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Coffee and justice. The two might have been linked in the past as the beverage that often accompanied long discussions about the latter. The association, however, has a more practical side to it today. From stories and other reports crossing my desk, it is easy to conclude that coffee has become a kind of bellwether for how things are going for the poor in the international markets, a kind of weird leading indicator in reverse.

As Paul Jeffrey puts it in the story beginning on Page 12, “What’s wrong with coffee is what’s wrong with globalization: Free trade where the rules of the game are defined by the rich is only widening the gap between wealthy elites and the wretchedly poor majority of the world.”

In our Dec. 27 issue, in another story where coffee played a central role, Melissa Jones wrote about Kerry Appel, founder of the Human Bean coffee company in Denver. He was told by U.S. and Mexican government officials, “The free market system is natural law.”

For those inclined to gild the harsher realities of a global economy, where most of the rules are written by the richest and most powerful in an atmosphere in which concern for the common good is often swept aside, natural law is one of those phrases that apparently helps assuage the conscience. I can only presume that those who use such defenses reason that if the system is based on natural law then there must be some goodness inherent in it because God, of course, is the author of such law. Since there is no mercy in nature, it is easy to reason that the free market should be allowed to run its natural course, the poor be damned.

Compassion gets sidelined and the Christian is left reporting to a rather ruthless god.

Appel has demonstrated that other models work with his firm, the Human Bean Co., “that puts human values ahead of profit values.”

This week’s story from Jalapa, Nicaragua, advances similar themes about coffee being an indicator of both the state of the poor and of the downside of globalization. Coffee, it seems, both holds the promise of independence for individual growers while simultaneously showing that globalization can be a rather discouraging experience for those who are forced to live by others’ rules.

I don’t mean to suggest that this is a simple matter. Further complicating the picture is the piece by Dennis Coday on coffee being raised in Laos. For Lee Thorn, coffee provided a path to reconciliation and globalization offered the path to new opportunities for an impoverished and isolated people.

No easy solutions. Just a lot to ponder over your next cup of java.

For some time now, based on nothing but my own informal polling, I have thought that President Bush has a tiger by the tail in the matter of Iraq.

Given what I’ve heard directly from people and also from other people who talk to a lot of people, there is far less enthusiasm for the impending military adventure in Iraq than some would lead us to believe.

One striking bit of evidence popped up in Chanute, Kan. That’s a little town (under 10,000) about two and a half hours south and a smidgen west of Kansas City, Mo. Last weekend it was the site of a high school basketball tournament.

(An aside: I am in the final semester of following kids’ activities. Our last at home, James, is in the final stretch of his senior year. On the drive home from Chanute I must admit to a pang of sadness at reaching this point -- glad as I am for James at this exciting time in his life -- for kids do fill out life and, I found, help one continue to explore, force one to see with fresh eyes. Over the course of watching four grow up, I did, I’ll admit, thoroughly enjoy the high school plays and musicals, the regattas, the horse shows, all the Little League sports and the high school basketball games, not to mention the rather vigorous discussions that could evolve around a crowded dinner table. Transition. That’s the constant in life, isn’t it?)

I noticed an editorial in the Jan. 25 Chanute Tribune, written by Duane Schrag, editor and publisher, that raised serious questions about the U.S. rush to war.

To the claim that the United States can prove Iraq has banned weapons, the editorial said, “Fewer and fewer are willing to believe that. The United States is in serious danger of becoming the little boy who cried wolf.”

The piece recounted the apparent false step by the administration in its claims last September that Iraq had purchased aluminum tubes to be used to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons. It pointed out that recently the International Atomic Energy Agency contradicted the U.S. claim.

“The Bush administration won’t say why it thought otherwise. Instead, the White House points out Iraq shouldn’t have been acquiring the tubes in either case.

“That sort of talk insists that all wrongs are equal. They aren’t. Violating United Nations orders is one thing (something that many countries, including the United States, have done). Building weapons of mass destruction is quite another.

“Saddam Hussein may well be a threat, to the area and to the world. But if he is, clear evidence of that must be shared before his country is invaded.”

Schrag, who says he is grateful for a rare independence that allows him to take challenging positions on issues, acknowledges that his view might not represent that of the majority of readers. In fact, he expected to get a lot of flak for raising the questions. He hasn’t. I don’t think he will. I think people far outside the Beltway have lots of unanswered questions.

-- Tom Roberts

My e-mail address is troberts@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, February 7, 2003