Deconstructing Pirates: Why Black Sails is More Than a TV Series

flintI’ve become a great fan of the Starz original series Black Sails and am absolutely hooked. It is brilliantly conceived, very well written, and both the acting and production values are masterfully done. The ongoing story is set in the early 18th Century in and around Nassau. Some of the characters represent real pirates, but the actual story is a prequel of sorts to the 1883 book Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. It’s the backstory of John Silver, who led the mutinous lot in Stevenson’s book, and how the island got its name. The protagonist, however, is not Silver, but another character referenced in Treasure Island – the dreaded pirate, Captain James Flint.

I didn’t fully understand my admiration for this series until I watched a YouTube video featuring the cast and series creator, Jonathan Steinberg. This is the first time I can recall a story about pirates that didn’t include all the folklore and mythical nonsense that has been dragged into the history from literature, including Treasure Island. The result is a marvelous humanization of a group of historical characters in order to create human drama along with the adventures.

Here’s the way creator Steinberg put it:

“The historical record is biased in a number of different directions. Anything these guys would’ve written about themselves is branding. They wanted these stories to sound frightening. Anything that’s written about them from England is deliberately designed to paint them into a problem to be solved. So to make them human, you almost have to throw away some of the record and just try to rebuild what this must have been if these people were what they were, which is human beings just trying to get through.”

Why is it that governments “paint” groups, including whole cultures, in such a way as to further their own good? The answer is really quite simple: because they can, or at least could. History – the first draft of which is written by journalists – is filled with such painting, all in the name of truth. Fortunately, we have weapons today to help us strip away all the paint, including web-enabled deconstructionism.

Black Sails 2 2015What Steinberg is talking about is the deconstruction of the historical culture of pirates in order to provide understanding, and this is one of the principal goals of the postmodern experience. Given the contemporary tools before us, people are now able to reach beyond the historical record – and its incumbent biases – in the search for truth. The modern world, with its emphasis on order that serves only the status quo and its complete reliance on the functionalities of logic and reason, has produced in the West a culture where the 99 percent now serves the 1 percent in the pursuit of happiness. The modern world is a mess, and no amount of “going back” is going to help us. We must move forward, and of necessity, that means deconstructing the present and its supporting historical record.

I fight this fight alongside my Palestinian family in Amman, Jordan. The modern history of the Middle East has been relentlessly pro-Israel, and this is no accident. The ruling class in the West embraces the old adage that the victor in war gets to “write the history,” which, in this case, is actually a propaganda exercise that results in the dehumanization of Palestinians. My family would argue that this is what makes the killing of innocent Palestinians an acceptable practice to the West, as with what happened in Gaza last summer. Over 2,000 Palestinians were slaughtered, including over 500 children. The IDF (Israeli Defense Force) destroyed anybody, anything, and everything to make a statement about their power in the region. It was claimed that the destruction was defensive, but it was the families living in Gaza who had no means to defend or protect themselves against the sophisticated and powerful weaponry of the IDF, which operated with the impunity granted by such superiority. Children were slain while playing on the beach, of all places, and it sickens me, which is why I’m asking anybody who will listen to do their own deconstruction of Middle Eastern propaganda.

adamsWhen confronted with his loss against the reality of progress, Henry Adams, who in 1900 was a part of the 1 percent, made the remarkable statement that “the way of nature is chaos (change), but the dream of man is order.” Unfortunately, that dream is only achievable for the 1 percent, and it’s been helped along by an artificially-driven fear of chaos. The truth is that this fear only applies to the haves, for those of us “beneath” the ruling class are blocked in the pursuit of happiness by the rules of this “order.” But we have nothing to lose. Chaos doesn’t bother us so much, because we – like the pirates Mr. Steinberg has developed – are already swimming in the stuff. Any individual who has experienced a complete loss of income for any significant time knows the truth of what I say, for in its path lies a secret world where a form of order awaits, one that functions in the midst of chaos. You’d be surprised by what you can learn when you’re broke. Sadly, perhaps even pathetically, there is no greater crime against the order of our culture than being poor.

