Pirates, Dead Ahead

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After the collapse of the Somali government in 1991, a reign of piracy ensued that terrorized the shipping lanes along the east coast of Africa for nearly two decades. Anyone who idealizes anarchy should take note: in the absence of leadership, leaders emerged — and these virtual warlords were at least as tyrannical as their predecessors, and certainly more volatile. (I didn't see any of my anarchist friends moving to Somalia during the 20 years between governments.)

Captain Phillips tells the harrowing story of Richard Phillips and the crew of the Maersk Alabama, an American cargo ship that was hijacked by a band of young Somalis in the spring of 2011. Incredibly, the Maersk Alabama was unescorted and her crew was armed with nothing but firehoses, despite ample knowledge that Somali pirates roamed the waters.

In the early days of American westward expansion, wagon trains and stagecoaches were similarly threatened by local bands as they transported people and commodities through unsafe territories. But their drivers and passengers carried rifles (leading later generations to call out "Shotgun!" when requesting the front passenger seat). They could also count on the protection of federal troops, who set up forts and patrolled the emigration areas. (I know — some might call this trespassing. And they might be right. But here we are.)

The Alabama had no such protection, and it carried no weapons. And it was alone in the water, away from the other cargo ships. Using radar to hunt their prey, the Somalis selected the Alabama in the way that a pride of lions might select a zebra. It was a single blip on the outskirts of the shipping lanes, away from the safety of the herd; it was the proverbial sitting duck.

These young pirates are no different from the street dealers in America, who take the risks of the Drug War and receive very little of the profits.

Despite its tense theme, the film begins slowly, almost boringly, with Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks) getting ready to go to work. He and his wife (Catherine Keener) make small talk about family and safety as she drives him to work. Then we watch Captain Phillips go through his usual routine on the ship. If this had been a film festival submission with unrecognized actors and no advance publicity, the screener probably would have popped it out of the DVD player ten minutes into the viewing and dropped it into the discard pile.

And that would have been a shame, because Captain Phillips is a nonstop suspense thriller, on a par with the original Die Hard movie. After that first tedious ten minutes, the tension doesn’t let up until the last frame of the film — despite a moment of unintended comic relief when the government agency that is called for help doesn’t pick up the phone. "Government shutdown!" someone called out in the audience.

Captain Phillips controls the rising panic he naturally feels and uses a calm, soothing voice as he tries to reason with the overwrought hijackers.The tension between what he feels and what he does is visible throughout the film. His men's lives are in his hands, but he is not a trained military man or intelligence agent. He couldn’t land a punch or aim a kick any better than you or I could; he's just a boat driver who probably wouldn't know what to do with an automatic rifle even if he managed to get one. Instead he uses his wits, planning diversions on the fly, weighing risks against potential outcomes, all the time trying to placate and calm his attackers. This heightens the emotional tension more than a physical fight would do, and it gives the film a strong tone of realism, more in the manner of United 93 (2006) than of the Bourne movies (2004, 2007), which were also directed by Paul Greengrass.

Captain Phillips gets additional depth from the backstory it provides for the hijackers. While never excusing them, it allows us to see the despair of poverty that leads young men like these to turn to piracy for their livelihood. At one point Phillips says to the ringleader, Muse (Barkhad Abdi), "You have $30,000. That's enough. Take it and go."Muse scoffs at the amount. "I got six million last year," he says of an earlier kidnapping. Phillips is incredulous, and so are we. Six million? He had six million American dollars, and he is still living in ragged, barefoot poverty? Muse shrugs in response. "You got bosses. I got bosses," he says.

These young pirates do all the work and take all the risks for a pittance, while a boss somewhere is living fat, collecting the ransoms and booty and doling out a tiny commission to the workers. They are no different from the street dealers in America, who take the risks of the Drug War and receive very little of the profits. In his research for Freakonomics, Steven D. Levitt discovered that most drug dealers experience this same tyranny of the warlord. Street dealers earn little more than minimum wage, and they live in poverty. As with the Somali pirates, or the lioness who goes in for the kill, the "lion's share" goes to the ones sitting safely under a tree.

Despite his two Oscars and his stellar reputation, Tom Hanks' work has been a bit uneven of late, with such forgettable films as The Terminal (2004), The Ladykillers (2004), Elvis Has Left the Building (also 2004) and a slew of others leading up to Larry Crowne (2011). (Don't look for my reviews because I didn't even bother.) Captain Phillips is his best work in over a decade. The constant tension between the panic his character feels and the calm he must present to his captors is always present. And when that tension breaks — well, it's simply an unforgettable moment, which makes up for ten years of forgettable films.

