Mark Kingwell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto.
Many images have been used to characterize American democracy, especially in these recent days of the Trump Ascendancy. It's a bully-patrolled playground; it's a train wreck; it's a clown show; it's (my favourite) a pugilistic spectacle in which everyone's boxing by Queensberry Rules except one guy who's running around smashing people over the head with a folding chair.
But a news story out of the University of Toronto has inadvertently provided us with the winner of the imagery showdown. Katy DeCelles, a researcher in organizational behaviour, has published a study about the most common causes of air rage.
It isn't about leg room, seat width, cabin space, delays or the length of your flight. No: It's about class.
More specifically, it's the experience of being literally put in your place, back there in economy, even as the patricians up front – past whose smug faces and comfortably arranged bodies you zombie-shuffled by on the way to your middle seat – sipped champagne from real glasses and chose dinner from a menu.
Passenger disruptions, Ms. DeCelles found, were nearly four times as likely in aircraft that were divided by class, an effect roughly equivalent to a flight delay of nine and a half hours. Front-loading the plane, henceforth known as the Walk of Rage, doubled the chance of an incident compared with other boarding methods.
Surprisingly, not all the class-driven rage runs back-to-front. Those same divided planes generate a likelihood of first-class rage that is 12 times the rate of single-class trips. Twelve times! The proles in back are raging with fear and anxiety, according to the study, while the plush types stretching out their legs have incidents "relating to issues of alcohol and anger," as one report delicately phrased it.
So there we have it, the perfect image of democratic society circa 2016.
This is airborne hyperdemocratic dysfunction, the condition in which everyone has been promised everything, but where some kinds of everything are never enough to go around. Because they can't all be first-class seats.
Some people are just happy to have a seat on the plane, maybe want a better seat for their kids one day. Others can't believe it took so freaking long for them to get on the plane, but they'll suppress their rage to avoid getting kicked off now.
But in the first few rows of economy, people can glimpse the high life beyond the Privilege-Intimacy Curtain. They are commanded to pick their way to the very back of the plane if they need to pee, even though there is a perfectly functional bathroom within a few metres of them.
So they respond with gleeful rage when a Row 4 billionaire slides back and tells them that their raw economy-seat deal is the result not just of the elites ahead but also the rapists, unbelievers and possible terrorists behind. How did those people even get on the plane? Send them back! (Note: There is no farther back for them to go.)
A couple of middle rows are trying to warn everyone that the plane is about to crash, but they keep interrupting each other and preening in their porthole reflections. Some others, permanently seated in Economy Plus, whatever that is, are trying to recall the original purpose of the plane, pointing out that the bad version of the plane was predicted in Plato, or Tocqueville, or Canetti.
They are all shouted down by "safety reminders" of where the emergency exits are. A chant goes up in Rows 12 and 13, encouraged by the wackadoodle from Row 4: "Get out! Get out!" A charming man with no assigned seat is telling everyone the whole plane is rigged. A bossy lady from Row 1 says she knows all about the plane, her family used to run the plane and everyone should trust her with the plane.
In first class, meanwhile, the pinot gris has arrived tepid. What is the point of success if you don't get to enjoy it right now? Speaking of which, yes, the pinot gris is warm, but it's also not arriving quickly enough. No, I'm not drunk. Where is my smoked salmon? Get your hand off my arm! Who's flying the plane? Not clear, except that they almost certainly work for the horrible people sitting right behind them.