The following notes on aspects of television, pirates, & empire, were written in April 2015. These notes were originally part of a seasonal personal newsletter which for many years I wrote & sent to friends. Then I finally caved-in and started writing this blog. As these notes are taken somewhat out of context, they may be a little abstruse at times.
I haven’t lived with an actual TV for decades, & have never had cable or a NETFLICKS account, though I have free HULU on my computer and through HULU I do watch a few mostly crappy old movies and even some more or less enjoyable/worthwhile old and current (day-old) TV shows that way. And of course there’s YOUTUBE and VIMEO, with plenty of great movies and some TV shows I’ve loved watching many times. I sometimes enjoy aspects of Jon Stewart’s show [update: I don’t watch the current replacement show], & John Oliver, & @midnight, a few others (with strong qualifying restrictions—ie there are various things I also dislike about the above named shows).
I love Bill Moyers on PBS, but for some reason rarely remember to watch him. I also always enjoy anything I see by Chris Hedges & by Tom Hartmann, bless them. I love to watch Amy Goodman, Juan Gonzales & crew every weeknight on Democracy Now! —that is just like daily church for me. And I much lament the recent retirement of heroic Abby Martin from her wonderful groundbreaking show Breaking the Set [update: see her current show, The Empire Files, on YOUTUBE]. I also very much enjoy the Laura Flanders Show on GRITtv. (Flanders is a cousin to actress Olivia Wilde! & a niece to the famous Cockburn brothers, both left journalists.) I’m probably forgetting a few others here.
My late sweetheart & I loved watching (online) the original runs & not-too-old reruns of the following mostly rom-com type mostly feather-weight entertainment TV shows with fairly good regularity (listed in no particular order): Community, Modern Family, Parenthood, Gilmore Girls, New Girl, Thirty Rock, Switched at Birth, Jane by Design, and our most favourite of all, a truly thought-provoking Canadian show, Being Erica. (And yes, that’s a lot of TV watching for someone who doesn’t own a TV!) All of these we watched online. There are probably a few others I’m blanking on right now. But following her passing, I just felt completely disinclined to continue watching any of these previously-shared favourite rom-com-dramas of ours, and I have yet to get back in the groove; it was just too painful/sad/lonely for some reason to stay tuned into them after she departed for higher realms.
I realized most of my enjoyment in watching these entertainments was doing so together with her. She always got so much pleasure out of them.
Pirates on TV
In the past few months, however, I have discovered & watched the entire first two seasons (or is it 3?) of Black Sails, an ambitiously-conceived-&-produced pirate series weaving actual historical characters and events mixed with historically fictional ones (mostly as a theoretical prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel Treasure Island). I like many aspects of the series, but the graphic relentless close-up violence and ubiquitous gore were way, way over the top for me. So I spent much of the time just listening, with my eyes closed.
The constant, shocking, utterly gratuitous mayhem is probably the most realistic aspect of the series; the real pirates of the Caribbean were far more brutal than most people have any capacity for comprehending (and of course, often even much more so were the slave-based colonial empires the pirates resisted). But the show also does a fairly good job of creatively imagining life in the real historical pirate republic of New Providence Island in the early 1700s.
Ever since I was a young boy, I have been fascinated by this buccaneer democratic anarchist/ socialist small nation-state and other historical pirate “temporary autonomous zones” (TAZs), democratic-anarchist pirate republics in the Caribbean and on Madagascar—Libertalia! aka Libertatia! I remember how I loved first learning of these men and women who had become willing to put their lives on the line to morally, politically, and violently oppose, resist, and fight against the existing European elitist colonial slave empires of England, Spain, Portugal, France, Holland, etc. and in doing so had organized their own free outlaw communities of resistance as self-declared independent democratic sovereign republican states—a generation or two or three before the United States declared –& ruthlessly waged a war for–its own independence from the British empire (and thus instantly became a military-corporatist slave-based empire of its own!–now known and feared around the world as the United States Empire).
Here’s something recorded to have been said by an actual historical pirate, Captain Bellamy, a Robin Hood-style British-American colonial-era anarchist pirate. Like many other pirates of the day, Bellamy and his crew ran their ship as an independent floating republic of its own. Every hand had an equal vote, the captain held office by open vote, and all shared the spoils of war equally and all paid equally into a group life-&-accident insurance fund.
Bellamy’s ship had captured a British-American colonial merchant ship without a shot being fired. The pirate crew had then voted to offer the captured merchant captain and his crew an invitation to join them in their freedom fight against evil predatory empires. When the merchant captain declined to accept their offer, due to his religious, law-abiding “conscience,” the pirate crew voted again.
This time they voted to provide the captain and his crew safe passage aboard the pirate vessel, to be put ashore at the closest friendly harbor, but also to first sink his slow-sailing merchantship as it only would impede their speed and range of mobility and compromise their freedom by providing evidence of their outlaw resistance to empire.
“Damn my blood!” exclaimed Bellamy in exasperation when the merchant captain declined the pirate crew’s offer. “I’m sorry our men won’t let you have your sloop again, Mr Beer, for I scorn to do anyone a mischief, when it is not for my advantage. Damn the sloop, we must sink her, and she might have been of use to you.
“Damn ye, you are a sneaking puppy, and so are all those who will submit to be governed by laws which rich men have made for their own security; for the cowardly whelps have not the courage otherwise to defend what they get by knavery.
“But damn ye altogether; Damn them for a pack of crafty rascals, and you, who serve them, for a parcel of hen-hearted numbskulls.
“They vilify us, the Scoundrels do, when there is only this Difference: They rob the Poor under the Cover of Law, forsooth, and we plunder the Rich under the Protection of our own Courage. Had you not better make yourself then one of us, than sneak after these villains for employment?”
