Hard Truths and the “Indispensable Nation”

     I drove across the north, south and middle of United States with my sister because we had to care for my mother who resided in Florida. We moved her back to Canada where she was born after my father died because we knew she would not receive the care she needed in the States. And in those long days on the interstate I saw what America had transformed into.

The blight of corporate neglect and economic depression was nothing less than breathtaking. The main streets of town after town were boarded up, with only a smattering of dollar stores, payday loan shops, liquor vendors and storefront churches open. Hideously over sized franchise signs scraped the sky in all their familiar impertinence. Big box stores and fast food restaurants were clustered around predictable junctions along the highways in an uninspired, formulaic pattern. It became apparent to me that these islands of banality offered some of the only employment for the people who lived in these regions.

These are the hard truths about America, a “shithole” shrouded in delusions, feckless nationalism and layers of supercilious bravado, where corporations, which siphon hundreds of billions of dollars from public coffers via tax evasion and subsidies, are rarely held to account. Industry poisons the water, eviscerates ancient mountains, and devastates urban and rural communities with impunity. This is the “indispensable nation” where more of its citizens are locked behind bars than elsewhere in the world, and usually for non-violent offenses. Where police murder unarmed people in hotel hallways or for traffic violations and get away with it. Where investment in military weapons that terrorize the poor in other nations is exponential, but investment in veterans assistance is nil.

And yet despite this dire landscape where inequity is exploding and infrastructure is failing at breakneck speed, the supremacist concept of “American exceptionalism” has bamboozled millions into believing they live in the greatest nation on the planet. A comment I read recently on a rightwing social media page underscores this disconnect from reality and parochialism even when it comes to one of its nearest neighbours:

“Canada compared to the United States is a third world nation. Roads full of potholes, slums, and terrible healthcare/short lifespan/terrible infant and maternal mortality. They should let Trump work to save their sad nation.”

The ignorance about “socialized medicine” is the tragic result of decades of indoctrination by the capitalist class. And, by proxy, the insurance industry, Big Pharma and other lobbies that have done their part to crush single payer, universal care. The result has been ridiculously high infant mortality rates compared with other developed countries, skyrocketing levels of bankruptcy due to medical expenses, and the resurgence of diseases associated with poverty, like hookworm. That some still think of Trump as a saviour is risible, but there is a deeper wound that has been ignored by most establishment liberals too ensconced in their privilege to notice. Magical thinking is like a drug. It can easily become a balm to those who face a daily litany of miseries and trials.

As a medical social worker I attempted to assist scores of families and individuals navigate these miseries. But I personally know what it is like to not have any kind of insurance and be fearful of getting sick or injured with no money to pay for exorbitant bills, and then to be handed an $11,000 bill for a few days stay in a hospital. I’ve felt the stigma myself of accepting county healthcare assistance which didn’t even cover a fraction of the costs, and being treated like a social pariah because of it. I also know what it is like to watch loved ones who had no money and, although they were deathly ill, try to leave the hospital because they had incurred $80,000 in medical bills which they knew they would never be able to pay. It alters every aspect of a person’s life and leaves one in a state of perpetual anxiety where the only escape is often found in either addiction, magical thinking or some combination of the two.

Poverty is an imposed oppression, the byproduct of rampant greed and the bastard child of the capitalist class. But Americans who are poor are ladled with both the torment of financial worry and the noxious guilt of feeling like they are defective human beings. The “Oprah effect” has convinced many that their failure to succeed in this inherently unjust system is a personal flaw. It is all about the self and the deceptively cruel mantra of positive thinking. One can see this quite clearly in media and entertainment. Any one who is wealthy is cast in an almost deified light while the poor are punchlines, routinely lampooned as “trailer park trash” or demonized as “welfare queens.”

This arrangement, as the late Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. alluded to, has been a boon for the ruling classes who, year after year, strip away the last vestiges of the social safety net while they make it easier for them to amass more wealth. By deflecting analysis and criticism of the current order to things like “personal responsibility” they create the conditions of what Sheldon Wolin called “inverted totalitarianism.”  In this kind of society citizens are transformed into “consumers.” Civics and politics are reduced to spectacle. Every political leader is a millionaire or billionaire. Celebrity scandals dominate the media cycle. The wealthy are endlessly lauded for their “accomplishments.” Societal infrastructure and works for the public good are neglected or demolished. Ecosystems are denuded and degraded. And each person becomes an island unto themselves without agency.
History is replete with examples of how this type of framework fails, especially when it is sustained by perpetual war, economic oppression and the destruction of the biosphere. It will eventually break simply due to its dearth of substance and integrity. To be sure, no one knows when this will happen, or how. But we should all tremble before the storm of rage that will rise when it does.

