What is Busboys and Poets? The answer, at least the one that the store provides, is this:
“Busboys and Poets is a community gathering place. First established in 2005 Busboys and Poets was created by owner Anas “Andy” Shallal, an Iraqi-American artist, activist and restaurateur. After opening, the flagship location at 14th and V Streets, NW (Washington DC), the neighboring residents and the progressive community, embraced Busboys, especially activists opposed to the Iraq War. Busboys and Poets is now located in three distinctive neighborhoods in the Washington Metropolitan area and is a community resource for artists, activists, writers, thinkers and dreamers.”
Having answered this metaphysical question, we have to ask the normative question about Busboys and Poets: what does it seek to do? Again, the answer from the source:
“Busboys and Poets is a restaurant, bookstore, fair trade market and gathering place where people can discuss issues of social justice and peace. Each Busboys and Poets location should enhance the community — allowing us to bring together a diverse clientele reflective of the surrounding neighborhoods. Busboys and Poets creates an environment where shared conversations over food and drink allow the progressive, artistic and literary communities to dialogue, educate and interact.”
Prima facie, Busboys and Poets is the kind of place that could be an concrete manifestation of Jurgen Habermas‘ concept of the “public sphere” as it is articulated in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. According to Habermas, the “public sphere” is
“the idea of inclusive critical discussion, free of social and economic pressures, in which interlocutors treat each other as equals in a cooperative attempt to reach an understanding on matters of common concern.” (from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry)
By this definition, Busboys and Poets seems to qualify as just such a particular instantiation of the concept: it advertises itself as a place in which people of a certain political persuasion can come and gather to discuss matters of common concern.
But what is wrong with Busboys and Poets is exactly what eventually caused the decline of the ideal of the public sphere: “ideas became commodities, assimilated to the economics of mass media consumption.” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
Busboys and Poets, first of all, seems to be designed as to check off items on the list that must be approved by bourgeoise sensibilities: it is multicultural, it clearly notes which items are vegetarian and which are vegan, it only uses fair trade coffee, it sponsors events by non-mainstream artists, it promotes local agribusiness, it sells politically left-leaning books, and so on and so on. In other words, someone read the whole list on Stuff White People Like and designed a bar/coffeeshop/lounge/restaurant around that list.
Like the modern liberal political movement, especially in its more youthful segment, Busboys and Poets is all style, no substance. Like I said, it has all the visual trappings of a “progressive” place to hang out with other young progressives, and together we will all rise up and change the world. But nevermind the fact that Busboys and Poets is located on, and both a cause and effect of, one of the quickest gentrification areas in Washington DC: the U Street Corridor. Nevermind the fact that out of the many times that I’ve been there, I’ve yet to hear an exchange that has any intellectual rigorous content.
What is most odious to me about this is that real progressive ideas, supported by logically rigorous ideas and arguments, have themselves become the social equivalent of fashion accessories. The idea of “progressivism” has become just another commodity to be purchased and displayed as signs of group membership and exclusion.
Not that I blame the owners, because they are merely appealing to the youthful “progressives” of our day and their sensibilities. Apparently, it is more important to be seen as “progressive” and to be seen hanging out at the “right” places (by other “progressives” no less!) than it is to actually have an intellectually substantive conversation about what is going on in the world. But then again, I have been disenchanted with people my age who claim to be part of the “movement,” mostly because most of them are not really serious, on a philosophical level, about ideas that animate their supposed movement. (See this post by Brian Berkey for an insightful and cutting analysis of the intellectual vacousness that characterizes most people who belong to the youthful progressive movement).
In the end, we are all poseurs with an “u.” So let us not pretend that having a coffeeshop is going to change the world, and let’s just all admit that some of us go to Busboys and Poets, not because we are so passionately committed to progressivism (not that many of us would even know the intellectual arguments anyways), but because we want to be seen at the “right” kind of place and be seen by the “right” kind of people.
The sooner we face up to our rampant consumerism and identity-construction through consumption, the sooner we can go back to discuss the disproportionate Israeli response to Hamas’ rocket-firings and display our solidarity with our Palestinian brothers by purchasing a cup of fair-trade coffee and vegan panini.