Captain Beer replied that his conscience would not let him break the laws of God and man by turning pirate, and Bellamy continued:
“You are a devilish conscience rascal! I am a free Prince, and I have as much Authority to make War on the whole World, as he who has a hundred Sail of Ships at Sea, and an Army of 100,000 Men in the Field, and this my conscience tells me!
“But there is no arguing with such sniveling Puppies, who allow Superiors to kick them about Deck at Pleasure; and pin their Faith upon a Pimp of a Parson; a Squab, who neither practices nor believes what he puts upon the chuckle-headed Fools he preaches to.”
—Captain Samuel “Black Sam” Bellamy (1689-1717).
Bellamy, aka “Prince of Pirates” aka “Robin Hood of the Seas”
later died, age 28, in a storm at sea.
Quoted by Captain Charles Johnson, in A General History of the
Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates (1728)
I can’t emphasize enough how much I abhor the real violence involved in actual historical and contemporary piracy and revolutions (and usually therefore, to a far smaller & far removed degree, the pretense of violence merely dramatized in movies, on TV, etc). But the violence of political liberation and resistance movements is typically certainly no greater or “worser” than that inflicted “legally” (or otherwise) by imperialist nation-states and their military and police forces. Often, the violence of resistance and liberation is considerably less and the cause certainly almost always far, far more “justifiable” morally.
When people are enslaved &/or otherwise violently oppressed they will eventually rise up, and do so violently if they see no other way, in a desperate attempt to escape the unjust pain, degradation, exploitation, terror, and destruction imposed by forces of oppression. The violence is horrible on both sides, of course, but one is typically a cause and one is typically an effect.
In a truly just society it would be rare to find much violent criminality of any kind at all because where there is no violent oppression and inequality there is little or nothing to resist and resent. (And a truly just society would also have adequate free public mental & physical healthcare to treat those individuals who still had violent tendencies.) When people have enough resources to sustain themselves peaceably, they typically do not violently rob or otherwise harm others. Only the insatiably greedy and untreatably irrationally violent individuals do that; you know, such as vulture capitalist corporate types & warmonger-profiteers who can never have enough wealth and inhumane power at the expense of others….
Among many of the pirates of the “classical age of piracy” during the late 1400s-to-mid-1800s (mostly from mid-1600s to mid-1700s), their crimes — often enough horrifically gory, terribly torturous, murderous crimes of resistance to state power, law, and “order,” —were also quite often part of an attempt to secure freedom and greater justice against an increasingly oppressive global-tightening system of slave-based evil and inequality. The European-American colonial empire system of the era perpetrated great evil, limitless torture, murder, genocide, and terror on the part of the empire-builders, rulers, and merchant elite against the invaded, occupied, and colonized people of the world.
And we know that this evil slave-based colonial empire system of invasion, occupation, and oppressive colonization continued right through to the 20th century, even all throughout the 20th century, and indeed beyond, right into our present day. Today’s vulture corporate-military empires, like those of old, operate on an international scale and from a ruthlessly piratical mind-set. They continue to utilize the naïve goodwill, ignorance, fear of insecurity, and incipient greed and self-indulgent comfort-addiction of the citizens of various first world nation-states in order to prey on third world populations, extracting the resources and wealth of the entire planet & its people in order to further feather the nest of these imperialist elites. It has been rightly called the ultimate, final gold rush. A rush to grab every last ounce of wealth from every corner of the Earth, leaving the entire planet as the clear-cut, burned-over killing field.
It’s an old, old story. But one which we desperately need to further learn from in order to mount a successful non-violent resistance movement and non-violent political and economic “revolution.” A revolution of humane values to overthrow and eliminate the current evil systems of imperial exploitation and oppression. The real “pirates” in the sense of gangs of ruthless, murderous criminal thugs who owe alliance to no national population or government, are obviously the international corporate empire builders and rulers. They are among the real terrorists of the world today, along with those fanatics who use the guise of religion and patriotism to launch regional and national pseudo-liberation movements as false fronts for their own ruthless would-be imperialist elitest police-&-terror dictatorships.
When we see, as we did during the classical age of piracy, that ordinary citizens will rise up as freedom fighters, and freedom fighters will sometimes turn pirate, and that bands of freedom-fighter pirates will try to organize themselves into anti-slavery democratic socialist republics dedicated to economic and social equality, then we know that the mainstream societies of the imperialist, slave-based nation-states and their colonial empires are courting disaster by continuing to let themselves and the world be controlled and oppressed by greedy ruthless elites made up of vulture corporatist-military dictators and their cronies and henchmen.
Colorful as the classical pirates could be, and romantic as a few of them could seem in their quasi-Robin Hood-like approach, generally speaking I am strongly opposed to the taking up of arms to attempt to achieve, through violence or threat of violence, a greater freedom from oppressive slave-states such as those imposed by today’s corporatist-military elite empires. But I fully understand the desperation that leads to such violent resistance.
In today’s world there is probably little chance of any of the many oppressed people anywhere gaining independence from evil empires through armed insurrection/insurgency. The surviving empires of today are too big, too well-armed, too powerful, too dedicated to holding onto to power, for there to be much chance of any armed resistance or liberation movements being successful.
In the near future it is unlikely that any new free nation-states like the historical pirate republics of New Providence in the Caribbean and Libetalia in the Indian Ocean will be able to emerge and thrive. But it may still be possible to create some kinds of non-violent Temporary Autonomous Zones (TAZs) here and there.
…And in any case, it’s sometimes enjoyable, &/or informative, to read about those republics and TAZs of the past &/or to see them portrayed in movies and TV shows. Just don’t expect to be able to keep your eyes open when viewing dramatizations of the graphic mayhem involved on both sides of the fight between classical colonial slave empires and insurgent pirate republics like New Providence and Libertalia.
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