Sunday, April 27, 2014


by Ray Jason

How could I NOT love a place called Gypsy Island?  Isla Gitana is how you say it in Spanish, but a few years before my arrival, it had a slightly less romantic name - Isla Muertos - or Island of the Dead.  That’s because part of it was a burial ground.  The locals had deliberately located it on an island far enough out in the Gulf of Nicoya so that the ghosts could not swim to the mainland.  In fact, in the months that I was there, they weren’t even able to make it out to AVENTURA - even though she was anchored only 30 yards from the shore.     
            My sojourn at Isla Gitana was both tranquil and rambunctious, with great new friendships and rollicking adventures.  But the highlight was surely the day that an actual Tall Ship anchored beside AVENTURA.  She was the PACIFIC SWIFT out of Vancouver - a sail training vessel full of bright, inquisitive teenagers out to see the world and gather some life lessons.


 When the kids would go ashore they would pile into their two longboats and row gracefully and powerfully to a nearby dock.  On Christmas Eve there were about 10 boats in the anchorage, and when nightfall descended, the longboats visited every one of the yachts.  Each of the teens had a songbook and a long, thin candle with a little collar to protect their hands from the dripping wax.  They serenaded each sailboat crew with a lovely, heartfelt Christmas carol.  When they arrived at AVENTURA they chose “O Holy Night.”  As they drifted away to go sing for the next boat, I realized how truly “holy” that night was.  What could be more sacred than this little unspoiled bay - which was my idea of a real cathedral - made even more sublime by this touching display of human affection?               
            A few days later as they sailed away, I blew my conch shell in salute and the kids all waved and smiled enthusiastically.  I had grown so fond of them in their time there, that as their ship rounded the headland on her way back out into the Pacific, an unusual idea occurred to me.  What if their onboard teacher had gotten sick, and the Captain had asked me to substitute as their instructor for a few days?  The skipper and I had shared a few beers ashore during their visit, and he had been intrigued by my contrary-to-ordinary philosophical approach to life.  And what if he had encouraged me to “not hold back” when it came to sharing my unconventional worldview?  And so to fend off the melancholy of the PACIFIC SWIFT’S departure, I spent most of that day pondering what my first lecture to the young student/sailors might have included.  It went something like this:
            Good morning, everyone.  Most of you already know me, but for those of you who don’t, my name is Ray.  Your Captain has gifted me with this extraordinary opportunity to be your guest instructor for a few days while your regular teacher recovers from his illness.  I am particularly delighted by your skipper’s trust in me, because I am not a credentialed teacher – I am a thoughtful wanderer. 
I am going to begin by playing three minutes of classical music for you.  It is a movement from Rachmaninoff’s famous piano concerto called “Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini.”  Now that you have heard it, let me explain why I started with it.  My belief is that the purpose of human life is to not just “exist” but to “flourish.”  And I believe that the haunting crescendos of that music are a sublime example of how the human spirit can in fact SOAR – and that our species is indeed capable of majesty and beauty.
Just as Rachmaninoff elaborated on some themes of the great violinist Paganini, I wish to discuss some themes inspired by one of history’s virtuoso philosophers – Socrates.  In particular, for our lesson today I have chosen this enduring aphorism from the Greek master – “The unconsidered Life is not worth living.”  And so the title for this introductory lecture is “Rhapsody on a theme by Socrates.”     
First of all, I recognize that as student/sailors aboard a “semester-at-sea” tall ship, you are receiving a far more unconventional education than those back in the normal school systems.  And I applaud your program in this regard.  However, my desire during my few days as your substitute instructor is to deeply challenge many of your most cherished beliefs.  The reason that I wish to do so is because education has detoured from its core mission – which is to train people in how to be critical thinkers. 
Teachers have become too complacent when it comes to challenging society’s accepted wisdom.  Largely, this is because genuinely radical instructors, who inspire their students to carefully examine a culture’s myths and values, are a severe threat to the powers that benefit from the status quo.  Therefore, such mentors are often ostracized.  This leads to a world full of timid teachers who do not exalt you to consider life deeply as Socrates urged his students to do.     
For example, how often has a teacher presented you with an alternative interpretation of the Christopher Columbus mythology?  Since we are all here on a magnificent sailing ship, this is an excellent starting point for my attempt to stimulate your critical thinking.
Columbus is an exceedingly important historical figure.  Here are two pieces of evidence to prove this assertion.  He is one of only 4 individuals to have a national holiday in the U.S.  He joins Washington, Lincoln and Martin Luther King in this elite category.  And secondly, he is so pivotal, that historical timelines are designated as “Pre or Post-Columbian.” 
