Thursday, February 4, 2010

A story kept by businessmen

Paula Gunn Allen, Pocahontas: Medicine Woman, Spy, Entrepeneur, Diplomat:
John Smith developed into a writer of some skill. It is from his True Relations, accounts of his voyages and adventures, along with a few other contemporary accounts, including records of the Virgina Company business affairs, that the bare skeleton of the story of Pocahontas is known. It is an English story. It is a story kept by businessmen and adventurers. It becomes an American story, base narrative of a nation where "the state of the nation is business," as President Coolidge so aptly informed us. Despite its origins, it becomes a romance, lending a mystique to those original corporate executives and their struggle for power within the company that would otherwise be lacking.
It's funny how one can be very aware, how one can strip away layer after layer of the fundamental, unspoken assumptions that make up our societal psyche, and always have more work to do. Until I read these words, Allen's point here had never occurred to me, at least not directly. I knew that the American founding myths were about a bunch of assholes, but it had honestly never occurred to me that they were about a bunch of corporate assholes. The stories of "those original corporate executives and their struggle for power" having been imbued with the romantic qualities Allen discusses is a central sickness in American society.
We idealize and idolize these early CEOs and middle managers. They romanticized their own narratives and we bought it, repeated it, exaggerated it. We learn about these supermen incessantly from early childhood, starting long before we're capable of understanding what these stories mean, so by the time we might be able to question them, we don't think to because they've become so ingrained. And while we rarely discuss their nature as company men explicitly, the message comes across and we transfer this idealization, even if only subconsciously, to contemporary company men. We learn to overlook the plain fact that these men's greed led to mass death, so we are able to overlook it when it happens now. And we need to knock it off.


Soj said...

Holey moley!

Let's not forget two things here, one is the South Sea Company bubble/collapse slash "incident". The second is the "mercantilism" form of capitalism. John Smith might've been a racist asshole but he was a long way from a CDO swapping exec of Goldman Sachs.

In fact, I'd blame John Smith's "greed" as much as I'd blame Neil Armstrong's greed when he was hopping about planting wire-stiffened flags for photo ops. I'd rather say Chris Colombus was more of an outright modern CEO greedy type than John Smith.

The vehicles, supplies and impetus that sent them there was commercial and exploitative but it wasn't necessarily conjoined with the PERSONAL motives of the men (and women) involved.

On the other hand, it is true that the companies, in all their forms (Virgina Charter or NASA) did lead to mass harm.

Ethan said...

I admit that I'm making sweeping statements here about things I don't know much about (one of my favorite activities). I'm also sure that the late Allen would take issue with much of my interpretation of her work if not for the facts that a) she's dead and b) there's no reason to think she would have much cared about my opinions anyway. I also should have made it clearer in the post that her comments about Smith started me thinking in general of the early European American historical figures, and my comments were related to the group of them in sum more than to Smith specifically. I also have only read about thirty pages of the book.

That said, it seems to me that the distinction you draw between these early corporatists and contemporary Goldman evildoers is not much different from the distinction between, say, Galileo Galilei and Stephen Hawking. That is, the difference arises more from the refinement of the techniques and technologies in the intervening time, and from the different contexts in which their actions take place, than from any significant difference of type. I'm probably wrong, but that's how it strikes me.

Finally, as much as I love space and space exploration, and while I would add to your mention of the harm NASA has done that they have also done a lot of good (more good than a semi-military American governmental agency could ever be expected to do), I wouldn't say Armstrong wasn't motivated by greed.