To Whom Do We Defer?
On Sunday night, a 69-year old doctor boarded a flight from Chicago to Louisville. He had to be at the hospital in his home state of Kentucky the next day. He presented his boarding pass, took his seat, and prepared for takeoff.
The plane didn’t move. United Airlines, the carrier, announced that they were bringing four employees on the fully-booked flight, and asked passengers to voluntarily relinquish their seats. This was the last flight on Sunday night; naturally, nobody did. United offered cash incentives and free rebooking. Still no takers.
Then they got some jackbooted thugs to physically drag a protesting old man off the plane. Blood streaming from his mouth, he shouted in protest at this shocking violation of his dignity. Eventually he was turfed from the plane, the seat he had paid for relinquished to a United employee, and the flight took off without him.
In the Normal Universe, the reactions would be predictable: mockery from the usual hyper-libertarian dipshits, concern trolling from techie meritocrats, a loud harrumph from business-fellating conservatives, and angry condemnation from liberals affronted at this assault on the dignity of Man. But a funny thing happened as the story unfolded. The pre-eminent take, after the initial gasps, was that Dr. David Dao had brought his fate unto himself. He was, after all, No Angel.
How could so many proud liberals come down on the side of a massive corporation, a member of an oligopolistic cartel that has conspired to make air travel ruinously expensive and inconvenient? How could they shrug blithely at the brutality they saw on camera? It comes down to The Rules. For a certain type of liberal, The Rules are what matters. As long as the process is followed, the injustice of the outcome is irrelevant. Any outcome arrived at by stringent application of The Rules is, inherently and tautologically, just. If he didn’t want to be beaten, he should have immediately complied with any order he was given by anyone with authority.
Over the past decade we as a society have internalized one very dangerous idea. It is the idea that law enforcement officials — people whose job is, ostensibly, to protect their fellow citizens — have been vested with the authority to issue orders to anyone they come in contact with. Regardless of the presence of any threat, these orders must be complied with immediately, with the risk of state-sanctioned violence up to and including death the consequence for disobedience.
People, this is totally insane. This is Kafkaesque. We all nodded along to it in the name of Public Safety, but what it is is totalitarianism. For a long time, it was employed merely to suppress people the State wanted suppressed: criminals, political radicals, dangerous undesirables. It was inevitable, though, that this coercive power would be deployed in the service of unrestrained profit. In an era where capitalism has wholly captured the levers of power, it will not sit idly by and deregulate; the best environment for capital is not a Randian free-market paradise, but a corporate feudalism where the vestiges of government exist only to flesh the will of oligarchs.
Hence the respectable pundit class falling over each other to agree that Dr. Dao brought his fate on himself. How sad, how deplorable it is, but how avoidable; how easily he could have escaped this. They shake their heads sadly. Nobody WANTED to see Dr. Dao beaten to a pulp and left gasping and drooling blood, but if it HAD to happen, well, our boys in blue should be commended for their restraint in the use of force. At least they didn’t try to “re-accommodate” him while the plane was in midair.
The inevitable consequence of all this is the No Angel narrative. Dr. Dao was not wholly innocent, you see. There are some irregularities in his past, something about prescription drugs in Kentucky. Perhaps he was even dealing drugs on the plane! Was he high? Was he attempting to chew off a flight attendant’s face?! Truly, He Was No Angel. This narrative serves to simultaneously reassure people of the righteousness of their continued submission to authority and their own safety from this sort of discipline. Dr. Dao was No Angel, but you are, and the lambent glow of your halo will protect you from being manhandled like that — as long as you comply.
If you read this story, if you saw this video, and your first reaction was something like “that’s what you get,” then fuck you. Fuck you, you authoritarian shitstain. You’re the reason this country is in such trouble. Your blind deference to those in power brought us the creeping police state, the gradual usurpation of our privacy rights and civil liberties, and eventually the madness and folly of the Trump campaign. Trump sold voters on the idea that all they needed was a big strong daddy to protect them, but under capitalism, no human being will ever be as big and strong a daddy as the multinational corporations that sell us our food and our clothes and our cars, connect us to the Internet and TV, and fly us from place to place.
It’s not too late. You can redeem yourself. Stand up! Stand up to this kind of bullying thuggery. Stand up to a system that sees you only as a source of surplus value to be extracted whenever is most convenient for them. And stand up to the idea that nobody with a badge can ever be stupid, or wrong, or dangerous. The idea that law enforcement is there to protect you is a joke now, but it doesn’t have to be. It seems odd to me that nobody has opined that the police should have showed up on that United flight to defend Dr. Dao, to prevent him from being removed from his seat using force if necessary… but isn’t that more consistent with the principles of America and capitalism?