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Pop Culture

The Piratical Philosophy of Freedom

David White hoists his mainbrace and shivers his timbers.

Even if the pirates have rivals for popularity, their four hundred year history of diversity, vigor, penetration and, I would argue, philosophy, must make for them a special place in the Popular Culture Hall of Fame.

We are delighted, but not surprised, to learn that Jackie Kennedy enjoyed playing pirates with her children. We note with interest that The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Pirates, with its 350 pages of well-researched facts, begins with a chapter on pirates and popular culture. Look for ‘pirates’ in the subject catalogue of any library with a children’s department, and you are likely to find more children’s books on pirates than piratical works for adults, a disproportion unknown in other areas of crime. Pirate’s Eye, written and illustrated by Robert Priest, for example, is a fictional pirate book about a fictional pirate book that is at once charming, humorous and appealingly gross. It’s about the loss of and search for a pirate’s glass eye, but it ends with a strong image of compassion and empathy. One public library I checked had over a dozen children’s books on pirates and no adult titles.

‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ was the last Disneyland attraction Walt Disney worked on personally. Because of Disney’s presence in the pirate popular market, especially the Captain Hook character (considerably modified from the Barrie original) and the worldwide success of the theme park attraction, and of the three Pirates of the Caribbean films, we might expect the popular representation of pirates to be dominated by Disney. It’s not. Instead, an economy has developed in which the Disney products develop on their own, but others contribute even more outlandish presentations of pirate lore, only to create a larger market for those who offer ‘correctives’ telling the true story. Disney had the genius to present despicable material as good, clean, family fun; but the rest of the trade is involved in a sort of cops and robbers symbiotic relationship.

Captain Hook is one of the great comedic characters, no doubt, but it’s easy for anyone to see that his outfit is not piratical. His motive of revenge and his cowardice are atypical, if not outright erroneous. Interestingly, there may be more reality to walking the plank than some might credit. Captives who could not be ransomed were also said to be tossed overboard.

In the Disney theme park attraction, the pirates, designed by Marc Davis, are also more slapstick characters than anything fearsome. We chuckle, and all but the smallest children are delighted, not scared. The admission-paying masses tend to see the attraction as a history lesson, and at least one mother complained that Disney had gone too far in the interest of historical accuracy and frightened her child.

How does Disney do it? How does anyone gain so much credibility and make a handsome profit by selling a preposterous sham as ‘history’? The root unreality of the ride is that customers leave believing they know what it is like to pillage; and of the films, that viewers leave unaware how much of what they have seen were computer generated images.

Philosophers have a lot to learn from Disney – even more than how to project enhanced shadows on the wall of a cave. What Disney has done is to develop a technologically competent community so inventive and disciplined that the threads of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise are both effective individually and fully integrated into the whole experience. With the Disney product we have some superb technology; but the magic is always broken by legalistic facts, for example, the lengthy disclaimers on the attraction go on and on about wheelchairs, but they say nothing about hazards to those with a peg leg.

There are still pirates operating today, especially in Asian waters; but we are seduced by the popular culture objects since they pose none of the risks that are associated with real-life complexity. That the truth can be fascinating is demonstrated by What If You Met a Pirate? written and illustrated by Jan Adkins. One finishes this work (which must have cost a tiny fraction of the Disney attraction to produce) fully satisfied that one has as much as met not only a pirate, but the captain and his whole crew. She presents accurate technical knowledge simply and with good humor. Adkins even points out that modern piracy is the business of large corporations.

One cynical critic complained that Disney thinks we find these people so fascinating we’ll pay to watch them do anything. That’s exactly the point. Whether on a cereal box, at a child’s birthday or in a costume party, you can’t go wrong with pirates, and after over three hundred years of development of the popular lore, there seems no end to the ways you can go right.

Perhaps the simplest and best explanation is that we are all pirates or pirate wannabes. Disney provides the piratical life with (almost) no risk and (relatively) little expense. Disney’s is a highly efficient satisfaction machine. Certainly there has been apprehension from a business point of view. Still, pirates are as safe, from a business point of view, as any product idea could be.

Ironies abound. At the same time Disney keeps elaborating and extending its celebration of piracy, the company is battling the real-life ‘pirates’ who prey on Disney’s intellectual property.

Consumers appreciate the low cost of stolen goods. In the same spirit, pirates were willing to pay protection money to keep their hide-outs hidden, were free spenders of their loot, and used bribes to avoid arrest. ‘Legitimate’ operators saw piracy against their enemies or trade rivals as advancing the national interest. Pirates may be outlaws by definition, but they exist as part of an economy. Destroy their natural enemies (eg your naval rivals) and you will quickly find you have more pirates.

The sea bandits of old did not think of themselves as leading characters in a corrupt society any more than those who sing the joys of the modern pirate life realize they reflect the corruption that surrounds them. In the world that surrounds us, we have what could cynically be described as a ‘pseudo-fascist’ environment: anything goes as long as the government retains control and business profits. The Disney website itself contains a blurb of a fairly decent statement of an anti-fascistic philosophy of freedom, complete with ownership symbols. Pirates fit well with this corporately-endorsed propaganda.

It is not hard to see why middle class, conformist families visiting Disney enjoy singing a hearty “yo ho, yo ho” to the pirate’s life of pillage, plunder, rifle, drink and loot; to kidnap and ravage without giving a hoot. Doubtless it is for the same sort of reason they celebrate the lives and actions of the American Revolutionaries, also criminals with piratical connections. Freedom, even freedom that’s virtual and temporary, feels good. It can become addictive. What gives the pirates a (peg) leg up on other outcasts, is that as long as they are at sea or in a pirate port they are able to enjoy freedom in a community of the free, bound only by the pirates’ code of honor. The camaraderie of such a community is deeply enjoyable, giving rise to the many tributes to a ‘short but merry life’. Pirate ports were often described as ‘utopias’.

