Those not-so-good old days
One of my few hobbies or sources of entertainment is watching old movies that my wonderful TiVo catches off my local cable service. I see movies made back in the '20s, '30s and '40s, many of these classics, most of them black and white and pretty primitive as far as cinematography. But quite a few have swell storylines and the acting is often enchanting.
Aside from the sheer entertainment of this hobby, the practice also affords me a bit of cultural anthropological benefit. It is interesting to be reminded of the values that Hollywood and the rest of the film industry embraced back then and compare them to those being championed now. And when one looks closely, it becomes evident that Hollywood screenwriters and their European counterparts haven't much changed in all these years.
Take the classic "Grand Hotel," which is noted for, among other things, Greta Garbo having said "I want to be alone," a prescient bit of screen utterance if there ever was one. Also, if you find the science of physiognomy of some interest, check out Lionel Barrymore in this movie to see if Drew Barrymore isn't his spitting image!
Far more interesting to me, though, is the fact that "Grand Hotel" depicts a German industrialist exactly as would have been natural for a communist rag in Hungary to represent capitalists, in the Soviet era. Played by Wallace Beery, the man is a crude cheat and liar and brutal to his employees - one of these being played by Lionel, while John Barrymore's character, a dashing but bankrupt baron who has turned to hotel thieving so as to keep body and soul together, is depicted most favorably as Garbo's love interest and a man of impeccable sensibilities. The standard nouveau riche vs. blue blood story!
Now it comes as no news to anyone that intellectuals, writers and the rest during the '30s were sympathetic to the sentiments of the socialists and communists. It was perhaps even somewhat tolerable then that they would see things in terms of either the fascists, with whom some industrialists did manage to hobnob to no good effect, or the socialists, whose vicious doings had been somewhat disguised and distorted by the Soviets and their apologists.
In any case, the bashing of big business back then was pretty much par for the course, which should put things in perspective when it comes to the contemporary version of such populist pandering done by the likes of Dick Gephardt, Howard Dean and John Kerry - not to mention, of course, that by now classic demagogue, Ralph Nader. These tokens of the type, in turn, are doing little more than falling in line with the business bashing sentiments from across the ages, sentiments unleashed back in Ancient Greece, by Plato, in the Republic, where the trader was someone incapable of aspiring to any sort of moral excellence, and by Aristotle, who went on at length about how retail trade is a dishonorable profession.
Those of us who see business as quite honorable, every bit as much as medicine or engineering or education, have a long way to go in our attempt to demonstrate that while people in business can be crooks, this is like people in medicine managing to be quacks or people in education turning out to be indoctrinators, all of them betraying their otherwise honorable profession. We need to realize that things haven't gotten all that much worse lately, that the olden days weren't any better.
Writers being who they are, tended then, as they do today, to plead their own case wherever they could, making it seem the only worthy folks around are ones wielding the pen for a living. Intellectuals, as a rule, aren't going to come to the fore in great numbers acknowledging the merits of commerce. Even their epigone, such as Hollywood writers and actors, tend to follow David Letterman in considering producers, the money folks in the entertainment business, nothing but "money-grubbing scum." Unfortunately too many folks who speak out and publish share the anti-commercial attitude, probably having to do with the ancient belief that things of the mind and spirit are being neglected whenever mundane matters such as business are attended to.
Perhaps this should also alert us to why so many intellectuals even manage to become apologists for the terrorist around the globe who kill and maim innocents out of their wild, irrational anger at Western materialism. (Can anyone deny that killing all those peacefully busy folks at the World Trade Center was an attack on commerce?)
As Ayn Rand once put it, "It's earlier than you think."
Tibor Machan is a professor of business ethics and Western Civilization at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., and co-author of "A Primer on Business Ethics" (Rowman & Littlefield). He advises Freedom Communications, parent company of this newspaper. E-mail him at Machan@chapman.edu