The Edmond Sun


January 11, 2013

Who knew coffee was so revolutionary?

EDMOND — Let’s take a couple of minutes to talk about the relationship between coffee and misguided government. We’ll start with some general observations. First, for millions of us, coffee is among life’s great pleasures. One of the most satisfying activities a person can do — alone — is settle into a warm spot on a snowy day with a good book, some uplifting music and a hot cup of strong coffee.

What does this have to do with misguided government? Bear with me.

This is, admittedly, an oversimplification, but there are basically three types of government agenda operating in a democratic republic. First, one that’s good for the government and good for the people. Rigorous public education comes to mind. If the electorate is well grounded in the pitfalls of history and the mechanics of civil participation, that electorate is more likely to make wise choices leading to competent, responsible governance.

Next, an agenda may be good for the people and problematic for the government. Protection of free speech is an example. All governments make mistakes. All governments get heartburn when these mistakes are pointed out and freely discussed by an electorate having the power to change the government.

Then, there are agendas that are bad for the government and the people. Take Prohibition for example. This boondoggle unleashed a criminal scourge and promoted the growth of pseudo-governments operated by ruthless gangsters that, in some ways, exercised more power over people than federal, state and local authorities.

Now, about that coffee. When coffee first came to the attention of the authorities in Yemen, it was welcomed as a miracle drug. Sheik Omar, who gets credit for discovering coffee roasting and brewing, was granted sainthood by those grateful authorities. The government said “Coffee is good.”

In time, Yemeni authorities realized coffee’s potential commercial value. Desiring to create and maintain a “miracle drug” monopoly, they outlawed the export of any coffee seeds capable of producing live plants. The government said “The coffee trade must be controlled.”

In the early 1500s, coffee houses appeared in Mecca. As coffee promoted animated conversation and this conversation often turned to politics, the imams of Mecca grew fearful of these gatherings and banned coffee in 1511. The government said “Coffee drinkers are troublemakers and must be silenced.”

As coffee drinking spread into the Christian world, nervous clerics banned coffee because it was “a Muslim drink.” The government said “Coffee is unchristian and must be forbidden.”

Later, in 1600, over sharp objection from devout clergyman, Pope Clement VIII declared that coffee was, in fact, a Christian beverage. The government said “Coffee is redeemed. It is no longer heathen, so it’s OK.” Even so, Ethiopian Orthodox Christians prohibited coffee as a “Muslim drink” as late as 1889.

In 1670, Yemen still prohibited the export of coffee seeds. According to legend, Sufi Baba Budam strapped seven live coffee seeds to his chest and smuggled them to India. From there, coffee spread across the world.

Ultimately, Sultan Murad IV banned coffee throughout the Ottoman Empire. In Europe, Charles II attempted to ban coffeehouses as hotbeds of dangerous political discussion. The effort failed.

Today, all government fears, maneuvers and schemes notwithstanding, the pleasures of coffee are enjoyed by happy consumers worldwide. Not only is it a satisfying beverage, but science tells us moderate amounts may provide beneficial health effects. Among other things, coffee may reduce the risk of prostate cancer, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease, heart disease, dementia, cirrhosis and gout.

Just this week, a new report released by the National Institute of Environmental Health Science suggests coffee drinkers may even have reduced risk for developing depression.

So what might we conclude from all this? If nothing else, our default position on matters of government control should always be one of thoughtful suspicion. Whether it’s coffee, marijuana, sugary drinks or armed citizens, the question must always be — what is the ultimate cost of this control? Governments, by their nature, are insatiable. They never have enough power or large enough share of the resources. Governments never sleep and they never tire of probing the limits of people’s willingness to barter their rights or cough up their money. Governments are incredibly resourceful at disguising the insidious hook hidden within the shiny, dangling appeal of something “good for you.” “This goody’s yours. Don’t concern yourself with the long-term costs. You can pay later.”

Government’s track record on protecting us from our pleasures and peculiarities is grim. They may have given up on coffee, for now, but they’ll always be looking for some other control. For now, I think I’ll just enjoy my “cup o’ joe.” I’m Hink and I’ll see you ya.

MIKE HINKLE is an Edmond resident and retired attorney.

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