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Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The End of the End of the World as We Know It

It was Tom Moloney – one of the smartest lawyers I ever had the pleasure of working with -- who taught me an important lesson about drafting. After working all night to settle a sordid dispute among Wall Street finaglers, shuttling back and forth from one conference room to another, we were at the point of exhaustion and capitulation, a time when even the greediest financier is prepared to make a deal.  That’s when Tom instructed me to insert one final revision into the terms of the settlement.  Where the agreement purported to release any and all claims against our client, arising from the beginning of time to the settlement date, Tom told me to modify the clause to specify that our client would be released from all claims arising “from the beginning of the beginning of time”, a clarification he felt would be beneficial, as he explained it, so that any matters stemming back to the very first day of creation would inarguably be covered by the agreement.

Tom's drafting point underscores a fundamental difference between lawyers and poets, as they typically work at opposite ends of the language spectrum.  Lawyers face the Sisyphean challenge of honing their phrasing to remove any conceivable ambiguity (such as the gap between the first and seventh day of creation) whereas poets more often busy themselves making the most of language’s inherent uncertainties.   But a great lawyer, such as Moloney, sometimes can achieve a true poetic effect in the pursuit of precision, just as a great poet, such as William Blake, is capable of suffusing the deepest ambiguity with an overarching sense of clarity.

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Tom's drafting genius also highlights how what we think of as a discrete moment in time (such as the beginning or end of the world) may actually extend over a very protracted period.  Do you remember the REM song The End of the World as We Know It? It must be more than 30 years ago since it was an MTV hit. Does anyone even watch MTV anymore? And yet the lyric still seems perfectly apt, except now, borrowing Tom's conceit, we seem to have finally reached a new stage in the process. Today we seem that much closer to the end of the end of the world as we know it, as opposed to the beginning of the end as Michael Stipe so blithely sang about it.  Indeed, after 30 years of social and political floundering and drift, as the liberal welfare state finally seems prepared to give up the ghost, who among us (other perhaps than Steve Bannon) really feels fine about it?

But for the most part I  think it's good that we are closer to the end than the beginning of this process. If the world as we used to know it is really caput, we'll then it is time for us to get on with our new understanding of things. Now it is incumbent upon each of us to take no comfort in the tired old certainties of creeds outworn; we may not feel fine about it, but it is high time for us to discover the world anew.

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