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:

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."

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.

But he's got a much larger point to make. The dread "New Coffee Experience" turns out to be emblematic of one of the key ills of modern times, the servant problem:

It is "just one instance of the growing practice of shifting the burden of labor to the consumer—gas stations, grocery and drug stores, bagel shops (why should I put on my own cream cheese?), airline check-ins, parking lots."

Imagine, a man of his distinction, forced to "put on my own cream cheese." Why is there no one to do it for him?

He might have mentioned ATMs. Used to be you could walk into a bank and ask a teller to give you a couple hundred bucks, and they'd hand it over, "twenty seconds, tops." No troubling paperwork, remember? And what about credit card machines? Now, it's "insert this, swipe that, choose credit or debit, enter your PIN, push the red button, error, start again."

One wants to feel sympathy for professor Fish in his distress. But although most of the unintentional humor in professor Fish's column comes from his comic cluelessness about things he thinks are "new" in the culture, this note of entitlement gives it a kind of nasty edge.

He concedes toward the close of his column: "[N]one of us has chosen to take over the jobs of those we pay to serve us."

Is it just me, or is there something grating in that phrase: "those we pay to serve us"? So distasteful, the life of the servant class, compared with the life of the mind.

But at least in the old days the servant class hopped to it and got professor Fish his coffee and Danish in "20 seconds, tops" and worked themselves to the point of exhaustion all day for less than a minimum wage to make sure he would have something to consume with his "sports page."

As multidegreed as he is, I have a feeling that it would be an invaluable addition to his education if professor Fish spent a week "serving" as a barista. You know: For someone who believes in perspectives rather than foundations (except when it comes to grants), it would seem like a useful additional perspective on the whole coffee-servant question.

He also might want to consider that, while in some ways we do more ourselves these days, some of us might just prefer that to having servants? Just another perspective.

Still, the column makes clear why his kind of deep thinking has earned him academic stardom and university deanships. Such a man deserves to be served. Not to have to serve himself.

In any case, the op-ed may not have been a total loss; it might suggest the subject for his next magnum opus: Surprised by Starbucks.

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