Sunday, August 7, 2011

Does power always corrupt?



Lord John Acton famously remarked that “All power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It is either a pragmatic comment or a cynical one, depending on your point of view, but modern democracies all assume its truth. Government checks and balances are built on the belief that if there are lots of people watching, and other people who can overturn previously made decisions, no single person or group will have too much power. Maybe this safety net works with government, but I can’t help thinking of Acton as I read about what United States airlines are doing at airports.

My comments here are not about the TSA; that’s a whole other discussion. I'm thinking instead about the airline employees themselves. In the last couple of months, a man was booted off of a plane for not pulling up his pants when a pilot told him to. (They were saggy, not obscene, although how low they were is a matter of dispute.) A woman was kicked off a plane because she was falsely accused of going pantsless when she wore a long sweater. And, a different woman, who was crying because her father had just passed away from a fatal heart attack, was removed from a plane because she asked for a glass of wine to calm down. In each of these, the airline employees used the power granted them to protect people passengers from terrorists. The people were no threat at all, and in two of the incidents, the cause was clearly a mistake. The first woman was indeed wearing pants and the second wasn’t drunk. Yet, no one said, simply, “Oops, my mistake. I apologize. Have a nice day.” 


A minute later, we noticed [the employee] chasing us across the lobby. She demanded that I hand over my camera phone so that she could delete the photo I took. I politely refused. She then insisted that I delete the photo while she watched. I again refused. She then informed me that if I didn't delete the photo in her presence, she would call the Houston Police Department, have be arrested, put me on the "no-fly list" and "make me miss my fancy Costa Rica vacation." She stated, "you will never fly my airline again." I asked her what law she was talking about and she replied, "My law."

So, a woman wanted to complain, took a picture of an employee to document an activity, and she was threatened with being added to the no-fly list. Again, this is a list that is designed to protect people from terrorists. The sole purpose of preventing someone from taking a picture is to prevent the possibility of checks and balances. It is to preserve one’s power over another person. The airlines can be sued. Employees can be fired. But none of this can happen without documentation.

After the photograph incident, the TSA confirmed that taking pictures of airport employees is legal. Continental Airlines says that the woman was owed an apology but United Airlines says it’s an acceptable policy. In other words, it is completely arbitrary as to whether or not a person is permitted to take a picture. This violates two key precepts in the philosophy of law: all laws must be publicly known and they must consistently apply to all people. (Inventing a law on the spot is also problematic.) 

There can certainly be a debate as to whether flying is a right or a privilege; similar debates take place about driver’s licenses all the time. But the real issue is whether even a privilege can be taken away for no reason. It seems that the airline employees are trading on their newfound power to protect themselves and to avoid admitting they made a mistake. This, it seems to me, is unacceptable.

There are people who will point out how difficult it is to work in airports and how rude passengers can be. I don’t deny this. But these facts are irrelevant to the issue at hand. Rude people should be held accountable in a proportionate way, including, perhaps, being refused service until they calm down or act respectfully. Nevertheless, being rude is not a crime and it is in no way akin to terrorism. Most importantly, polite people, grieving people, people with a certain fashion sense, or people who want to document activity to make a complaint shouldn’t be denied either rights or privileges because someone else was rude.  

Do you think it’s possible to be in a position of significant power and not abuse it? As Lord Acton points out, it isn’t that power necessarily corrupts, it’s that a lot of it does. Airline employees these days have a lot of power. Do you think that they are a special case? Do you think I’m making more of this than I should, or do you think that any person or group of people, in this same situation, would act in the same way? Are this employees a few bad apples or are we watching human nature at work? 

I will admit that there’s a part of me that worries that this blog post will result in me being put on the no fly list. But that’s just paranoia, right? Right!?

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Next Episode of WHY? "Food and Sustainability" with guest Jay Basquiat




WHY? Philosophical Discussions About Everyday Life
presents:

"Food and Sustainability"
with guest Jay Basquiat


How much thought have you given to the idea of food? Why do we eat some things and not others, even though they are all edible? And, what exactly does it mean to be natural? These questions are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the philosophy of food and sustainability: What are the moral rules for manufacturing food, for farming, and for our agricultural priorities? Why does food play such important cultural and spiritual roles in virtually every society? What responsibilities do we have to provide food for other and to provide specific kinds of food for ourselves? And, to what extend is the creation of food – farming, baking, manufacturing, etc. – cultures in and of themselves, and how do those cultures effect the larger ones we live in?

Jay Basquiat is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Bismarck State College and sustainably farms near Mandan, ND. He operates a Community Supported Agriculture venture called Baskets of Plenty and serves on the board of the ND Humanities Council.

Listen live from anywhere in the world at www.whyradioshow.org and in North Dakota at 89.3 (Grand Forks),
91.9 (Fargo), 90.5 (Bismarck), and on Prairie Public radio stations across the state.



(This episode was pre-recorded on August 5, 2011)


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Call WHY? anytime to record your question for the show. We'll call you back!
(701) 428-1510

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PQED, the IPPL/Why? Blog:  www.philosophyinpubliclife.blogspot.com

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Why? Radio Show

Twitter: @whyradioshow


Please contact: ippl@und.edu for any questions


Monday, August 1, 2011

WHY? needs your questions in advance for our next show: "Food and Sustainability" with guest Jay Basquiat



How much thought have you given to the idea of food? Why do we eat some things and not others, even though they are all edible? And, what exactly does it mean to be natural? These questions are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the philosophy of food and sustainability: What are the moral rules for manufacturing food, for farming, and for our agricultural priorities? Why does food play such important cultural and spiritual roles in virtually every society? What responsibilities do we have to provide food for other and to provide specific kinds of food for ourselves?  And, to what extend is the creation of food – farming, baking, manufacturing, etc. – cultures in and of themselves and how do those cultures effect the larger ones we live in?

Our August show will deal with these and many more vexing questions, but we will be prerecording it, so we need your questions in advance.

Please write us or call us with your questions by August 5th at 4 p.m.


Our new 24-hour question line: 701-428-1510.

Our guest, Jay Basquiat,is an Assistant Professor at Bismarck State College and sustainably farms near Mandan, ND. He operates a Community Supported Agriculture venture called Baskets of Plenty and serves on the board of the ND Humanities Council.

“Food and Sustainability” will be broadcast August 14, at 5 p.m. central, on Prairie Public radio and via our website at www.whyradioshow.org.



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"Like" us on Facebook at our new fan page!

--------------------------------------
Call WHY? anytime to record your question for the show. We'll call you back!
(701) 428-1510

--------------------------------------
PQED, the IPPL/Why? Blog:  www.philosophyinpubliclife.blogspot.com

--------------------------------------

Why? Radio Show




Please contact: ippl@und.edu for any questions