How Steve Slater Channeled America's Rage

The rogue JetBlue flight attendant expressed exasperation that many of us feel.

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We're angry. Fed up. Sick of people. It might not show when you stroll through the neighborhood or browse the mall, but when the opportunity arises, boy, do we vent.

Steve Slater has unwittingly provided such an opportunity. Slater is the now-famous JetBlue flight attendant who cursed out a planeful of passengers at the end of a flight at JFK International in New York, grabbed a beer, and popped the emergency exit slide, bailing out of the plane—and his flying career—like an insouciant jet-age cowboy. Then he went home and got into bed, as if it hadn't dawned on him that the authorities might want to ask a few questions. After the cops hauled him down to the station, he was charged with two felonies.

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We all know that commercial flying is serious business, with dire consequences for anyone who even pretends to be a rule-breaker. We also know the old adage about the customer always being right. And most of all, we know that the airlines are cruel institutions somehow licensed to degrade human dignity on every flight, starving, jostling, and emotionally tormenting the flying public.

So Slater, a uniformed airline representative who insulted our fellow flyers and then flouted rules that even the underwear bomber respected, ought to be the villain in this story. But of course he's a sudden folk hero, lionized like Charles Lindbergh. Every news show wants to have him on. Hundreds of strangers are contributing to a legal-defense fund. His Facebook page has 170,000 "likers" and counting. There are "Team Slater" T-shirts, and with America starved for catty entertainment, a reality show can't be far behind. Finally, we have a rogue who actually went rogue.

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It's easy to tell why we're rooting for Slater. He's an Everyman who had the guts to do something risky, which most of us only dream about. We all feel like taking this job and shoving it sometimes, but then we remember that there aren't any other jobs, so we quickly scurry down off the ledge before anybody notices.

But the real fascination isn't our empathy with Slater, it's the vicarious rage we feel toward the passenger, fictitious or not, who supposedly provoked him. From the shadows, that person has become a magnet for the rage that many Americans feel over their downward trajectory and sense of powerlessness. The popular version of this saga has Slater reacting to a rude woman passenger who had an argument with him over luggage, then somehow managed to slam his head with the door on an overhead bin. Several passengers who were on the flight, which originated in Pittsburgh, told the Wall Street Journal that they noticed a gash on Slater's head during the flight. But they also said they failed to notice any bad behavior by the passenger, and that it may have been Slater who provoked the whole dispute, if there even was one.

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It doesn't matter, because this story is really a fable in which we fill in the blanks with our own villains. Practically everybody who has ever stepped on an airplane has been annoyed by another passenger who hauls too much luggage aboard, takes up too much space, talks incessantly on a cell phone, or holds up the painful herding ritual known as boarding. Small spaces amplify boorish behavior, and the obnoxious airplane passenger is one of the egregious curses of modern living, right up there with the aggressive driver who cuts you off then flips you the bird.

Slater's obnoxious passenger is a proxy for all the people who expect special treatment that they don't deserve: bank CEOs, self-important politicians, pampered athletes, and strung-out actresses. Boy, are we sick of them. Unemployment is nearly 10 percent, the middle class is going down the tubes, the typical high-school senior can't even spell iPad, and here's some cheapskate in coach demanding first-class treatment. When most of us encounter a demanding complainer, we conjure up colorful insults but end up slinking quietly away. Slater, however, mustered the nerve to tell his provocateur, "Go f----yourself., over the P.A. system. With no place for the offending passenger to hide.

Yeah. You go Steve.

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Then there is the soulless, imperious airline, with its perky logos, icy-nice agents, bustling inefficiency, and unappealable rules. Man, are we sick of this charade too. It's the same corporate façade working Americans encounter every morning as they slide their security cards over the reader, secretly disappointed that it worked, again, then march into a day of endless meetings and bosses who won't shut up. Slater was an insider who exposed the vacuity of the system, doing something strictly forbidden then sauntering away unharmed, proof that so much of the officiousness around us is pointless.

Finally, aren't you glad it was Slater who called out the obnoxious passenger and jumped from his career—and not you? I am. Sure, his moment of glory seems more genuine than that of Joe the Plumber or Octomom, and he might be able to milk his fame for a few months. But he's still a mid-career flunkie who's very likely out of a job, plus he's facing felony charges. Maybe, when you think about it, a dramatic exit is overrated. Maybe it really is better to hold your tongue. Maybe it's time to get back to work.