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.

Starbucks Coffee. Click image to expand.
Starbucks Coffee

It was Aug. 5, and professor Stanley Fish, the famous postmodernist and "guest columnist" for the New York Times, had some breaking news to expound upon in an op-ed piece. He had discovered a new development in American culture that deserved the kind of exegesis only he could deliver: the appearance of a new kind of coffee place.

Have you heard about these new coffee places? Professor Fish's column made it seem as though they had never been noticed or discussed before.

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"Getting Coffee Is Hard To Do" was the title of his essay, which in its self-satisfied cluelessness may just qualify as the worst op-ed ever written. (I'm not sure if "Worst Ever" will become a recurrent feature in this space, but my column on "The Worst Celebrity Profile Ever Written" (Esquire's pretentiously fawning profile of "the best woman in the world," Angelina Jolie) stirred up some useful controversy.)

At the very least, Fish's column showcases what happens when certain academics descend from the ivory tower to offer us their special insights on popular culture.

Not that Fish would cop to living in a tower. The professor took great pains to demonstrate that he is not one of those academics who mingle among the commoners for a mere 20 minutes or so before pronouncing on their baffling customs.

It seems that professor Fish is a real man of the people who has been getting his coffee served to him amidst the regular folk for years, at the kind of place where you could order your coffee and cheese Danish, and "twenty seconds later, tops, they arrived, just as you were settling into the sports page."

You can tell he's a down-to-the-earth guy, not some pointy-headed intellectual, because he uses phrases like "twenty seconds later, tops" and reads "the sports page."          

But our professor seems to think he has encountered a brand-new cultural phenomenon: coffee places that are disturbingly different from the lunch counters of yesteryear.

Well, I did a little Googling, and it turns out he's right! There are hosts of these coffee chain stores, including one with the improbable name Starbucks, infiltrating our cities. I don't understand why the Times' cutting-edge "Styles" section hasn't done something on this before. Wake up and smell the coffee, "Styles" section editors!

It turns out these new coffee places are incredibly difficult to navigate, even for a brilliant academic like professor Fish.

Here's how he describes his harrowing experience: "As you walk in, everything is saying, 'This is very sophisticated and you'd better be up to it.' "

Of course, we know that professor Fish is being ironic here. Some might say condescendingly so. From his tone, we know that the elements of what he mockingly describes as "sophistication"—"wood or concrete floors, lots of earth tones, soft, high-style lighting, open barrels of coffee beans, folk-rock and indie music, photographs of urban landscapes, and copies of The Onion"—aren't true sophistication to a man of professor Fish's discernment. They're kitsch, faux-sophistication—and you can't fool him. He can see right through it!

Although at this point you begin to wonder if his op-ed wasn't meant to be a feature in the Onion ("Area professor befuddled by coffee place"), Fish is apparently serious about the profound difficulty this new cultural phenomenon presents.

In any case, professor Fish's description of his terrifying encounter with this coffee store is enough to make a grown man weep:

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