Thursday, 14 October 2010

#37 Anyone for tea? (Part II: The funny part)

America would be a much better place if they drank tea. I realise this is an obvious argument for a Brit living in America to make, but hear me out.

In Britain - indeed, over much of the world - tea serves a crucial social function. You immediately offer it to visitors, and not just esteemed visitors - workmen and tax collectors.

You drink it at work, in a social way. People do tea runs. And you take your turn. If you don't, people notice."She always has a cup but never makes it." Just me? I've thought that at every British office I've ever worked in.

It is a complicated exercise in reciprocal altruism. Remembering who takes milk, and sugar, and how much, and in which mug - it is a small, but significant olive branch. It smooths office interaction. You notice that they notice that you notice that they like the purple spotty mug, a little bit of milk and one spoonful of Splenda. You both smile at your mutual noticing.

Not so with coffee. It's probably a frequency thing - you can't knock it back. People tend to drink it at very different rates. Some people - seriously, I've seen them - only have one cup all day. All day long. One cup. What the fuck do they look forward to in the afternoon?

So people make their own. Some people go out to buy it. In the latter case, they will offer to get one for you, but it isn't the same. Because they are going somewhere to buy it, there are no surprises - no secretly stashed biscuits, or unmentioned slices of birthday cake that suddenly appear to office-wide cheers. The situation is socially ambiguous, since they are spending real money - do I give them money beforehand? Do I pay them when they get back? Do I just buy their next one? But Sally has two extra shots and caramel syrup, hers costs $5! That's another thing - it's much more expensive. A tea bag I'm happy to write off, I would really care if someone didn't return a Double Chocamochachino-shaped favour.

Where Brits have social cohesion, Americans have social anxiety. Where Brits have hydration, Americans have one cup - all day long. Where Brits have their favourite mug, Americans have a disposable cardboard/plastic amalgam that insulates against heat. What the fuck is that about? I want to cradle my warm cup in my hands to get me through dreary winter days at the office. I don't want a lukewarm lump of cardboard held at arms-length. There is no emotional connection with that.

And here's the worst part: on occasion I go to Starbucks, or a similar establishment, to sit, and drink, and read. Maybe work. Probably just read. I've done this in England for years, especially during winter. I blame the sofas. Well, if you sit in Starbucks in America, they do not -repeat: DO NOT - give you a mug. You sit, cuddle up in your winter coat and scarf in an outsized purple armchair, thumbing through a Jane Austen novel. And you have to suffer the indignity of drinking out of a lukewarm lump of cardboard.

#36 Anyone for tea? (Part I: The angry part)

I always fear that creation will expire before tea time.

-Sydney Smith.

On December 16th, 1773, tea time was interrupted for the British East India Company. Three shiploads of tea ended up in the Atlantic Ocean at the mouth of the Charles River - an event which became immortalised as the 'Boston Tea Party' (and, if I may say so, a crying shame - just because of the wasted tea, you understand).

For the previous two decades, opinion across the Thirteen Colonies had been fomented against 'taxation without representation'. The central tenet was that, since colonists (who were British citizens) had no elected representatives in Parliament, they shouldn't be subject to Crown taxes. Seems fair.

The repeal of most taxes on imports to the colonies in 1770 subverted the unrest, but a tax on tea (to the tune of thrupence on the pound) remained. However, the tax wasn't crippling and, since the colonists were pragmatists with little pretension to self-governance, it was swallowed.

In 1773, a new Tea Act was tabled. Did it restore the huge levies on tea imports? No. And, in fact, it made it easier and cheaper to sell British tea in America. A number of signatories to the Act - under the auspices of the East India Company - would be allowed to sell tea directly in America, with smaller levies. The trouble was, it made it much harder to sell illegal Dutch tea, and it debarred many 'unauthorised' British vendors - who until recently had been doing swift trade - from their trade. Essentially, the Tea Act created a monopoly.

'Taxation without representation' was still a prominent strain in (or at least a justification for) the ensuing civil unrest, but many of the instigators were tea merchants who felt hard done to. For all the calming influence of tea, it did start the most important independence movement in history.

The tea was blue touch paper. Sort of. Through various leaders and revolutionaries, from the mobbish to the principled, an independence movement arose, which eventually garnered the support of an estimated 40% of colonists. The movement was not without its detractors: Benjamin Franklin immediately ordered that the East India Company should be reimbursed for the tea. Several East Coast merchants sought conciliation with the Crown. Many colonists supported representation in Parliament, and few thought America could self-govern successfully, until well into the war. Like so many celebrated historical events, the Tea Party and ensuing War of Independence were less glamorous than posterity considers them.

Nevertheless, the Tea Party was clearly A Good Thing in terms of its achievements - the first government 'of the people, by the people, and for the people', as Jefferson later put it, that the world had ever seen.

The Boston Tea Party has come to the political fore again of late, because of the growing 'Tea Party' movement in America, that pushes a diffuse antigovernment, rightwing agenda under the vague justification of suffering the same executive injustice that the colonists did.

Well, maybe. The prima facie case is laudable - government has become bloated, unaccountable, and profligate. And it's true, to an extent. The problem with it is the problem with all causes cèlébres - it's not as simple as all that. The Boston Tea Party wasn't about high taxes stifling business - it was about trade restrictions harming business. And no American can claim taxation without representation, without paying a significant insult to the colonists.

Especially, Mrs. Palin, individuals hailing from states ranking 47th in terms of people per electoral college seat. Only individuals from Wyoming, North Dakota or Vermont can claim to have more representation than you. You are worth THREE Californians, and don't you forget it.

Government restrictions don't harm US businesses - they allow them to compete. America has been criticised again and again by international observers for its protection and subsidy racket. A smaller government would ravage America's farming industry, for example. Maybe that's no bad thing, but it's hard to imagine that that is what those invoking the Boston riots really want.

Personally, I think it's just rude to misread history to push a particular agenda. And talking of tea etiquette...