My thoughts on Piracy

Kester Brewin has been writing a series of articles about Piracy, and how it can/should be re-understood in the context of the church. It was a long and interesting series, following on from some stuff which I didnt hear at Greenbelt.

Richard Sudworth has made a response to Kester’s series of posts, taking  a stand against some of what Kester has to say, and also bringing in the kind of work that Peter Rollins has been involved in.

Indeed the two are from a similar mould, they both write stimulating and challenging prose which I find intriguing and troubling at the same time, in general I’m a fan. But what about their arguments?

In the first place I should say that I think its important there are people like Kester and Pete out there doing their thing. My personal view is that we need to have people like them asserting points of view which are unpalletable and challenging, whether we eventually agree with them or not. I have written before that we need to ‘re-wild’ the church, and that we need to be a lot less comfortable with our faith/religion.

But having said that, and albeit that I am no theologian, I do have a number of issues with some of the stuff they say, lets take the piracy thing.

First there is the concept of piracy itself – what is it really? Is it the great heresy, full of creativity and innovation? I would argue that it isnt. I would say in fact that piracy is simply free market capitalism taken to its logical conclusion.

Piracy is basically a way of making money and obtaining goods or services by finding a way of getting it from other people at the lowest possible cost to yourself. Capitalism encourages the people at the bottom of the ladder to strive to get up it, and it encourages the idea of taking a short cut if possible. That is called ‘efficiency’. Thus we are all trying to stay ahead of others, and in our own way, through systemic exploitation,  all contributing to the death and destruction, rape and torture of others, but for most of us its a few steps removed from our hands. For the archetypal pirate, its right there in front of them.

Piracy also serves another purpose, that of safeguarding the orthodoxy. While there are pirates in the seas, we must have gunships, soldiers, private military contractors. The threat of piracy is what legitimises the defence of the orthodoxy, the pirates are out to get us, so we must have something to protect us. Piracy therefore is a necessary part of our system, rather than being the innovation, its the bogey man which is used to keep children in their beds. (I dont use bogey men stories to keep my kids in their beds… much.)

Oh and my opinion of why kids like pirates? The idea of piracy is one of having what the world offers, without the need for adherence to an ethical code, its basically getting stuff, without responsibility to others save your loyal buccaneer pals. The dream is to buckle a swash, steal some treasure, and sail off into the sun with not a care in the world, looking for an island full of willing maidens, or even unwilling ones if necessary. Kids like pirates because we socialise them into liking the idea that you could have everything you want, without needing to be the poor sucker at the bottom of the pile who has to clean up the mess. The pirate is top dog, answerable to no man but himself and those he chooses (the pirate ship as democracy scenario), he (yes usually it is a he) spurns the idea of obeying the external rules, and chooses to take what he can instead with a piratical wink and an unaccountable forgiving nature for young people (Long John Silver, Capt Adam Penfeather etc).

So I dont hold with the utopian concept of piracy, I do understand the horrendous situation faced by some of the pirates in Somalia, fish stolen, toxic waste dumped, etc etc, and I can understand why they do what they do. Does that make it right? Not at all. Nor does their action make it right that the US navy patrols the area with gunships and missiles. None of it is right, and it is all caused by the disaster that Somalia has become, a disaster which has been exploited by the richer nations to legitimise their own ways of thinking/behaving, and to be hauled out as another example of what happens when ‘Africa goes bad’.

On another form of piracy, that of ripping off music and films, and the ubiquitous complaint that the anti piracy adverts at the beginning of DVDs are annoying. This aggravates me on two fronts, firstly, the whole DVD piracy thing is actually right. Organised gangs do make lots of money from counterfeit goods, they might not wear jaunty hats, and they may live in houses not boats, but these pirates are responsible not just for one form of crime, but for many forms. Any criminologist can tell you that people involved in this form of organised crime are more likely to be involved in other forms, whether that be drugs, prostitution or whatever. This is just another way of making money.

Does that translate to those illegally uploading and downloading music and films on the internet? No, but there is a difference between music and films, in particular the scale.  Iwould suggest that there is a huge moral question over whether we should watch hollywood films at all. The vast sums of money spent on the industry are obscene, and the disparity between the elite and the oppressed are only aggravated by the development of the film stars. Not to mention the fact that the development of the film industry has spawned brainless TV entertainment which is slowly killing our minds, and also taken us away to a large extent from the interaction of live entertainment, which at one time we might each have been a part of. That’s a discussion for another day.

