Executive First Class
May 12, 2012

Executive First Class

On the plane to Peru, cut off from my usually endless sources of news which perennially gives me causes to vent frustration at, I am reduced to unleashing my criticism upon smaller and more benign foes. In this case, the rather nauseating, if largely unimportant, nomenclature of "Executive First Class" airplane seats.

Among the intellectual debts our society owes to the brief and distorted rise of communism, is an increased consciousness and language to describe issues of class tensions. Much of the descriptive aspects that saw the tides of history through the lens of class struggle is broadly correct and this is not diminished by the monumental failure of the prescriptive aspects. The Occupy movement, for instances, rests on borrowed rhetoric whose validity today remains poignantly true.

There remain today relics of a time where profuse adulations to a class based hierarchy were more prevalent. That a stratification in society based on wealth and power is an objective fact and is deserving of labels. But what labels are used matters in the connotations they convey. Labels such as rich and poor are at least accurately descriptive, even if they are often distorted by connotation. But the labels "first class" and "upper class" - and their opposites, "third class" or "lower class" - are positively dripping with the connotations of superiority and condescension. It is not labeling merely an economic reality, but making a value judgement that this economic reality is deterministic of some measure of worth in society and that some are lower or higher than others.

In English, these notions are old and are largely linguistic layovers of a previous age. Correspondingly, parts of them have dropped out of usage ("lower class" and even "upper class" are rarely uttered these days, even though politicians pontificate on the virtuous "middle class" ad nauseum). Trains and planes hang on to the "first class" expression like a vestigial organ.

The "executive" part of "executive first class", however, is new. The origins of "upper class" are related to the long since defunct system of monarchy, and its hereditary and patronage based system of nobility together determining the "upper class". Today our system is a capitalist one that sees the majority of the wealth still concentrated among a few, but with that few determined in a very different way. In our system, the term "executive" has fully replaced the term "lord". Air Canada's choice of "executive first class" is a rather intriguing juxtaposition of the old and the new; one can easily imagine the marketing meeting that decided to update the antiquated "first class" with a newer, sexier, qualifier.

Imagine the disgust at the blatantly class based inequity of a system that offered special treatments for higher costs but marketed it by using rhetoric praising, say, the enormous ruling Saud family in Saudi Arabia or, perhaps even worse, using racial references to Han Chinese in the Filipines (the minority Han population has long dominated the wealth in that country). I suspect we would be outraged. However, in our society, where the class that dominates influence on the wealth - and I won't even say here that this is necessarily bad - is consistently normalized, accepted, and, indeed, praised, we don't object and don't even notice. Consider the Republican deification of the glorious "job creators" in our society who need endlessly reduced taxation and zero curbs on their behavior no matter the consequences.

I don't wish to suggest that this triviality has any meaningful consequences, but it is certainly a statement on the values of our society. Thankfully, time constraints prevent me from taking up the self-congratulatory and supercilious yet puerile crossover from celebrity culture: Very Important Persons.

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1 comment:

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