I'm settling into my window seat on JetBlue flight 101 from New York to Oakland, Calif., when a man sitting in the aisle seat on my row points my attention to a teenager taking off her sweat shirt on the other side of the plane. Underneath the sweat shirt, she's wearing a T-shirt that states, in large colorful letters on the back, "FUCK THIS PLACE."
The man mutters to me an almost inaudible sentence that ends with the words "grounds for deportation."
I'm not sure if I am hearing him correctly. Did he say "that could be grounds for deportation" -- making a wry reference to the woman who was thrown off a Southwest flight a few months ago for wearing a T-shirt with a picture of Bush, Cheney and Condoleezza Rice that read "Meet the Fuckers"? Or did he say "should" instead of "could"?
I chuckle, hoping that he's joking. The teenager is no terrorist. She looks like a typical adolescent smartass, with her hair streaked red and a mild scowl set on her face. "You've got to be kidding," I say.
He is not. He continues to mutter to his wife, who is seated between us. I return my attention to my own children, an 8- and an 11-year-old, who are in the row directly behind me.
As the plane starts rolling down the runway, the man, who looks to be in his late 30s or early 40s, calls a flight attendant over and tells him about the teenager's shirt. He makes reference to "all the children on the flight." It is true, on this post-Thanksgiving flight there is a horde of kids. None of them, however, is paying the least bit attention to the dreaded teenager. The attendant, attempting to be polite, says he'll notify the captain but warns that the airline most likely won't do anything.
After liftoff my seatmate goes to the bathroom. While in the back of the plane he reiterates his complaint to the attendant, who then is forced to make a phone call to the captain. When my seatmate returns to our row, he is glowing with the pride of a successful tattletale. The captain has been informed, he tells his wife. The machinery of justice has been engaged.
I can stand it no longer. I address him directly. "I find your behavior more offensive than her shirt."
He does not understand me and I have to repeat it, more slowly. He is shocked. He tells me that as a parent, I should be very concerned about this appalling display of obscenity. I tell him that my children hear worse every day on the playground at school, and are surviving quite nicely.
"That doesn't make it right!" hisses his wife. We sputter at each other for a few more exchanges and then he says to me: "I don't want you to talk to me anymore. It's a long flight."
Let me just say that I would not be pleased if my own daughter boarded a plane wearing a "Fuck This Place" T-shirt. I'd consider it a sign of bad judgment (not least because it offers an open invitation to officious assholes to make trouble). I hope that I am raising my own children to make wiser decisions on how to express their freedom of speech.
But as I sat and seethed my way through a six-and-a-half-hour flight, it seemed to me that Mr. 23D was a symbol of everything I hate about a specific strain of cultural censoriousness that courses through our society. Your behavior offends me, so you must be punished. How dare you breast-feed in public, or believe in evolution, or love disco music? Your sexual practices, weird religious beliefs, choice of shirts -- whatever it is, the fact that you are doing it bothers me, so it must be stopped! Especially if there's any chance that the "children" might be harmed.
C'mon! Americans are made of sterner stuff. Raise your kids right and they'll shrug off the bizarre manifestations and odd personal lifestyle choices embraced by the motley crew of beings they'll encounter in their lifetimes. But raise 'em wrong, so they're quick to take offense when none is necessary, so intolerance is their first reaction to any kind of provocation, so complaint crowds out forbearance, and all you're doing is populating the world with more assholes, which is really the last thing we need.