Is this really 'human rights'?
Potentially low-status opining
Human rights is one of those things that sound great.
Who wouldn't want rights.
Materially, permissions seem fine, but permissions can always be revoked by someone in authority.
The nice thing about rights is that they seem to be irrevocable, once written into law.
Lots of people are getting annoyed about various legal interpretations of certain rights and I've started to think they often have a point.
The other week a French man was awarded €500,000 for the violation of his right to freedom of expression.
Since most people reading this newsletter probably think that freedom of expression is fundamental, where's the problem with that?
What happened was that he worked for a company which had a culture of heavy after-work drinking, partying and ... how should we put this ... canoodling. The company said that having 'fun' together was one of their values.
It sounds like the sort of place I'd hate to work. And 'Mr T' (as he was named in subsequent legal proceedings) hated it too.
He kept complaining about the pressure put on him to join in with all this 'fun' and repeatedly voiced his disapproval of the antics of colleagues in these situations. In the end they sacked him.
They described him as 'brittle and demotivating'. We've probably all worked with (or even been one of those) people who moan at work all the time and it can certainly be unpleasant.
I'd probably have rubbed along just fine with 'Mr T', who sounds a bit like me in the way he turns his nose up at extroverts and their ideas of what constitutes 'fun'.
But then I wouldn't have stayed in the job. I'd have seen that I wasn't a 'good fit' in that culture.
I wouldn't have dreamed of taking my employer to court for not being the kind of place I like.
There's already a Wikipedia page about this case.
I'd much rather be living today than at any previous time, because the 'civilising' process that we're undergoing has made a lot of things seem much better to me. I mostly approve of things that get called 'progress'. This comes with being one of the cohort who originally called out racism and homophobia when they were just part and parcel of everyday chatter.
But I sympathise with people who are sceptical about what seems to be a certain mission creep in the legal interpretations of rights.
Call me old fashioned, but I notice an absence of chatter in our culture about 'responsibilities' and resilience.
I notice how nothing seems ever to be expected of people who are exercising their rights. They are like parental love, which means they're unconditional.
And I notice a creeping personal suspicion that rights often seem to valorise feelings over material circumstances. After all, Mr T was awarded substantial damages for feeling that he couldn't express his disapproval of colleagues' behaviour after work.
When I worked on one BBC Network News and Current Affairs show, the moment I decided to quit came when a producer asked me to catch a domestic flight that evening, to record what we called 'actuality' in the cockpit.
We were working on a radio documentary about air traffic safety and surprisingly there were no civil aviation cockpit sound recordings in the audio library. We were going into editing the next day, having recorded all our interviews and written the presenter script.
It was time to go home and my heart sank, because I liked to read my two-year-old daughter a bedtime story. The commute always meant that I already missed the fun of bath-time and only really spent time with her at weekends.
The order to work at zero notice that night was fine. You have a programme scheduled for transmission and a radio documentary needs more than just voices.
But I refused. I said I was going home to see my daughter. I would have worked that evening if it had been an essential interview, but I wasn't staying on just to get some sound effects to make the show more engaging to the ear.
As a journalist on a prestigious strand (our word for series) you need to put the job first. If I had gone to HR, complaining about being pressured to work long hours, they would have given me short shrift.
So I decided that this life was no longer for me and eventually moved on to a job with predictable hours.
In the case of 'Mr T' it's all about the individual right to push back, rather than any individual responsibility to find a place where you might fit in more comfortably.
From Personnel Today magazine's commentary on the case ...
"Kate Palmer, director of HR advice and consultancy at Peninsula, said UK employers should learn from the “right to be boring” judgment, especially as Christmas party season approaches."
Apparently, what they should learn is that if someone doesn't like the workplace party it's the employer's problem, not the party pooper's.
Doubtless, Kate Palmer is right. Which I find a bit sad.
At my next job a lot of people didn't trust me at first. I was sneered at as the 'journo'. A lot of my colleagues were gnarly working class men's men and I was a somewhat more 'cultured' and formally educated sort.
One of them stood nose-to-nose with me, literally standing on my toes, one day. No memory of what this was about, but I recall it as unnerving. As it was designed to be.
