OPINION: Dr Dao’s bloodied face is a salutary image, a reminder of how corporate we’ve become.
In case you’ve been living in a cave, Dr Dao was a passenger on a United Airlines flight from Chicago. The plane was full and everyone was awaiting the video that assures the passengers their safety is the airline’s No 1 priority, when United decided it needed to find four seats for an air crew. The airline offered money to anyone who would disembark voluntarily and three people accepted the bribe which left the airline one seat short. So it chose Dr Dao at random and told him to get off. Apparently this is legal.
But Dr Dao refused to go, whereupon United summoned security men with muscle and the badges that entitle them to use it.
“Please come with us, Dr Dao,” said security.
“No,” said Dr Dao. “By buying a ticket I entered into a contract with United Airlines and I expect them to fulfil their side of that contract.”
“An interesting point,” said security, “but there is a flaw in your reasoning and to point it out let me introduce you to a friend of mine who goes by the name of Freddy.”
“Yes, Freddy the Forearm. Oh what a lot of teeth you seem to have lost, Dr Dao. Still, nothing a little reconstructive surgery won’t put right. And now, in order to keep the peace with Freddy, who between you and me has a tendency to become over-excited, allow us to haul you from your seat, Dr Dao, banging your head a little on the arm rest as we go before dragging you down the aisle on your back, where you may notice several of your fellow passengers filming you on their photographically enabled cellular telephones, no doubt with a view to contacting the media just as soon as they get the chance.”
Which they did. And so appalled was every news agency in this interconnected world of ours that they ran the cellphone footage for the whole of a day and the whole of a night before returning to Trump and his new-found talent for bombing.
Now you could argue at this point that, despite appearances, United Airlines had done nothing wrong. It had acted according to the law and it was not responsible for the actions of security because they were not United employees. But then the CEO stepped in and that’s when things got corporate.
The CEO, one Oscar Munoz, issued a tepid apology for having to “re-accommodate” passengers, but then he went on to blame the victim. He said Dr Dao had been “belligerent and disruptive”.
The outrage was instantaneous and Mr Munoz had no choice but to apologise properly and admit that the whole thing was appalling. But it was too late. We’d seen his corporate heart. He was only pretending to care. Because that is what corporations do.
By definition a corporation has no conscience, no feelings, nothing. It is purely self-serving. Should it cease to make money it ceases to exist, so everything is subordinate to that need. And any appearance of soft-heartedness or of interest in the wellbeing of others is faked.
Of course it is often in a corporation’s interest to fake it. This is called public relations, or advertising, the aim of which is to make a corporation seem generous, friendly, loving, the sort of attributes we like in people. United Airlines is typical in this regard. “Fly the friendly skies,” is its motto, now saddled with an irony that it is hard not to laugh at. But United is no better or worse than any other airline, any other corporation. What matters is the extent to which we now seem to swallow their lies.
Many years ago I travelled a bit in East Germany and Czechoslovakia when both were under Soviet control. The first thing I noticed was the absence of advertising. Shop windows, walls, the flanks of buses went unadorned. Nothing promised me heaven if I only reached for this yoghurt or used this credit card.
Of course these countries were beset with lies of a different sort, but it came as a shock to realise how I expected corporations to colour my world with falsehoods. And 35 years later commerce has become even more pervasive. Everything now seems commercial. We are in thrall to corporate interests. The market is spoken of as god. CEOs are revered and paid ransoms. Corporations exercise more and more influence over government. And less and less are they seen for the self-serving predators that they are.
So if the suffering of Dr Dao serves to remind us that behind the benevolent mask of corporations lies only ruthless self-interest, well, it may not be much compensation but he will have bled for a very good cause.