Corporations, United Airlines, and the Open-Air Prison Planet
On April 9th,2017, United Airlines ran into a problem. Three of their mechanics were vitally needed at another airport, and the only flight available was number 3411, leaving from Chicago O’Hare to Louisville International, a flight which was fully booked and already boarded. The airline initially offered compensation for anybody who would voluntarily give up their seat on the $200 flight; first $400, and then $800. Nobody took them up on the offer. At that point they decided to hold a lottery, and whoever’s name came up would be ordered off of the flight – and if they didn’t comply, they’d be forcefully ejected.
David Dao didn’t comply, so we all got treated to this:
Now before we get into the meat of this, let’s deal with the two autistic Libertarian arguments which have been muddying the water: the one which supports the airline, and the one which supports David Dao.
The first posits some sort of Anarcho-Capitalist utopia, where all men have been indoctrinated into the Non-Aggression Principle, all men have an IQ in excess of 120, and all contracts are entered into freely, with ample competition and no coercion. The Randian Übermenschen of such a world would be expected to adhere to all clauses of the contracts they signed, and violating the letter of the law would be an act of violence and betrayal.
We do not live in that world.
The world we live in is one of corporate personhood and government collusion, where companies have massive teams of lawyers and the contract you sign promises absolutely nothing. Whether it’s the Airline selling you a ticket whose fine print says that there’s no guarantee of anything, or some piece of software’s EULA which demands that you grant them the ability to spy on you and specifies precisely how you’re going to use their technology, the consumer is almost entirely powerless in this exchange. Contracts are no longer used to clarify terms, they’re employed for the sake of indemnifying the companies from actually having to provide the service they promised. In most cases the only thing keeping companies remotely honest is consumer backlash.
The second argument comes from the radical freedom crowd, the ones who don’t want to take responsibility for anything. Mister Metokur summed up this group in his sarcastic video “Am I Being Detained?” In it he includes videos from various “Libertarians” who refuse to hand police their Driving License, under the argument that they’re not driving, they’re travelling. They continue to film themselves as the police proceed to smash in their window, and violently drag them out of the car – the whole time screaming “Help, help, I’m being assaulted!” as if the act of saying such a thing will force reality to conform to their delusions.
David Dao is no hero. He’s a man with a checkered past, who played up the situation for his own benefit. He isn’t a freedom fighter standing up for a noble cause; he’s just a man who was at his wits end, exhausted and stressed out by the process of flying, who behaved in an obstinate manner, which wound up making the situation worse. Thanks to him, the flight – and all of its passengers – were delayed for another two hours as his blood was cleaned from the cabin.
And yet I find myself siding with him.
Whenever we consider the gradual creep of tyranny – whenever we look at the situations which stand out as abuses of power – you’ll inevitably find a series of poor choices on behalf of the plaintanf. District of Columbia v. Heller (2008) affirmed the right of citizens to defend themselves, despite the fact that it didn’t have the most photogenic of plaintiffs. The massacre at Ruby Ridge could have been avoided if Mr Weaver had chosen better friends, if he’d kept his mouth shut, and if he’d shown up to his court date – but whatever mistakes the man made, none of them justify the murder of him and his family.
Vicki Weaver, mourning the death of her 14 year old son at the hands of federal agents, just hours before those same agents would shoot her through the head as she held her infant in her arms.
Those who wind up in these situations have a history of foolish choices behind them, but their foolishness is that of the canary in the coal mine. The rest of us have the presence of mind to submit to the police during a questionable home invasion; to recognize the growing tension whenever corporate-controlled thugs start to vibrate; we recognize that protesting our treatment at airport security will only make our lives worse, and that politely accepting the unreasonable demands of the border guard is our best ticket to making it through unmolested.
That doesn’t make any of this right.