I think there is a genuine argument that the music industry needs to change its structure and methodology, I find Steve Lawson’s arguments very persuasive on this, and while I personally do not conduct illegal file sharing, nor do I suggest anyone else should, I can understand the suggestion that music is much better given away for free like this. There is a social and economic reasoning behind it which makes sense.

Is that the same for films? No, because films dont have the same dynamics, they cant come live in your living room like a band or musician can, and the cinema and the concert hall are two quite different places. There does need to be new thought on all this, but to moan about anti piracy ads on the front of your dvd makes no sense at all to me. Is it subversive to try and rip off films and music? Or is it just an attempt to obtain goods and services at the lowest possible cost to oneself? The latter being the orthodox view of this society by the way, and one which as I said before inevitably results in piracy of one sort or another.

Do I think that we need heretics (a la Brewin and Rollins) in the church, I do actually yes, I think this links to an earlier post I wrote about re-wilding the church. I think there is a calling on some to be provocative, to be wild and out there, in all directions. They help the rest of us by making us re-examine our comfortable philosophies. Richard Sudworth also correctly points out that any group can be on the margins depending upon its context, no one form of Christian faith community has the monopoly on being marginalised. I am more and more of the opinion that we need to be fully accepting of all kinds of church and Christian practise, and a bit more demanding of ourselves in terms of discipleship.

Richard Sudworth questions the morality of what Kester and Pete are espousing, suggesting that it undermines any notion of an objective truth based morality, and of course it does. Both these guys are very much of the postmodern school (imho) and seem to come close to denying the very pillars of our beliefs. While I can understand the point they are making, I feel that in this case postmodernity misses the point. What we need is rather than a postmodern frame of reference, a pre-modern frame of reference, which requires not disbelief, but an active suspension of disbelief on our part. I’ll write more on this another time hopefully.

So on balance, while I am interested, intrigued and stimulated in my thinking by these questions of piracy and the orthodoxy of heresy, I am less than convinced by all the arguments, well done to Richard Sudworth for taking it all apart much more insightfully and eloquently than I ever could, and lets all keep listening to one another.

some things to remember about Somali pirates


As the Somali piracy crisis continues to deepen, with more boats being held to ransom, and more people being killed, there are a few things which bear considering as we watch/listen to the news.

1)  This is not a problem that has arisen from nowhere.  As I wrote earlier this year, the Somali problem has been brewing for some time, and has been spurred on by illegal toxic waste dumping, and illegal fishing.  Indeed some of these pirates call themselves the Somali coast guard.

2)  This is not something which has just started, there have been growing problems with piracy over recent years, but because British, European and American ships have not been targetted particularly, the issue hasnt been reported here.

3)  There is an argument that this is the logical extension of a capitalist system: The pirates are asking a price for ships wishing to enter their waters.  Of course this comes at a terrible cost, but in a microcosm this is a fair representation of capitalist ideology… (discuss)

Suggested reading:  Treehugger, Steve Hayes

piratical tales

Today, for your reading pleasure I have two tales of high seas intrigue – the first to do with Whales, and the second to do with Somali pirates.

Let me explain…

Following on from yesterday’s post about sustainable fishing, I was intrigued to read about the adventures of the Sea Shepherd ship Steve Irwin.

As you may already know, whale meat is now banned, as whales have been hunted to the edge of extinction in some parts of the world.  But despite that, the Japanese whaling fleet is still in action, working in the name of ‘scientific research’.  Yep – that justifies shooting whales with grenade tipped harpoons….

So the Steve Irwin has been making a nuisance of itself, shaddowing the fleet, and documenting their activities.  They also get in the way when they can, to stop the killing of whales, and try to blockade the harpoon boats when they try to transfer dead whales to their factory ship for processing.

Naturally the japanese whalers arent keen on this, and yesterday I read a blog post from the ship detailing an amazing battle between the sea shepherd and three whaling ships, here’s an excerpt:

“…A Fin whale was spotted at 1211 Hours. The Steve Irwin launched two fast inflatable boats to head off any attempt to harpoon the whale. The helicopter was launched to film the blocking action.

