Magazine | May 1, 2017, Issue

Calibrate Your Care

A United Airlines Boeing 767-322(ER) aircraft takes off from Zurich Airport. (Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters)

By the time you’re reading this, Dr. David Dao of Elizabethtown, Ky., will be a pub-quiz question living comfortably off a modest chunk of United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz’s golden parachute. But at the time I’m writing it, Dao is the cause célèbre of every dingus with an opposable thumb and a Wi-Fi signal.

I barely have the strength to rehash the particulars. Dao was roughed up by an airport rent-a-cop for acting like a jerk, and yes I know United messed up, and no I don’t care that they overbooked –

You know what? You either know what I’m talking about already or you should probably just check out the fine product for sale from one of our valued sponsors opposite this page.

The fact is, I don’t know which of the parties is preponderantly at fault or whether law enforcement was justified in its use of force. But I do know this: You don’t either.

And that’s why I’m thoroughly cheesed off by the whole thing. It’s not just that social media make us all into pundits, pseudo-experts with “hot takes” on everything, including whether the phrase “hot take” is overused on social media. It isn’t even, quite, that social media give us the illusion of having way more information than we do, of standing on some Archimedean point from which we can render stoic judgment.

Part of it is the particular shape of the outrage. The collective effrontery of the petite bourgeoisie, the Greater Middle Class. I think Louis C.K.’s bit on the instant entitlement of the air-travel generation is the controlling precedent here:

Flying is the worst because people come back from flights and they tell you . . . a horror story. . . . They’re like: “It was the worst day of my life. . . . They made us sit there on the runway . . .” Oh really, what happened next? Did you fly through the air incredibly, like a bird? Did you partake in the miracle of human flight, you non-contributing zero?! . . . You’re sitting in a chair, in the sky!

Another part is the howling intensity of the reaction. It would be one thing if you were allowed to have a half-hearted, ten-second watercooler opinion about the thing and then be free to go about your life. But no, you had to be incensed. You had to have follow-up opinions about the press bringing up the guy’s criminal background. You had to weigh in on every move inside United’s public-relations war room. You had to situate your reaction in the context of your reaction to that Pepsi Black Lives Matter commercial none of us even care about anymore. (N.B. Apple appropriated George Fricking Orwell 30 years ago and now their products are surgically attached to your ass. You’re still going to be guzzling Pepsi after the dust clears.)

It’s also that this thing has good, card-carrying dispositional conservatives I know digging into the kind of conceptual redoubts we usually abhor: Businesses have the right to refuse service, except when they refuse service to someone of roughly my social station? Local knowledge is crucial, but I can tell all the way from this Starbucks that this is an open-shut case and United must be delenda’d? Airline deregulation was great, but we miss the good old days when we were all paying six grand one way to take the lone, weekly Pan Am flight from Newark to Topeka, because at least we could do it on a Barcalounger in a half-empty plane?

But lastly, finally, ultimately, and for the purposes of this column, my reaction comes down to this: Who the hell cares?

I want to propose a principle. Call it “Foster’s Law of Universal Moral Gravitation.” The name is due, of course, to my worthy predecessor Sir Isaac Newton, whose Law of Universal Gravitation applied to the physical world. It states, roughly, that the gravitational attraction between two objects is proportional to their masses and inversely proportional to their distance from each other. (Don’t write me, physics dweebs. It’s close enough for the back page.)

Unlike Newton’s Law, Foster’s Law requires no math (after all, the Happy Warrior’s Latin motto is Non est arithmetica). It applies to the normative world and states that the amount you should care about a given event is directly proportional to the event’s moral significance and inversely proportional to its distance from you.

This strikes me as fairly obvious. Matters of life and death that affect your family are more worthy of your attention than matters of some injustice befalling your community, which are in turn more important than an amateur episode of Cops filmed on a tarmac in Chicago that you’ll soon file away in a dusty corner of your cortex along with Ken Bone and the “dab.”

It’s not that you shouldn’t be annoyed by minor inconveniences to your self — I’m not asking Dr. Dao to take his “re-accomodation” and busted lip in stride. Nor should we be indifferent to any and all mediated suffering. Foster’s Law holds that distant but serious moral harms — kids gassed to death in Syria, say, or systemic bigotry three states over — are things you should care about. But your care should reflect that distance, where distance is both physical and figurative. It means that the strength of your moral resolve should match your knowledge of the situation and its possible remedies and your ability actually to do something about it. Maybe it means calling your congressman. Or attending a protest. Or having a teachable moment with your kids.

But I’ll be damned if I’m going to waste moral energy on Dr. Dao any more than I would on the guy three sections over from me at the Jets game getting tossed by Jersey Staties. Maybe there’s some bedrock principle of customer service on the line here. Or maybe he’s just drunk. But what, from the bowels of Pete, ultimately turns on any of it?

Having an opinion about this crap is the emptiest species of the dread “virtue signal” and parcel with the Politicization of Everything that is adding to our collective immiseration.

Fly it all up your friendly sky, I say.

Daniel Foster — Daniel Foster is a former news editor of National Review Online.

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