His actions were so significant that they essentially carved the template for over 500 years of white, male dominator behavior in the Americas.  In my estimation he is one of the most white-washed figures in human history.  Your standard Canadian textbook probably depicts him as Columbus the Hero.  But the indigenous people of any of the lands that he visited would portray him very differently.  In fact, they might be challenged by which despicable description to apply to him.  Should they choose Columbus the Ruthless or Obscene or Vicious or Hideous or Vile or … all of the above? 
Here is my assessment of Christopher Columbus.  He was a genocidal megalomaniac.  Now, looking at your faces, I can detect a significant level of intellectual discomfort, so let me prove this unsettling assertion.  The sources of my evidence are as good as they get – primary journal entries from Columbus himself and from some of the crewman and priests who sailed with him.
Here is the man’s legacy: He bequeathed the New World two of the worst institutions in human history-the Slave and the Conquistador.  It would take about 350 years for people of conscience to finally rid the world of slavery.  And the Conquistador evil is still widespread on our planet.  At this very moment there are indigenous tribes in the Amazon trying to protect their land and their way of life from lumber and cattle barons.  And in Ecuador, international oil companies are destroying the habitat of jungle tribes whose ancestors lived there long before the word petroleum was even invented.
Genocide is the murder of a large number of people of one racial or ethnic strain.  But Columbus did not just kill an enormous number; he actually eradicated the Taino Indians from the face of the earth.  When he first landed in Hispaniola (currently Haiti and the Dominican Republic) it was estimated that there were around 1.2 million natives there.  By 1550 – less than 60 years later – there was not a single one left.  And from almost the moment that his ships arrived, these gentle Indians suffered an almost incomprehensible reign of terror.
The vicious power that Columbus and his sailors possessed was not the result of superior strength or intelligence or courage.  It rested solely on having more advanced technology in the form of ocean-going ships and deadly weapons.  To demonstrate his ruthless omnipotence, Columbus would punish Indians in the most hideous manner for minor offenses.  He would command that a nose or ear be chopped off as a reminder to the rest of the population that he ruled supreme. 
His merciless actions became so insufferable, that mass suicides, where 100 people would jump from a cliff, became commonplace.  Women stopped trying to have children and would strangle their newborn rather than allow them to live and endure the agonies of the Spaniards.  And along with the normal slavery of converting people into beasts of burden, Columbus also initiated sex slavery.  He even bragged in letters back to the Old World that the most favored girls were only 9 or 10 years old.  So, one can add pedophilia to his crimes against humanity.
As for his megalomania, what title did he insist on receiving from his royal patrons as payment for the slaves and stolen property that he brought back to Spain?  His humble request was to be called “Admiral of the Ocean Seas.”  Since this essentially includes all of the world’s oceans, it was comparable to a land-based dictator wishing to be addressed as the “Emperor of Earth.”
But beyond his atrocities and his arrogance, this is why I despise Columbus - because as long as we honor him rather than scorn him, we are reinforcing his code of conduct.  In its most basic rendering it is that domination trumps decency.  His modus operandi was to exercise raw power whenever it suited his desires.  If a native population had something that he wanted and they would not surrender it, then he would take it from them by force.  
This same immoral approach to human affairs dominates our planet to this day.  It is somewhat more subtle, but nonetheless it is still basically the strong imposing their will on the weak.  We camouflage it better today with words like democracy or capitalism or free trade or globalization but at its core it is the “haves” ruling the “have-nots.”
But enough of me ranting here on the foredeck of our beautiful floating classroom – it is time for some of your input.  Please raise your hand if you have a question or a comment.  Wow- now there is an enthusiastic response that would have delighted Socrates himself.  I’ll happily take all of your questions one by one. But first let me share a little anecdote with you that clarifies my philosophy about the student/teacher relationship.
A few decades ago there was a wonderful movie house in San Francisco called the Surf Theater.  As the name suggests, it was located out by the ocean.  It specialized in classic and foreign and unusual films.  Back in those pre-multiplex days, it was common to post three separate prices.  Typically for seniors and students it might be $3 and the regular price would be $5.  But the Surf charged the same $4 for everybody.  This non-conformist approach was explained by a simple sign placed in the window of the ticket booth.  It amuses and inspires me as much today as it did the very first time that I saw it. That little sign packed a lot of wisdom into four words.  It said: “WE ARE ALL STUDENTS!”