The Defenses Of United Airlines’ Behavior Reveal Some Uncomfortable Truths

There are, roughly, two kinds of defenses offered of United Airlines’ behavior–in DraggingGate–that have been offered thus far. First, the ‘abide by the terms of the contract’ defense. Second, the ‘just shut up and obey orders, and everything will be allright’ defense. On closer inspection, of course, these two turn out to be instantiations of the same abstract concept: bow down to authority, legal or penal, and all will be fine. But for the time being, let us take a closer look at them separately.

The first defense, which bids us to ‘quit complaining because you know what you signed up for’ is especially fascinating. This defense demands that we surrender all notions, all norms, of social good-will to the obtuse, deliberately disguised, terms of a contract. With probability one, it can be surmised that the person offering this defense has never read the fine print of the many, many, contracts that regulate his or her life. The libertarian paradise of a world in which the government only exists to enforce contracts entered ‘freely into’ by various contractors seems a rather bizarre one when we realize that most contracts are unreadable by almost anyone lacking a legal education; moreover, many of those contracts contain terms that are ‘unconscionable,’ buried deep in some sub-clause somewhere. As I’ve noted elsewhere, misery needs company: I’m bound by contracts I find incomprehensible, whose terms are ‘forced’ upon me; so everyone else should be; there is no ‘fellowship’ of citizens or consumers here.

The second defense is exceedingly familiar. It is the one trotted out by defenders of the police whenever there is an instance of police misbehavior. Most offensively, it makes an appearance when the police have just performed an execution of a recalcitrant citizen, one who did not raise his hands in time, or perhaps spoke back insolently. If any injury ensues to a citizen–fatal or otherwise–well, too bad. Once a citizen has refused to comply with orders, all force, including its deadly variants can now be exerted to make the citizen bow down. Disobedience is a sin; one worthy of capital punishment if need be.

The recurring appearance of these sophistical arguments in the American polity is revealing. Why are ‘shut up and obey orders’ and ‘you should know enough legalese so that you can negotiate every single transaction you enter into your life’ held up as exemplars in ‘the land of the free and the home of the brave’? This regulated life–by contractual terms, by penal authority–seems a particularly grim realization of the American dream. DraggingGate reminds us too that the so-called ‘free market’ in aviation works because all airlines offer equally appalling service in a world where airline travel has become indispensable for business and personal affairs. Soon, we will have to fly; and we will find our restricted choices leading us back to United Airlines. (Why not open up the US market to Asian airlines?) Remarkably, not one passenger on the flight stood up to intervene; they all knew the consequences. They would either be thrown off the flight themselves–thus suffering ‘inconvenience’–or they would be arrested. They too, complied. As all those who defend United Airlines would have us do.

Perhaps we are, as Nietzsche worried, desperate to find other forms of authority–now that the religious  has been partially displaced–to rule over us; perhaps those exerting their wills in resistance to the strictures of contract law and the police remind us that we are living lives of subservience ourselves. We are authority’s minions; we do as we are told; so should everyone else.

The Virtuous, Ubiquitous Skipping Of Lines And Pages

In Immortality (HarperCollins, New York, 1990), Milan Kundera writes,

If a reader skips a single sentence of my novel he won’t be able to understand it, and yet where in the world will you find a reader who never skips a line? Am I not myself the greatest skipper of lines and pages?

As a child I was frequently accused by my ‘friends’–never by my family–of skipping lines and pages; perhaps because I was thought to read quickly, too quickly. I detected, even then, some envy in these accusations, some resentment (or ‘ressentiment‘) even as I never took myself to be engaging in any bragging about my supposed speed-reading prowess. I defended myself against these charges strenuously but they stuck, hammering away at me, casting doubt and suspicion upon my assessments of my reading abilities and accomplishments. It made me hyper-sensitive about making sure I had read every single word and line in the books I consumed; those accusations bred a peculiar sort of anxiety and insecurity. (Even though, as Kundera notes, everyone skips a line or two.)

Years later, when I first encountered ‘difficult texts,’ ones that required working through, I was still sensitive to this charge; a book was either read cover to cover, or it was not read at all.  This immediately induced a crisis: I was now constantly a failure. I could not read many of these texts from cover to cover; they were too long and doing so took up too much time that had to be spent elsewhere; they were too difficult and simply could not be engaged with at the level required for too long; and so on. As a child, when I was confronted with a book that did not catch my fancy, I dropped it and took up another. But as an adult, ‘dropping’ a book–or skipping lines and pages–became an indicator of all sorts of moral and intellectual failure; there was no virtuous ‘flitting around.’ It was all straight ahead, nose to the wheel, or it was not reading at all.