But as good as Hanks is in this film, it isn't as good as the amazing work performed by the four Somalis (Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Mahat M. Ali) who will convince you that they were discovered on the deck of a pirate ship, not in a casting studio. They are beyond scary. They are seething with rage, as volatile as a sprung grenade, overwrought and underfed and starving for vengeance against anyone. Anyone. But of course, they aren't really pirates. All four are immigrants living in the growing Somali community of Minneapolis, and all four are remarkable in their debut roles. Director Greengrass has to be given tremendous credit, first for deciding to use untrained Somalis instead of Hollywood actors, and second for being able to elicit such realistic work from these first-time actors.

The only disappointment in terms of acting is Catherine Keener as Captain Phillips' wife. She disappears after those first dull ten minutes, and she never returns. What a waste of a fine, skilled actress. I suspect, however, that she had a larger role, possibly as her character waited at home worrying about her husband's fate, but that it ended up on the cutting room floor in the interest of time or emotional arc. This would have been a wise decision, I might add, since any interruption to the gripping, fast-paced suspense would have been a mistake. In fact, as much as I admire her work, I would have cut her part entirely and started the film after Phillips is onboard the ship. But this is a minor quibble about a superbly acted film.

September-October is usually considered the dumping ground between the summer blockbusters and the end-of-year Oscar contenders; we usually wallow through fall with movies that were considered good enough to pick up for distribution but not good enough to give them holiday box office slots. But we are three-for-three in this month with Prisoners, Gravity, and Captain Phillips. Go easy on the popcorn!


Editor's Note: Review of "Captain Phillips," directed by Paul Greengrass. Columbia Pictures, 2013; 134 white-knuckle minutes.



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They're Coming for Your Internet

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In a thinly-veiled message to Internet users throughout the US and beyond, the FBI today (Jan. 19) shut down the file-sharing service MegaUpload.com, seizing the company’s domain name along with its headquarters. With this raid, the feds clearly meant to show that they were the bosses of the online world, laws and legislation be damned. As usual, they had no idea what they were getting themselves into.

Back up a couple days. On the eve of January 17, Internet sites all over the world were preparing to “blackout” to protest the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) then under consideration in the House of Representatives (in the Senate, as the Protect Intellectual Property Act, or PIPA). The bill would give the government power to seize any website that was reported to be hosting pirated material, or even providing links to such material.

Those doing the reporting, of course, would be the media companies themselves — thus giving them, essentially, a kill switch for sites they don’t like. So if you pan a big-budget movie — or break off a relationship with a studio exec — or really just in any way piss off anyone connected to a lawyer in the entertainment industry — your site could get shut down without due process and without recourse.

But the possibilities for petty revenge are far from the worst thing about the bill. That would be instead its potential to crush political dissent. Under SOPA, the presence of any link to “pirated” material would be sufficient to kill a site — even if the content is provided by anonymous commenters. Hence, the easiest way to silence dissidence online would be to spam the offending site with dubious links.

Even the biggest sites would be susceptible to such tactics; hence why even the behemoths of the Internet, such as Google and Wikipedia, signed onto the protest. With such sites as these “blacked-out” (usually redirecting to petitions or email-your-congressman forms), even casual Internet users found themselves confronted with the ramifications of the government’s latest lunatic notion. For once the people spoke, and many Congressmen reversed position.

The feds couldn’t let such a demonstration go unpunished, but lacking the power to shut down Google and Wikipedia (for now, anyway), they did the next best thing: publicly target and destroy a site like MegaUpload, as a way of announcing that they would shut down whomever they felt like. What they always forget, though, is how little they know about computing and networking, compared to the people who put together the kinds of sites they want to shut down. The response from the actually competent sector of the online world was swift and brutal: within two hours, the hacker collective Anonymous (previously best known for taking down the Church of Scientology site) had attacked and temporarily killed off the sites for the Department of Justice, the FBI, the Motion Picture Association of America, the Recording Industry Association of America, the US Copyright Office, and assorted major film studios and record labels.

These sites will all come back, obviously: only the government would claim the right to banish a site for good. But the mere fact that they could go down at all shows their vulnerability to attacks from very loosely affiliated networks of competent individuals. And that is a weakness that, try as they might, the DoJ, the FBI, the MPAA, et al., can never come to grips with: their very existence is predicated on massive, centralized, bureaucratic incompetence. To give that up would be to begin their own dismemberment.

It will be fascinating — and a bit worrying — to see how the government and major media companies will respond. Certainly SOPA and PIPA will come back in new, more insidious forms, probably as riders on unrelated bills. Though President Obama bucked his industry pals and came out against the bills this time (only, of course, once the online campaign against them was in full cry), there is no guarantee he would in a second term. Meanwhile, among the Republican candidates, only Ron Paul (natch) has denounced the bills; a President Romney, Gingrich, or Perry would probably sign them into law. [Edit: in the evening's Republican primary debate in South Carolina, candidates Romney, Gingrich, Santorum, and Paul all spoke out against SOPA — though Romney and especially Santorum still appeared to leave space for future censorship of the internet.]

