Command Performance

The poor often are more conservative than the rich, at least in certain respects. If we define “conservative” only in terms of policy, this distinction won’t apply. But, if we think of “conservative” in the traditional sense of opposition to change, the label fits more aptly. Perhaps this is because the rich can navigate change much more easily than others. The wealthy can create their “place” in society, but the poor rely on “tradition,” for lack of a better word, to give them a coherent identity.

Those “higher” than the lower classes have always exercised authority in every age, and this in itself I have no problem with. If one believes, as I do, that the world manifests itself in a hierarchical way, then we should adapt ourselves into this pattern. But how one exercises authority proves one’s “fitness” to rule. The patterns in creation reveal a liturgy, of sorts, of experience, and those who rule should abide by this pattern.

All of this may sound rather esoteric, and indeed I lack the language for a full and general explanation. But I found a fascinating and provoking example of this principle in Mr. Bligh’s Bad Language, by Greg Dening. The mutiny on the “Bounty” has inspired at least 3 movies and a variety of interpretations as to why it happened. Analysis of the event often focus on the strictly legal aspects of the case–was Captain Bligh too severe or not, and so on. Others focus on the psychological aspects of Bligh and Fletcher Christian, the first-mate who led the mutiny. Dening examines another field of inquiry entirely. He looks beyond the strictly legal and and avoids undue psychological guesswork, focusing not on the technical limits of Bligh’s authority, but how he used it.

Some look for the cause of mutiny in leaving the pleasurable confines of Tahiti for a long voyage home. We all have experienced relaxing after a strain, and how hard it can be to resume the task. But extant diaries and testimony shows that the sailors had no deep objections to leaving Tahiti. Many talked of looking forward to getting back home to England.

Other theories (and movies) imagine Bligh a “harsh” commander, a severe disciplinarian. Sailing into the Pacific meant a very long journey into hostile territory. We need no imagination to understand the need for order, though we may blanch at flogging as the most typical punishment.* But of the captains who sailed into the Pacific in Bligh’s era, Bligh punished less than most other captains, and far less than some. From ca. 1760-1800 on Pacific voyages, Dening estimates that all told, about 21% of sailors received flogging punishments.* Captain Vancouver flogged about 45% of his sailors during his time in command and never faced mutiny. Bligh–on the Bounty voyage and other subsequent journeys–flogged between 8-9% of his men. We must throw out the idea of “tyranny” and “severity” as the explanation of the mutiny.

Flogging seems unnaturally harsh to us for minor offenses, yet Dening points out the sailors accepted it without much fuss. This can be ascribed to their innate conservatism, but also to other factors. Flogging was short in duration and then the matter was over and settled. Flogging was the common lot of sailors, something they could bond over. Thus–flogging did not single anyone out or humiliate anyone. Legal formality and especially tradition hedged flogging. Sailors had no serious issues with flogging per se. Dening writes, “Sailors liked that flogging left no debt. Those punishments that sought to leave a mark on the sailors soul rather than his body–leg irons, mockery, badges of guilt–required a dangerous sort of theater.”

It is in this concept of “theater” that Dening finds his thesis.

A kind of “theater” exists in teaching, somewhat akin to stand-up comedy. In a sense the teacher puts on a “performance,”–think of a 1st grade teacher doing different voices in a story they read. But it also holds true for teaching older students. The way one presents their material, their voice inflections, their pauses, etc., and then the punchline, i.e., the king died, or the molecules fizzed in the cup, and so on. A classroom, like a theater or a ship at sea, functions as a separate kind of liturgical space. Good teachers know how to use that space well for their purposes.

Dening points out that the very design of the Bounty meant that navigating the space of the ship presented challenges to Bligh–challenges to which he seemed wholly unaware. The main purpose of the Bounty’s voyage involved transplanting breadfruit from Tahiti, which the British navy wanted to transplant to the Caribbean as food for native/slave workers. Bringing back cargo that would need space, light, and water meant redesigning the ship to accommodate their presence. That in turn meant less space for the crew. Bligh himself accepted less space than a captain would normally have for his cabin. That likely was a good move on his part, but the meaning of space in cabins and the all important quarterdeck (the ship’s “throne” so to speak) was altered. Bligh saw himself as an “enlightened” captain. He saw great scientific purpose in the voyage. He envisioned the Bounty “making history” and made various speeches to the crew to that effect. One can imagine that “salty” types would hardly see things that way. The breadfruits–“stupid plants,” of all things, stole their space, their water, and their captain’s kind attention. They would have probably preferred Bligh’s attention directed towards a mistress from Tahiti. It would have been more relatable–more “human.”

Bligh also acted as his own “purser” for the voyage. The purser kept charge of accounts for the Navy. He oversaw the profitability of the voyage. Nobody likes the purser, and the Captain might at times play against the purser to boost his standing with the crew–a crew who cared nothing for how much money the voyage made. Every time that Bligh shorted rations or cut corners, no matter his real intent–the crew could suspect that he was shorting them to fill his own pockets. Indeed, Bligh had taken much less than his usual fee to captain the voyage, believing in the trip’s historic importance and opportunities it would afford him in the future. The fact that none of the rest of the crew shared in his convictions or cared about his “sacrifices” alienated Bligh psychologically from his men. Bligh in turn took their lack of zeal personally.

