Yeah, I know. Americans, especially of the Republican persuasion, and those over 50 have sold their souls for mammon, etc., and etc. I've heard it all before. Heck, I've even said it all before. But when all the bloviating (this decade's most enduring buzz-word) is done, business has done more to promote civilization than all the priests and politicians who ever lived.
While some of our ancient kin were fighting to the death to determine which god would command the loyalty of a particular valley's surviving inhabitants, or which strong and good looking man had the mandate of the gods to lord it over the weaker, uglier, or less charismatic, other more amiable chaps were learning the mutual advantage of voluntary exchange of salted fish for wool, or copper for purple dye. True, some impatient types realized that they could get up a gang, call it an army, and just take what they wanted, but experience showed that the benefits of such banditry were transitory, while the fruits of trade blessed all parties. Those societies stuck at the level of raiding remained mired in barbarism, while those who cultivated a code of law which facilitated peaceful holding and exchange of property gave rise to all the civilized arts. Writing developed to keep track of inventories and contracts, arithmetic to square accounts, and legal systems to bring order and predictability to foster trade.
Commerce has not been exempt from the depredations of the avaricious, 'tis true. Conquistadors worked indigenous populations to death for precious metals, and slave traders were the scourge of centuries, but businessmen didn't invent either tactic. Builders of agricultural and religious empires had done the same for centuries. But while traditional and theocratic cultures tended to ossify, business driven societies were always looking for a better way.
"Bad for business" has been the impetus for a host of social change - from emancipation to women's rights and ending apartheid. It is not coincidental that Harvard, founded as a school for theologians, has its current influence on our culture through its business and law schools. Once, I deplored this evolution of influence, but not any more. Unless your god is a blood-thirsty sadist who delights in the sacrifice of sweating, swearing young men in combat, he will be more pleased by the fruits of orderly, civil society - such as art, literature, music, and peaceful worship.
Humans spend too much time obsessing over the motivation behind actions. What the policeman "really thinks of me" is not the issue; whether he refrains from arbitrary exercise of power and performs his statutory duty is. Likewise, whether the businessman or tradesman is nice to me because he's a prince of a fellow, or because he wants my business is of no concern. His behaving in a respectful, predictable, and legal fashion is the important thing. Of such, a civil society is made.
Much has been made lately of the "lack of civility" in our social discourse. This is rooted in belief in a mythical "golden age" when everything was better and we were nicer. Maybe the internet and fragmentation of media have allowed our anonymous, atavistic selves to vent our frustrations, but freedom has always been loud and messy. Google "Bache Duane Aurora," and follow the links, if you doubt it. (Flaubert: "Ignorance of history causes us to slander our own time.") Take away the online alias, and publish mailing address with the letter-to-the-editor, and some discretion may creep into our dialogue. Identify letter writers by their business affiliations, and I'll guarantee the tone will be more civil!
As an op-ed junkie, I see examples of throwing verbal gasoline on the fire each time I scan the websites. That's because opinion journalism is entertainment. We get a rush when Rush skewers an opponent akin to the thrill that spectators in the Coliseum felt when a favorite gladiator disemboweled his opponent. We don't take that into the work place with us, however, because "it's bad for business."
In the course of my job, I communicate with various people daily - personally, by phone, or by e-mail. The overwhelming majority of these interactions are positive, professional, and cordial. Why? Is it because salesmen, customers, warehouse workers, and truck drivers are especially sweet people? No, because it's just good business.
Sonny Scott lives in the Sparta community in Chickasaw County. Contact him at email@example.com.