The worst op-ed ever written?

Scrutinizing culture.
Aug. 14 2007 5:38 PM

The Worst Op-Ed Ever Written?

A professor makes you feel sorry for Starbucks.

(Continued from Page 1)

First, unlike his previous coffee shop, which evidently was never crowded, you have to get in line [!] and wait to be served for more than 20 seconds, tops. In fact, "You may have one or two people in front of you who are ordering a drink with more parts than an internal combustion engine." Oh the humanity!

What's worse, these, these PEOPLE, whoever they are, use unfamiliar terms: "something about 'double shot,' 'skinny,' 'breve,' 'grande,' 'au lait' and a lot of other words that never pass my lips."

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Not only are they unfamiliar, practically indecipherable, these terms (what could au lait possibly mean? It doesn't even sound like English!), you virtually have to sound them out to read them. They are, furthermore, literally, unspeakably vulgar to a man of educated taste. (They "never pass my lips"—imagine if a man of his intellectual distinction had to say au lait!)

And by the way, you satirists and improv comics out there. Why haven't you picked up on this elaborate coffee-name trend and made fun of it? That new show I've heard of, Seinfeld, could really get some mileage out of those funny names for coffee sizes. Tall is small! Comedy gold! (I myself have tangled with Starbucks, though mostly back in the day when Seinfeld was still on the air. But my tiffs were with its management, not with the 20-second-plus wait or the beleaguered baristas.)         

But professor Fish's ordeal does not end with the profoundly confusing names, confusing even for someone who specializes in language. (And I should say here I am an admirer of his early, pre-postmodern work Surprised by Sin, a controversial study of Milton's Paradise Lost.)

No, the ordeal continues even after you master the ordering process: "[Y]ou get to put in your order, but then you have to find a place to stand while you wait for it."

Professor Fish is particularly good on the inhuman stress positions this requires of him. "[Y]ou shift your body, first here and then there, trying to get out of the way of those you can't help get in the way of."           

How he maintains his priceless sense of humor in this Abu Ghraib-like environment of torment is hard to imagine. But it gets worse. You can bump into people and spill coffee, and it's hard to find a seat. I'm not kidding. (Well, he isn't.)

But there's more! "[T]hen your real problems begin," he says with stoic grit. Some readers, the faint of heart, may want to skip this next part, because things really get ugly: the "accessories" difficulty. (Note to self: Tell agent about plans for thriller to rival The Bourne UltimatumThe Accessories Difficulty.)

You must face "a staggering array" of "things you put in, on and around your coffee ... " Here, he's referring to such highly fraught choices as sugar or Splenda, whole milk or skim. High stakes choices, with so little time to tease out the implications and consequences. What's more, there's no service person to help him make these terrible decisions. "[S]o you lunge after one thing and then after another with awkward reaches."

At this point, one can sympathize not so much with professor Fish as with the Times op-ed editors who had to come up with a "pull quote" for the hard-copy edition. You know, the pithy phrase that billboards the column's essence. Here's what they came up with: 

"Cream?
Sugar?
Get it yourself."

I think that about captures the unbearable excitement of these revelations. Oh, the exquisite, um, awkwardness of those "awkward reaches"! But he "got it himself" despite the indignity. And he lived to tell about it. And make it relevant! In fact, one can see a hint of professor Fish's signature moral relativism—known in the lit-crit trade as anti-foundationalism—creep into his prose as he attempts to grapple with the accessories difficulty.

"There is no 'right' place to start," he notes, no solid philosophical foundation upon which to base difficult sweetener decisions. As with the most difficult questions of philosophy, politics, and literature, there are only subjective perspectives.

He is once again face to face with the tragedy of the human situation.

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