Now, as I look at the many unread books on my shelves, the length of my wishlist on Amazon, and the size of the directories that house the various electronic books I have procured through methods of varying legality, it seems that tactical and strategic skipping of lines, passages, and perhaps entire texts is a practical and intellectual necessity. So much yet to read; so little time left; perhaps a little flitting around is in order? As my dear friend Doris McIlwain once said to me, “you need to be a child again; drop the book you don’t like and move to the one you want.” And yet, old and new guilt persists: I am not a serious enough reader (or worse, ‘scholar’), an easy fear to entertain when one is afflicted with the impostor syndrome; I’ve always been this way; I’ve been persistently inauthentic; and so on. As I noted in an older post, these fears tap into a host of others, all concerned with whether we possess the requisite nous and inner resources with which to deal with this life’s challenges. Reading being a particularly acute one; here we find a very particular challenging of our supposed virtues.

Sanctimony, Hypocrisy, Nuclear Weapons, and Drones

A couple of days ago, on this blog, I wrote a post attempting to refute the charge of ‘selective outrage’ that is often leveled against critics of Israeli policies in the current conflict in Gaza. In it, I pointed out how the accusation of hypocrisy made against the proponent of a claim does not affect its logical force, but must still be reckoned with for its rhetorical impact. Today, I want to note how accusations of hypocrisy often derail American attempts to provide moral instruction and leadership to the rest of the world.

Consider, for instance, Barack Obama’s statements during a White House briefing session yesterday:

President Barack Obama somberly warned on Friday that a forthcoming Senate Intelligence Committee report will show that the United States “tortured some folks” before he took office. But he dismissed “sanctimonious” calls to punish any individuals responsible and rejected calls for CIA Director John Brennan’s resignation.

In response, on a Facebook comment space, I wrote:

Why, oh why, is the world so strangely reluctant to accept our leadership in all things moral?

Many US presidents–and their administrations–before Barack Obama–and his staff–have used the bully pulpit provided by their office and delivered countless, sonorous, lectures to the rest of the world on the ethical and moral values that should underwrite their political policies.  They, and many Americans, have often wondered why these instructions are not taken more seriously, and are instead responded to with a febrile mix of resentment, rage, and sometimes outright violence. These reactions then provoke the plaintive suggestions that these behavioral patterns are merely the ressentiment of the weak, or perhaps more ambitiously, an expression of an underlying hatred of the American way of life and its unique freedoms.

The answer is considerably less complicated.  As I noted in a post on the problem of nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation:

Perhaps the biggest stumbling-block to nonproliferation has been the failure of the ‘non-proliferation complex’ to internalize a simple truth:

[I]f smaller states are to be discouraged from acquiring a bomb, nuclear states will need to take real steps towards disarmament. Otherwise, non-nuclear states will regard their demands as self-serving and hypocritical – reason enough to think about creating an arsenal of their own. [from: Campbell Craig and Jan Ruzicka, ‘Who’s In, Who’s Out‘, (London Review of Books, 23 February 2012, Vol 34, No.4, pp 37-38),]

The self-serving hypocrisy of nuclear weapon states, and its implicit acceptance by the ‘complex’ is a long-running farce, depressingly well-known to most.  This hypocrisy is the single most important factor in ensuring that non-proliferation is a non-starter; it ensures the non-proliferation manifesto is foundationally malformed.

Nuclear nonproliferation is a very good idea, as is nuclear disarmament; they can be backed up by very good economic, political, and moral arguments, and many of these have been made by very eloquent spokespersons. Their efforts, however, have always been handicapped because, all too often, they were deployed by the self-serving, sanctimonious, hypocritical members of the Nuclear Weapons Club, which merely seemed to be serving double-helpings of ‘pull up the ladder, I’m aboard.’ (I can personally testify that during my university years, as a young hot-head, despite having internalized quite well the arguments against India’s going nuclear for its domestic energy needs–on grounds of inappropriate technological fit especially–I was left almost speechless with rage on reading American lectures on the same topic; these also, for good measure, very often suggested Indians were simply incapable of managing technology of such sophistication.)

Barack Obama warns us against sanctimony, blithely unaware of his own. His listeners however, are not. They are similarly aware that when he ponders the question of which country would tolerate missiles being rained down on it from on high, he is conveniently forgetting about things that fly in the sky and rhyme with ‘phone.’