Entrepreneurs, Entrepreneurs, Entrepreneurs: Rick Scott’s letter to Florida’s University Faculty

Final Professors

In a recent 320-word letter to Florida’s university faculty (14 of which were variants on “jobs” or “entrepreneur”) Governor Rick Scott thanked professors for “helping Florida’s students earn degrees that prepare them for jobs and”–lest you think he is some kinda philistine–“the opportunity to lead fulfilling lives.”

The major point of the letter, though, was to solicit nominations for something called the “Young Entrepreneur Award.” After mentioning his signature initiatives to rein in college costs–one of which was the laughably paltry one-year moratorium on sales taxes for textbooks–he put the onus back on the students.

As a student, I worked to pay my way through college, and I am sure you have many students who are doing the same. I recently created the Young Entrepreneur Award to recognize Florida students, college graduates, and young entrepreneurs who are excelling in the workplace and creating innovative ideas here in Florida. I encourage you to nominate your entrepreneurial students and recent graduates for this award to help get all of your students thinking about their future jobs.

Especially given the implicit accusation in that first clause–I paid my way through college, so why don’t you?–Scott’s request offers a textbook example of the moralism implicit in the word “entrepreneur.” Self-reliant entrepreneurs conquer hardships through hard work and creativity, this thinking goes, earning their success, instead of depending on others–which becomes, in turn, a kind of weakness.

In the context of state cuts to higher ed and tuition hikes, Scott’s pivot from state government funding to student entrepreneurship is a good example of what Wendy Brown calls “responsibilization” in neoliberal politics. Students re-imagined solely as future job-havers become stakeholders, investing in themselves as future earners; public funding for colleges is merely an investment in future income tax revenue; citizens entitled to education as a right are reduced to “taxpayers” funding it. As Brown writes in Undoing the Demos, “Responsibilized individuals are required to provide for themselves in the context of powers and contingencies radically limiting their ability to do so” (134). This language of responsibilization, she argues, deprives citizens of power while also disavowing its own. It is not your university administrators and political leaders who are responsible for the cost of your education, it is you–if you can’t afford it, work longer, innovate better, excel harder, be more entrepreneurial as you attempt to work, study, and live every other part of your life.

Pudd’nhead Wilson meets Jose Bautista

He was writing about the F.F.V.–the First Families of Virginia, the elite caste of slave-owning aristocracy–but Mark Twain might have been channeling a lousy sportswriter, a old-school bench coach, or Sam Dyson, the Texas Rangers’ relief pitcher who last week gave up a series-clinching home run to José Bautista and then told him to “respect the game.” The Toronto Blue Jays’ Dominican outfielder walloped a three-run homer and flipped his bat in celebration, a violation of baseball’s “unwritten rules” against showboating. In his 1892 classic Pudd’nhead Wilson, Twain wrote that the F.F.V.

had its unwritten laws, and they were as clearly defined and as strict as any that could be found among the printed statues of the land. The F.F.V. was born a gentleman; his highest duty in life was to watch over that great inheritance and keep it unsmirched. He must keep his honor spotless. Those laws were his chart; his course was marked out on it; if he swerved from it by so much as half a point of the compass, it meant shipwreck to his honor; that is to say, degradation from his rank as a gentleman. These laws required certain things of him which his religion might forbid: then his religion must yield — the laws could not be relaxed to accommodate religions or anything else. Honor stood first; and the laws defined what it was and wherein it differed in certain details from honor as defined by church creeds and by the social laws and customs of some of the minor divisions of the globe that had got crowded out when the sacred boundaries of Virginia were staked out.

The novel’s leading F.F.V., Judge Driscoll–slaveowner, first-class citizen–flies into a rage when his nephew, Tom, is kicked in the behind in public and reports the crime to the authorities. The Judge flies into a rage: “You cur! You scum! You vermin! Do you mean to tell me that blood of my race has suffered a blow and crawled to a court of law about it?” The “honorable” thing to do, the Judge explains, is to challenge the kicker to a duel–to shoot him dead in the street. This is the point, after all, of “unwritten rules,” to legitimize unjust hierarchies and cruel treatment by shrouding them in “tradition.” It’s not about the enforcement–Judge Driscoll, after all, controls his town’s written rules also. It’s about the broader power that comes from knowing the “unwritten rules” in the first place, and making sure everyone else knows that you know.

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Baseball’s “unwritten laws” are often described as “arcane,” a “canon” governed by tradition. (They are also a favorite target of sportswriters who love to be exasperated at them). As far as I can tell, they’re not too complex–not writing the rules down seems to prevent everyone from noticing how dull and stupid they are. Don’t watch a home run; don’t jog to first base; don’t call attention to yourself by celebrating outside the dugout; only acknowledge the crowd on the rare occasions when they ask for a curtain call. Otherwise, we can throw a baseball at you. Simple as they are, they’re also inconsistent. For example, if you are a pitcher, you may do many of these things with impunity, a point made by Carlos Gómez, a Dominican star for the Houston Astros and a persistent “unwritten rule” violator.

The racial, ethnic, and national politics of baseball’s code of honor were documented in an interesting recent investigation published in USA Today. Of the 67 bench-clearing incidents in Major League Baseball over the past five seasons, a little more than half “pitted white Americans against foreign-born Latinos,” wrote Jorge Ortiz, the author of the report. “Another four featured white Americans and U.S.-born Latinos.”

