Pirates, written in America's gene
First Voice
Pirates, written in America's gene

Editor's note: Wretched City upon a Hill is a 10-part series examining the clash between America's cherished beliefs about its democracy and the jarring truth about how the system fails in practice. The tenth essay is about America's piracy genes.

The Black Swan, The Sea Hawk, swashbuckling adventure… Hollywood has a long history of glorifying pirates on the silver screen. The archetype of the heroic pirate is common in American fiction and culture.

Pirates are perennially popular, largely because of their core value of individualism and winning by any means necessary.

"Blackbeard and Ben Franklin deserve equal billing for founding democracy in the United States and New World" because the pirates "practiced the same egalitarian principles as the Founding Fathers" such as "three branches of government with checks and balances," according to a 2006 paper by a University of Florida researcher.

The ship captain was elected, the pirate assembly was comparable to Congress; and the quartermaster resembled a judge in settling disputes and preventing the captain from overstepping his authority.

Pirates emphasized "written laws, democratic representation and due process" and also "displayed a pioneering spirit in exploring new territory and meeting the native peoples."

So pirates, like the new American nation, had an idealistic streak. But in both cases this only served to mask the reality of brutal plunder and expansion.

British maritime power started with a group of privateers, and the establishment of the American colonies and the privateer system were tied together. New York, for example, was a notorious base for privateers.

After independence, the mythology of the United States was shaped by a religion-fueled sense of destiny to expand through slaughter, plunder and exploitation, all the while painting itself as an exemplary nation of virtue and justice in the world.

The American founders portrayed the Native Americans as heathens and savages, claiming that they had to be killed in the name of Christianity and civilization.

The blood of the native people soaked the land as the U.S. expanded westward.

Thousands participated in the first Indigenous Peoples March in Washington D.C., the United States, January 18, 2019. /Xinhua
Thousands participated in the first Indigenous Peoples March in Washington D.C., the United States, January 18, 2019. /Xinhua

Thousands participated in the first Indigenous Peoples March in Washington D.C., the United States, January 18, 2019. /Xinhua

Growing its expansionist goals to a continental scale, in 1823, the U.S. introduced the Monroe Doctrine to prevent European powers from interfering in affairs in North and South America.

Near the end of World War I, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson proposed the League of Nations. Wilson won a Nobel Prize for his role in founding the league, but the United States refused to join it, preferring the freedom to act without restrictions in global affairs. The U.S. offered to lead the world, but would bear no rigid obligations to other nations.

After World War II, the U.S., using its wealth and influence, assumed the unofficial role of quasi-world government for decades, exercising mostly indirect control over other countries or regions. However, the U.S. did not hesitate to instigate coups d'états or even direct military invasions to enforce its will and secure resources.

In the hope of showing what it was doing was different from classic colonialism, the U.S. deliberately created a set of universal values. It packaged its pirate logic using words such as democracy, freedom, human rights, and rule of law to legitimize itself.

However, these words cannot hide America's pirate impulses, as in the recent case of Texas Republican Congressman Lance Gooden's proposal to allow Americans to seize the property of sanctioned Russian citizens.

Republican Congressman Lance Gooden. /Getty
Republican Congressman Lance Gooden. /Getty

Republican Congressman Lance Gooden. /Getty

Fear has been a constant in American history, as French scholar Dominique Moisi writes in his book The Geopolitics of Emotion.

After all, if everything you have was taken by force and oppression, at any moment, the oppressed could rise up and seek revenge or even justice.

This can be seen on a personal scale. The free flow of guns in American society today is only as a symbol of individualism, but also as a continuation of a wild, violent and dangerous history. Guns are needed in case the oppressed decide to strike back.

This also works on a global scale. The U.S. has by far the largest military in the world, to maintain what it has taken by force, and ensure it continuing expansion.

This is the crisis that the U.S. has found itself in.

The U.S. culture of piracy and its hegemonic ideals constitute a paradox. To some extent, the U.S. has bought into its own myths. It has an almost theological drive to universalize its own purported values and to force others to follow its example. Yet, American exceptionalism determines the country will never allow any other state to become another America, let alone challenge American hegemony. America reserves for itself the tacit right to plunder.

Caught up in this paradox, the U.S. needs to look for new enemies or opponents. If not communists, socialists. If not socialists, Muslims. If not Muslims, China.

If there were no more enemies or opponents, the U.S. would have to face its own nature. It would have to realize that its system, without expansion and new frontiers to plunder, would collapse.

Only new enemies can sustain the core culture and national identity of the United States, and distract Americans from internal divisions and foreign hostility caused by its shameful and painful history of plunder and exploitation.

No matter how hard the U.S. tries to glorify and deify itself, pirating is written in its genes.

This continues to be manifested through waging wars, plunder, blame shifting, and exploitation, despite its rhetoric of justice and liberty.

(The author, Wei Nanzhi, is a research fellow at the Institute of American Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. If you want to contribute and have specific expertise, please contact us at Follow @thouse_opinions on Twitter to discover the latest commentaries in the CGTN Opinion Section.)

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