Oscar Muñoz, the CEO of United, justified the beat-down by saying that Dao was “disruptive” and “belligerent”. They love employing this sort of language. “Sir, I need you to stay calm,” they say, as you grow increasingly frustrated over the lack of answers which they provide. This isn’t language meant to deescalate – they aren’t saying “I understand, this must be really frustrating for you, I’m getting my manager right now to try and help rectify this situation,” – the language they use is meant to further infuriate you, while painting you as unreasonable… perhaps even mentally ill. They called you “Sir”, after all; that proves that they were being polite, and only a psychotic would grow angry over their failure to deliver.
Overbooking is an unfortunate necessity in some industries. So are emergency repairs. Airline profit margins are razor thin, and maintaining an plane is far more difficult than maintaining a car. Delays are inevitable; perfection impossible. Customers owe companies some understanding and forgiveness – but that street goes both ways.
What if you were travelling for the sake of:
- Your mother’s funeral,
- A make-or-break business deal,
- A cruise ship which will leave without you,
- Or a court appearance,
And after boarding, the airline decided to forcibly eject you from the plane? Is that right and just?
The violent beating of David Dao is not the sort of thing which should happen in a free society. Whether it be a Republic where citizens are granted rights under the Constitution, or a Monarchy where the subjects are valued as souls to be led, rather than assets to be controlled, a free society would recognize the inherent dignity of the person, and those in positions of power – whether it be the police, the rich, or those granted other privileges by the state – would understand their duty of service to those beneath them in rank.
But the West is no longer a free society. It’s an open-air prison – an internment camp – where the only behaviour that’s valued is compliance. Criminals are allowed to run rampant within, so long as they submit to the guards. Fights between the inmates are the inmates’ problem.
The two Libertarian arguments encourage this creeping tyranny. The first eschews all duty and morality, reducing the law to “Whatever I can get away with.” The second undermines the just execution of the law, priming the enforcement agents to respond with violence. Both are utterly juvenile at their core, the cognitions of rebellious teenagers who want the license to misbehave while living at home for free. There is but one dialectical response to this sort of irresponsibility: authoritarian control.
Prisons are full of men who cannot control themselves. Criminal masterminds are a rarity; most thieves wind up there because they refused to control their impulses. They decry the injustice of their confinement, proclaiming their innocence by way of making excuses for their behaviour, but their protestations are no more convincing than those of a child who says he isn’t sleepy and he doesn’t want to go to bed, even as his exhaustion is written across his face. After being forced into bed, the child shows relief, quickly succumbing to his exhaustion; and the criminal is fast to acclimatize to his new environment, relieved that somebody else is finally telling him what to do.
Dao may have responded foolishly – perhaps even petulantly – but he wasn’t demanding the impossible demands of a teenager or a criminal. He had paid for his ticket, and he expected to be able to use it peaceably. His mistake was thinking that he had any rights whatsoever, as a citizen or as a customer. A prisoner has the right to do whatever the guards tell him to do; anything beyond that is a privilege. And it’s no different for you or I. We have the right to submit, be it to the police or to the corporate hierarchy; if they decide not to arrest us, or to give us the product we paid for, we should be thankful that we got some gravy with our gruel.
The current backlash against United has caused a dip in their stock prices, but it won’t last long. It’s not as if we have any choice in the matter. The other airlines have the exact same policies, and while United may be the most egregious offender, it’s not as if the others don’t also subject you to the indignities of Airport Security.
The part which most stood out to me about this video was how nobody came to Dao’s defense. A small, 69 year old Asian man is being beaten by uniformed thugs, and the only response was mewling; a people who cannot defend themselves, who rely upon the police to moderate every conflict in their personal lives, will be at an utter loss when those same police turn on them.
If there’s one take-away from this situation, it is this: submit or bleed from the forehead. A people who will not rule themselves – who will not defend themselves, or one another – are nothing but serfs, and so they shall be treated. The current reaction is not a principled protest (the few who are principled were already protesting); it is nothing but the bleating whines of agitated rabbits, failing to comprehend that this was the system they’ve been asking for all along.
What was it that Orwell said about air travel? Something about a boot stomping on your face for the rest of eternity.