Frothy, Polite And Palatable


Hands up if you’ve ever experienced latte belt shame. At HQ, the pangs strike every time we send out our Keep Cups for a round of soy lattes. Is it right that we should feel so sheepish about our coffee preferences? And how did "latte drinker" become shorthand for "ineffectual inner-city wanker" in so many circles? Would we be keeping it real if we stuck to the Moccona? But if we did, what would our beloved baristas do? Tend goats? Once the questions start, they don’t stop. Typical bloody latte drinkers.

We asked pop culturalist Mel Campbell to explain why this insult hurts so much — and whether there’s any cure. 

The caffe latte has become the key motif with which to deride politically progressive, intellectual people. It has outlasted those misshapen baskets allegedly woven in Balmain, not to mention the chardonnay once said to be favoured by fair-weather socialists.

Why should we care if someone sneers that we like drinking milky coffees at $3.50 a pop? Why not, if we like lattes and can afford them?

It’s because this insult hits home. It taps into a deep vein of self-reflexive shame about inner-urban gentrification and class privilege. It niggles at our worries that we’re not achieving the social change for which we strive.

And it targets the capillary level of politics: our everyday tastes and habits. We may laugh at Kath & Kim‘s aspirational bogans for drinking "kardonnay", but the very fact that this wine used to be mocked as a bourgeois touchstone (now superseded by Marlborough sav blanc or good old champers) reveals that, if our tastes often reflect our aspirations, many people aspired to social mobility.

Neoliberal discourse has colonised the term "aspiration" to refer to material comforts and status symbols. But we aspire to the approval of our peers — at least in part — so we consume in order to be noticed for our best, most admirable qualities. An epithet that targets consumption gets us right where it hurts: in the esteem.

I live in Carlton, Melbourne, one of Australia’s most notorious latte zones, and I can’t even avoid caffeinated slings and arrows by demurring, "I actually prefer a cheeky ristretto". Indeed, after a miserable phase in my late teens in which I choked down long macchiatos in the hope of appearing more sophisticated, I gave up and realised I actually preferred lattes. Milky, mild lattes.

Let’s take a closer look at the complex set of implications when "latte" becomes an ideological insult. First, it insinuates that, like my drink, my ideas are frothy, polite and palatable. They’re not robust, workable ideas. They’re pretentious and diluted.

Next, it suggests that instead of working hard all day, or even getting involved in politics or my community, I prefer sitting around in cafés, mouthing off. Talk is cheap, my friends. It costs around $3.50 at your preferred latte vendor.

Also, my detractors will tell you I "sip" my latte — never gulping or swilling it — because I’m prissy and unadventurous.

Anyone wanting to dismiss my arguments can also argue that they’re not "real-world" ones because I’m leading an insular, self-absorbed existence in a "latte belt", where I only ever encounter people who share my views, perhaps over a latte.

The latte belt is presented as a space of profound hypocrisy. Cafés proliferate in gentrified inner-urban areas, and gentrification ousts the former residents whose inequities latte-sippers seek to redress: the working class, welfare recipients, recent immigrants and Indigenous people.

What we can call "latte belt shame" is that vague, shapeless suspicion that these accusations are true. Perhaps we really do concentrate our intellectual efforts on those who already share our politics. Perhaps our privilege makes our sympathy for the disenfranchised look foolish and patronising. Perhaps we are more eager to discuss things than to take action.

The terrible irony of latte belt shame is that the people who are in a position to be most vocal about class in Australia are often intellectuals from bourgeois or petit-bourgeois backgrounds: academics, journalists, teachers and authors. These people are aware of the various social, moral and economic problems that plague Australia — but they also keenly realise that it’s their own cultural capital that has given them the luxury of considering such things.

These latte-sippers, Gough help ’em, constantly worry about intellectual imposture. They feel squeezed between the corporate-earning, privately educated, Liberal-voting peers whose values they reject and the "real" working class whose "authentic" values they feel ashamed to have appropriated. Worse, they’re vulnerable to reactionary accusations that only a snob would even identify class-based problems in Australia.

They have reason to be circumspect, because even other progressive-minded people will use the dreaded "latte" epithet on their supposed comrades in order to underscore their superior leftist credentials. We see these pitiful battles fought in public all the time, like Monty Python’s "Four Yorkshiremen" skit.

"So you went to a private school?"
"I was a scholarship student!"
"Ooh, look at you, cleverclogs blue-stocking egghead! My parents died and I worked as a boot-black to support my 12 siblings!"

And so it goes, this dispiritingly anti-intellectual streak in Australian public life. Don’t ever expect anyone to take you seriously if you’ve made it through the education system’s battle of attrition to acquire a higher research degree. Don’t you know all PhDs come with a free ivory tower? And discount lattes.

Still, latte belt shame is a terrible, exhausting way of life: constantly second-guessing yourself in order to anticipate every potential criticism of your politics; affecting a confidence, even an arrogance, in your convictions that you don’t feel.

So, what can we do to avoid this crippling condition? Well, you could transfer the shame onto someone else by allowing some other public figure to be your moral mouthpiece. But this road leads to disappointment. If it’s not Kevin Rudd letting you down on the ETS, it’s Catherine Deveny turning your beliefs into such a monstrously disingenuous caricature that nobody will take them seriously.

It’s equally soul-destroying to retreat into an ironic "ownership" of latte-sipping: to make defensive jokes about your latte-belt ways before anyone else can. By effectively bullying yourself, you’re stripping the passion from your politics and the joy from your everyday habits.

Perhaps I’m an idealist … as only a latte-sipper can be. But I do feel that people respond generously to generosity, and respectfully to respect. While it’s important to consider how you might appear to others who don’t share your beliefs, it’s also important to be steadfast in your convictions, and to refuse to cede rhetorical ground just because you might feel self-conscious.

So don’t get annoyed by — or seek retaliation to — mean-spirited jibes about your coffee preferences. Just let your barista work the tension out.

Our regular News Therapist, Zoe Krupka, will be back next fortnight.

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