Agley again, alas

Russell Baker

October 02, 1991|By Russell Baker

DREADFUL NEWS! There was a mistake in this column on Sept. 7. What the poet Robert Burns really said was that the best-laid "schemes" of mice and men gang aft agley. We had Burns saying "plans" instead of "schemes," and of course we regret the error.

Who, you ask, are these erring "we" who don't know their Robert Burns? They are the column's literary staff, whose task is to keep the column looking awesome to professors of literature and prevent it from looking stupid on days when the columnist is distracted, as he was when this deplorable "plans" for "schemes" mistake occurred.

The thousands who have written to complain about misquoting Burns may be mollified to learn that severe punishment is even now being suffered by the literary staff. They have been ordered to re-read Marcel Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past" and hand in book reports on it by Dec. 31, 1999.

There is talk among them of hauling the columnist before the National Labor Relations Board on a charge of cruel and unusual labor practices. This columnist welcomes the threat. These wretched bookworms have apparently been buried so deep in the Harvard Classics that they still don't know Reagan and Bush have had the NLRB fired for being beastly to large corporations and replaced it with the National Corporation Protective Agency.

I shall of course ask the NCPA to spare my literary staff their well-deserved flogging with water-soaked birches, the customary punishment for employee insolence.

Being literary, they overdramatize everything. I don't want them sitting around sobbing when they should be digging up apt quotations from Goethe, de Tocqueville, James M. Cain, Barbara Cartland et al. to give tomorrow's column a more learned look.

All employers will instantly recognize the problem here, of course. You simply cannot get decent help anymore. Ten years ago this column had the finest literary staff in the business. That staff not only read "Remembrance of Things Past" in its seven-volume entirety in only 17 years, but was always alert to correct the boss when he attributed "Veni, vidi, vici" to Cato the Elder or "Portnoy's Complaint" to Aldous Huxley.

What happened? They wanted more time off. Wanted to go on the 30-day month except in April, June, September and November when they wanted the 29-day month, and February when they wanted the 27-day month. They wanted some time to see their families, they whined.

Yes, I almost yielded to them too, until my colleagues said it would disgrace the Columnist's Club. Ever since President Reagan had busted the air controllers' union, every man of importance had to prove the importance of his manhood by busting his union, or face disgrace at the club.

After all the great corporate execs had busted unions, it was the bTC great columnists' turn. Not that we had union help. We had the kind of help that was too good to join unions and could read "Remembrance of Things Past" cover to cover. They considered themselves too remarkable to flip hamburgers for minimum wage.

So we got them for nothing, worked them seven days a week and had the National Corporation Protective Association sentence them to a good flogging whenever they let Percy Bysshe Shelley's name get into the column with only one "s" in the Bysshe.

What happened? Naturally they formed a union, started talking strike. Naturally you had to fire them. That's what the corporate bigshots were doing to anybody who even mentioned strike. It was the most Reaganesque thing you could do, aside from watching "The Sound of Music" on television when you should have been writing tomorrow's column.

Once you fired them, you had to bring in scabs. That was how things worked. Everybody was doing it. At the CEO's Club the guys were all boasting about their scabs. Same at the Columnist's Club. You fired the people who knew there were two "s's" in Bysshe and replaced them with people who had got through seventh-grade English by copying their friends' book reports.

It wasn't a total loss, though, because the trade-off gave you a whole new batch of column ideas: America Getting Dumber. Galloping Incompetence. Work Ethic Declines. Kids Can't Even Tell Schemes From Plans.

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