Taking things personally is one of the cardinal sins a teacher can commit. As for myself, I liked history classes in high school and college but not the science, math, or Spanish classes–and it was nothing personal. Every teacher thinks their subject is the most important and everyone should love it as they do. Those that verbalize this thought, however, sound bonkers to students. They just want to get through the day–they owe you nothing, they owe “history” nothing. Likewise the best classroom discipline involves minimal talking and no lectures, i.e., “You did ‘x,’ the consequence is ‘y,'” end of story. Bligh had the habit of haranguing the crew for their lack of appreciation of his efforts on their behalf. Dening compares the discipline of “harsher” captains who flogged more to Bligh, and the “harsher” ones talked much less, and made the discipline much less personal.

Dening sees Bligh as making mistakes even when sincerely trying to be good to the crew. The sailors had a hazing ritual of sorts known as “Dunking,” which involved having a rope tied to your leg and being lowered overboard under the water. Many sailors actually could not swim, but even so, if the rope ever came loose, even a swimmer might drown, for the boat might not be able to turn around in time. Bligh saw this ritual as exploitative and put a stop to it, even increasing the rations of “grog” in the process. Bligh no doubt saw himself as stamping out barbarism on behalf of his men. Dening hints strongly that the men would have seen it very differently:**

  • To start, “dunking” was the province of the men below deck. In stopping the ritual, Bligh intruded on their space. In fact, the sailors had their own economy regarding the practice, with grog rations as the currency.
  • On every voyage, the officers had a chance to further their careers and gain honor. This ritual, though dangerous, was how ‘enlisted men’ could obtain honor among each other. Bligh thus appeared no doubt to ‘steal’ honor from them so he could keep it for himself.

Bligh’s attempts to appear benevolent surely fell flat. Sailors would have resented his intrusion into their ‘private’ lives. In a world where no space had any physical privacy, Bligh should not have intruded on the privacy of their ritual.

A man who punished mercilessly might guess that he risked the affections of his men. Bligh’s problem involved him trampling on his men’s good will while all the while deluding himself that he acted as their benefactor. No wonder the mutiny struck him with complete surprise.

Any Trump-Bligh comparison fails at every level except perhaps that neither one seemed to understand that the main objection to their power came not from what they did but how and when they did it. One can note the visible relief of mainstream media commentators at Biden’s cabinet choices. Some have crooned that his picks are even ‘apolitical,’ which is pure silliness. What I think they mean by ‘apolitical’ is that Biden’s cabinet understand the accepted liturgies of how to exercise power, as did Obama and most other presidents before him. Liturgies constrain reach in some ways, and mostly extend it, I think, in others. We shall see what the means for a Biden presidency.

The fact that leaders like Bligh and Trump are ‘anti-liturgical’ does not necessarily mean they are ‘bad’ for their time. Systems sometimes wear out, and then the old ways need smashed. Bligh represents the Enlightenment intellectual entrepreneur type. He had outstanding personal ability in navigation, and was self-made man in many ways. One might have thought the common sailor would take to him.

Not so. Interestingly enough, Dening cites data that shows that sailors in fact preferred officers from the ‘officer class’ and not those that rose through the ranks.

Not being from the traditional officer class, Bligh would not naturally take to the varieties of arcane naval tradition. But on a long and dangerous voyage, the only shelter from chaos would be the ship itself and the “world” it represented. As such, the routine, the manners, etc. would have to be ironclad to give a sense of safety and permanence. When Bligh messed with that, he altered the sailors sense of stability and security. The strain would be psychological, not physical. Perhaps this accounts for 1st Officer Fletcher Christian’s comment to Bligh during the mutiny–“I am in hell.”

As for Trump, the fact that so many reacted so severely not to his policies but to his person means that they may perceive the state adrift at sea. For such folk, only solid liturgical performances can shore up their sense of security and identity. I do not say that these people are all wrong, but the question lies in a sense of proportion. No matter how much one might have disliked Bligh, not even Dening argued that the mutineers had right on their side.

Good teachers, like good statesman (or sea captains) understand that the world reveals itself not fundamentally in laws but in relationships. The longer the friendship, the greater the liturgy of that relationship, due to all of the accumulated experiences. Bligh’s “bad language” the title alludes to were not the actual words he spoke–words that any other sea captain would have used–but how and when he spoke them. The weirder the situation, such as being on wooden boards in the middle of the largest ocean on Earth, require tighter “security” of the liturgy of the existing relationships. Such mysteries are felt more than explained. Dening might not have pure logic on the side of his argument, but he does have something we’ve all felt and experienced, and that makes his book a delight.


*I should note that Dening cites another study that puts the average much lower–at around 10% instead of 21%. The two studies count differently, but even this alternate view does no damage to understanding Bligh’s ‘severity.’

**I have seen two movie versions of the Bounty mutiny, the version from the 1960’s with Trevor Howard and Marlon Brando, and the one from the 1980’s with Anthony Hopkins and Mel Gibson. The Hopkins/Gibson version comes closer in most respects to what Dening presents. It includes a “dunking” scene and Hopkins does very well in expressing barely restrained disapproval.