It’s Business, Not Personal (a dream)

So…I was assigned a spot in the rear of a jumbo jet airliner from where I would shoot the occupants of two designated seats, one at either side of the plane, several rows ahead of me.

But before explaining that situation, I want to consider the relation between wording and persuasion, asking, How does one separate elegant wording from misleading thinking? If something is pithy, doesn’t it also seem true—whether or not it is?

Throughout my adult life, I’ve shied away from justifying decisions with the convenient disclaimer that it is “business, not personal.” Perhaps in part, I’ve not needed the phrase because I’ve also shied away from business. Lately, however, as the encumbrances of career and property accrue, I find myself using the formula occasionally.

Put less skeptically, I also wonder if some things are worded so well because they were said so often and appreciated so much that they endured more refinements than the average utterance. We see this refinement with clichés, phrases discredited as a result of over-use, but also over used because they are (or were) so expressive.

Utterances run both ways: (1) particularly well-worded statements gain currency as a result of their wording (the advertiser’s dream), and (2) good concepts are fitted to words that are portable and memorable (collective editing).

Concerning the first, I’ve always thought, in spite of its popularity, John F. Kennedy’s “It’s not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country,” overrated. The chiasmus (country, you, you, country) provides a sense of completion, a total reversal of one’s assumption. But what if the assumption (it is what one’s country can do for you) doesn’t exist in the first place, as it does not exist for many of us? Then the total reversal means little. Why, I ask, would anyone reduce the matter to either being served by the country or serving the country? Mainly the highly entitled and the extremely patriotic would find the dichotomy relevant.

Concerning the second, an apt example is, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” The underlying tension between busy, relentlessly selfish, greedy people, on one hand, and passive, well-intentioned, generous-minded people, on the other, resonates historically when one thinks of those who are raped, murdered, and tortured by stronger groups, often either more populous or better armed, or both, but always doing something.

The wording of the second example is secondary to the underlying thought. We know this because we don’t know who said what version of the statement. We’ve come up with an attribution (Edmund Burke), but his version is less memorable: “When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.” It is a case, I think, where the strength of the thought (that there should be no rest for the good) invited refinement of the wording (leading to refinement of the thought, as this analysis also suggests).

Recently, I read The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Birth of the Modern Arms Race. Among the themes invoked by a study of that tragic figure is the tension between language and reflection, exhibited by Oppenheimer, and action, exhibited by the Air Force and parts of the federal government. There were moments in Oppenheimer’s role as the chief nuclear consultant to the US government when he could articulate as well as anybody the merits and risks of pursuing the arms race with both A- and H-bombs. There were also moments, within the same man, when a technological design could be so attractive as to sway him away from his moral position, with the result that one could imagine him saying, “This is technical, not personal,” and support the design of a hydrogen bomb so terrible that its use would render cities entirely uninhabitable.

The same week I read this book, I had a dream in which I was assigned a spot in the rear of a jumbo jet airliner from where I would shoot the occupants of two designated seats, one at either side of the plane, several rows ahead of me. This was clearly a military operation, and I was clearly (I say this as an outside commentator) mixing my cold-war reading with my recent viewing of Skyfall with my passive lifestyle too freely. It was understood, in the dream, that what I was doing was military business, not personal.

That was all I needed, until the occupants of the seats boarded the plane and were visible through my one-way mirror. On the left, it was Jock, and on the right, Heather—both of whom I knew in high school. It is business, not personal, until it is persons in one’s mind. We know that when we contrast news of a local tragedy with an international tragedy, the force of grief being the inverse of the distance (or something like).

Knowing I was in a situation I could not resolve without violence (that’s how the dream went), I left my place on the plane, approached the row where the two schoolmates sat. Empty handed, I spread my arms level with my shoulder, and surrendered, saying, “You may as well kill me because I will not kill you.”

Then I awoke, which so far has always been the case for these kind of dreams. And I remembered a dream from a month ago. In this case, my  deceased mother came to me with excitement and said, “Louie, we are going to get a ping-pong table.” When I awoke, I knew it was too late for her to share a game with me, but I still had my own grown children, so I set about converting my living room into a ping-pong room, which took about a week, removing a ceiling fan, installing better lighting, and erecting the table. Now, when I play one of my daughters, who beats me sometimes, but not too often, I tell myself, “This is business, not personal,” and it is (pleasant) business as usual … .