All the Rage

The new aggression and its Hidden Meaning

Mark Barton, who killed his family and nine other people last week, wasn't driven to murder by rage against the machine. True, he hunted his anonymous victims at brokerage offices, referring to them in a note he left behind as people who "greedily sought my destruction." True, he took a verbal potshot at "this system of things." But Barton was a classic American psychokiller, not a dissident.

The boys of Woodstock who pillaged and evidently raped their way to nirvana were impelled by a lust for mayhem, not a political crusade. Same for the dude who allegedly accosted a Continental airlines clerk who says he was stopped from chasing after his runaway son. It may have been bad management, but is that any reason to pick someone up, turn him upside down, and drop his head onto the floor?

Yet all these incidents have something in common. Each was sparked by a painful interaction with a commercial enterprise. Each perp felt abused, and acted on that feeling with enormous cruelty. Call it x-treme consumer backlash.

Barton was an avid day-trader, who lost more than $100,000 shortly before he shot up the offices of two brokerage firms. The essence of this industry is rapid-fire transactions made under constant pressure. It's like a casino without free drinks—sheer risk. Why break the spell by having to go through a broker, who might warn investors they could lose their shirts? On the contrary, All-Tech, one of the companies Barton bloodied, was fined $50,000 in May by the state of Massachusetts for promising its clients financial independence at the click of a mouse. That used to be considered false advertising; now it's just advertising.

As for the Woodstock riot, the leading explanation offered by kids at the scene was the high price of food and water, the endless vending (one fan called it "Commercialstock"), and the horrid sanitary conditions. It's not hard to imagine why these people—nasty as they wanted to be—vented their violent impulses after being penned up in a treeless air force base during a stifling heat wave, forced to use fetid toilets, and made to pay $4 for water. (The promoters of this event claimed there was plenty of free water and clean privies.) Nor is it hard to fathom why airline passengers erupted last year after being cooped up for eight hours in a standing plane.

These incidents don't constitute a trend, the Times asserted last Sunday. The paper of record offered a plausible explanation for what seems to be a surge of outbursts at airports, on highways, and in workplaces. Road rage is the inevitable result of having many more drivers on the highways, and air rage is a product of the vast increase in passengers.

But crowding wouldn't be a problem if services kept up with need—if roads were constructed to handle the heavier traffic and flights were added to meet the growing passenger load. Yet little of this is happening. During the greatest postwar boom in American history, there's not enough money to finance major public works. And despite record profits, airlines have failed to add planes in proportion to the demand.

Instead, according to the July issue of Consumer Reports, they've been "cramming more passengers aboard the planes," as well as "play[ing] havoc with schedules," to maximize their profits. Try waiting through an interminable delay, in a seat much too small to be comfortable, for a dinner flight that includes no food. (Twelve percent of passengers in the Consumer Reports survey say they flew at mealtime without being fed.) Flights are so stressful these days that a psychologist and author of a "how-to manual on relating to strangers" was driven to scream, "Who the fuck do you think you are?" at a flight attendant recently. His outburst resulted in a forced landing.

Noting that consumer complaints about delayed flights rose by a whopping 66 percent last year, Consumer Reports urged Congress to enact a passenger bill of rights that would "require airlines to rein in their cavalier treatment of customers." Hearings were held last month, with predictable results: the industry won the right to deal with its problems voluntarily. But there is no reprieve for aggrieved customers: several major airlines announced a crackdown on abusive passengers, meaning that the next traveler who acts up could end up not just arrested but paying for the cost of diverting the flight.

Blaming the customer who loses control is a lot easier than acknowledging the frustration that is bound to arise from outrageous corporate conduct. By inventing a syndrome to describe this rage, we pathologize what is essentially a logical response to the fact that companies are raking in the cash while consumers take the burn.

Airlines are just one example of this growing trend. Far more serious are HMOs, whose cold shoulder can be the kiss of death. The failure to regulate these businesses shows that, in America today, life is less important than cost cutting. But when it comes to chutzpah, no one beats the robber barons of high tech. There's a special corner of virtual hell for servers whose Internet-access numbers never seem to connect and cell-phone providers who sign people up without regard to their network's capacity. Sick of having cell calls fail, one company recently filed suit against AT&T, whose motto ought to be "Reach Out and Get Cut Off."

This is not to mention the bane of every consumer's existence: voice mail. Here is an innovation that allows business to save on labor at the expense of customers, who must punch a peck of buttons in order to reach a harried human voice. Nothing raises the blood pressure like being trapped in voice-mail jail—holding for 10 minutes to a soundtrack that makes elevator music seem profound, or an endlessly looping commercial for additional products from the same company—before being abruptly disconnected. Even a lab rat gets cheese for going through that.

Why should corporations be allowed to keep their customers waiting for an indefinite time, when the problem can be solved by hiring more operators? Why shouldn't overbooking flights—or overloading a communications network—be illegal? And for that matter, why shouldn't planes and buses be required to have adult-size seats? The answer, of course, is that these industries pay politicians to keep their hands off. But bribery is only part of their clout. Not since the 1920s has business been such a dominant force in American life. Its interest is the public interest, and consumer abuse is the inevitable consequence.

Even a cottage industry like the rock- festival biz is regulated mainly by zoning ordinances that protect private property, not paying customers. Permits don't stipulate that cheap meals, free water, and clean toilets must be provided as part of the admission. As a result, shit happens, and when it does, gatherings of young people are declared a clear and present danger. Just last week, the city refused to allow a widely advertised rave to take place. The official reason was concern about the condition of piers where the event was to be held, but David Rashty, the president of Cosmic Era Productions, insists the city had a different agenda: "They essentially told us that we could not have this type of music in New York City."

When people freak out from consumer abuse, the system rushes to declare them deranged. And it's true: men like Mark Barton are dangerously disturbed. But there are social dimensions to every psychosis—that's why patterns of insane violence vary from culture to culture. It's quite possible that the current era of wildcat capitalism is creating a new breed of crazies: canaries of commerce who can't cope with the free market and its insensate cruelties.

Air rage, rock rage, day-trading rage: all these "syndromes" have something to do with the sense that, in any interaction with a corporation, the balance of power has shifted away from the consumer. You can't bully your way onto a canceled flight; you can't even sue your HMO. And if you misbehave, the target of your anger might pass that information along to other companies, making bad attitude a permanent part of your "data trail."

The cure for what ails us is empowering the regulators, who are nothing more than referees preventing the public from being decked by a sucker punch. When the refs are sidelined and the rules suspended, everyone loses except the dirty fighters. Yet the likelihood of reform is scant in an environment where unfettered enterprise is seen as the key to prosperity. Consumers will have to take this bull market by the horns.

So the next time your flight is interminably delayed, though the runways look empty and the weather is clear, wait it out and then stop payment on your credit card. Picket your HMO if it won't pay for treatment you need. Have a cow when you get charged an exorbitant late fee on your credit card. And if you find yourself at a festival where water is more expensive than dope, kick out the jams.

If there were more consumer riots, there might be fewer mass murders.

Research: Steph Watts

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