Sen. Chuck Schumer is in hot water
because he seems to have muttered to his airplane seatmate, the other New York senator, Kirsten Gillibrand, a mild epithet concerning the flight attendant who asked him (politely perhaps, but more likely peremptorily) to stop using his cell phone.
The issue, we are meant to assume, is about arrogance and entitlement. He’s a senator and she’s a stewardess; indeed, he implied that she was stymying important business. (“It's Harry Reid calling,” Schumer supposedly told Gillibrand. “I guess health care will have to wait.”)
But the arrogance and entitlement of a United States senator is no more probable then the petty tyrannies, surly dismissiveness, and automaton-like manner of a flight attendant. Such contempt has only increased with 9/11-inspired laws that make looking cross-eyed at airline personnel an imprisonable offense.
There are two points here. The smaller one has to do with the idiotic notion that cell phones might interfere with airline systems, which everybody knows (or strongly suspects) is bogus. The larger one is an odd conceit that it is somehow rude, domineering, and unnecessary, to quibble about the service you’re getting—that if you do, you are obviously way too entitled. Of course, Chuck Schumer is domineering (over the top, no doubt), but that really is not the most pertinent issue here. Rather, more to the point, he’s expressing the frustration which everybody on an airplane pretty much always feels—so, logically, he should be cheered.
Except, while we all have experienced the tyranny of the public interface of the service economy, we continue to accept a standard of ritual and propriety which, even as we curse them privately, sees service people as an oppressed minority who shouldn’t have to be confronted with their tyrannical impulses and personal incompetence.
To do so, even though everybody has been a victim of such tyranny and incompetence, is an upper-middle-class gaucherie. It remains a signpost gaucherie even though millions of upper-middle-class people have pondered with their therapists the roots of their inability to send back a rotten dinner in a restaurant.
Everybody knows modern life is a pitched battle between the server and the served, but only people we see as having a runaway id or a spectacular sense of entitlement ever, at the moment of direct conflict, try to win the battle.
There is the view, or the rationalization, that service personnel should not be blamed for the sins of their corporate owners, which, if you think about it, makes service employees out to be a form of human shield in front of corporate management (not to mention letting the server off the hook for his or her own tyrannies and incompetence).
Anyway, I believe talking back makes everybody feel better, that it’s a proper and necessary sort of check and balance, and that all in all it makes for a much less neurotic social and commercial space. I’m flying with Chuck Schumer.
More of Newser founder Michael Wolff's articles and commentary can be found at VanityFair.com, where he writes a regular column. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow him on Twitter: www.twitter.com/NewserColumns.
Among the worst things you can do in upper-middle-class, politically-correct, don’t-call-attention-to-yourself culture is insult a service person. This is counter-intuitive because one of the things that is most often done in upper-middle-class culture is complain about service.