Even Steven Slater’s employer must appreciate the gesture of taking the beer. Nabbing an adult beverage or two prior to his instantly iconic exit down a JetBlue emergency chute was an act of panache and foresight amounting to a kind of genius.
The flight attendant had hardly completed his take-this-job-and-shove-it moment when commentators began hailing him as a hero who had acted out the fantasy of every flight attendant, or everyone who had ever boarded a plane, for that matter. Although most air-travel dreams probably aren’t so exuberant — a cease-and-desist order against the kid kicking the back of our seat or an upgrade would surely suffice for most of us.
Slater’s theatrical exit had such resonance because air travel is so maddening. Rarely has so much irrationality been jammed into so little space. The reward for shuffling in your socks through security is squeezing into a seat in which you might be confined on the runway for hours. Flying these days features all the glamour of a Greyhound bus, the efficiency of the post office, and the common sense of Kafka.
So who didn’t immediately recognize the situation that, as reported early on (the facts are in dispute), occasioned Slater’s emergency exit? A passenger is stuffing her bag into the overhead compartment on a full Pittsburgh–to–New York City flight, a tussle ensues, and Slater gets hit on the head by her bag or the compartment door. After another argument upon arrival, Slater loses it. In a fit of righteous rage, he curses her out over the PA system and hits the emergency chute — but not, of course, before grabbing a cold one.
It’s a wonder that Slater hasn’t collapsed under the symbolic freight piled atop him. A blogger for U.S. News maintains that Slater struck a proxy blow against “bank CEOs, self-important politicians, pampered athletes, and strung-out actresses.” Take that, Lindsay! NBC News dubs us “Jet Blue Nation” because we’re all so angry with Washington.
Where’s the emergency slide to escape overwrought interpreters of Slater? The flight attendant is a hero for our times only in this sense — his escapade captures the value our culture puts on emotional expressiveness. Reserve and restraint are almost always portrayed in film and on TV as the product of an unhealthy repression. Breaking loose, finding yourself, and sticking it to authority are the keys to fulfillment and happiness.
In reality, the opposite is usually the case. It’s not surprising that a guy who’d curse someone out over a plane’s PA system apparently wasn’t a model of mannerliness prior to his blowup, according to passengers. For the sake of argument, let’s assume Slater’s version is true and he was sorely provoked. Politeness is most useful in exactly such circumstances. As Thomas Jefferson wrote long ago, “In truth, politeness is artificial good humor, it covers the natural want of it, and ends by rendering habitual a substitute nearly equivalent to the real virtue.”
The opposite of Slater’s spectacular self-indulgence is Capt. Chesley Sullenberger’s unadorned professionalism. The air-travel hero of 2009, Sully landed his plane in the Hudson River while feeling, he said afterward, “calm on the outside, turmoil on the inside.” Which is the way it’s supposed to be. Sadly, Sully always felt like a throwback — steady, no-nonsense, thoroughly competent. This year’s air-travel hero managed, in contrast, to leverage a tantrum into an act of reckless endangerment, by risking dropping the legendary emergency chute on someone’s head.
But, hey, he blew off steam. Back in 1982, a British Airways plane lost all four engines in flight. As the British newspaper the Daily Mail recounts, Capt. Eric Moody apprised the passengers of the dire situation, and added, “I trust you are not in too much distress.” The paper continues, “Incredibly, passengers and crew reacted to the captain’s cataclysmic announcement not with screams and hysteria, but with an extraordinary calm.” Miraculously, the engines were restored, and everyone lived to tell the tale.
That’s heroism for this, or any, age. As for Slater, his slide was amusing, but not the least bit admirable.
– Rich Lowry is editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail, email@example.com. © 2010 by King Features Syndicate.