Happy Imperialist #Entrepreneurship Day from the Keywords #Team! [Updated!]

Every Columbus Day, it’s popular to draw fatuous links between the contemporary cult of entrepreneurship and the legacy of Christopher Columbus’ conquest—err, startup—of America some 500 years ago. After all, who better to take life and leadership lessons from than a famously venal and cruel 15th-century sea captain whose own men overthrew him?

Wikipedia attributes this widespread bland affirmation, often misattributed to Columbus, to Andre Gide, from The Counterfeiters (1925).

Columbus was the “entrepeneur’s entrepreneur,” whatever that means, says a blogger for VentureBeat. A piece in the Harvard Business Review, always a reliable source for insipid business mythologies, argues that Columbus’s colonization of the Caribbean made him the original disruptive innovator. The author, a business professor named Patrick Murphy, sensitively concedes that “those colonial activities, to be sure, turned wicked.” To be sure. Another common move is to call Spain’s King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella the first “venture capitalists.” Others call Queen Isabella  Columbus’ “angel investor.” Genocidal Christianity dies hard.

And there is this, on Columbus’ lessons in product “evangelism”:


Here’s what Columbus had to say to “the very high, very excellent, and puissant Princes, King and Queen of the Spains” on the subject of “evangelism.” In the Journal of the First Voyage of Columbus, the Genoese entrepreneur described the Taíno people of the modern-day Bahamas this way:

They should be good and intelligent servants, for I see that they say very quickly everything that is said to them; and I believe that they would become Christians very easily, for it seemed to me that they had no religion.

Today in Newsweek, Peter Roff laments “social justice warriors” who have sullied Columbus Day. In calling attention to Spanish colonialism, they have replaced the “serious study of history” with “grievance” and political correctness. As he writes:

Even the term “Columbus Day” has become a trigger for social justice warriors alarmed by the image of a pacific, indigenous people massacred by white Europeans seeking to build an empire and find riches far from home. It’s what happens when the demands of political correctness are permitted to overcome the serious study of history.

Regarding that image, though–“of indigenous people massacred by white Europeans seeking to build an empire and find riches far from home”–where is the actual lie?

Roff goes on: “Rather than consider Columbus Day as a time to disparage the consequences of his adventurism,” he writes–yes, enough with the massacre-disparaging!–“let’s rebrand the holiday as a celebration of the accomplishments made by immigrants to making the country what it is today and what it will be in the future.” Immigrant entrepreneurs, he says, like Columbus. “Think of the honorable men and women who have added to this nation’s economic, cultural, scientific, political, diplomatic, artistic and commercial achievements.” Consider Liz Claiborne, Albert Einstein, and Martin Luther King Jr., writes Roff, serious student of history. Martin Luther King, Jr., the immigrant entrepreneur.

In response to efforts last year in Seattle to dump Columbus Day in favor of a holiday honoring America’s indigenous people, Randy Aliment of the local Italian-American Chamber of Commerce told the Post-Intelligencer:

Christopher Columbus was this country’s first and bravest entrepreneur. He had a noble vision, gathered a team, and had the initiative to solicit funds for his high risk startup from the king and queen of Spain.

…to which I can only echo Twitter user Vlad here:

Public, Private, Management

In the archives of the National Association of Manufacturers, I found an interesting memo from the organization’s public relations department. The NAM got its start in the depression of the 1890s, as a confederation of industrialists fighting labor militancy, and in the 1930s became a leading enemy of the New Deal. During World War II, the NAM looked forward to the end of war production and the resumption of the battle against labor and public ownership.

A big part of that battle was in the mass media: the group devoted a lot of resources programming on radio, television, and in print journalism. Here is a document the group’s communications pros prepared on semantics in late 1944. The paper, which had to do with a campaign for privatization of electrical utilities, is revealing as a snapshot of the ideological tenor of the New Deal era (which the NAM people were surely paranoiacally overstating, of course).

“‘Private’ is a ‘bad’ word.”

“‘Public’ is a ‘good’ word.”

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It’s hard not to think that the NAM has, for now, succeeded in reversing these terms, making “public” the bad word. And even if their substitutes for “private ownership” and “public ownership” are quite clunky, “management” has proven quite successful.

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Raymond Williams notes in Keywords how “management” came in the postwar world to describe a “body of paid agents to administer increasingly large business concerns.” Management gradually replaced “the bureaucracy” (which referred to bad, private concerns) and “the administration” (which referred to public ones). “Management” united private and public, or rather, replaced the latter with the former. There is no “public”; there are only managers and customers.