In an interview with Ken Burns, Shelby Foote describes Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s homegrown military vocabulary, featuring phrases for military principles “straight out of the West Point manual.” A flanking maneuver was “hittin’ ‘em on the eeend.” Pressing the advantage of surprise became “keepin’ up a skeeer.” And the most famous, “getting’ there fustest’ with the mostest,” simply meant to achieve local tactical superiority. I love when concepts cross cultural lines like this. There’s so much to be learned in the comparison.

In the field of legal ethics, for example, lawyers must follow rules protecting themselves and the client by forbidding certain conduct, which, while not technically wrong, is nonetheless suspicious. Thus, a lawyer whose partner represented his client’s opponent must jump through many hoops to protect client confidences, and may be required to forgo the representation entirely. This is called “avoiding the appearance of impropriety,” the idea being that the lawyer should keep his nose so clean that the client wouldn’t think of coming after him.

A similar principle exists in the gritty world of Southside Richmond, embodied in the expression “If you’re not in the picture, you can’t get framed.” The idea is that, like the lawyer above, it’s best to keep one’s distance from suspicious circumstances. If not, you might pay the price, even though you did nothing wrong. So if you don’t hang out at the corner gas station where all the crack deals go down, the idea goes, you’re less likely to get picked up for dealing.

I prefer the street version to the legal one, if only because the imagery is so much more compelling. But the lesson is this, regardless. If you want to stay clean, steer clear of the dirt. In any culture.

BrevityQuest 2007

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