John R. MacArthur is publisher of Harper’s Magazine and author of the book You Can’t Be President: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America. This column originally appeared in the January 20, 2010 Providence Journal.
If, like me, you’re a fan of the Financial Times–weekend edition you’ve probably read Tyler Brûlé’s “Fast Lane” column, even if you don’t approve of the products and destinations he tends to push, or of his once-over-lightly approach to life in general. Sometimes I’m embarrassed to find myself enjoying “Fast Lane,” since Brûlé is mostly about surfaces— how things look, rather than what they really are— and his mad dashes by air and rail around the world often leave me wishing that he would sit still and express no opinions at all.
But lately I’ve come to take Brûlé’s globalized views on consumption more seriously. For one thing, he really does have a good sense of what’s right about a hotel, city or airline, as well as what’s terribly wrong. Now, with the absurd, Bushian overreaction to the Christmas Day terrorist attempt, Brûlé has come up with a remedy for American stupidity that I find altogether brilliant: Boycott the United States.
Nothing else seems to be waking up the country: not electing a phony reformer as president; not gutting the economy with worthless mortgages, reckless banking and “free trade,” not invading countries where no one is interested in our corrupted approach to “democracy” or in our “value system.” No, we need outside pressure to save us, and Brûlé has offered a fine strategy.
Granted, Brûlé has a narrow interest, which is comfort and ease in airports and on airplanes. Mainly, he’s responding to complaints from business travelers who want to cancel or put off trips to the land of the supposedly free and the home of the allegedly brave. Obviously, no one in his or her right mind wants to endure the added hours of waiting, the full-body searches and the arbitrary carry-on rules that the Transportation Safety Administration has now put in effect.
A friend, the mother of two young girls, tells me that on her flight back to New York from a vacation in Costa Rica, she was forbidden for the last hour of the journey to cover her sleeping 2-year-old in a coat or a blanket, so she had to remove the cover every time the flight attendant walked by, then put it back on. Two weekends ago, I nearly canceled what should have been an easy round-trip to Montreal, so fearful was I of delays by Newark Airport “security” (someone had shut down the airport a few days earlier when another passenger observed him sneaking into a terminal boarding area from the TSA-supervised exit lane, evidently to kiss his girlfriend goodbye). At first, I was pleasantly surprised that the Canadians apparently feel that they have nothing to fear from incoming New Yorkers; I got to the airport far earlier than necessary, zipped through security with my carry-on bag (a bag, by the way, recommended by Tyler Brûlé) and used the lavatory on my Air Canada flight just 20 minutes before landing.
Returning to New York the next day was another matter. I was compelled to check my carry-on (for some reason, they were allowing laptops only), told I couldn’t board with a plastic bag carrying newspapers or books and was given a full-body frisk, front and back, once I got past the U.S. border guards stationed in Trudeau Airport. This was time-consuming, annoying and incoherent. Other passengers on my flight boarded with carry-on bags, and when I complained to the Air Canada gate clerk, she threw up her hands and said she didn’t know the rules (presumably, the “rules” were being imposed on Canada by U.S. Homeland Security).
Brûlé isn’t just a critic; he has good suggestions for improving airport security, such as better pay for screeners. Not only would this attract “brighter, more service-minded souls,” but it would also build a higher-quality team who could be educated in the rudiments of good police work. (Brûlé would probably concur with a letter writer to the FT that whatever search techniques are applied, “the only serious way to screen travelers is at the boarding gate,” since airports are filled with low-wage, high-turnover service workers who can’t be thoroughly vetted.)
As dynamic as it is, though, Brûlé’s radical idea “to stop flying on U.S. airlines and to shun the U.S.” is too limited. As he correctly notes, “there’s nothing like a lost commercial opportunity to get the U.S. thinking differently,” and “a crippled civil-aviation sector is not good news for the likes of Boeing and its suppliers.” But why stop at forcing America to make jet-plane travel less unpleasant and keep Boeing stock high? Why not go beyond the improvement of airport security?
As everyone in our promised land must have noticed by now, the public-school system is shot, the trains are slow and infrequent, medical care is an expensive crap shoot and lots of people are out of work. How serious is the crisis? Well, national security begins at home, and the misspelling (typo, if you’re charitable) by somebody in the State Department of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s name, after his father warned our embassy in Nigeria about the terrorist danger his son posed, is emblematic of a deeper education crisis in America that is causing “intelligence failures” beyond the bungling of the computer match that might have revoked Abdulmutallab’s U.S. visa.
These intelligence failures are most glaring in big, bloody, self-defeating disasters such as the American war in Afghanistan. But they’re also manifest, less obviously, in your own hometown. These days, the worst local intelligence failure I can think of is the proposal by New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority to eliminate free passes for students. Brilliant! Just when we need more people who know how to spell, the public transit system in the city with the biggest school system is discouraging kids, especially poor ones, from getting to class. Not only do schools teach spelling, but many also offer typing courses. I’ll never forget my father insisting that I learn how to touch-type fast and accurately. If I did, he insisted, I could always get a job — presumably, even in the U.S. State Department.
Whatever the effect of “Boycott America” on plane travel, don’t end it unless we continue free bus and subway travel for schoolchildren in New York. The security of the homeland demands it.