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Steven Slater, folk hero for our times

Steven Slater appears to have captured the imaginations of many Americans.

Slater is the Jet Blue flight attendant who quit his job in dramatic fashion. As his plane had arrived but was not yet ready to de-board at JFK, a passenger got up early to grab her bag from the overhead compartment. Slater told her to sit down and was then hit in the head with the bag. According to  another passenger, Slater made an announcement over the intercom:  "To the passenger who just called me a motherfucker: fuck you.  I've been in this business 28 years and I've had it." He then activated the emergency exit slide, grabbed his carry-on bag and a beer from the pantry, slid down the slide and went home. He was later arrested.

News of his exit has turned Slater into something of a folk hero. He is the number one news story, and talk of the country.

Everyone can relate to having to deal with obnoxious and rude people. Slater is something of a real-life version of the Peter Finch character in Network, who shouts “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” And nabbing a beer was a very funny touch.

But at the risk of sounding like a party-pooper, I find aspects of Slater’s glorification to be problematic. It is understandable that Slater took out his frustration on the woman who provoked him. But in the public discussion of his dramatic departure there seems to be little recognition that both flight attendants and passengers have been put in difficult positions due to penny-pinching airlines that have made travelling more unpleasant, by cutting back on the number of flights, reducing space, eliminating food and charging for bags. Indeed, from my air travels, I’ve noticed more contestation over bags as people stuff more into the overhead bins, and also more jostling to leave quickly in order to make connecting flights, which get challenging when there are so many delays. (Although, I also fly Jet Blue a fair bit, and have to say they are one of the better airlines – and their staff seem more relaxed than others.)

Slater has become a hero for lashing out, for making a “take this job and shove it” move that others only fantasize about doing. But ultimately Slater is a quitter, not a fighter. Many are frustrated with work today. In the past, these frustrations would have been taken out on employers, perhaps by means of a union. By leaving with a personal protest and dropping out, Slater may be an appropriate “hero” for today, when many do not see a way out of their impasse.

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