A Lady (First Mistake) Historian (Second) Wrote About Pirates (Third). Guess What Came Next, Guess, Guess.
Dr. Jamie Goodall is a historian at the US Army Center of Military History, and a pretty highly regarded expert on pirates. Last year she published the book Pirates of the Chesapeake Bay: From the Colonial Era to the Oyster Wars, which astute readers will gather is also about pirates. So it's not surprising the Washington Post would have her write a piece for its "Made by History" feature last Friday, prior to the big weekend sportsball game in which one of the two teams not featuring puppies was named the "Tampa Bay Buccaneers."
Goodall reflected on the odd popular image of pirates in American popular imagination, and for the Florida coast in particular. Tampa even has a city festival commemorating the pirate José Gaspar, who may or may not have actually existed. Along the way, Goodall briefly notes the history of the city's NFL franchise and how its original pirate logo was meant to be "a 'classy' pirate — a cross between Robin Hood, Errol Flynn, the musketeer D'Artagnan and pirate Jean Lafitte," not a scruffy blackguard who might call to mind looting and pillaging. (She either missed or chose not to take the chance to point out that in 2015, the Outsports blog proclaimed that 1975-1997 pirate the "gayest logo in NFL history.")
But oh dear, Goodall then had to go and talk about her expertise, musing that maybe there's something odd about celebrating a bunch of nautical murderers and thieves as romantic heroes, and before you could say "Ted Yoho and a bottle of rum," the word was out: A crazy Marxist historian lady was trying to cancel pirates, the Tampa Bay f'ball team, and sports fans, and just look how that crazy leftist was trying to do political correctness to the Super Bowl!
Let's note that most of the piece isn't even directed at the ugly history of piracy; if anything, Goodall devotes far more space to the many different stories, none supported by historical documentation, about Tampa Bay's beloved and possibly fictional pirate hero José Gaspar. Nonetheless, a few paragraphs do touch on what awful people pirates were, and the Post gave the piece the headline "The Buccaneers embody Tampa's love of pirates. Is that a problem?"
Most of the online ire has been aimed at this paragraph, which mentions slavery and indigenous people, and is therefore anti-American propaganda:
Yet, while this celebration of piracy seems like innocent fun and pride in a local culture, there is danger in romanticizing ruthless cutthroats who created a crisis in world trade when they captured and plundered thousands of ships on Atlantic trade routes between the Americas, Africa and Great Britain. Why? Because it takes these murderous thieves who did terrible things — like locking women and children in a burning church — and makes them a symbol of freedom and adventure, erasing their wicked deeds from historical memory. These were men (and women) who willingly participated in murder, torture and the brutal enslavement of Africans and Indigenous peoples.
It's not that Goodall is factually incorrect about piracy. But she talks about crimes against Black and Indigenous people, plus women, and that can only mean one thing: She's a crazy ranting liberal who wants you to feel bad about things you like, just because some people in history suffered, and isn't she a killjoy? Wingnuts decided that Goodall was out to make the team change its name (she never says anything of the sort) and that, even worse, she was calling them bad people for liking football.
Soon the full culture war backlash was on, because why do liberals have to suck the fun out of everything? Perpetually aggrieved Daily Wire griper-man Matt Walsh mocked the very idea that a team mascot could mean anything:
And right on schedule came the twitter trolls, the threats (yes, including rape threats, because a woman said things on the internet), and Goodall's decision to temporarily lock her Twitter account to shut out some of the noise. And of course, the accusations of horrible hypocrisy: How dare Goodall tell people they're not allowed to romanticize pirates when she herself has a tattoo of a sexy lady pirate, huh? It's a pretty good gotcha! except for the part where she never said no one's allowed to romanticize pirates, she just thinks it's a phenomenon we might want to think about. Fellow pirate historian Scarlet Ingstad pointed out that folks who study pirate history often enjoy joking about the romanticized image of pirates, even while detailing the truth of the "horrors they inflicted." But context and subtlety aren't allowed in a good culture wars skirmish.
Goodall's chief crime appears to have been writing about historical context at all in connection to football, in a year in which the Washington DC football team finally dropped its racist mascot, and the Kansas City team, the other one in the Super Bowl, is being pressured to do the same, as Goodall notes. And why did she even have to accurately note that pirates enslaved Black people, especially in a year when they keep insisting their lives matter?
We learn many things from rightwing culture warriors, who insist it's wrong to condemn slavery based on "modern" morality (as if no one at the time objected, particularly the enslaved). But apparently pointing out that piracy was condemned in its own time — Goodall notes that Cotton Mather called pirates "Common Enemies of Mankind" — is also some kind of revisionist cancel culture too.
Donald Trump's reactionary bloviations about academic history being a sinister plot to make children hate America have definitely taken root, and here are its fruits: a historian getting threats for having suggested pirates make some pretty strange romantic heroes, given their actual history.
Not that any of the wingnuts noticed, but Goodall actually closed her essay with a compelling historical argument for why pirates might have come to be seen as romantic figures [emphasis added]:
Perhaps time has dulled us to the atrocities committed by these 17th and 18th century outlaws. Or perhaps it's the fact that if pirates of the Golden Age were bloodthirsty, so too were the nations who opposed them. They willingly and purposefully massacred millions of African and Indigenous peoples in the name of colonization. Pirates, then, are seen as romantic heroes — the underdogs fighting the establishment — whom historian Marcus Rediker refers to as proto-democratic, egalitarian and multicultural.
If you ask us, that's a convincing argument, and an answer to her earlier question. The problem is that she asked it at all, setting off what's become a predictable, even inevitable rightwing backlash. We're sure Tucker Carlson will eventually find time to get angry at Goodall, too. Especially if Trump's impeachment trial keeps making Trump look bad.
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