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Where a great proportion of the people are suffered to languish in helpless misery, that country must be ill policed, and wretchedly governed: a decent provision for the poor, is the true test of civilization.   --               Samuel Johnson

"Want to blow an hour and a half," said the TSA man to me once my baggage had been taken from me and evidence of the crime, a banana (thus I was transporting agricultural goods across the border), secured. What he meant was any more protest, and I'd be forced to sit for hours with three rows of a group of people in the back of the area. He was waiting for me to explode so he could perhaps arrest me. I caught this luckily, fell silent and when the machine before me was placed for me to put heavy baggage on, I did so in silence. I maintained silence until the guy came over and gave me back my bags, and I was permitted to go on my way." That baiting is what is done to black young men or women and when they rise to it, they are shot with impunity. See below

Friends and readers,

I've been writing about my travels on my other blogs: the culture of it on Ellen and Jim: Lake District and the Borders (2), (3), the people there on Sylvia II. But I don't want to imitate the NYTimes  -- except occasionally when they condescend to give you useless advice on how to put up with abuse and avoid going to jail because you don't want to kowtow to TSA bullying. The purpose of this blog is tell what's important and usually or often left out, ignored.

The New Yorker almost saw it again -- except not quite, as we have a petty criminal being handcuffed by an obviously black TSA man (so that absolves the TSA people) and they are making a joke of the opening of cases with Winnie-the-Pooh as exemplary. What bullshit. Or is this one of their lightly-touched upon miseries? Pooh is helpless. His neck in a noose. But what a good boy, to take it with such acquiescence.

I am not prepared to ignore the astonishing abuse passengers accept from airlines who are not prepared to pay extortionate fees (this time I was struck how the tiny seats make for a complete lack of any privacy), the trip itself both ways was uneventful except that I arrived home an hour later than I had said since I made the mistake of forgetting I bought a banana, thinking to eat it in case I was to be starved for 8 hours in the KLM plane (I will not pay high fees for inedible food) and was "caught" transporting agricultural produce during the harassing process of passport control. It was absurd to keep me there but they did it for half an hour -- why? because I didn't look grateful to them when they discovered what the dog had sniffed and I clearly had not committed a crime, was a native born US citizen from my passport and probably on some computer someone with no crime record -- on one level the explanation is there is nothing worse than people in petty authority (as Shakespeare told us long ago).

Why write about this? because the same indifference to us as people with civic and human rights now pervades our hospitals, our schools, is at the core of the cruelty of our criminal injustice system. Why you can't get someone from the bank on the phone to answer your question. Why Expedia can fleece you for another $1800 and you have no recourse. Charging someone for bail who can't afford to pay, and then putting them into jail in miserable conditions.  Debtor's prison resurrected. No recourse when the DMV takes your license and ability to get to work away for a minor infraction.

So here are some dialogues from face-book:

When it was time to get a boarding pass the day before I learned a new dirty trick:  At least for a third time or third trip, I had been told there was no "economy comfort," but when I went to click on my boarding pass and get a seat, I was suddenly confronted with the "option" of economy comfort for a mere $88 either a seat both ways or just the one way. Being too nervous while I am doing this clicking and anxious lest I do something which gets in the way of checking in, I do not try for this economy comfort, but I see them on the plane. I questioned others in the Road Scholar group and they confirmed this is the latest ugly trick of the airlines. They will not offer economy comfort until the last moment in the hope they can fleece you for business class or let's put it ransom you into 1st class. Disgusting, sickening. I was also told a bill was introduced in congress actually to regulate a minimum size seat for all human beings, and Republicans killed it. May each one of them rot in hell or their graves for all eternity. I know there are far more serious calamities going on in the world but this is even dangerous -- it shows an indifference to the passenger.

On the way back from Amsterdam, I was in an economy seat in a KLM airplane where I felt just about squashed and crushed because next to me were two very heavy women in impossibly little chairs. The one right next to me, an African-American, had with her an enormous Bible (a leather cover looked much worn) and a book which professed to interpret the Bible but was an exhorting self-help book: with chapters on how to curb anger and bitterness, or the value of socializing. I felt embarrassed to see how child-like the prose was and would lay a big bet there is no audiobook or ebook or kindle. It had a hard heavy cover. I couldn't avoid seeing this book nor how she was trying to genuflect and was having what I'd call a very pious experience "getting off" negative feelings she must have. In effect I was forced to invade the privacy of this woman, and to judge her spontaneously when I didn't want to.

I once paid the upcharge for economy comfort only to have part of the exit door practically in my lap. I had to contort my legs to even have room. I cannot believe they charged me the same as the other two passengers next to me, in unimpeded seats, but they did! I've never been so uncomfortable and it was an international flight. Awful.

