The Folk Hero Playbook

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...If there were a formula for becoming a folk hero — a secret recipe handed down from Robin Hood’s cap designer, and adapted for the social networking era — then Steven Slater, formerly an active employee of JetBlue Airlines, may as well have discovered it....

Cultural historians generally divide folk heroes loosely into several categories. One is reserved for acts of spectacular courage and skill, and includes Capt. Chesley B. Sullenberger III, who landed a US Airways jet on the Hudson River in 2009 and took charge of the safe evacuation of all 155 people aboard. Another is populated by political figures, like the abolitionist John Brown, or Michael Collins, the Irish revolutionary.

The third is a rogue’s gallery of daring but flawed solo actors who become heroes precisely because of their sympathetic failings, and their willingness to risk their life or livelihood in the name of defying the Man (or the Woman, in Mr. Slater’s account). And, it must be said, to do so with some flair. Mr. Slater snagged two beers and popped the emergency exit chute, sliding out of the parked airliner like James Bond on a tight budget.

In all the above respects, the flight attendant has less in common with the ideologue or selfless hero than with D. B. Cooper, the skyjacker who in 1971 parachuted out of an airplane with a bag of ransom money, into a densely wooded patch of Washington State. Both men jumped from a plane to an uncertain fate; both made their statements in dramatic fashion, in front of an audience; both were, in some sense, instantly sympathetic outlaws....

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