01 January, 2010

Finding Meaning in the Bottom of a Coffee Cup

...Apparently, there are people out there who've been doing that for quite awhile and are just devastated to find that their discovered meaning is actually as empty as the coffee cup itself.

It [Starbucks] brought us exotic places and sounds, exposed us to an underground in the safety of a cushy seat: teaching us about places where our coffee came from, and new music and literary voices. It tried to be our cultural guide and helped us feel good about our environmental footprint through its green campaigns and aid to farmers, even if Starbucks did little and we did nothing but buy coffee. It did so consciously, purposefully manipulating our desires, hopes and aspirations, all the while making us feel good about ordering up a venti soy latte.

But, we also knew, on some level, that it was all a delusion we actively participated in. “Starbucks worked as a simulacrum,” Simon writes, “it stamped out the real essence of the original idea of the coffee house and, through proliferation and endless insistence, became itself the real thing for many bobo and creative types.” Even as we believed we were being individuals, demonstrating our sense of style, we were just following the javaman’s master plan.

As Grim says, "Good lord, people."

The above is from a review of the new book, Everything but the Coffee: Learning about America from Starbucks. The first reviewer on Amazon adds some additional insight:
As the author states in the Afterword[...] "I stopped seeing the company as an engine of community. Instead, I saw it as a mythmaker offering only an illusion of belonging...." What the reader will find is a well-written, well-researched work that will be an eye opening experience for those who have loved or hated Starbucks. Eric Schlosser's "Fast food Nation" opened the first decade of the 21st Century with an expose of McDonalds and the fast food industry. Bryant Simon ends the decade with a dissection of Starbucks and the abdication of consumer responsibility.

In other words, as so beautifully illustrated in the first quote, a certain type of people bought into Starbucks as something other than a company offering a good product in a manner that carved out a great niche for itself:
It offers what it claims is premium coffee, at a premium price. It offers you the chance to 'upgrade' your purchase by allowing you to buy 'fair trade' coffee. Some people want to do that, so they find themselves with a niche market, and they make a good living. Meanwhile, you buy the coffee (and, perhaps, the good feelings) you want.

What's the hypocrisy? Starbucks is making you a fair offer; you're free to accept or reject it.

I shared this all in conversation with my mother and she pointed out that the coffee is "good," the people serving it usually do a great job (and are friendly and speedy--all employees are part-owners), and you can get it exactly how you want it--in its seemingly infinite variations... all in a pleasant and clean environment in locations around the world amenable to people-watching, business over a cup of a coffee, or computer time with free wireless. In other words, a nice product well-delivered. That people took it to be more than that is a riot. Such pretension! I think the author and various reviewers are accurate in pointing out that some people believed drinking Starbucks coffee helped them meet their self-imposed social/environmental obligations, willfully ignoring the reality that Starbucks coffee is ultimately a consumer product no different than clothes or cars, and that the company is going to be run on basic capitalist principles.

One thing that jumped out in the first link above is the reviewer's use of "we." It definitely rubbed me (and Grim's commenters) the wrong way. It's amusing to think that people who bought the illusion are so sure they're typical middle-American types and that the rest of us see things just the way they do. I wouldn't presume to speak for all of middle-America; why do they?

In truth, they aren't middle class/middle America; they're elitists. I know there are people who DO think like that, but I--as a person steeped and currently smack-dab in the middle class life--don't personally know anybody of my class who goes to Starbucks for reasons of morality or social responsibility. They go (as my mother pointed out) because it's a good product delivered in a way/environment they enjoy. The morality aspects--when they do come up among the Starbucks fans I've encountered--are always secondary or tertiary; It's always, "I love their coffee, and isn't it cool that they ________, too?!"

I keeping thinking of that old line: "People who believe in nothing will believe in anything." I am convinced that people are "wired" to find meaning in their lives. Deprive them of the primary bonds of family, religion, community, and a cohesive moral/ethical philosophy (all of which are solid organizing schema for finding meaning in one's life) ... and they'll conjure something out of thin air to fill that gaping hole inside them. That they chose a successful corporation to fill their need to believe the choice of coffee had deep meaning and impact is sadly ironic.

Funny that of all topics that should bring me out of blogging retirement, it's coffee--which I don't really care for and is a non-military topic. Although come to think of it... I don't believe the military could function without its ration of coffee. So see, I AM milblogging again! ;)