Dear Mrs. B.—Chops and Tomata sauce. Yours, Pickwick.

In 1908, Edith Wharton enthusiastically remarked that “the motor-car has restored the romance of travel.” We can remember when we felt similarly about traveling by airplane. Of course, that was a long time ago. After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, intrusive new security arrangements added another layer of indignity and irritation. But even before 9/11, travel by airplane—outside of first class, anyway—had become more and more like travel by cattle car. The delays were interminable, the crowding insufferable, the food unspeakable. Everyone can recall times when passengers in an overcrowded plane scramble to stow their belongings “in the overhead bins or under the seat in front of you,” as the industry-standard mantra puts it. Sometimes a few obstinate passengers are still loitering in the aisle when the time for departure comes. “Please take your seats,” the flight attendant says over the PA system, explaining in varying tones of impatience that the plane may not leave the gate until everyone is seated with seat belts “securely fastened.”

Many airline employees these days are un-welcoming, but occasionally we happen upon a friendly sort who tries humor instead of hectoring to achieve compliance. That, it turns out, is a dangerous tactic. Last month, the Associated Press reported that, two years ago, Jennifer Cundiff of Southwest Airlines tried the light touch on a flight returning from Las Vegas to Kansas City. “Eenie, meenie, minie, moe,” she said using a rhyme learned from other Southwest flight attendants; “pick a seat, we gotta go.”

A harmless rhyme? You might think so. But we live in an age when a mayoral aide who utters the word “niggardly” in public can be accused of racism. (That poor chap instantly offered his resignation.) Never mind that “niggardly” derives from a Scandinavian word meaning “scant” or “meager.” Phonetically, it is ominously close to “nigger,” and if Huckleberry Finn can be censored or proscribed because it contains the “N-word,” how well can a hapless mayoral aide be expected to fare? How well, for that matter, will a flight attendant fare after uttering a rhyme that, in some other versions, sports the forbidden word?

Well, a mere employee is not likely to have deep pockets; the airline for which she works just might. And so two black women on that flight, concluding that the rhyme was an unconscionable example of racism directed at them, filed a discrimination lawsuit against Southwest Airlines seeking “unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.” A U.S. District Judge dismissed the women’s claims of physical and emotional distress, but nonetheless determined that the rhyme was “objectively racist and offensive.”

In The Pickwick Papers, poor Mr. Pickwick is brought up on a bogus breach-of-promise suit by his scheming landlady—the widow Bardell—and an unscrupulous law firm. Two harmless notes, one specifying what he wants for dinner, another telling Mrs. Bardell not to trouble about a warming pan, are adduced as evidence of his matrimonial pledge. The whole thing is deliciously ridiculous, all the more so because Pickwick goes to debtors’ prison rather than pay the fine ordered by the court. Bardell v. Pickwick forms a poignant episode in a very funny book. But The Pickwick Papers is a novel, a work of fiction. Meanwhile, the preposterous case against Southwest Airlines comes to trial March 4. The fines and prisons in The Pickwick Papers were a figment of Charles Dickens’s imagination. Those of our overweening, politically correct judiciary are all too real.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 21 Number 7
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