All three harpoon vessels, the Yushin Maru #1, Yushin Maru #2 and Yushin Maru #3 attacked the Steve Irwin in dangerous passes to foul the Steve Irwin’s propeller.

At 1220 the Yushin Maru #1 was a quarter mile away on the port side and heading directly towards the Steve Irwin. A 2nd harpoon vessel the Yushin Maru #2 was moving in a full speed from the Starboard side. The Yushin Maru # 3 approached rapidly from the stern.

At 1230, the Nisshin Maru aimed the Long Range Acoustical Device (LRAD) [a ‘non lethal’ weapon developed for the military] at helicopter pilot Chris Aultman of California and Animal Planet cameraman Ashley Dunn of Tasmania.

“At first it was just a loud noise,” said  Aultman, “then they turned up the volume and we could feel it in our legs and chest.”

Aultman retreated out of range of the device but was shocked they used it.

“It was extremely irresponsible for the whalers to aim that devise at the helicopter,” said Captain Paul Watson. “They were doing nothing but filming and presented absolutely no threat to the ships. They demonstrated absolutely no regard for human life.”

At this point the harpoon vessels turned on their LRAD and aimed it at the small boats and the Steve Irwin.

This sonic attack was followed by the Nisshin Maru turning into the Steve Irwin and attempting to actually ram the Sea Shepherd vessel at full speed.

Captain Paul Watson ordered the small boats to act like fighter planes in a dog fight. “You’ve got to keep those hunter killer boats off our bow. If they cripple us down here we will be helpless,” he said.

The small boats retaliated by threatening to foul the props of the harpoon vessel.

Steve Roest of the United Kingdom was injured when he became disoriented, dizzy and was knocked down cutting open his head. Ship’s doctor David Miller from Perth sutured the wound with five stitches. Captain Paul Watson received rope burns when he fired a speed line in front of the Yushin Maru #1 to force them to retreat from an attempt to cross the bow with a fouling line.

The whalers jammed the Steve Irwin’s radios and navigational instruments and kept a steady bombardment of the Sea Shepherd crew with the LRAD’s. Captain Watson spent four hours undertaking zigzag and circular maneuvers to avoid the prop fouling.

“The attacks by the three ships became so aggressive we had to fire flares and speed lines over their head to force them to back off,” said Watson.

The small boats also retaliated with rotten butter bombs. The Steve Irwin retrieved both boats and the helicopter by going in tight circles with the three harpoon vessels circling on the outside blasting the crew with LRAD’s and towing fouling lines.

“It was very worrying for us,” said Steve Irwin 1st Officer Peter Hammarstedt of Sweden. “Our helicopter was almost out of fuel and the whalers were forcing us to keep avoiding them making it difficult for the helicopter to land.”

At 1700 Hours, the harpoon boats backed off and the Steve Irwin resumed the pursuit of the Nisshin Maru. The whaling fleet is once more running before the Steve Irwin heading due South deep into the Ross Sea….”

You can keep up with the increasingly dangerous activities of the Steve Irwin at the Sea Shepherd blog.

On another note, also to do with high seas derring do, an interesting article by Johann Hari looks at the situation facing the Somali pirates who have been in the news so much recently.

What has not been mentioned in the news has been the apparent dumping of nuclear waste in the Somali waters, and the undeclared pirate fishing also in Somali waters.

According to Al Jazeera:  Nick Nuttall, a UNEP spokesman, said:  “Somalia has been used as a dumping ground for hazardous waste starting in the early 1990s, and continuing through the civil war there,” he said.

“European companies found it to be very cheap to get rid of the waste, costing as little as $2.50 a tonne, where waste disposal costs in Europe are something like $1000 a tonne.

“And the waste is many different kinds. There is uranium radioactive waste. There is lead, and heavy metals like cadmium and mercury. There is also industrial waste, and there are hospital wastes, chemical wastes – you name it.”

The pirates we see and hear about on the news belong to a larger group of sea farers who style themselves as Somalia’s unofficial coast guard.  Clearly many of them are just gangsters on the make, but the bigger picture is an interesting context for their behaviour, and reflects less well on the west which has recently sent gun boats in to protect precious oil cargos.

The same article also gives an interesting reminder that at one time pirates established their own little democratic societies by setting up as pirates, rather than subjecting themselves to the brutal dictatorship of British sea captains.