Me in reply:
Thank you for telling me that. I did think these "economy comfort" seats were simply economy seats in "better spots." So they don't vet them individually. I would like to add though all this sounds trivial, that these people are able to get away with this conduct and profiteering underlies how and why ICE gets away with psychological and social torture and ruining lives. It's the same acceptance by a majority of Americans and morally/socially speaking the same behavior in its fundamentals. What makes it important and different is all Americans experience it, are subject to it, it's intimately known, but if anyone extrapolates we don't hear about this on the news.

LLisa:  I chose that seat specifically because it was the "window" seat. This window could only be utilized if I had knelt on the seat, bent over, and nearly did a handstand on the lap of the person behind me. Airlines get away with skewering passengers, you're right. It's a misery when you're stuck in this tiny space for hours and hours

Enforced socialization, said my friend Byran, like the military

Ah. Once a long time ago I found myself in a seat by the emergency exit. I found myself told what I was to do in case of an emergency; all these procedures are false, idiotic, will save no one. I would not go along with pretending and found a couple of people nearby horrified by what I said and insisting someone else should take this seat. So I said, why not one of them. I forget now if one of them took it, but remember that I refused to sit there. I stood up, and another seat was found for me, and presumably someone else took that seat. This was before the present systematic abusive behavior of airlines to passengers had begun. I didn't mention that the black woman next to me had a breathing problem and, once seated, asked if she could be moved -- of course to a better seat. The stewardess denied there were any other free seats and made a big deal out of offering to give this black woman cups of hot water. Pretending enormous concern. The fact was (as I saw later) there were empty seats towards the back. Now they were as small, but it may be a couple of empty seats were back there or could be arranged. I think the staff are told to be hard and obdurate and refuse all requests for help except if in their judgement someone's life is suddenly at risk. Why? as Voltaire put it about the firing squad death of an admiral, "pour encourager les autres." The staff are trained to be inhumane.

I find the remark this is enforced socialization insightful. It may seem silly that I do -- maybe it's so obvious to others but not to me. It tells me why I hate and find the airline and airport experience such an ordeal. The only option is 1) take a boat but then there are very few; 2) train if one has the time; 3) a car, but most people can't drive that many hours in a row; or 4) not go. I know people who won't travel because they won't subject themselves to airplane travel but they usually say what bothers them is that airplanes are so dangerous. To this others reply with the usual statistics: remember three kinds of statistics? A few who have money enough have told me they pay the extortionist amount to at least free themselves in specially apart areas in the airport and again in the airplane. I also find irritating the attempt to shrug or makes jokes of TSA and the airlines.

I was of course accused of being personal, hysterical, not seeing the uses of this, not thinking about the poor people hired by the airplanes and TSA to do these things. The system is just fine. Very clever insinuations about me.

So I replied:

My view is if the plane falls out of the sky, everyone is probably dead. The videos about the gas masks and the rest of it are ludicrous. I am not in a state of overwhelming stress when I am i a train or train station; decades ago, plane trips did not overwhelm me. I never wanted to travel, but that's another set of motives that don't actuate me immediately. I thought Bryan made an insightful comment for me: enforced socialization. That's what I find so grating: to be actually making skin contact with a woman I found very alien culturally (let's say) and find I cannot erase from my eyes or consciousness what she is doing. I now realize why passengers get so angry at babies aboard. That dead dog seems to me important as it's an instance of what will happen to a creature utterly powerless to protect itself without any one who is willing to protect it responsibly. I don't think anyone is persecuting me individually; but I do think the system is set up to control the public by intimidation and harassment, quite deliberately by the higher authorities; and on top of that we are exploited and fleeced and abused by the airlines to wrench money out of us at every turn.

My friend Kathryn:
Ellen, I also hate flying for all the reasons you have discussed, BUT I worry about you. I know of one professional woman in our age group who was not very nice when questioned by TSA at Dulles. She did not do anything really wrong, just responded angrily to their requests. They wrestled her to the ground, arrested her, and held her overnight. She could have been seriously injured, but fortunately was all right. She ended up having to do anger management training and community service. Since that happened I've been very careful not to show that anything bothers me when flying, going through security, etc.

I did stay controlled when I realized that these people were going to behave as if I had broken some serious law. I admit I did not kowtow and showed irritation, and that it was an effort to remain calm. I was not overtly angry and did immediately remember the banana, and blurted "Oh I never ate the banana," and the woman actually said, as if this was some kind of trial, that I immediately turned over the banana and did not try to hide it matters. And then she opens this heavy door and invites me to walk through. I understood then something was afoot. It took a couple of minutes for me to realize there were three rows of people on seats waiting their turn (at least an hour and a half). I suppose (as I recall this morning with a half-grin on my face) I should have laughed it off inside, but I couldn't. I was controlled, just strained; I am aware my race, age, obvious lack of crime wouldn't matter if I truly bucked them. I didn't. I was exhausted, and one of them remarked as I stood waiting at some checkpoint that I looked very white (not racial word, but just drained). I am aware now since reading (and hearing) about the "quiet skies" harassment policy that it has not just been random that twice I've been picked out. Once was after a woman almost denied Izzy and I a seat because we checked in late: I had a meltdown right there, and suddenly she had the seats after all, and then we had to go through security. I would not do well in prison and had better be careful insofar as I can. What can one do? take a plane only when there is no other way and only when I really want to go to this place where there is no other way but a plane. I will not go to Reyhavik again (Icelandic airport). I now know what the little dogs are for in the corridors of the security clearance places.