Only to the haves is the concept of anarchy so threatening, which is why the “less fortunate” side of the human experience is painted as something so disgustingly horrible as to be feared. Yet Steinberg’s pirates function with the most basic form of order amidst the chaos that surrounds them from every side. They must deal not only with each other, unscrupulous shipping captains, and the warships protecting them in the name of enforcing the “law and order” of England, Spain and their colonies in the Americas, but also with the very real human needs of food, clothing, shelter and the human ego. What is it that drives people to “get through” life and each other in the face of relentless uncertainty, if not the human spirit itself? Civilization becomes uncivilized when only a small few are in charge, whether that be through despotism, the elected, or wealth alone. We must find another way, and our postmodern, postcolonial, postChristian wave will discover it, not within the order or man but within the chaos of nature. Oh, I suppose we’ll create a new order along with new hierarchies, but it would be wise not to assume it will be a repetition or duplication of the old.

linksIn his prescient and marvelous 2003 essay, Why the Web Will Win the Culture Wars for the Left,” Peter Lurie identifies the very nature of links and linking to be a practice in deconstruction, which is not likely to spawn a strong wave of a rule-bound, right-wing, profit-friendly sort of followers. The Net is deconstructing everything, from informational systems to institutional practices. This is what prompted a high-level broadcasting executive to write recently, “We have got to protect the system.” What’s “the system?” The efficiency of the one-to-many broadcast paradigm. This paradigm, however, is not very consumer-friendly, and, unfortunately for those who think this way, the Net is at its finest when it is disrupting systems that have been used to keep everyday people in any sort of a box. Take middlemen, for example. The Internet is such an efficient one-to-one medium, that it recognizes middlemen as a mistake and routes around them. How? It’s an unfiltered, 3-way communications “system;” top-down, down-up and down-across-to-each-other. The only way, therefore, to preserve the one-to-many system is destroy the Internet, which is what net neutrality opponents wanted and needed to happen in order to maintain the status quo.

The “secret world” referenced above lives along that bottom, and every day, it grows stronger. Jay Rosen refers to this as “The Great Horizontal,” and it will continue to disrupt hierarchies and institutions who badly want and need it to stop. It is perhaps the most powerful weapon ever created in the revolution against power and influence masquerading as absolute, for if information is power, then the bottom is sucking it in a rate never before seen in human history. I wrote in 2010 about the “Evolving User Paradigm,” and it continues today at a staggering pace. Every single day that a person uses the Web, that person grows smarter and more powerful in his or her ability to disrupt. Does anybody shop or recruit workers anymore without checking online? Reviews are changing everything, and then there’s Amazon. While the institution of journalism, for example, desperately tries to bail out its sinking ship, the practice of journalism is experiencing phenomenal growth along the bottom. So-called “social media” is thought to be just another distribution channel for the institutional pros, but the truth is it’s the backbone of the bottom-to-bottom path of communications.

So, yes, to the ruling class, existing systems must be protected, but even their paths to power are being dug up and replanted. The letter to Iran signed by 47 U.S. Senators and Congressmen has become a transparent hot potato in attempts by the Israeli government to influence politics here. The same Senator who has taken enormous sums from Zionist lobbyists and authored the letter has also introduced legislation to block net neutrality. He is also a recipient of large campaign contributions from those in power who need net neutrality to go away. The Great Horizontal will put an end to such mischief, either through knowledge, its voting clout or both. We are a government of the people, and we’re now armed with a way to route around those who would manipulate us for their own gain. This is, in fact, chaos working its magic against the dream of man that Henry Adams knew.

I can’t write about pirates without a note about online pirates and piracy, the well-painted scapegoat in the music, television, and entertainment industry’s attempt to cover its own malfeasance. When any institution views personal gain over service to others, life is turned upside down, and the result can only be disastrous. When entertaining takes a back seat to profit, it can no longer entertain. Profiteers are best at copying proven success, and this is not the world of the arts. The lesson of what happened to the music industry’s incredible strategy of suing its own customers is one for the ages, and it serves as a warning to any person, group or institution that would try to wrestle human advancement to the ground in the name of protecting a system. It was the ability of the bottom to communicate with each other that destroyed the system that buried a single hit tune in the sands of mediocrity created by the profit margins of compact discs. Even today, musicians, writers and everyone in the value chain still point their fingers to piracy as the cause of their current financial predicament. These people would all be better served getting back to the basics of practicing their art instead of complaining about how their money tree has been dismantled by the very people their gifts were intended to serve. Culture has always supported the arts, but the arts have historically never really produced a steady income for its practitioners, despite Mr. Adams’ dream of man.

One with eyes to see can see much today. It is a truly remarkable time in human history, but another word for chaos is “change,” and that’s scary for those who demand the equilibrium required to manage things as they are. In the business world, change is the new normal, and we may never see equilibrium again. The MBA schools and the institution of higher education should be teaching this, but they’re far too busy trying to protect their own fatted calf against disruption.

And so it goes.