About that Man Dragged Off the Plane

Passengers shoot videos after United Airlines drags Chinese passenger out of Overbooked Flight (4)

So, a man got kicked off an airplane and the incident sparked an uproar. Let’s review the facts. As we understand it now, a United Airlines flight from Chicago to Louisville was entirely booked when some United crew members showed up and said they needed to be on the flight. The airline then asked for volunteers willing to give up their seats in return for a $500 voucher and a hotel stay.  No one responded. The airline then upped the offer to a $1000 voucher and a hotel stay. No one volunteered.

Airline employees then announced the four seats would be chosen at random and the passengers in them would be expected to leave the plane. Well, one of them, Dr. David Dao refused. When he refused long enough, airline security personnel and officers from the Chicago Police Department forcibly removed him, dragging him by the arms down the center aisle of the plane. The man and other passengers were screaming during the entire ugly incident. Somehow, the doctor’s face was bloodied in the tussle.

Not all the reaction to the incident has been sympathetic to the Dr. Dao. Consider this troubling tweet from conservative commentator Matt Walsh.

Walsh has managed to wrap a lot into these few words. He dismisses the significance of the incident, implying that outrage over the airline’s behavior is trivial at best, immature at worst.

That’s wrong. The outrage over this behavior stems from only one thing: the fact that this behavior is outrageous.

Just because something is outrageous, does not, unfortunately, mean it isn’t perfectly in step with the underlying structure of our times. This incident is an image of the heart of our moment. A man being dragged kicking and screaming somewhere he doesn’t want to go by agents of government and big business is a metaphor for much of our social and political life.

All of us, now, whether we know it or not are dragged around by these same forces. Every aspect of our lives is, in some way, under the sway of either government or corporate entities. No aspect of our lives including, apparently, whether we volunteer to take a later flight is outside the bounds of these institutions’ control.

The involvement of the Chicago Police Department proves this. These officers, ostensibly public servants who receive a salary provided by taxpayers, were called upon to enforce not just the law, but United’s corporate policy. Law and corporate policy are now indistinguishable.

Mostly, we are supposed to accept this situation without much protest. We are meant to shrug and say “Well, what do you expect?” when we see corporate misbehavior because we’ve been told relentlessly that the goal of profit trumps all other concerns. Our assent to the notion that corporations may do whatever they like because they are exempted from all moral limits in the pursuit of wealth is now foundational to our society. If we ceased to believe this, society would cease to function.

As part of our conditioning regarding corporations’ exemption from moral boundaries, we have been taught concerns for other goods: family, virtue, tradition, the environment, even basic human dignity, are unrealistic impediments to the real business of life. The real business of life, as everyone knows, is converting every other value, every other commitment, everything soft, warm and good to cold hard cash.

This is why Walsh’s tweet was so troubling. Walsh, who has made his fortune on his conservative opinions, seems not to understand that dismissing United’s mistreatment of Dr. Dao is not at all conservative. The idea implied in Walsh’s tweet is exactly what I have just described: that people complaining about the airline’s behavior are exaggerating the significance of this situation and ought to simply accept that people who interfere with the acquisition of corporate wealth will be viciously assaulted.  If even our conservative leaders fall prey to this indoctrination, what chance is there for the rank and file to resist?

And yet, resist we must. The only way out of this situation is to begin to carve out social and psychic space for other values to thrive. We must each find some small way to do things that are inefficient and less than cost-effective. In undertaking such tasks, perhaps we can open up space once again for more humane values to flourish outside the grip of large, inhumane institutions. If we refuse to push back, we can only expect to be, like Dr. Dao, further dragged where we do not want to go. And, unlike Dr. Dao, there will be no outrage for us when we disappear.

4 responses

    • Authorities are only to be respected to the degree that their behavior is moral. A generalized “respect for authority” is not a virtue.

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