One avenue of remedy was to complain about this, but I knew that his behaviour needed a different response. I just continued to be myself until he came around. We ended up best of frenemies.
I had a few encounters like that. A few heated 'having a word' sessions in meeting rooms with chest-puffing silverbacks keeping the journo in check.
I think of those guys fondly, now. They taught me to look after myself and we invariably got on famously in the end.
It's funny to think that if I were in those situations now I might be able to comfortably retire on damages awarded for my hurt feelings. For the violation of my rights to something or other.
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The other morning I'm lying on the sofa in my living space and a young man walks towards me, from the stairs. He's dressed in US WWII service fatigues. Smiling one of those it's all fine smiles that we give to strangers, a bulging folder of papers under his arm.
I wake with a start because I know why he's come and it's important to get on with learning more about him. I know his face. I found it on a gravestone online.
Perhaps this is what novelists mean when they talk about their characters living in their heads.
It seems that every single one of the men I'm learning about have passed away.
An hour or so later I'm reading the obituary of one, from 2015.
It says that he ‘loved farming, working with his hands and praising the Lord’.
As a 22 year-old he was a tank gunner, engaging in a battle near me that was later cited as an example of how US Cavalry doctrine had to be rewritten, based on the experiences of his unit.
In short, they would have to expect a lot more fighting than reconnaissance units previously had.
'My' guys did a lot of fighting. The more I learn, the more I think there's a Hollywood movie to be made about them. Like the night they rolled their Jeeps and M8 armoured cars down a hill, engines off, to get behind an enemy line. The Germans were so surprised they immediately surrendered.
These are my guys and they live now in my head.
Research into the story of Troop "A", 24th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron, continues to surface all manner of anecdotes, incidents and insights. It isn't all stirring and exciting. A lot of it isn’t.
“Just drive down that road, until you get blown up”
General George Patton on the job of reconnaissance troops
Patton wasn't joking.
Three men were blown up by a landmine, near my home in late June 1944. One was a farm boy from the middle of nowhere, in Missouri. He died a week or so later, two weeks short of his 25th birthday.
But some of this story is entertaining too.
One account of the day the Americans first appeared in my little town describes a situation you can only smile at.1
The Germans have pulled out over the previous 48 hours, falling back to defend Cherbourg. All is quiet.
It’s lunchtime, on June 21st 1944. Suddenly two Jeeps come speeding through and disappear out the other side of St Pierre Eglise.
A few minutes later the Jeeps return and stop. A number of locals gather around to greet them and one of the GIs kisses a girl. His stubble is so rough that she bears the mark of this kiss for several days. She says the Americans present a sorry sight, like men who haven't slept for a week.
Out of the blue a truck full of German soldiers thunders past, heading for Cherbourg.
It all happens too quickly for anyone to react. No shots are fired.
I want to know who was in those Jeeps. And speak to their descendants.
I want to know which of them made it through the whole 1,200km to Germany and then home again. Tell their entire story.
This research is deep and all-consuming, which I guess is why I dream about it.
It's also expensive to do right. There are records in the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library that I need. That's in Kansas and I'm in Normandy.
They will provide PDFs for 80 cents per record and there are more than 600 of them. You can hire an approved researcher to visit in person, but that represents no saving. Lots of these records will be banal, administrative matters. Not all will be reports of combat or missions.
A book deal will help, but to get one requires already having the most compelling story to tell. It's a chicken and egg scenario.
It's a fun problem to have and those of you with an appetite for a mix of wartime stories and an inside peek into the process of researching for a book are in for some fun reading around here.
There are still plenty of traditional Rarely Certain dives into more familiar topics in the pipeline, but diversifying somewhat, away from fraught 'culture war' musings, feels right at this moment. With elections in the US and Britain this year there will be more than enough anxiety and anger across anglophone Substackistan without me stroking my chin and writing quite so many earnest essays about it all the time.
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Anecdote taken from ‘Chronique de l’Occupation & de la Libération du Val de Saire’ by Jacques Houyvet [published by Isoète - now out of print].