October 2006 Ethics Dunces

Novelist John Grisham

John Grisham, whose best-selling lawyer-on-the run thrillers like "The Firm" and "The Pelican Brief" have made him rich and famous, has lived in the charming Virginia city of Charlottesville for a decade. One would think that when his failure to pay a five dollar parking charge (handled charmingly, as things often are in charming communities: he was supposed to deposit a five dollar bill in an "Honor Box," allowing him to park all day) got his car towed, Grisham would pay the 95 dollar fine out of his pocket change and never stop smiling. One would be wrong. Grisham was incensed that he would be expected to pay to park across from the Main Street Market, and said so in the kind of stinging letter only a best-selling novelist can write…and that only a best-selling novelist who has lost his grip on reality would write. According to the Washington Post, which tracked the course of the controversy, Grisham wrote the owner of the Market and the "crummy little parking lot," as he termed it, saying that he spent $300 a week at the Market, had never paid to park in the lot and wasn't about to start. "I refuse to pay to park when I'm either stopping by for coffee or spending $300 a week on food," he wrote.

Grisham's threat not to ever shop at the Market again prompted the Market's owner, while still refusing to yield to Grisham's claim that he had a right to free parking, to send him a check for $95.00 as a good will gesture and to mollify his star-struck tenants at the market, who feared losing the novelist's business. Grisham told the Post that he wasn't going to cash the check; it was the principle that mattered, and he was still steamed about his car being towed.

The incident proves that being a celebrity and a lawyer simultaneously will go to your head and scramble your ethics. What "principle" does Grisham think entitles him to free parking because of the amount of money he spends at the market? Perhaps he thinks that the more you can spend, the less you should pay, which would mean that Grisham's five dollar parking charge for a full day in the lot should be subsidized by more the thrifty shoppers, or by those who can't afford the hand-rolled Mennonite butter, star fruit, LavAzza coffee and other fancy fare that the gourmet Main Street Market offers for sale.

No, that isn't it. The principle that evidently has Grisham in its clutches is the dreaded "Do You Know Who I Am? Principle," which states that the rich, popular, famous and powerful who deign to bestow the honor of their presence on the world have earned the right to play by different rules than the rest of us peasants. The problem is that this isn't an ethical principle, not by a long-shot. It's the principle of privilege, class and using one's money and power to bully everyone else. Admittedly, Grisham chose to invoke it over the most trivial of matters, but history teaches that those who adopt the "Do You Know Who I Am? Principle" seldom stop there.

The next stage is bullying waiters and police officers, then insisting on jumping ahead in line at movies and special events. In its final, ugly stages, the "Do You Know Who I Am? Principle" makes famous and powerful people self-destructive and irrational. If you're Michael Jackson, you think it's all right to dangle your baby from a window. If you're Duke Cunningham, you think you can accept bribes from lobbyists. If you're Bill Clinton, you think you've earned the right to use government interns for your personal gratification.

It is a basic principle of ethics that no human being's accomplishments bestows the right to get away with conduct that others cannot. And it is a basic principle of democracy that rich and poor, famous and obscure, weak and powerful should all be subject to the same rules without special privileges or exceptions. John Grisham seems to be on the verge of forgetting these things, and his Charlottesville neighbors would be doing him a favor by helping him remember.

They can start by making him pay the five dollars to park in the lot, and if he won't, they should tell him to spend his weekly 300 dollars somewhere else.




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