Thursday, June 22, 2006

At a high school graduation last week I was shocked to hear what was, without exception, the best commencement speech I've ever heard. Having first sat through the class president’s 10 minute demonstration of her thesaurus skillz1, I had little hope for the future of the Class of 2006. But then, as the sun set softly in the distance and proud New Jersey mothers took not-so clandestine swigs from their hip flasks, the class salutatorian took the podium and urged his fellow classmates to go forth in the world and be pirates (not coincidentally, the school’s mascot). According to this young man, the pirate way is the way forward for the obvious reasons - fancy clothes, booty, a life of adventure on the high seas- and also more subtle reasons –individual freedom coupled with the privileges, rights, and responsibilities of being such a badass character. In other words, one can be a democrat without hugging trees, and one can be a republican without kicking puppies. Not a bad way to live- maybe the unkicked puppies can hug the lonely trees!

However, today, via Sploid, an article in the Sunday Herald decries the historical inaccuracies rampant in such romanticization of pirates. The article and commentary both argue that in romanticizing the pirate lifestyle, we do a disservice to the historical record. They then further that tired old argument that if we emulate bad people in history, we will be bad people. According to the Sploid article,

Through such swashbuckling whitewashes, children haven't learned about the widespread homosexuality and cruel disciplinary techniques of the pirates. Another problem is that pirates generally refused to honor any nation's laws and actually laughed in a boisterous fashion at attempts to impose rule on pirate strongholds.

First of all, let's just get it out of the way: widespread homosexuality isn't a problem, so quit pretending it is. What's gonna happen - more people wear pink? In that case, widespread little-girliness is also a serious societal problem.

Next, cruel disciplinary techniques? Fuck, if kids wanted to learn that, they'd just pay attention to their parents. Pretend you're a kid who just said a dirty word 2. Would you rather walk the plank or be grounded? EASY CHOICE! I seem to remember being grounded for the majority of high school, and I would have much rather walked the plank- preferably with a wisecracking parrot who would say all that I secretly wanted to mouth off. It probably would have gotten me out of the house, too.

The Herald takes it from there:, "As anyone who met them found out, the real pirates of the Caribbean were sea-borne thugs who thought nothing of murder, torture and rape." Whoa. If you can show me the historian who can prove that a person genuinely thought nothing about x, y, and z, I will personally put her in the Wikipedia as the solver of the postmodern crisis. Murder, torture, and rape aren't inherent aspects of piracy- they're simply incidental. Allthat's really necessary in order to be a pirate is selfishness and a desire to get what you want. It's this quality of selfishness around which the pirate legend has remained so appealing throughout the centuries.

Polite society dictates that one not be selfish; in the pirate moral code, it's requisite. Little Skylar in Montessori isn't pretending to be a pirate so that he can rape girls in his class. He might just want people not to tell him what to do all the time. The Herald traces the roots of pirate lore, and considering the overwhelming success of the legend to this day3, little Skylar isn't the only one manifesting his secret desires to eschew polite society through acting like a pirate.

The Sploid commentary concludes, "If the truth about pirates isn't told, American kids will likely grow up to be sociopaths who gleefully break the law, steal vast treasures and torture their captives, experts say." Are we really doing a disservice to the historical record? The article never establishes such a cause and effect relationship between the romanticizing of pirates and loss of accuracy in the historical record. On the contrary, the addition of such romance can provide a means of bringing the curious person to scholarship. It certainly worked for me - I don't really know that much about pirates, but I read the article because I’ve always thought they're kinda cool. Most history intended for kids comes packaged as the boring story of the white man's pursuit - hardly an accurate historical portrayal. Why not have some fun on your way to historical discovery? Do you really think the historians quoted in the Herald read an article in a historacademic journal and then decided to become pirate scholars? Hellz no! They probably went to some parties dressed up like pirates and scored some chicks and booze4.

So how should we instill curiosity in our kids? Well, duh, let them explore their curiosity. Let them dress up like pirates. Look, being a pirate is only a slightly more viable career option than caveman, Tyrannosaurus Rex, princess, or my childhood preference, a cow5, so I wouldn’t worry too much about what effect it’s going to have on our little friend Skylar’s law school application. And, obviously, there are limits to curiosity- if little Skylar wants the L'il Fuhrer Kristallnacht Playset, it's time to have a little chat with him. You can accuse me of playtime relativism, but think about it: hatred of certain social groups is inherent to Nazi philosophy - you cannot be a Nazi and like Jews. But the pirate legend allows you to have your lesson and wear an eye patch too- just because you're a pirate doesn't mean you have to rape, pillage, and torture. It allows for it, sure, but it doesn't require it; that's a LOT of personal freedom and responsibility, which should delight all the non-puppy-kicking, tree-hugging Republicans the speaker referenced. Both of them.

Our story has a sad ending, as the salutatorian is bound for Yale at the end of summer. There, he will join the ranks of the other Handsome Dan acolytes whilst preparing for a life of adulthood keeping up with the Ivy League Joneses. For the difficult life ahead of him, I have only one hope - that every now and then, he might take time to stop and reflect on pirate riddles for sophisticates. Maybe even pen a few of his own.

1."Sunkissed tans"? Really, what other kinds of tans are there?

2. Not a problem if you're a pirate.

3.Do you already have tickets to go see the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie? Me too!

4. It's how they should have chosen their careers.

5. At various points in my childhood, I also wanted to be a Catholic priest, a velociraptor, and, natch, a pirate.


Post a Comment

<< Home