04.12.09

The Pirates and Us

That a ragtag band of pirates fended off America's finest for five days is eerily reflective of what’s been going on in landlocked American business.

Another coup for Obama! This guy has winner’s luck. Unlike Jimmy Carter’s doomed rescue mission in Tehran, this time we got the glorious moment when Navy SEALs grabbed brave Captain Richard Phillips from the pirates who’d held him hostage for five days in a floating oven, and finished off the bastards.

It was beginning to be a sore point for America’s self-image. No one could understand how a ragtag band of four renegade freelancers could board a sturdy U.S.-flagged container ship and defy the mighty U.S. Navy, which seemed to stand by impotently while lawyers and FBI negotiators figured out what to do.

First, Captain Sully, with his cool competence, and now Captain Phillips, with his uncomplicated courage. The exploits of such heroes keep breaking through the relentless beat of bad news with indomitable retro derring-do.

The “business model” of the new piracy marries low cunning with an alphabet of high-tech acronyms. With their GPS devices, RPGs, and AK-47s, they’ve been defying the world for two years. Our $800 million destroyer Bainbridge (ironically named after a Navy commodore whose ship was captured by pirates in the early 1800s) was forced to hang around beside the pirates’ hijacked lifeboat, offering them food and even providing batteries for their two-way radio, so negotiators could continue to talk to them. The threat of these impudent maritime muggers has reduced cargo ships to defending themselves with techniques that seem almost comically derived from The Dangerous Book for Boys. Stand by to repel boarders with…fire-retardant foam, water hoses, and super-slippery goo on bulwarks and decks. Even more fun ideas for your next kiddie birthday party.

The pirate drama feels like the perfect high-seas counterpart of what’s been going on in landlocked American business for some time: Big lumbering corporate entities hover on bankruptcy and plead for bailouts; baffled media companies beef about the Web insurgency; the Google boys rewrite the whole Web environment while mighty Microsoft is asleep; a football-scholarship kid called Howard Schultz comes into the beverage business and soon dwarfs everyone else with Starbucks; a Johnny-come-lately Japanese company, Toyota, humbles historic General Motors. And The New York Times reports that new, smaller risk-taking companies, staffed by the most talented employees who’ve left the struggling super-banks, are challenging the dominance of the financial behemoths who helped to fuel the financial crisis. Says Professor Matthew Richardson at NYU: “If the risk-taking spreads out to these smaller institutions, it is not longer a systemic threat. ”In short, the mantra that the giants got bailouts because they were too big to fail is a fallacy. They weren’t. They were too big to succeed.

It all underlines how vulnerable we are to enemies and competitors who are not dulled by excess money and sclerotic management layers. We were given a horrific version of the same thing on 9/11 and, even more, in the long Bushian aftermath. While America was obsessing about nuclear warheads and weapons of mass destruction, it was box cutters and flying lessons that brought down the World Trade Center, and a sneaky low-tech rabble insurgency that tied down U.S. military in Iraq for five years.

But there has also been much to love about the pirate episode: Captain Richard Phillips, who saved America’s honor by offering himself as a hostage and spent the days in a hijacked enclosed lifeboat with no toilets, little air flow, and jumpy bad guys with guns until his rescue. What the news headlines at the moment are telling us is that dedicated individuals, not bloated corporations, are what American greatness is all about. First, Captain Sully, with his cool competence, and now Captain Phillips, with his uncomplicated courage. They may not be “masters of the universe,” but they are masters of something more important: themselves.

The exploits of such heroes keep breaking through the relentless beat of bad news with indomitable retro derring-do. Except, of course, it’s not retro at all. There are plenty of quiet tough guys like Sully and Phillips and those Navy SEALs who are getting on with their lives all over the country and fighting for us in godawful places. That’s why 20 percent of Americans now think the economy is getting better compared with 7 percent in mid-January. They know that if we can only cut through the self-serving corridors of power, the corrupted banking system and the rusting superstructures of outmoded industries this country will swiftly turn around. And it’s determined men and women, not flailing governments or propped-up corporations, who’ll do it—many of them the very people who either had the gumption to jump ship or whose talents the behemoths never understood anyway and laid off.

Tina Brown is the founder and editor in chief of The Daily Beast. She is the author of the 2007 New York Times best seller The Diana Chronicles. Brown is the former editor of Tatler, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and Talk magazines and host of CNBC's Topic A with Tina Brown.