For the few remaining who actually care, Coffee Party USA is suffering what some have termed a crisis in leadership, but which is far more existential, far more visceral.
The Coffee Party (CP) is a “grassroots, non-partisan movement that aims to restore the principles and spirit of democracy in America.” The origins of the organization begin with Annabel Park, a filmmaker and political activist with a strong following. (Check here for more on the group’s formation and history.) Eventually organizing as a 501(c)(4), CP formalized into a national entity with a board of directors and a loosely-connected array of local chapters that depends largely on good will, connections, and civil conversation. This last is very important; from the Coffee Party website comes the “Civility Pledge”:
As a member or supporter of the Coffee Party, I pledge to conduct myself in a way that is civil, honest, and respectful toward people with whom I disagree. I value people from different cultures, I value people with different ideas, and I value and cherish the democratic process.
The organization has something of a schizophrenic following: while boasting nearly a half-million fans on its Facebook page, the total number of paying members and donors—as near as anyone can tell—hovers closer to 1,000, making it an organization with a strong reach to the barely involved, but an anemic connection to the true activists. It’s an organization that has done little with little, and with little attention.
And yet: I’m one of those “few remaining who actually care.”
I came to the Coffee Party self-serving; a desire to promote and sell my book had me hunting for radio and social media opportunities and so I reached out to then Board President Eric Byler asking for a spot on one of the group’s internet radio shows. I quickly struck up a friendship with Eric which led, first, to him and me co-hosting a new radio show, and then on to my appointment to the CP board of directors. I served until the fall of 2013, when I resigned over ideological differences.
The people I worked with were—and are—fundamentally good people, but in late 2013 they made a tragic error in judgment. The group has always struggled with fundraising; filled with passion but lacking key non-profit skills, the group, frustrated, followed the lead of one director in pursuing a multi-level-marketing alliance with a questionable energy company, Viridian. This decision was a groupthinked disaster, leading to discussions of conflict of interest, adjustments of by-laws, and the need to litmus test any new directors. One director—Eric himself—resigned over the issue. When Eric resigned, he went public to the membership (via Facebook), and the membership was understandably concerned (at first) and then irate, particularly over the lack of communication about what had been going on.
A call for board resignations began and, up to this point, things looked like they could be managed. But then people decided to show their very worst selves. It wasn’t long before the “—gate” appellation formed: Viridiangate. Soon after came the rare but nevertheless obvious references to Nazism, communism, and Stalinism. Factions formed. People yelled, screamed, and questioned each other’s integrity. Board members lashed back, several reaching new lows in so-called “civil conversation.” People were banned from the various CP properties, and posts were deleted. In retaliation to the retaliation, members began hijacking threads whenever and wherever they could, preventing any of those other 400,000 plus people from engaging in any kind of reasoned dialog. Questions and statements were twisted and parsed for positional advantage. People who in the past could have been counted on to challenge such incivility began to reveal themselves as no better or worse than any other participant in any other mob. The few remaining board supporters were continually harassed, badgered, and bothered until, in frustration, most simply gave up and left the conversation. The whole thing was a true exercise in how a small minority can completely outscream any reasonable conversation. It got ugly. Very ugly. And very un-CP-like.
And the truth, supposedly a priority for CP and its members, was forced to the gangplank, sacrificed to the baser twisting of supposed “facts.” Make no mistake: the board members have tripped over themselves trying to justify banning posts, jettisoning members, fixing elections, and just generally figuring out how to redefine the concept of cognitive dissonance. But at the same time a small group of very vocal members have gone to great lengths to twist any word, thought, action, or intention into cringe-worthy conspiracy theories and blood-red anger, not only directed at the board, but directed at anyone who defends them or, in some cases, anyone who even tries to see both sides of the story. And both sides have systematically opposed any real attempts at conciliation, instead spending time accusing each other by asking ridiculous questions of the “When did you stop beating your wife?” variety.
Today, the dispute left the CP and FB confines; an article came out about this crisis. Written by Laura Sesana and released on arbiternews.com, the article presents just these kinds of “facts” while conveniently hiding any real truth.
It presents the following, for example:
Despite cutting all ties with [Annabel] Park and the threatened lawsuit, the Coffee Party has continued to use her image and slogans (which are protected by copyright) to promote their website and Facebook page without Ms. Park’s permission.
Certainly “facts” so far as they go. But “truth?” Not so much.
Technically, the board did not cut ties with Annabel Park. She left the Coffee Party in 2011, both as a leader and as a member, though she has been granted permission to access the organization’s assets at various times in order to promote programs of mutual benefit to the group’s principles. Also, Annabel was only one of several hundred FB fans (out of nearly a half-million, remember) who were banned by the page’s administrators, a practice first initiated when Ms. Park was still leading the Coffee Party.
But then, that truth would get in the way of the desired narrative….
Also, it’s true that the Coffee Party has ”continued to use her image and slogans,” (though it’s unclear whether they are protected by copyright; CP claims it’s using public sources), but doesn’t also point out that Ms. Park was apparently fine with such usage for the three years that have elapsed since she left the Coffee Party, and only now—when she vehemently disagrees with the board—is she raising the issue.
And while it’s also a fact that the Viridian plan was “discovered by a group of members,” it would be more truthful to point out additional context, which includes Annabel herself using deception in texts to the board (which she admits to but justifies) prior to Eric’s resignation, and that it was Eric who took the details public. In that sense, it was more accurately revealed to a group of members.
And what of all that supposed civility? Well, lately there really isn’t much of it to go around. Oh sure, most of the words appear civil enough but, in the same way that Clinton had us ponder what the word “is” is, we all know a good dodge when we see it. And trust me: the dodging would make any storefront politician proud.
We get things like this:
You can not [sic] have a civil conversation with liars and obfuscators.
a blanket statement that apparently makes incivility okay. As in, for example, calling people liars.
And here’s some snark sent in response to the revelation that a particular board meeting did not include a financial update (despite the fact that dozens of others did):
No financial report!!!! INCOMPETENCE!!!! OFF with her head!
This one gets a bit meaner still…
[She] was not elected either... not to anything, not even [Coffee Party] dogcatcher. Sorry for the comparison to all you hardworking Dogcatchers out there.
And while many may try to parse all of the above and somehow pretend my definition of “civil” is too self-righteous, try this one on for size:
[He] is a piece of shit. Period. I'm glad I'm not the only one who thinks that. (I normally don't swear on social media, but I can't think of a better word.)
I can. And so, I’m guessing, can anyone who is serious about civility.
For the last four years I’ve been writing passionately about hypocrisy, particularly how hypocrisy in our political arena leads to us-them thinking, demonization, and ultimately a dehumanization of those we oppose. It’s okay for us to use money in politics, because we’re right and they’re wrong. It’s okay for us to lobby because we want reform and they want the status quo. And it’s okay for us to be uncivil because it’s not uncivil if you use the right words and if they’re evil anyway.
If the Coffee Party is going to survive it’s going to take a few brave people to stand up and shout at everybody on both sides who persist in such behavior. For a while a few were actually doing that, but they’ve grown exhausted and have retired their efforts. And so what’s left, unfortunately, are nothing but the sounds of nails on a chalkboard, screeches reverberating in a self-constructed echo chamber in which only the already converted participate. There is no longer an interest in truth, only “facts; no longer an interest in building, only in tearing down; no longer an interest in two-way conversation, only in unilateral shouting.
When the dust settles, as it eventually must, I fear there will be nothing left standing, and all that potential will have violently crumbled, a useless footnote in the attempt to create a better, more civil body politic.