Until then, what is required of us is vigilance — vigilance, and an unyielding determination not to let a few hundred computer illiterates in Washington DC legislate away our cultural future.



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Marque and Reprisal

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The AP reports that Erik Prince, founder of Blackwater US, is involved in training 2,000 Somali recruits to fight pirates who operate on the African coast. The financing for this venture “is being moved through a web of international companies, the addresses of which didn't always check out when the AP sought to verify them.”

I’d hoped that the US government would have followed Congressman Ron Paul’s suggestion and used its constitutional authority to fund such operations. Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution authorizes Congress to punish piracy and felonies committed on the high seas. The next clause allows Congress to grant letters of marque and reprisal, to address the special situation in which American ships, property, and interests are menaced, but no other government is involved.

War is not declared. Money for rewards is passed like an ordinary spending bill. Privateers using their own arms and wits are authorized to make money by taking the property of an offending foreigner. A sharply defined goal can be set and only success rewarded. The cost of using mercenaries is minimal, and America’s reputation and diplomatic interests are not on the line. No US serviceman will die.

In Somalia, Prince and his roughnecks can make a profit and pay market compensation to mercenaries who might lose lives or be injured while carrying out their assignments. America can plausibly deny responsibility for the sometimes distasteful aspects of war.

In 2001 Paul suggested that Letters of Marque and Reprisal be issued to kill or capture Osama bin Laden, who was hiding in ungovernable areas of Afghanistan. A force of irregulars, highly motivated by a generous bounty, would have neutralized bin Laden if anyone could have. Mercenaries would not have been distracted by the mirage of bringing “democracy and a strong central government” to the proud and independent anarchists farming that expanse of gravel.

But I expect too much; our Constitution languishes on life support in Washington. War is the health of the state.




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The Other Battle for Britain

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One of the crucial decisions in American culture was to keep broadcasting mostly out of the hands of the government. That was not the decision in the United Kingdom.

Death of a Pirate is about the long struggle to modify that decision. The word “pirate” refers not to brigands but to unlicensed broadcasters; the death is about the killing, on June 21, 1966, of one of them by another. It was not a typical event but a shocking one, and it provided the Labour government in Britain with a convenient excuse to shut down the “pirate” stations. But the stations had made their point about the monopoly of the British Broadcasting Corporation.

Johns, a Briton employed at the University of Chicago as a professor of history, does two big things with this book. The first is to tell the story of the BBC and the long fight against its monopoly by free-market economists, business people, music promoters, and ordinary Britons. The second is to use documents unsealed in 2001 to tell the story of the killing of Reginald Calvert by Oliver Smedley.

A British reader of my generation may appreciate this part, because he will remember the story. An American is less likely to care about all the details. The reader of Liberty will be attracted to the story of classical liberal ideas and bold entrepreneurial moves in the struggle for private commercial radio in Britain.

The BBC was created in 1927. It was a new thing, a state-owned corporation. As the national broadcaster, writes Johns, the BBC was imagined by its political creators as “autonomous from both the state and private industry.” It was to serve “the common good in a domain that it dominated, free of the inefficiencies of competition.”

The market-based relay company quickly learned to switch to the Continental stations whenever the BBC offered high culture.

Critics objected. Britain never had a British Newspaper Corporation to publish all newspapers or a British Books Corporation to publish all books. It didn’t have it, and it didn’t want it. So why have a single corporation own all broadcasting?

The answer is: because people were led to believe in it.

The BBC had a more elevated mission than any mere private broadcaster’s. Its mission was “to improve British culture through broadcasting.” It would not simply aim at the mass market but would offer “balanced programming,” a mix of such things as “string quartets, educational talks, sports commentaries and dance music.”

This was not meant as background music while the subscriber was washing dishes, weeding the garden, or fixing the plumbing. Radios were of large size then — the precursors of TV sets — and you had only one. The BCC supposed that you sat in your living room and paid attention. You were also supposed to pay cash for the privilege — a license fee equivalent today to $60 to $100 a year.

Politically, this conception of the BBC won the day. In the marketplace, it did not. Commercial stations, denied a place on British soil, set up shop in France and elsewhere and broadcast British content and British ads back to the people of Britain.

The market also offered “relay.” We would call it cable radio. This was popular in working-class districts. The customer paid a monthly fee, and the relay company provided a line and a set. It was cheaper than buying a radio set on installments, and usually the reception was better. The relay company received broadcast signals and chose which ones to pipe to people’s homes. The company could tell when its customers were switched on, and it quickly learned to switch to the Continental stations whenever the BBC offered high culture. By the mid-1930s, relay had more than 200,000 subscribers.

The BBC had a legal monopoly on British soil, but it did not have anything close to a real monopoly in the air.