My argument is that what Disney and the other purveyors of pop piracy satisfy is not a hunger for thrills or a hunger for history, but a hunger for a philosophy: the philosophy of freedom. The lesson to draw from all this pirate culture is that there is a great demand for a philosophy of freedom that can underwrite a life of freedom. When philosophers fail to satisfy the public’s natural cravings for liberty, merchants such as Disney step in and provide the mirage of satisfaction by using superbly crafted illusions. Yet we find pirates attractive not as a diversion but because they symbolize what we value most – a free and happy life in a free and happy community.

Take anarchism, by no means the worst thing attributed to pirates. Disrespect for the government is manifest throughout the Pirates of the Caribbean films – for example in the joking dismissal of the offer to Jack of a commission in the Royal Navy. The Disney version makes anarchy palatable or even delectable to a family audience that in real life would be terrified of anarchists. Yet pirates plainly were anarchists, and continue to be attractive to practicing anarchists today. For example, today’s anarchists advocate Temporary Autonomous Zones (TAZs), which have an explicit analogy to pirate utopias. But it is not clear how they propose to establish such an order, or the fellow-feeling essential to making their piratical anarchistic life a merry one. In a similar vein, the successful philosopher of today should be able to fund a small but attractive utopian community of those who are paid to think without producing anything: funded largely out of fees charged to those who aspire to a career in business or the professions. (On reading this, one of my students quipped that classroom philosophy teachers already engage in torture by reading assignment, and humiliation by Socratic questioning, without even going to the trouble of getting an eye patch and a parrot.)

Not all pirates were full-fledged anarchists, and many performed services for governments or ‘legitimate’ merchants. Some paid fees to landowners who provided a safe haven. Pirates were at times functionally indistinguishable from governments or business in their willingness to disregard the law.

In 1898, in the first chapter of his Buccaneers & Pirates of Our Coasts , Frank R. Stockton (better known for his short story, ‘The Lady or the Tiger?’) sets out with uncanny accuracy the adolescent ambition to be a pirate. The underlying motive is the enjoyment of freedom, the means is bloodless (if not entirely non-violent), and the theft is morally vindicated by a just distribution of the booty. Such a pirate does not die with his boots on, not only because real pirates sailed in bare feet, but because this vision included a long retirement surrounded by books, art and other treasures taken from mercenary vessels. Thus pirates get to end their days by living the way philosophy professors live throughout their careers, once tenure is attained.

Stockton was a master of presenting pirate lore in a way that was entertaining as literature but also morally and historically critical. The same can be said of Peter Earle’s The Pirate Wars . Good writing and good scholarship clearly can be developed as commercial products that appeal to a popular audience without corrupting one’s conscience or warping one’s sense of history.

Children’s books, and even some scholarship, tries to license our attraction to pirates on grounds they are serving the cause of justice within the scope of what Catholic moralists call ‘occult compensation’. The Disney strategy seems to be to quiet our conscience by entertainment, allowing us to be virtual pirates without committing any real crime. The more thoughtful anarchists of today take little inspiration from such popular presentations of piracy. Disrespect for government and for big business is fundamental to any anarchist program; but criminal activity, if indulged in at all, needs to be carefully regulated (a sticking point for anarchists) and should never extend to self-indulgence or insensitivity, let alone cultural depravity on the scale of a Disney attraction.

Clare Hibbert’s Real Pirates uses a different approach. There is no moralizing, but no sanitizing either. We are given over twenty short biographies, with striking illustrations, making it clear that even if violent skullduggery is jolly fun to read about in anecdotal form with engaging pictures, it is uncomfortable to practice and likely to lead to a violent and painful end. One can hardly imagine the young readers will be attracted to a life of crime. In The World of the Pirate, Val Garwood also does an excellent job of entertaining us with the most disgusting details of what life was like for pirates. With Richard Berridge’s graphic illustrations there is no need for moralizing. Garwood also includes many fact/fiction contrasts.

The deep appeal of piracy appears to be the effect of combining anarchy with a realized utopia; individual sensual indulgence with a joyous community life; and lawlessness with the cause of social justice. It requires some imagination to reconcile all these in the modern world. In Fluffy: Scourge of the Sea, Teresa Bateman spins the yarn of the pampered poodle, who, captured by canine pirates, uses charm and skill to reform the whole crew. Fluffy succeeds because Fluffy went to fencing school, was able to whip up a superb meal, and sang a song of hope that had the crew’s eyes filled with tears. Bateman, a retired poet, shows her knowledge of history by having the crew elect Fluffy their new captain. Fluffy then shows the pirate crew they need not steal since they can make more money by performing in cute pirate outfits. I recall that Pompey was successful at ending piracy against Rome because he offered honest toil in new agricultural communities as alternative employment.

Real pirates suffered much, but they got to do what they enjoyed. Disney’s customers do not get to do anything, and suffer much only in what they pay. Their enjoyment is not the enjoyment of life, their enjoyment is the enjoyment of a professional entertainment product. The enjoyment may be real enough; but those who feel called to the pirate’s life can never be satisfied by a fleeting illusion, as Plato said. And as Philip Gosse pointed out long ago, the type who once turned to piracy still exists today, but must find other channels for their piratical talents. There is always room at the top.

© Dr David White 2007

David White teaches philosophy at St John Fisher College, Rochester, NY.

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