Big business not always bad business

By Tibor Machan

I have read nearly every novel by Robert B. Parker, famous mainly for his Spenser PI books. And I like them. His writing is neat, sharp — no nonsense.

His character, Spenser, is tough and teeming with integrity. Spenser’s a great cook, drinks properly and has an ideal love life with Susan, a Harvard-educated shrink who claims Spenser’s a great lover. His close buddy Hawk is a friend in the Aristotelian tradition of friendship, nothing less.

One great ingredient of these books for me is the absence of something so often found in such works, namely stereotyping. I am thinking of, for instance, author John Grisham, who deploys types a lot. As do many others. Parker has eschewed them, in the main, until “Bad Business,” his penultimate Spenser book.

I confess I was saddened by Parker allowing himself a conventional vice I most despise — business bashing. “Bad Business” revolves around an Enron-type story, and it is pretty good, incidentally, at making that company’s shenanigans clear and plain to the reader. Of course, there is the violent crime angle, and that’s good. You expect this from Parker’s Spenser novels, although he is quite capable of writing good fiction that has none of it at all.

But he also permits himself to give some of his favorite characters some stupid remarks, such as when Susan asserts, with no rhyme or reason supporting it, that all of “corporate America” is like the Enron-like company in the novel. Indeed, suits are all treated as shallow, greedy, obsessive robots without a soul.

My son tells me I am too sensitive and allow this little thing to ruin movies, TV shows and books for me. But someone has to take note: Dissing business is no less prejudiced than dissing farming or the sciences or art. People in all these can go bad, but it should not color one’s view of others in the field.

This is especially irksome to me because I am sharply aware of how closely tied Parker is to big business — indeed, his several series have themselves spawned what could be considered big businesses. Certainly his publishers are big business. (And he even has his own film corporation named after his dog.) So his caving into this politically correct business bashing is disappointing.

I routinely try hard to disabuse my students of the habit of stereotyping. Sure, some priests have turned out to be pedophiles; doesn’t mean they all are. Many professors abuse their teaching profession by becoming advocates, even indoctrinators, in their classrooms. Certainly this doesn’t suffice to make university teaching a crooked profession and everyone in it — in “higher education America” —a quack.

But business isn’t given a fair shake. Sure, it has its villains, as do medicine or education or science. But there is a serious, deep-seated prejudice many folks in the humanities — Parker is a Boston University PhD in English literature — have against this profession. Why?

Well, business is certainly explicitly concerned with wealth. I call it the wealth-care profession. And wealth has been under assault from many sides.

Religions have tended to demean wealth, promoting the idea that seeking profit and saving one’s soul are not quite compatible. (Jesus never got violent other than when the money lenders abused the Temple, though one may be sure other misdeeds were aplenty on those grounds as well.)

The intellectuals, starting at least with Socrates and Plato, felt people focusing on wealth creation didn’t have their priorities straight, indeed, they were morally shallow (even though the two sages never said the same thing about soldiers or carpenters).

Somehow because people in business do not flaunt their mindfulness, the spiritedness of their tasks, they get a bad reputation. It is clear from how they are depicted by playwrights, such as the recently deceased Arthur Miller.

In the case of Parker it may have been just a tiny stumble. His next book, “Cold Service,” is back on track, dealing mainly with unique individual characters. Even some of those from an Eastern European ethnic group are not made to stand in for all members, which is exactly as it should be.

Tibor Machan advises Freedom Communications, parent company of this newspaper. E-mail him at: