Avast, ye hearties! Congress is about to get invaded by a pirate, if Stephen Collings has his way. Collings, 25, a Nashville-based design engineer, hopes to become the first U.S. Representative endorsed by the U.S. Pirate Party, which seeks to reform copyright laws and use technology to empower civic participation in government.
Today, four leaders of Collings's party are touring the country in a maroon 1992 Buick LeSabre, including administrative officer Ryan Martin, 28, who quit his job and sold most of his possessions to embark on the recruiting tour. On Wednesday, the Buick was in Atlanta. "The LeSabre is worth $100 and in terrible condition, but we're using next-generation technologies like couchsurfing.org," says Martin, whose possessions include a Nokia n800 internet tablet "in a military-grade housing," the clothes on his back, and not much else.
In two years of existence, the Pirate Party has attracted 7,000 registered members and 61 Facebook friends, and has joined the international Pirate Party movement, whose Swedish member Christian Engström recently won a seat in the EU's European Parliament. Copyright reform is a central Pirate Party plank, but it also advocates for issues including privacy, government transparency, and press freedom. The party has gained little traction in the U.S.
Until he joined the party six months ago, Martin worked as research and development engineer at Indiana University. He says he dropped out of high school at 17 and self-educated himself online: "I had full access to more education and people than I ever had in high school." Collings's political platform is based on three issues: a balanced budget, congressional process reform, and election reform. But his other positions include opposing the death penalty and taking a hard line on illegal immigration. A devout Christian, Collings opposes gay sex but supports gay couples' right to the same privileges as heterosexual married couples.
"What I oppose most strongly are the terrible arguments people make against gay marriage," Collings says. "Nothing ticks me off worse than a bad argument. Something like a third of children in this country are born to unmarried parents. People get married and divorced repeatedly as if it's nothing. Marriage is already treated in a completely unholy manner in this country. The idea that gay people getting to use the word 'married' is somehow going to add to that is totally absurd."
Another troublesome word is "pirate." "That's bad branding, especially in any district near Nashville," says Harvard law professor and copyright activist Lawrence Lessig. "But in general, the platform of the party is sensible; it's the marketing I'm skeptical of."
Martin knows the Pirate Party has a p.r. problem. "The concept of piracy is an unfortunate side effect of outdated technology." he says. "That misconception is at the core of party's founding." He says the party espouses a "right to innovate" and "discover the frontiers of how to monetize digital content" but supports private-property rights and opposes theft and copyright infringement. Many Americans, he suggests, may actually agree with the party without being aware of its existence, and the party is open to a rebranding if necessary, Martin says: "We are absolutely professional in our demeanor and do not break laws. We are not some traveling activists looking to stir up controversy -- we are infrastructure builders who desire to get work done. We want to change the monologue of government into a dialogue, which will really benefit the public."
Collings, currently a design engineer, hopes to unseat Rep. Jim Cooper, a Democrat from Tennessee's Fifth District, which includes most of Nashville. "My generation has spent their entire lives growing up and watching both major parties utterly fail to lead the country anywhere beneficial," Collings says. "There's going to be a backlash against the Democrats, but I think after the last eight years, people are going to be looking for options somewhere besides the GOP as well. The status quo is unacceptable. Congress as it stands is not doing its job. They need to be fired. We need to start over."
The Pirate Party fully supports Collings, who says he sought out the party's endorsement. "Collings stands with us on the core Pirate Party issues," Martin says.
Collings, a former Republican, knows he's facing very steep odds, but he believes a generational shift in politics is underway, following two terms of the Bush administration. "The wanton fiscal irresponsibility was unforgivable, as was the significant erosion of civil rights," he says. "When a U.S. citizen can be arrested in Chicago and held without charge for two years, any guaranteed rights you thought you had have gone out the window."
And he's seen the recession's effects firsthand at his company. "Sales were way up last year, and we hired a bunch of new people to help build our equipment. Then sales went down, we suddenly had nothing to build, so they were all let go," he says. "We also lost some people that had been there for years, though."
Collings dismisses questions of his experience. "Congress has a total of over six thousand years of experience among them, 12 years per congressman or senator -- and they do an absolutely terrible job. I think I have as much of a chance as anyone who's not independently wealthy, and I think that chance is non-zero."
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The Pirate Party prepares a raid on Capitol Hill (from a '92 Buick)