As you squeeze into a downsized airline coach seat that would be snug for a 9-year-old, you find a peacock in the next chair, warily eyeing you. Or a diapered duck. Or a pig (sans diaper). Or a large, growling dog. Absurd, I know, but entirely possible: Last year, Delta alone flew 250,000 service and “emotional support” animals brought by passengers who insisted they needed cats, turkeys, rodents, untrained dogs, and even a peacock to keep them calm at 30,000 feet. (The peacock, thankfully, was rejected.) Some of these animals have pooped in seats and aisles; others have bitten passengers and other support animals. If there’s a single phenomenon that captures the spirit of this age, it’s this one. As David Leonhardt put it in The New York Times this week (see Best U.S. Columns), the support animal is one more piece of proof we live in a culture that “fetishizes individual preference and expression over communal well-being.”
The credo of this culture is simple and shameless: I am the center of the universe. What I want is what I need, and who cares how what I need affects you? This worldview, unfortunately, is promoted and magnified by technology that encapsulates people in a bubble of personal preferences. Thus it is that public places are filled with oblivious morons loudly running their mouths on smartphones, or plowing down crowded sidewalks with their ears plugged and their downturned heads buried in texts. In fetishizing individual expression, social media has fouled the virtual public square with bile and menace. In national politics, there are no longer any commonly agreed upon facts, no basic standards of decency—just tribes fighting for dominance. If you disagree, you’re an un-American loser. Am I reading too much into the story of the peacock on the plane? Perhaps so. But just wait until the next time you settle into an airline seat and there’s a comfort creature with a sharp beak glaring at you.