In 1935 a parliamentary committee recommended that the relay companies be nationalized. It wasn’t done; the Conservatives were in power. After World War II, however, Labour took over and vowed to create a socialist Britain. The BBC looked to be in an invincible position.

It wasn’t.

A thing had happened at the London School of Economics. The school had been set up by socialists and dominated by critics of laissez-faire. But it had hired a few critics, and in 1930s three of them became a kind of “anti-Keynesian party.” They were Lionel Robbins, Friedrich Hayek, and Arnold Plant.

Johns devotes some attention to Hayek, his battle in the 1930s with Keynes, and his famous book, The Road to Serfdom (1944). Of the three professors, however, the key person for the radio story was Plant. His specialty was the economics of monopoly and information. He was opposed not only to having radio in the hands of a state corporation, but also to the patent and copyright laws that created monopoly power. As Johns says, “Plant quietly became Britain’s most important critic of such monopolies before the rise of the open-source software movement.”

In 1938 Plant set out to find out about Britain’s radio listeners. Researchers knocked on thousands of doors and asked people what they had switched on. He found that many were listening to Radio Luxembourg, Radio Normandy, and the other Continental stations. The BBC had a legal monopoly on British soil, but it did not have anything close to a real monopoly in the air.

Suddenly the so-called pirates were acting like real pirates. Smedley was acquitted of murder, but the British state took the opportunity and shut the “pirates” down.

Plant’s other contribution was the training of Ronald Coase, who half a century later would win a Nobel Prize in economics. Plant set Coase to work on issues of broadcasting. The eventual result was a book, British Broadcasting: A Study in Monopoly (1950), which Johns characterizes as “the ‘Road to Serfdom’ of the modern media.”

Coase argued that there was no economic reason, and no technical reason, for the BBC to be a monopoly. Those were smokescreens. The BBC had been granted monopoly status for a cultural reason: to support the claim by political elites “to determine on behalf of the listener which broadcast material he should hear.” To Plant and Coase, the issue was control of information. Freeing that from the state, Johns says, “reflected imperatives buried deep in the heart of neoclassical economics.”

Coase’s book influenced the debate. In 1951 the Conservatives returned to power and began using his arguments to push for commercial television. By 1954, they had it, at least in a small, one-channel way. But Britain still did not allow commercial radio. In the 1960s, entrepreneurs responded with “pirate radio” — commercial radio stations operating not from foreign jurisdictions but from stateless space: the seas. They used ships and abandoned World War II antiaircraft platforms outside the British state’s three-mile limit.

It took unusual people to do this. The ideologue of the group was Oliver Smedley. He was a classical liberal who in 1955 had been one of the founders of the Institute for Economic Affairs, the UK’s preeminent free-market think tank. He thought of pirate radio as a political attack on the British state — which it was. Another was Kitty Black, a theatrical agent who, Johns writes, was “contemptuous of government intervention in the arts.” Another was Reginald Calvert, a promoter of pop musical acts. There were others.

Death of a Pirate goes into much detail about who did what. Several of the ventures were half-baked, but at their peak the “pirate” stations had a large audience. Some offered 12 hours a day of pop music at a time when the BBC was limited by law to just 28 hours of music a week — a law designed to protect the musicians’ union.

The British government didn’t act, Johns says, partly because the stations were popular and partly because “nobody wanted to take charge.” Labour, which won the election of 1964, was not sympathetic to commercial broadcasting. Labour’s idea was to use state radio to create a “university of the air” to uplift British workers. Prime Minister Harold Wilson even appointed a bureaucrat — Jennie Lee, the wife of Aneurin Bevan, creator of the National Health Service — to accomplish this. Meanwhile, the British public was listening to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, often on transistor sets and car radios tuned to unlicensed stations.

Then came the killing. Calvert’s company had appropriated an abandoned antiaircraft fort — “sinister-looking boxes perched on steel legs” — eight miles offshore. Calvert had a used radio transmitter of Smedley’s that he had not paid for. Smedley wanted it back. He couldn’t get help from the police — the tower was outside the British state — so he hired a crew to take it. They stormed the platform and knocked Calvert’s radio station off the air. This led to Calvert bursting into Smedley’s house and Smedley's killing him with a shotgun.

Suddenly the so-called pirates were acting like real pirates. This had a political effect similar to the one in America when Timothy McVeigh killed government workers in Oklahoma City: it generated a revulsion against people with an anti-state point of view. Smedley was acquitted of murder (self-defence), but the British state took the opportunity and shut the “pirates” down.

The broadcasters had, however, made their point. Labour responded by creating the BBC’s first pop station. In the next Conservative government, under Edward Heath, the British state licensed commercial radio.

It’s a fascinating case in how to break the hold of a state monopoly.


Editor's Note: Review of "Death of a Pirate: British Radio and the Making of the Information Age," by Adrian Johns. Norton, 2010, 305 pages.



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