Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Mea Culpa–Almost

with 5 comments

So, this post starts today with an admission:  sometimes I write this blog because I feel like it, and sometimes I write this blog because something has me incensed or annoyed, but sometimes I write this blog to keep myself out of trouble.

I have, I will admit, a tendency to fly off the handle–there’s a cliche for you–when I’m angry.  Not upset, mind you, or just nervous or frightened, but world-class, dyed in the wool pissed off.

This poses a couple of problems.

The first is caused by the fact that it isn’t all that difficult to get me world-class, dyed in the wool pissed off, at least for very short amounts of time. 

These short sessions are usually political, and, oddly enough, they can be set off by either side of a debate.  In fact, they can be set off by opposite sides of the same debate on back to back days.  I’ve thought about these some, and I’ve decided that what I’m actually reacting to is not the content of the arguments but the tone.   There’s something about a certain tone that just blows all my corks, and blows them even when I agree with the sentiment involved.

For the kind of world-class, dyed in the wool piss of that lasts, though–and is likely to last for years–you’ve got to do something egregiously wrong, and I doubt if I’ve had more than four or five of those over the entire course of my life.

I am, for reasons far too complicated to go into here, having one of those now. 

And the problem is, my instinct is to sit down and write a letter–or an e-mail–just nuking the entire joint.   The nuking would be entirely deserved, I think, but the party I’d direct it at, but I’ve gotten old enough to realize that it might not be the best way to proceed from here. 

My older son has dubbed this particular type of letter “the kind of thing that makes your lawyers want to put their heads in a toilet and flush,” and I get that.  I really do get it.  In a legalistic and bureaucratic  age, I’m likely to end up with more of what I want at the end if I keep my mouth shut and let the diplomatic hands take over.


Big But.

There’s something about this particular way of doing things that makes me crazy.  It feels to me like I’m giving in to a modern ethos I disapprove of entirely, to moral and ethical relativism of the worst kind, to the world where nothing is right and wrong any more but only appropriate or inappropriate.

And it occurs to me, as well, that there is something here about the differences between–ack.  Not urban and rural life, exactly, but contractual life and relational life.  Maybe.

Okay.  Those words probably make no sense.

On the one side of this mess are a group of people for whom nothing more than a word and an agreement has ever been necessary to get something done.   If I tell you on Tuesday that I’m going to buy your two million dollar house on Friday next, then I’m going to buy your two million dollar house on Friday next.   If I tell you that, fifty years from now, I will do X as long as you do Y for me–then when the fifty years are up, that’s what will happen.

On the other side I have someone whose every response to a complex web of obligations is, “but there wasn’t anything on paper, right?”

So I’m going slowly through the afternoon, wanting sincerely to cause an enormous fuss before I can talk to my lawyer on Monday, and knowing that that would only make things worse.

And I’ve got about thirty people angry at me, because they think that the reason the obligations are not being met is that I’m not meeting them, when in reality I have no control over whether they get met or not, at least for the time being.

And I think that this ties in with something I was talking about yesterday a bit and that I’ve talked about before–the reduction of everything and anything not just to personal advantage, but to personal material advantage.

And now I feel like I’m blithering. 

I’ve spent the evenings almost every night since my mother died watching endless DVDs of old Perry Mason television shows, not because the mysteries are so wonderful, but because I like the sense of living.

Okay, that’s really blithering.

I like the general assumptions, let’s say:  that most people are good and honest if you treat them right; that we all have an obligation to be good and honest ourselves even if it costs us something; that integrity is more important than getting what you want.

I’m beginning to think that sort of thing is something worse than out of fashion, and I am thoroughly depressed.

Corned beef for dinner, though.

That won’t be bad.

Written by janeh

March 5th, 2011 at 5:12 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'Mea Culpa–Almost'

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  1. Welcome to–you know, you can’t even generally call it the “modern era” any more. Welcome to the post-Great War world. Kaiser Wilhelm won.

    Oh. Context. In 1914, the German Army was preparing to sweep through Belgium, because Germany was at war with France and there just wasn’t room enough for the armies on the French-German border. It was pointed out that Britain was a guarantor of Belgian neutrality, and the invasion of Belgium would, legally, bring Britain into the war. “Britain,” the Kaiser declared, “won’t go to war over a scrap of paper.” The British used it on recruiting posters: “That ‘scrap of paper’ is Britain’s word.” Inconceivable today.

    A decade or so later, Henry Ford would be complaining that, unlike in his youth, these days a man’s word without a contract simply wasn’t worth anything.

    I think Ford was only half right. Sometimes you need contracts. Argreements are complicated, and human memory falible–or large organizations are involved, and everyone has to know what was agreed to.

    But if a man’s spoken word is no good, I don’t think his word on paper is any better. There will always be some reason why the contract doesn’t oblige him to do what he doesn’t want to do, and the time and trouble–not to mention the expense–of enforcing the contract may be more than the whole thing is worth. Sometimes that seems to be the point of the contract.

