Pirates get a bad rap. Their trade was often the only course open to a poor person in the 17th century, and as an institution it treated its people uncommonly well, if you overlook the pillaging and murder.
On the Spanish Main, most pirate ships were democracies. You elected your captain, and you could vote to replace him. Spoils were divided evenly. Morale was generally high, so much so that pirates often overwhelmed trade vessels by force of numbers. And there was even a social insurance system, so a wounded pirate would be guaranteed money or gold at a certain scale.
Best of all, buccaneers were egalitarian. If they took a slave ship, they freed the slaves. Occasionally they’d force carpenters or other specialists to sail with them, but they’d free them afterward, and they could join the crew if they chose. That’s more noble, in its way, than a lot of lawful enterprises.
The Rhinoceros Party of Canada claimed to have an appropriate mascot, as politicians by nature are “thick-skinned, slow-moving, dim-witted, can move fast as hell when in danger, and have large, hairy horns growing out of the middle of their faces.” Platform planks:
providing higher education by building taller schools
tearing down the Rocky Mountains so that Albertans could see the sun set
abolishing the environment “because it’s too hard to keep clean and it takes up so much space”
putting the national debt on Visa
Compare New Zealand’s McGillicuddy Serious Party, whose policies included “full unemployment” and the introduction of chocolate fish as legal tender. “If you want to waste your vote, vote for us.”
If you feel kind of standoffish at parties, you might want to avoid Kruibeke for a while.
The mayor of that Belgian municipality, Antoine Denert, has created a Department of Tenderness, insisting that “people don’t cuddle anymore, and that’s the reason why there are so many conflicts.”
That’s, um, nice. Denert said he hoped to inspire other governments to reconsider their own policies, which rarely even get to second base. “Why not change the Ministry of Defense into the Ministry of Tenderness?” he asked helpfully. “The war in Iraq would never have started.”
In a disturbing show of civic enthusiasm, the mayor vowed to “set an example and start in my own village by caressing, cuddling, and kissing as many people as possible.” His wife’s opinion is not recorded.
Regulations posted in the dance halls of Lansing, Mich., circa 1920:
No shadow or spotlight dances allowed.
Moonlight dances not allowed where a single light is used to illuminate the Hall. Lights may be shaded to give Hall dimmed illuminated effect.
All unnecessary shoulder or body movement or gratusque dances positively prohibited.
Pivot reverse and running on the floor prohibited.
All unnecessary hesitation, rocking from one foot to the other and see-sawing back and forth of the dancers will be prohibited.
No loud talking, undue familiarity or suggestive remarks unbecoming any lady or gentleman will be tolerated.
Position of Dancers
Right hand of gentleman must not be placed below the waist nor over the shoulder nor around the lady’s neck, nor lady’s left arm around gentleman’s neck. Lady’s right hand and gentleman’s left hand clasped and extended at least six inches from the body, and must not be folded and lay across the chest of dancers.
Heads of dancers must not touch.
No beating of drum to produce Jazz effect will be allowed.
Any and all persons violating any of these rules will be subject to expulsion from the hall, also arrest for disorderly conduct.
Even the pristine hinterlands aren’t pristine anymore. In the early 1990s, British zoologist Tim Benton took a walk along a mile of shoreline on Ducie Island, a speck of land 4,970 miles east of Australia. Here’s what he found:
268 unidentifiable pieces of plastic
171 glass bottles
74 bottle tops
71 plastic bottles
67 small buoys
66 buoy fragments
46 large buoys
44 pieces of rope
29 segments of plastic pipe
8 pieces of copper sheeting
7 aerosol cans
7 food and drink cans
6 fluorescent tubes
6 light bulbs
4 jerry cans
3 cigarette lighters
2 pen tops
2 dolls’ heads
2 gloves (a pair)
1 asthma inhaler
1 construction worker’s hat
1 football (punctured)
1 glue syringe
1 truck tire
1 plastic coat hanger
1 plastic foot mat
1 plastic skittle
1 small gas cylinder
1 tea strainer
1 tinned meat pie
1 toy soldier
And “0.5 toy airplane.” That’s 953 items of debris altogether, on an island of 2.5 square miles, in the least populous country in the world.
The Depravity Scale is an attempt to reach a scientific definition of evil. What makes a crime “heinous”? If “horrible” or “atrocious” crimes get longer sentences, what counts? The Supreme Court says that sentences must reflect societal attitudes, but right now there’s no legal definition of a “heinous, atrocious, or cruel” act; jurors have to rely on their emotions.
New York forensic psychiatrist Michael Welner put together a list of 26 things that might characterize an act as depraved. Does the criminal maximize the victim’s fear or pain? Does he boast about his act? So far, Welner has found more than 90 percent consensus that 16 of the items indicate depravity. Interestingly, the results seem consistent across states, but not between countries.
“We need consistency, and in particular consistency that reflects the best that forensics has to offer,” Welner says. “From my own vantage point of working within the cases, juries and judges don’t see near as much as they should be seeing when it comes to forensic evidence about what a person’s intent was, what a person actually did, and what a person’s attitude was about what he did. Even from a mental health standpoint, there’s far more effort devoted to the question of who a person is or why that person did something rather than just look at what the person did.”
And Welner has no problem with the concept of evil. “I have no problem with the word being used,” he says. “If you look in the literature, there’s a startling lack of effort to try to flesh out what evil is, and I think it’s our responsibility as behavioral scientists to try to understand it. This issue gets neglected because therapeutic professions like psychiatry inherently must focus on the good in order to be therapeutic. Another reason for this neglect is because to wade in and wrestle with it means to confront it in ourselves, and that’s a painful prospect even for the most stable of us. When I first began exploring this, I never enjoyed it, and I appreciated walking away from it. The more I studied it, the more it affected even my dreams. It’s an unpalatable exercise.”