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“Asserting a Right You Know You Cannot Exert:” Here We Go Again

February 9, 2013

One of the things that precipitated the American Revolution was the Stamp Act.  It was one of the taxes at the center of the controversy about the “right” of the English Parliament to tax the US colonies directly.  Lord Chesterfield, in opposing the Stamp Act, pointed out that even if Parliament could enact the tax, it couldn’t enforce it and it wasn’t worth making the colonists mad over it, and warned Parliament that they were “asserting a right you know you cannot exert.”

By the way, Lord Chesterfield is given credit for many quotes that are still popular today such as “Never put off until tomorrow what you can do today,” and “Whatever is worth doing at all is worth doing well.”  But my favorite quote by him is:  “A weak mind is like a microscope, which magnifies trifling things, but cannot receive great ones.”


Anyway, back to the Stamp Act, I like Lord Chesterfield’s observation because it seems to me that a lot of people today are spending a lot of time and energy asserting rights that, even if they existed in law or nature, they cannot–or should not–exert.  And that is causing a lot of our problems.

For example, did you hear about the woman on the Jet Blue flight from New York to San Diego?  She was seated in a special seating area that provides more space than the usual airplane seat, and Jet Blue charges passengers $65 for that extra comfort.  The seat next to her was empty.  At least until some schlub in the back who hadn’t paid $65 informed the flight attendant that his TV monitor wasn’t working.  The flight attendant very kindly moved the guy to the empty seat next to the woman.

And that’s when it hit the fan.  The woman freaked because the guy hadn’t paid $65 like she had but was getting the benefits of the extra leg room.  No fair, she whined.

And whined and whined to the point that an on board air marshal intervened and the flight was diverted to Denver and the rest of the passengers were delayed for a couple of hours until they could boot the woman off the plane and continue on their way again.

The most interesting part of the story is that no charges were pressed.  She got away with it.  She asserted a right that no rational person would ever think they could exert, inconvenienced a lot of people and walked away as if nothing had happened.  Beautiful!  And in the meantime deprived everyone else on the flight of their right to have their non-stop flight actually not have any stops.

And probably inconvenienced herself, too.  And maybe that’s lesson one when it comes to asserting rights:  is exerting them practical, logical and, here’s a novel idea, beneficial not only to you but also the community around you.

What right was she asserting, you ask?  Why merely the right to have the world work the way she perceived it and wanted it to be at that particular moment.

That’s a pretty powerful right and if you think about it, a lot of the problems in the news relate to people trying to assert it.   Just look at the headlines any day of the week.

A lot of people seem to have their own personal view of the Constitution and for some of them, the Bill of Rights included the Right to Have the World Conform to Your Wishes.

The beauty of this right is that in your personal Constitution, there can be an infinite number of sub-clauses.  A few of my own inalienable rights come to mind.  For example,  the right not to have pregnant women talk about bladder dynamics in front of me or the right not to have to ever hear Gangnam Style again.


Mine are fairly modest assertions when you consider that some people out there are asserting rights such as the right to maintain a personal arsenal, or the right not to have to deal with or help people who don’t look, think or act like them, or the right to have the way they think adopted by everyone else in the world.

But I think that the woman on the Jet Blue plane might teach us all a lesson about asserting our Right to Have the World Conform to Your Wishes.  Instead of asserting our theoretical rights to have the world work the way we want it, why don’t we just assert and exert the right to ignore things like that, not be bothered, just get on with life and learn to get along with each other.  All the woman on the plane had to do was ignore the situation.  It would have saved her and everyone on the plane a lot of angst and made for a harmonious environment.

And a right to a harmonious environment seems like something we should all be asserting and exerting.


11 Comments leave one →
  1. Snoring Dog Studio permalink
    February 10, 2013 1:00 am

    What a fantastic piece of writing. I love this, Tom. You’ve said it so well. And I agree with you heartily. All these “freedoms” and “rights” being trampled on – the majority of people whining about this have no clue that they’re not entitled to their unfettered collecting of guns or to deciding whether they should be taxed at an equitable rate. And on and on. All this whining about “their” Constitutional rights. It would behoove all of us to remember that we live in the “United” States.

  2. February 10, 2013 4:44 pm

    I hadn’t heard of this Jet Blue incident! Your thoughts on the way we assert our “rights” is interesting to me, too. When one person’s sense of entitlement spills over to create havoc and disruption in the lives of others I think there’s a huge imbalance. I enjoyed the Chesterfield quotes. I had previously assigned them to the venerable Ben Franklin!

    • February 18, 2013 10:15 am

      Thanks! I was surprised about the quotes too–but Chesterfield and Franklin would have rubbed elbows so who know who said what first! I found this in an encyclopedia entry:

      “No idleness, no laziness, no procrastination; never put off till tomorrow what you can do today.”
      Lord Chesterfield, Letters to His Son
      [Chesterfield did not claim to be the originator of this advice, which also appears in Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac but no doubt predates both men. It has proved irresistible to parodists. William Brighty Rands wrote in “Lilliput Levee”:  Never do today what you can  Put off till tomorrow.Aaron Burr said (as quoted by James Parton in Life of Aaron Burr): “ ‘Never do today what you can as well do tomorrow,’ because something may occur to make you regret your premature action.”]

  3. February 11, 2013 4:08 pm

    Great post, Tom. You’ve set it out with great elegance.

  4. February 13, 2013 3:28 am

    When I briefly lived in L.A. some years ago, I did a lot of TV audience extra work. While on some shows (e.g., Judge Judy) the audience is entirely composed of paid extras, other shows, such as the night time talk shows (Leno, etc.), are open to the public for free. Anytime the supply of free tickets exceeds demand, all empty seats are quickly filled with paid extras so that the auditorium always looks packed.

    Luckily, this fact seems little known, or else a lot more disgruntled tourists would raise Cain at Leno tapings, fulminating at the flagrant injustice that they merely get to watch for free while some of their fellow audience members actually get paid to sit there.

    • February 18, 2013 10:27 am

      Now that is a little known fact. Is there a nexus between how hard the audience laughs and claps and how well compensated they are?

      I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that legions of lawyers are mobilizing to demand justice for uncompensated viewers. Several years ago my wife saw a live TV show in New York–she didn’t have to pay, nor was she paid. When she read your comment her reaction was such that if we’d been on a flight from New York to San Diego it would have been diverted.

  5. February 17, 2013 2:43 am

    Maybe it’s okay to have the Right to have the world conform to your wishes. But then you have the Right to suffer as a result. And that serves you right.

  6. February 19, 2013 9:58 pm

    I have oft wondered how history would have changed if George III and government would have granted a dozen or two seats in Parliament to the colonies. A big step to peace and understanding would be for the Jewish Knesset to grant a few seats to Palestinians(as many do live legally and peacefully in Israel) but that will never happen either because it is the sensible thing to do but pride prevents.

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