However, Peretz’s comment that the column is about diarrhea strikes me as akin to someone asserting that Pride and Prejudice is about ballroom dancing: missing the point, most grievously. So I guess the messiah is not coming.
Cohen’s column is about a man arrested because he pushed his way past a flight attendant to use the business-class lavatory. This was on Delta Airlines. A refreshment cart was blocking the economy class facility, and the attendants would neither move it nor allow him to venture into the territory of his betters to avoid mortal shame. He imagines them telling him:
“You’ll have to wait, Sir. We’re doing the drinks and tiny pack of peanuts service.”
Cohen comments, masterfully,
The intonation of that “Sir” will be familiar to many of you, a tone peculiar to American airline companies, one in which resentment, superiority, fear, contempt and impatience are coiled into a venomous parody of politeness — a three-letter expletive really — that stands the notion of service on its head and tells the whole dismal story of U.S. carriers in recent years.
The subjects of this column are shame, and the reduction of workers to automatons. If I have any criticism of Cohen, it’s that he engages in a bit of shaming the unhappy passenger himself, and that he limits his criticism to airlines. Properly edited, his sentence should have read:
The intonation of that “Sir” will be familiar to many of you, a tone peculiar to American companies, one in which resentment, superiority, fear, contempt and impatience are coiled into a venomous parody of politenes…
Returning on occasion to my native land, I am regularly struck by the absolute inability of corporate employees to do anything but what the employee manual says – or put differently, their terror of thinking for themselves. The terror is understandable; violating sacred corporate policy could leave them without a job and without health insurance. I’ve found that explaining my frustration to American relatives isn’t always easy. They live in only one culture, which is therefore as invisible as water is to a fish.
Now where I live, workers normally have discretion. For instance, I once had to fly from Israel to Los Angeles, where my mother was dying. I arrived at the airport with a little rolling suitcase to take as carry-on, and with my laptop bag. At check-in, the El Al clerk told me that my suitcase weighed 5 kilos too much for carry-on. I explained to her why I did not want to spend an hour at the airport picking up a checked bag. She took a breath and told me to take my suitcase with me, and to shift some stuff to the laptop bag.
She could do this because she had not quite replaced her own neurons with the company rules. I appreciated it a lot. A lot more than I care about whether someone in a store tells me to have a nice day. I appreciated it not only because I could get to the hospital quicker, but because I was talking to a person, and she was talking to a person.
One of the best things about Israel is that the rules aren’t always the rules. This is also, definitely, one of the worst things about Israel. The precise opposite applies to the United States, which is why my native land feels so foreign to me.
If you can’t understand how the best thing about people could be the worst thing about them, you’ll do fine in symbolic logic, which is a terrible shame. Literature is sometimes a cure. Start, say, with Pride and Prejudice.