The rewards for doing nothing

IT has been widely noted -- and well it should be -- that if severance pay counted, five of the ten highest-paid executives in the country would be ex-executives -- men whose corporations had disengaged them, then compensated them ever so generously until the disaster turned into pure gold. The winningest loser on the list appears to be Michael C. Bergerac, former chairman of Revlon, who is said to have received $35 million to soothe the indignity of being rudely unemployed. This is healing balm beyond any emollients manufactured in the Revlon line.

Businessmen are not the only ones getting top dollar these days for not-doing. The unwork-ethic is also prospering in the world of sports. Who can forget -- or remember -- all the managers being rewarded by George Steinbrenner for not managing the New York Yankees? If only the Yankees possessed the bench depth in players that they do in ex-managers still on their payroll!

Meanwhile, Phyllis George is merely the latest showbiz personality to be paid by the millions to stay away from the camera.

Miss George's former boss at CBS News, Van Gordon Sauter, is free to join her at coffee break, afternoon tea, or any other point of the working day to discuss the plight of high-tax-bracket unemployment. He, too, has become a victim -- if you call it that -- of the golden shove.

What shall we call this phenomenon of people paid for not-doing? At lower levels, it may still be covered by the threadbare term: welfare. But when the figures run to six or seven digits, a grander term is required -- a designer-label term, so to speak. Perhaps ``negative capability'' will do.

Negative capability -- a term Keats used for literary purposes -- nicely suggests the vague, portentous tone of a world that places certain kinds of non-achievement on a par with certain kinds of achievements. The money is just one index of the changes in what we now mean by a ``productive life.''

Once, not to produce was the cruelest disgrace, the harshest frustration, starting with private life. Married couples who could not or would not produce chldren were called ``childless'' -- a bleak, pejorative word. Now the fashionable phrase is ``child free'' -- a flattering designation implying choice.

If the ``child free'' couple cannot survive as a twosome, more ``positive thinking'' follows. We may not do so well at marriage these days, but we're getting awfully skilled at what we call ``creative'' divorce.

Life is hard, and a euphemism here and there to save us from guilt can be an act of mercy. But sometimes it seems as if a whole chic vocabulary exists to convert everything minus into something plus.

At the highest levels of history, we are showing a dubious excellence at the art of negative capability.

When President Reagan came down the steps at Reykjavik, his face was uncommonly grim. The Iceland summit had failed to produce an agreement. But wait! This was the old-fashioned way of looking at things. A day or two later the White House returned to the national standard of negative capability. The President had said ``no'' to Gorbachev. Here was a preeminent achievement by the new method of keeping score.

Thus do non-events qualify as events?

Thus does all activity constitute covert activity, in one sense or another?

In the general confusion, everything evaporates into a matter of public relations. Information -- and a little disinformation -- this is what we ``make,'' this is what we ``do.''

Leave the old-fashioned production of goods -- actual goods -- to Japan, Hong Kong, and Korea.

We don't even know what to say when our farmers insist upon producing food. Why can't they practice negative capability like the rest of us?

Is this what happens to one's mind-set when a disproportionate amount of energy and wealth go into arms -- the ultimate negative capability? ``Star wars'' seems to be our master symbol as well as our master defense system: the enormously costly superweapon to save civilization (or at least our part of it) from being destroyed by all the other weapons. Maybe.

There's negative capability for you -- and it's just not good enough.

A Wednesday and Friday column

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