There is also a principle at state, but I'm not such a fool as to chose this battlefield to make my sense of violation known. At no point did I refuse to do anything they asked and I said hardly anything at all, as few words as possible

How clever this one:

I couldn't defend what's going on in the flight industry, or the hidden policies and collapsing infrastructure of the whole thing, or the blind incompetence of the people who run it. The airline system is broken, pretty much everything is ruined except that (bottom line) the planes mostly get where they're going in one piece. (So far.) And Diane has a good point in supporting those who shout out about the abuses - except that, of course, it is a truth pretty much universally acknowledged already, what the flying experience has become. My only point really is as usual individual not systemic: that a person traveling gets less flak by being civil, sympathetic and even friendly to those trying to do their jobs (even if one's teeth are gritted the whole time) than by protesting. I do make huge efforts to be deliberately super nice when I travel, even though usually I'm sleepless and cranky, and although I fly a lot and have had my share of problems (lost luggage, etc.), no one has ever treated me badly, and most staff goes out of their way to help me. I am sure you will think that going the false charm route is loathsome and standing up for injustices and miseries is important. Some truth there, and each to her own method, but I am only concerned about getting safely from Point A to Point B. You can write and protest about the horrors later (as you are doing)! Everybody knows these things are happening (your banana story had me gasping) but the goal at hand is to get there. If the hangar's crowded, sit on the floor. If there's an awful intrusive person next to you - well that's a tough one! I don't think I've ever been quite unlucky enough to have a pain in the neck as bad as the person you describe as seatmate, but this is one of the big airline problems. In these small spaces stories are even rife about FIGHTS between passengers over things like seats pushed too far back! Sometimes there are ways around sticky situations, but if not - well, keep in mind that it is only for a few hours, not a No Exit situation

Each to his own. You are here talking take care of yourself. My talk is other directed too. But why do you persist? to have the last word? to scotch something as in the case of the new critical biographer of the Little House books? Let us keep in mind that woman denied medicine, the dead dog, dying up there, and yes the woman sitting next to me refused the choice of another seat when there were others as that's what these agents have been told to do. Following orders? now the man who baited me was going beyond that.

Diane Reynolds offered this larger perspective:

I am flying through Iceland to get to Malta this February: it never occurred to me that might be a problem, but I shall be forewarned. Diana, I agree that lashing out at the employees, who often are, as you so well describe, suffering under impossible conditions, is lashing out at the victims, but the frustration is that the people making the policies are hidden. There's no reason why employees can't be treated better--there are plenty of ways to do it that don't impact profits--and at some point, human decency is more important than saving that extra 3 cents. We know airlines do respond if the actions are egregious enough, like that poor doctor who was slugged, concussed, and dragged off his flight, but we do need to keep raising the chorus of protest. I conform to what is expected as I am not an idiot, but I hate having to knuckle under to nonsense. I hate that flight attendants jobs are no longer defined as making the customer comfortable and happy, but as keeping us "safe," as if they are security guards. I hate that on some flights you only get a meal if you pay. I was really hungry, as was my husband, when we had to take a sudden Norwegian Air flight home from Prague via Sweden and took what we could get--well, you couldn't get dinner unless you had pre-ordered it. In our rush, we hadn't. We had to wait more than an hour (close to two) while others were served their meals to get $10 cheese sandwiches that were a slice of processed cheese between 2 piece of bread. We all need to keep fighting back and I am glad Ellen speaks out and hope she will be supported. It doesn't have to be this way. It didn't use to be this way. If we don't fight it won't change.

But there's another; it's about the core politics of American life nowadays. On the phone with another friend who didn't have a horrors of today's hospitals story to tell me but about how she too was baited, almost fell for it because she was "caught" with a couple of items of food and protested. She also protested sudden add-on costs for her baggage about 3 years ago when that started happening. I discovered a bill for $113 extra for a bag at Dulles coming home. Rien a faire.

I know I have not been writing about the prison strike and the retaliations going on at the prisons -- the only newsstory covering this is DemocracyNow. Next time and what stories and reports I can find. This is just in terms of the recent death of Aretha Franklin and thoughts about her and the situation of anyone who wants to protest peacefully today but I will try to get more about the past and what is literally happening today in US prisons and in the new era of draconian cuts to Obamacare.

Miss Drake

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