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12 November 2015

Agreed: The Ulysses Contract Is About the Future

Granted, the first time I had ever heard of the "Ulysses Contract" was today on NPR's Morning Edition with regards to presidential candidates persuading potential supporters to commit to go out and vote by signing a postcard (not to mention to vote for that person whose postcard they just signed).  What I heard caused me almost to run off the road as I was driving to Rochelle from Chicago this morning.  I heard the reporter labeling (or repeating Shankar Vedantam as describing) the social phenomenon of people actually committing and honoring that commitment as "what's known as a Ulysses contract.
Just like Ulysses bound himself to the mast of his ship when sailing near the Sirens in the "Odyssey," supporters are binding their future selves to vote and caucus for their candidates."

I thought, I must have heard this wrong.  As far as I've ever read and known about him, Ulysses was a selfish, vainglorious adventurer who would not make a commitment to his mast (I take it, this meant commitment to his ship and his men) anymore than he'd make a literal commitment to the mast (as the NPR reporter implied).  After reading the all-reliable Wikipedia entry on Ulysses Pact, I better understood how the Ulysses Pact or Contract got its name, but I still do not see its relevance in the context of signing a postcard today, committing to vote in a primary in the near future. I understand its use for psychiatric advance directives as well as other health advance directives, like Do-Not-Resuscitate directions.  Are these advance directives binding, or just a really good idea if you want your wishes respected after you are no longer able to express those wishes?

Ulysses wanted to hear the Sirens' song.  He persuaded his crew to have wax poured into their ears, tie him to the mast, row past the rocks where the Sirens were hanging out so that he can hear their song while not being able to crash their vessel into the rocks as the Sirens intend and afterwards, untie him from the mast. In American contract law, it's not really a true and binding contract if both sides do not get something from the agreement.  What the men gained from all this, one can't say, unless it's the absence of punishment or the retention of one's life and livelihood.  That (retention of livelihood) is what is so often used when an employer needs to persuade an employee to sign something that should have been presented for signature before the employee started working.  As we are not anticipating mass insanity on the part of Iowa voters, I really think this was a major stretch.  And, I'm a big fan of Shankar Vedantam.  There must be a different label for this kind of follow-through if a person makes a somewhat public commitment, especially if it is non-binding.

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