“I might be interested in the Order of the First Families of Virginia, but I have not been invited”

Gómez called the restrictions on celebration “rules from a different time.” Bautista, in his comments about the wild 7th inning of the Blue Jays’ playoff victory against the Rangers, mentioned different places. Had he ever seen anything like it–benches clearing, unruly fans pelting the field with beer cans and debris? “Not in the big league level, not in the U.S.,” said Bautista, who plays with Licey in the D.R.’s national league. He was speaking, of course, in Canada, not the U.S., but he was referring to the relatively buttoned-up rules of the American league. I’m not sure what the Dominican league is like, but when Toronto fans pelted the field in anger after an umpiring decision that went against the home team, it reminded me of games at Caracas’ Estadio Universitario, where I used to attend Leones de Caracas games regularly. The tickets were cheap and the quality of play high, so I used to buy seats I would never be able to afford in a major-league stadium–in the lower deck, near the dugouts. As I discovered, these are also seats likely to be soaked by beer thrown from the higher seats, often tossed in celebration after a home run by the home team. (To be clear, the beer wasn’t thrown on the field, just on the other spectators). For big games, I learned not to wear anything I didn’t want to get beer on. Leones games against Navegantes de Magallanes–the Venezuelan equivalent of the high-stakes Red Sox-Yankees series of a few years back–were enthusiastic, loud, but with an almost political intensity that I associate with European soccer matches, an intensity that could be thrilling and a little intimidating.

In U.S. stadiums, by contrast, a stiff formality still prevails, part of baseball’s commercial commitment to entertainment and “family friendliness” but also the sign of the national pastime’s hoary notions of tradition and history. One of the jokes of Twain’s novel, though, is that the people who crow the loudest about “honor” and “tradition” are usually covering for their own mendacity or mediocrity. Curt Schilling, incompetent swinder and Donald Trump superfan, said with apparent approval that Bautista should be ready to get hit next season in Texas. And here is Bud Norris (2015 ERA: 6.72), talking after a game in the long-time northern Mexican city of San Diego, where he plays for a team called the Padres, standing up for the “honor” of the game against the “antics” of certain players. “If you’re going to come into our country and make our American dollars,” he said, “you need to respect a game that has been here for over a hundred years.”

pwnewcalUnwritten rules are all about the defense of unearned, inherited privileges. And the ethnic and racial meanings of baseball’s unwritten rules are never far from the surface.It’s only appropriate that the sport that calls itself “America’s pastime” is also its most sanctimoniously, obliviously innocent about this.

It was nicely ironic that the Texas Rangers–a baseball team named after a racist paramilitary organization founded to terrorize Tejanos–were victimized by Bautista and his bat flip. If you’re a baseball fan, it’s a good sign that the loudest calls for Bautista to “respect” the game seemed to come from the likes of Schilling and Dyson, the sore loser. Someone buy Dyson a beer, and pour it on his head.

“Sold down the river”

I’m teaching Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson, a farce about biological definitions of race written in 1894, in the depths of the post-Reconstruction era. It is a comic genre story about slavery that mocks the racial definitions and distinctions upon which so many of American society’s other values–family, generosity, motherhood, “gentlemanliness,” the law, etc.–rested.

Its setting is a Mississippi River town in Missouri. At its core is a generic plot–two babies switched at birth. One of the children is the son of a light-skinned slave named Roxy and a local “FFV” (First Families of Virginia) gentleman, about whose “relationship” Twain pointedly and shamefacedly declines to elaborate. The other is the “white” son of a prominent local citizen, whose father is also Roxy’s owner. When the white boy’s father threatens to sell Roxy and her baby “down the river” to the cotton belt, she switches the two children in the cradle, making her own son her master and turning her young master into her child. The specter of what awaits “down the river” looms large in the imagination of the slaves in Dawson’s Landing, as a place of destruction and isolation. It looms as the greatest threat, and the cruelest punishment, with which a slavemaster can terrorize his property.

from the first American edition of Pudd'nhead Wilson
from the first American edition of Pudd’nhead Wilson

I asked my students if they knew the phrase, “sold down the river,” because I had always heard it growing up without any sense of the sale, or the river, in question. I remember thinking of it as one of those vaguely old-fashioned phrases whose origins you never wonder about–like “tickled pink” or “brownie points” or something. None of them said they knew it, which is in one sense a good thing. Yet Twain’s novel was a satire of his own murderous decade–the era of the KKK, of epidemic lynching, of Jim Crow’s consolidation–as much as, if not more than, the antebellum moment. The survival of the phrase indicates what a casual study of, say, the recent career of the Supreme Court might also confirm: that we are not far removed from the lynch mob and the poll test, though we like to pretend otherwise. That this history of violence and fear has lingered so long that it is still fresh on our tongues, but in the form of cliche that some of us never question and barely recognize.

Some others of “us,” of course, might know perfectly well what this phrase alludes to. But to confirm my own instincts, I searched the phrase on Twitter and found some surprising and not-so-surprising results. First of all, surprising: the phrase is apparently quite popular among British and Canadian political pundits, who use it to comment upon relatively “big” news issues like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and to complain about more banal inconveniences, like toll charges on a tunnel under the Mersey River.

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And note this pudd’nhead’s especially oblivious choice of words:

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Less surprising, perhaps, is the phrase’s apparent popularity among Twitter right-wingers in the United States–the libertarians, conspiracy theorists, #TCOT nutters and bottom feeders that populate the medium.

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People with “benghazi” in their profile names are fond of it.

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It’s also quite popular among far-right UKIP partisans, an ideologically fitting but historically somewhat puzzling phenomenon–given that they are racists without, I’m assuming, a conscious knowledge of the phrase.

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And finally, white supremacists whose states’ rights have been “sold down the river,” showing once again the old cliche about the past never being past.

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