For those of us who first became interested in politics during the era of the internet and twenty-four news, it can feel a bit weird being out of the loop. That’s why on my recent holiday, deprived of the guardian website and BBC news, I found myself watching a embarrassing amount of CNN. In between the constant self-promotional adverts and strikingly poor analysis, one story stood out above all others: for the seriousness with which it was dissected and discussed, as well as its sheer repetition over the course of the week. Depressingly it wasn’t the flooding in Pakistan but rather the antics of rogue flight attendant Steven Slater who, faced with an abusive customer, quit on the spot and exited the plane via the emergency evacuation chute, purloined beer in hand.
Slater now how has 200,000+ friends on facebook. His act has spawned close to a hundred groups and pages on facebook, as well as countless web memes. Why has his action resonated so widely? The obvious answer, as countless pundits have earnestly suggested, is that his actions have inspired people “overstressed and overworked” across the western world. In the rather hyperbolic words of a business psychologist interviewed in the above video, “this was a statement of freedom. A statement of liberation”.
What’s interesting is the extent to which even the silliest coverage of Slater’s act has dealt in a familiar concern of the organized left: poor working conditions and emotional labour. As Colin Horgan has recently argued on the Guardian website, Slater is a “rebel in a dehumanising society”. There’s clearly a literal truth in this claim. However this poses the question: what does it say about our society that this is a form of rebellion which has attracted so much praise?
Regardless of what you think of the messy intricacies of actually existing trade unionism, there’s a morally worthy core there: the idea of collective action, working together to improved shared conditions, striving for reciprocally improving welfare. Yet it often seems to be completely absent from our shared horizons. Trade unions get regarded with hostility, distrust or apathy while the actions of a flight attendant who swore at passengers, quit his job without any thought and now potentially faces several years in prison receive such widespread praise.