not being strong enough to hold his own against the obstructionist Republicans. He suggested more than once that Democrats — which most of those in attendance were — were being "way too nice."
His sentiments seemed to be shared by the majority. But, while some expressed disappointment in Obama and wanted to see his ideas succeed, others stated their disdain for the Democrat/Republican, left/right paradigm and called for efforts to make third-party candidates more viable.
Things really got going when a bona fide Tea Party member stood up, identifying herself as a Ron Paul-supporting libertarian and describing a split among Tea Partiers between libertarians like herself and religious conservatives. She provoked a lively dialogue with Jim Maynard, a local gay activist and self-proclaimed socialist, who challenged her contention that the conversation she was listening to resembled the wrangling of the Tea Partiers.
In truth, it didn't. Maynard probably expressed the sentiments of the group when he made the case for an activist government and for radical health-care reform.
Another issue of concern was that of the seemingly never-ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Outrage was expressed over the blatant lies and perpetual propagandizing on FOX news and talk radio. And a fair amount of condemnation was lavished on the conservative "Blue Dog" Democrats who have joined Republicans in resisting the change seemingly promised in Obama's victorious presidential campaign of 2008.
The Coffee Partiers really got worked up over the abuse of corporate money in the election process and over the latest Supreme Court ruling allowing corporations to contribute unlimited amounts of money to campaigns.
There was more in this vein — spontaneous, animated, outraged, and, most importantly, unscripted. The Ron Paul lady notwithstanding, it sounded nothing at all like a Tea Party. If diatribes there were, they were the other side of the coin. An alternative currency, if you will.
Which was, after all, the idea.
When Ben Franklin emerged from the Constitutional Convention on September 18, 1787, he was met by a Mrs. Powell, who asked: "Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?" Franklin replied, "A republic, if you can keep it." Likewise, the Coffee Party concept just might be a keeper.
The next one will be held on Saturday, March 27th — with the time and place to be announced via facebook.com/ coffeepartyusa.
Cheri DelBrocco, who moderated the first Memphis Coffee Party, writes the "Mad as Hell" online column for the Flyer.