Sunday, April 12, 2009

Yo ho me hardies

Everybody has been making pirate jokes lately. Maddow used the Pirates of the Caribean logo on her show the other night. The New York Post, comical as always, had a picture of Johny Depp as Capatain Jack Sparrow running toward the camera, with the headline "Yo Ho Doh!" Me, I'm an old pirate fan, so I giggled along with everybody. Yes, I knwo piracy is no laughing matter, but still....

In movies, comics (well, except for Watchman) and on TV, pirates are romanticized. They are seen as a people who are beholden to no government, no country, are only answerable to one another. Lawless men on the high seas they meet the true definition of "outlaw", which is "one who is outside the law's protection." And because the law can't protect them they have to protect themselves, create their own nation of laws based on lawlessness. Jean LaFitte is the true American pirate, hero of the battle of New Orleans and privateer extraordinaire, he operated out of the Louisiana swamps, raiding shipping in the Gulf of Mexico and then selling his spoils to the rich citizens of the Crescent City. Whether in the flesh or as played by Tyrone Power or Yul Bryner, he was admired as a man of action who was answerable only to his own sense of honor. In the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies, we mock the pirates but we mock authority, in the form of the British naval captain Norrington, even more. In a pirate tale, except for the greatest of the all, "Treasue Island", authority usually corrupt and piracy offers the only just, honorable, and therefore desirable alternative to modern society--a free company of men who live for the sword and by the sword with no apologies. Even in "Treasure Island" Long John Silver, the most dastardly of all the pirates, is an attractive figure, charming young Jim Hawkins into helping him right up to the end.

In real life, pirates hanged (and it is "hanged": meat is "hung", men are "hanged", though it's amazing how many people get that wrong).

It's no surprise that we glorify the freedom of piracy and make folk heroes out of Blackbeard and Jean LaFitte. We do the same to Gangsters, old West outlaws, and Robin Hood: from Bonny and Clyde to Jess James, to Don Corleon to Robin Hood--murderers and thieves all--those of us who bend, often unwillingly, to authority look to those who refuse to bend as heroes. But there is something special about pirates. Because they exist mostly on the high seas they truly are outside the bounds of law. When they come to port in their "stongholds," like Tortuga, it is in places where there is no government to try to keep them in line. They themselves are the only law.

Interestingly enough, they often act as a form of law, and do as good a job as many to keep order--in a way--and maintain the lives of the people. The image of the pirate stronghold as a din of sin and iniquity may not be far off, but it is still a functional economy, where people live and work every day in an environment if, not stable, then not completely in chaos either. It is the kind of paradise of freedom that an anarcho-capitalist like our old friend David Friedman would just love.

Somalia is more or less the same. It has an economy that functions, if on shaky foundations, and as in all places where governmental authority has no real power armed men constitute only "government." (it might be said that this is true of any government, no matter what form it takes. Mao would certainly say so). The situation in Somalia, which we deplore, is no different than that of Tortuga in the Seventeenth Century, which we romanticize. It is a mostly lawless area where anybody with enough guns can hold power, and an area where international shipping is common enough to provide easy targets for enterprising buccaneers. Piracy is, quite frankly, the only growth industry in Somalia, and the one which brings the most money into the Somali economy. And the pirates in Somalia are beloved as the type of free roving buccaneers that we've celebrated in all those Errol Flynn movies, and as people who bring real cash money into the country. The shipping companies have more or less decided that paying ransom to the pirates for the return of crew ship and.or cargo is more or less the cost of doing business, and so nothing serious is done about it.

Until now, because now they have attacked an American flagged vessel.

With the rescue of the captured captain earlier today and the capture of one of the pirates, the immediate situation is now over. But the larger one is just beginning. For years now this has been brewing, only waiting for an Ameircan excuse to take over, and now there is one. President Obama, faced with two wars (Cheney would claim on, but whatever) in two Muslim countries and a worsening situation in both Pakistan and North Korea, now has a Jeffersonian decision to make.

And comparisons with Jefferson are not out of line here, because it was Jefferson who sent the U.S. Marines to The Shores of Tripoli in America's first act of military intervention to destroy the Muslim pirates who were attacking American shipping. Sound familiar? Jefferson was successful. Obama has a harder row to how. How can we justify going back into Somalia, the site of our most ignominious military fiasco since Viet Nam? How can we take on yet another Muslim country, one that we've already been kicked out of once? We have a big enough image problem in the Muslim world without invading yet another Muslim country. But too Obama can't just ignore the situation, nor should he. Since in a capitalist republic the most important function of a government is to support (and I would argue regulate, even if the Friedmans--or is it Friedmen?--would not) commerce. We can't have pirates mucking it all up, whether they live in a society that is actually more free than our own, and which is celebrated in Disney movies, or not.

But one thing that may well happen now that the US Navy has a pirate in custody for the first time practically ever. We may actually see a trial for piracy on the high seas in the Supreme Court. Now that would be a spectacle worth watching. The Supremes would have to make a finding of fact, not a finding of law. It would be fun to see them try.


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