    The intriguing thing to me is that such people aren’t disgraced. Hollywood stars simply refuse to honor contracts, and people sign new contracts with them. Known and notorious liars publish “memoirs” and people buy them as though they contain information. Liars and cheaters are sent to Washington to make laws.

    Morally, we ought to be virtuous regardless of personal advantage. But until the person who has to be dragged through the courts to honor his obligations is thoroughly and permanently disgraced, we’ll get, as a society, the behavior we encourage.

    But I only wish it were all “personnal material advantage.” If someone only wants money, you know what he is, and may be able to agree on a price. The Nurse Ratcheds and Ivy Starnes are a much more difficult problem, and there are more of them every year.

    No corned beef until fall–if then–but there is a reasonable prospect of a breaded pork tenderloin before the month is out.


    5 Mar 11 at 9:07 pm

  2. There is a justly famous Rugby League football player down here in Oz who is still widely celebrated as much for having played his entire long career for one major Sydney club on a handshake basis and without ever once having his or his agent’s signature on a written contract. This bloke was one of the best players in the world and the constant target of huge offers from other clubs throughout the Rugby League world. He was also, off the field, a businessman who ran, and still runs, the family business, so he wasn’t a naive or gullible kid.

    When I was young, it was the rule rather than the exception for farmers in our district to buy and sell stock for large sums of money on no more than a handshake or – often sight unseen – over the telephone. In small communities, one’s reputation is a priceless thing, and people took great care to preserve theirs.

    It’s often different with big corporations where there may well be, particularly over time, reasonable doubt about contractual intentions. Mike could probably recall that well-publicized American court case of a few years ago now between a power generation company and another company that contracted with it to instal and maintain cables across the miles. IIRC, the case turned on a misplaced comma which was interpreted against the claimed original intent of the contract that called for the contract to run for a period of some years with provision for cost review after a shorter period. It was a perfect example of why, back in the day, legal contracts were replete with multiple WHEREFOREs, HERETOFOREs, HEREINAFTERs, and other similar, and much-mocked, conjunctions but completely devoid of commas and other internal punctuation.

    Sad but inevitable, I think.


    5 Mar 11 at 10:25 pm

  3. No, not inevitable. We had a professional (American) football player here just recently who waived his claims under a contract because his performance wasn’t as good as expected. It was a matter of millions of dollars.
    My father is a contractor in the Midwest. In some states, he does nothing without a purchase order in hand. In others, the word of the buyer is sufficient, and he acts accordingly.
    I’ve been a miniature wargamer for more than 40 years now. In that time I’ve known two businessmen whose handshake wasn’t sufficient. (They have a clientele to match. At the Seven Years War Association Convention, the dealers habitually leave thousands of dollars of product on their tables unattended while they take part in games.)
    I know of a handshake world. I just can’t live and work there.


    6 Mar 11 at 7:46 am

  4. Mique, the contract with the comma was in New Brunswick, between NB Power (who owned the poles and increased the fees) and Aliant (who administered them), and Rogers Cable. Aliant won. Then Rogers dug up the French version (NB is the only bilingual province), which supported their side, so the decision was overturned.

    I try to remain calm even when royally pissed off because hard experience has demonstrated that other people have very long memories, and if I lose my temper and really let go, they’ll be reminding me of what I said decades later, long after I’ve cooled off.

    It’s not alway easy.

    As for the larger issue of honour and honesty in the current age, and whether or not it’s a damn good idea to have any agreement in writing – with all the commas in the right places – well, I think I’m with the majority here. What sometimes still shocks me is the extent to which some people don’t seem to think certain kinds of dishonesty actually says anything at all about their moral standing – the cheat in an exam who just laughs and says ‘Well, it was worth a try’, for example, or the adulterer who protests that the other relationship didn’t mean a thing, it was just one of those things, why is the spouse so unreasonable as to feel angry and betrayed?

    At the same time, there’s a certain level of admiration for heros who Do the Right Thing, from Star Wars to Harry Potter, even though most people don’t seem to apply such thinking to their own lives. Mique has a point when he says that good behaviour used to be reinforced by the fact that when you live in a small community, everyone knows if you’ve proven that your word is worthless. I think another factor is that fewer people get any kind of moral education any more. I might remember mine as simply a lot of boring Bible stories I already knew, but at some point, someone taught me, among other things, that I shouldn’t steal and if I did, and even if no one ever caught me, I would still have done something wrong and would have made myself into a thief. (I won’t go into the stuff that didn’t stick so well and which I still struggle with in a public forum!)

    Someone who doesn’t understand that his actions affect – maybe even define – who he is and his value as a person might have less reason than others to always do the honest thing.


    6 Mar 11 at 7:51 am

  5. I think written contracts are inevitable because so much of our business is with strangers or corporations. If I buy a new car, I know nothing of the dealer and the dealer knows nothing of me. A written contract protects both of us. And, if my memory is correct, contracts for more than a certain amount have to be in writing to be enforcable,

    I’m cooking corned beef today! With cabbage, carrots and potatoes cooked in a microwave steamer.


    6 Mar 11 at 4:13 pm

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