You are on the high seas, no land as far as the eye can see. Weeks of isolation in the doldrums. Liftless sails. An uneasy calm and malease permeates the ranks. You’ve been observing, through the spyglass, a speck growing larger hour by hour. The winds sweep up into a dark quall. Cook yells, fire in the galley, just as wood strikes wood and the pirate ship makes contact. A terrifying banner unfurls and in seconds, the attack will begin. Left with a desperately disorganized crew and sure to be overcome, given the choice, do you walk the plank, or do you walk the line?
In this time of tumult, do we have freedom of choice? Given the options, do we have an authentic choosing? This is an important conversation for the global ship Earth and what we can collectively create.
First, a brief history. Did you know that the pirate ship is considered to be the first form of democracy? In the golden days of piracy, the captain and other officers were voted in and they could be voted out. Captains took a vote on everything: where to go, who to plunder, how to steal it, what adventure was next, and what to do with captives. Crews were diverse in every way and booty was distributed according to skill and involvement. Captains usually only took no more than two or three times what other crew members commanded. Pirates were compensated for injuries. They practiced what Peter T. Lessen refers to as piratical harmony. Harmony for pirates.
Pirates were great harbingers of brand. How many of you have some recollection of a pirate named Blackbeard? He lived over 300 years ago and was rumored to set his hair on fire. He commanded much fear by ruse and rumour. Blackbeard’s flag was of a skeleton stabbing a bleeding heart with a spear. It is all about the flag in the realm of piracy. It is no accident that the skull and crossbones flag was created, for being seen as terrifyingly violent made it much less likely that you would be challenged, lose cargo or worse, be killed. Keeping the booty and staying alive was just good business.
But what does this have to do with us in the time of Covid?
In a sense, one could pretend to see America as a really big pirate ship, with no port in site. No cove in which to shelter, the virus is everywhere. The world is stuttering, trying to understand who and what we are for each other. Plied with rum and tired of the galley, we long for the bustle of the town and all the simple vices. Strangely, beautifully, in this paradise abandoned, we are seeing celebration of a voice rising above long held suffering. In Black Lives Matter, we are witnessing a powerful movement for equality and assertion for democracy. A harmonic piracy of the public opinion.
Something else has happened during this glory, which seems to have been perhaps shuffled aside for the greater good of the emergent voice, but which bears reckoning. As we hunkered down in Los Angeles at the start of the protests, police sirens squalling every seventeen minutes, there was mass looting. The protests were intelligently organized in specific locations, so we did not see a repeat of past looting in struggling communities, but the looting occurred, and was in some way muffled. Beyond the deploy of National Guard and plywood everywhere, there was no voice to it. This shadow bears acknowledging. It is a movement without brand.
Who are we as American people? We are so tied to brand. Some of us love America as representing opportunity. Some despise America, a symbol of dominance. As we engage in our evolution, our corporate and civic re-branding in this time is much tied to a long overdue cleanup of American conversations. It is in keeping with how our system works. We make art. We destroy art. We fund. We de-fund. The beauty of our system is that it is ever adaptive. But more than any other nation, and perhaps this was what Warhol understood, we explain power of commodity in identity.
One could argue that the idea of brand is inseparable to the American psyche. As a child in early eighties Arkansas, my favorite pastime was reviewing the Service Merchandise catalog with a friend and we would individually choose an item on each page, an indication of our taste, our identity. We plundered that catalog and emerged as fourth grade women with a voice, which, in retrospect, was a somewhat superficial assemblage of our survival based, divisive and yet creative views. It all reflected who we be.
Perhaps it still does. Consider us all to be pirates. Our cultural success, to some extent, lies in getting the most that we can get, in choosing and in having the best option. Typically, we want to go to, or want our kids to go to the best school, which could represent the most innovative education or a prestigiously connected one. Regardless, it is a cultural reaping, whereby everyone grabs the best available option. Those that can. Those with perspective, family, options.
We also chose our individual or familial presentation for our chosen societies. Like pirates, we cultivate our personal brands by advertising our bigness in choice of home, clothing, neighborhood and circles. You can see it so well in social media. Pro-organic farms, hemp, god, guns, tits, you name it, we steal cuts of aesthetic, of the tongue, of nature and of other people to make up the representations of who we are so that it is undeniably clear what we stand for.
Don’t get me wrong, many, many of us are operating consciously, intentionally and cooperatively. This is not to suggest that we are just thieves, or that we aren’t evolving in our beauty as a human species, which I believe we are. But I would posit that our identity, as we shape it, is in part created by piracy. We design our stature, our statues, our status, our homes, our lives with selection, and that which we do not choose, collectively represents the shadow, that which is considered not party to our becoming.
Pair that with our systematic, troubled culture in which the whole does not recognize that we are all on the same ship, and we have what we are: a motley crew of buccaneers, some clamoring for collateral, some for destination, some swabbing the deck, one a poser on the prow, some who did not even know they were on the boat and others who believe that boats aren’t real.
Most of us would heal the world if we knew how. A great number of us have consciousness of connection, often granted by psych-altered states. Less of us know how to have everyone hear that everyone has a place in the tribe. And so, the earth revolves. We lose our beautiful flora and fauna. The albatross dies. Our ship takes on water and we have no idea how to have our plunder make it sail because treasure does not create wisdom. Nor does intention. We squabble. We fight.
The looting in Los Angeles was another manifestation of our democracy. It was a quiet mutiny of our unacknowledged crew members scooping out of our system of booty in America that is and has always been subject to superficial dichotomous agreement but lacks a deeper request, consent or engagement for which we are all responsible. Rich or poor. Born of immigrants of all walks of life, born of both flourishing entrepreneurship and of desperate need, the American nation is the wealthiest nation in the world, and we don’t feed our people. In my first grade, at public school in the United States, there were children whose bellies were extended from hunger. Always black bellies. This is still happening. Yes, it is a race conversation. And yes, it is a story of poverty, the conversation we really don’t like to have because we don’t know what to do about it, or how to evolve as a collective when human brains are wired for fear.
And so, here today in our nation, a half mass elects the best leader they can find, a totem crafted in the assemblage of ideals, and no matter who it is, most of us are disappointed. What held the illusion of powerful navigation, unity and of free choice is shaped from within our human paradigm of scarcity, our primordial methods of classification and deservedness. As a people, we cannot figure out how to lead further, other than in business or in moral righteousness. We hold that some other part of the country is responsible for our failure. We refrain from blaming those older than us, or our parents. We continue to brand our fellows as either this or that, black or white, all equally dangerous. We are a piratical band of misfits who cannot sail together. Truth is, harmonic piracy only succeeds when there is an other to strip and we are in actuality, powerfully, failing to collectively agree to plunder.
The question then is not, do you walk the plank or walk the line. The real question is, can you shake beauty into every interaction that you have? Can you sail with grace? We are in the midst of a not only a cultural revolution but an evolution. We are rewriting the offer, recreating our human capacity to see more than one horizon. For many, America has been and is an idea, a dawning of consciousness, a dream of seas of opportunity. It is the albatross that has led to where we are now. As we lean forward into our greater beings, into our multiplicity, remember, the ship we are on is but a nation.