By Giles Jackson
Everyone knows that a pirate is someone who robs at sea without having a commission from any sovereign nation. But in the olden days, says Ben Zimmer, it was not always clear who was a renegade and who was an agent of a sovereign power. In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night the duke Orsino accuses Antonio, a naval officer with a mysterious past, of being a “notable pirate”. He rebukes the charge, claiming he was a legitimate enemy of Orsino’s fleet. One man’s pirate was another man’s noble sea captain.
Somalia proves that in fact, nothing has changed. Mohamed Abshir Waldo, the author of “The Two Piracies in Somalia: Why the World Ignores the Other?” told DemocracyNow! that Somali fishermen resorted to piracy after years of renegade actions by government-sanctioned foreign vessels: “When the marine resource of Somalia was pillaged, when the waters were poisoned, when the fish was stolen, and in a poverty situation in the whole country, the fishermen felt that they had no other possibilities or other recourse but to fight with, you know, the properties and the shipping of the same countries that have been doing and carrying on the fishing piracy and toxic dumping”. One man’s noble sea captain is another man’s pirate.
Ostensibly on a mission to end world poverty, The World Bank quietly condones such practices. In an extraordinary memo to colleagues, Lawrence Summers (then chief economist and vice president) wrote: “Just between you and me, shouldn’t the World Bank be encouraging more migration of the dirty industries to the less developed countries?” While Summers made his case in economic terms, the impulse is no different from that used to justify slavery, argued Basil Egwegbara in MIT’s oldest newspaper. The German philosopher Georg Hegel implored his contemporaries to “lay aside all thought of reverence and morality — all that we call feeling”.
“There is only one sin, only one. And that is theft. Every other sin is a variation of theft… When you kill a man, you steal a life. You steal his wife’s right to a husband, rob his children of a father. When you tell a lie, you steal someone’s right to the truth. When you cheat, you steal the right to fairness” ~ The Kite Runner, 2007
When you make Africa the dumping ground for toxic waste generated in the West, you steal Africans’ right to health and life — in clear violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 1 states: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood”. Article 25 states: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family …”
All around us liberal democracies are turning into plebiscitary dictatorships. With this shift, piracy is moving out of the shadows and becoming policy. Every time that Trump, Putin, Erdogan, Sisi et al tell a big lie, they steal our right to the truth. “For them, life is war”, explained Martin Wolf. “In war, they can justify anything”. The biggest role in protecting the truth, and therefore democracy itself, now falls to us. This calls for a new kind of piracy.
The root of pirate is peira (pronounced pi’rah), which means attempt, in the sense of choosing a perilous path. “Piracy is the attempt to assert oneself in the absence of the authorities”, wrote the late Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, a professor of social philosophy at Dartmouth College. In this context, to be a pirate means to be a free originator in service of the planet. It means to inhabit that last unregulated space beyond the reach of the raving nations.
UK Prime Minister Theresa May said: “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere”. But as Gillian Tett points out, our ideas about identity are imaginary, not immutable. Indeed, the concept of nationality only emerged in the 19th century. The fact is that people today have multiple identities and habitually shift between “levels” (family, religious, linguistic, class, professional, and so forth) depending on the situation. Our current situation calls for a new level above and beyond “world citizen”. This is the realm of the pirate, who gladly accepts the curse of supposedly belonging nowhere, where at least you can breathe.
“It struck me that perhaps a lot of the people you see walking about are dead. We say that a man’s dead when his heart stops and not before. It seems a bit arbitrary. After all, parts of your body don’t stop working – hair goes on growing for years, for instance. Perhaps a man really dies when his brain stops, when he loses the power to take in a new idea” ~ George Orwell, Coming up for Air
How does one become a pirate? Not by committing a crime, but by “being refused recognition, for good or for ill” says Prof Rosenstock-Huessy. The pirate renounces all status symbols, because they serve the wrong purpose. To hell with your gold faucets Mr Trump! We’ll grab the planet back!
The author is co-founder of Liberation Kilt Co.