 

Kenn Orphan  2018

The Opportunity We Dare Not Miss

In the short time since US President Donald Trump announced his plans to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, Israel has killed several unarmed Palestinians, including an old woman in the West Bank who suffered a fatal heart attack after the Israeli army lobbed a stun grenade into her home, and a disabled man in Gaza who had already lost both his legs and a kidney from Israel’s carpet bombing assault on the Strip a few years prior. Israeli forces have also injured scores more, including a 15 year old boy who is still in a coma after an Israeli soldier fired a rubber bullet at his face at point blank range. And thousands have been arrested or detained, including many children. Two of those are Ahed Tamimi and her mother Nariman Tamimi, after a viral video showed brave Ahed ejecting Israeli soldiers from their home in Nabi Saleh.
Ahed gained the world’s attention for video a few years ago which showed her courageously defending her 12 year old brother from a soldier who was brutally choking and beating him. A few years ago I had the honour of meeting Ahed’s father Bassem at a solidarity event in California. He was warm and kind, but his steadfast commitment to justice was passionately resolved. It was apparent that he and his wife imparted that integrity to their children.
The misery over the past few days has exposed many to the daily realities Palestinians face. But the US corporate media still obscures or omits the facts on the ground. So it’s time to clear a few things up.
     First of all this is not a conflict between two nations as is so often portrayed. It is the result of decades of oppression of an entire group of people by a state actor, namely Israel. The Palestinian Authority is little more than an apparatus of the occupation, and essentially does its bidding. Israel is the only state here and it possesses an army, navy and air force. The Palestinians do not. Israel has nuclear weapons and military aid from the most powerful nation on earth. The Palestinians do not. It enjoys full diplomatic, economic and military support from many nations around the world, including the most powerful empire in human history, the United States. The Palestinians do not.
Israel has blockaded Gaza since 2007, subjecting nearly 2 million people to intolerable conditions that amount to collective punishment. In fact, the entire strip may be uninhabitable by 2020 according to the UN. Israel has carved up the occupied West Bank into administrative zones that allow for military exercises and settler expansion for Jewish-only communities, and has built a wall of separation that limits Palestinian access to their jobs, farmland, medical facilities and schools.
Millions of people in the occupied West Bank live under military rule while settlers (illegal under international law) enjoy full rights and protections as citizens of Israel. This is how the Israeli army can swoop into neighbourhoods like Nabi Saleh and arrest anyone they please, including scores of children, some as young as 8 years old, who are whisked away in the night and taken to undisclosed locations. And they have done this for years with impunity.
The US media often conflates criticism of Israel with antisemitism. Israel was built on the ideology of Zionism which is not the same as Judaism, although many prominent Zionists would love for people to think so. Judaism is an ethnic/religious identity with a rich tradition and culture that goes back millenia and spans dozens of societies, from Russia to Iran to Europe and the Americas. Zionism is a nationalistic, political ideology that emerged from anti-Jewish persecution in Europe and yet was fashioned after European colonialism itself.
Of course there are some who employ the use of antisemitic language in their criticism of the Israeli regime. This is intolerable. These individuals or groups have their own agenda, but Palestinian solidarity is not one of them. They choose to ignore or downplay the many Jewish and Israeli human rights groups who share similar ideals in their support of Palestinian rights and self-determination, including Holocaust survivors and organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace, B’Tselem, Breaking the Silence and Rabbis for Human Rights, among many others.
Trump’s bumbling concession to his conservative religious base has unwittingly ripped the veil from the farce of the “peace process.” It has demonstrated that the US cannot arbitrate negotiations. Truthfully, it has never even tried. After all, the Israeli settler-colonial model mirrors the American one; and it provides the Empire a foothold in the Middle-East which it will not relinquish easily. But with this illusion shattered, perhaps an opportunity emerges. One that can bridge like movements around the world.
          Oppression cannot last forever. Those who think so ignore the weight of history. But solidarity with the oppressed is not taking the side of one ethnic, religious or racial group over another either. It is taking the side of justice and universal human rights against racism, tyranny and state violence. It is standing with the powerless against the powerful. And in this troubled time for the besieged, living earth and all of humanity, it is an opportunity we dare not miss.
Kenn Orphan  2017

The War for the Internet

“There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches.” – Ray Bradbury

Today we may lose the internet as we know it. We may lose the “neutrality” which keeps it relatively democratized. Nominated by President Obama at the recommendation of Senator Mitch McConnell, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Ajit Pai, has been gunning for the destruction of net neutrality for years. And today, with one of the most mendacious governments at the helm, he might just get what he desires.

Net neutrality isn’t a glamorous cause. There are no passionate hashtags or viral videos of abuse that make its case. But its destiny is that of democracy itself, in the 21st century. Its what makes the internet viable and vibrant by allowing small websites with little money to compete with multi-billion dollar corporations. It provides diversity of speech and thought in this precarious age when it is so desperately needed; and this is what makes it a threat to the powerful. Although this decision is taking place in the US, and other nations have said they will strengthen their commitment to net neutrality, the internet does not exist in a bubble. And US corporations are major players in a global game that impacts virtually everyone.

None of this is new. A war of conquest over the internet has been waging for many years because its relatively free flow of information is the single greatest threat to the corporate elite’s monopoly on   influence and information. With useful tools in both political parties this has manifested in several ways. And thanks to the current President’s penchant for outright duplicity the term “fake news” has become a raison d’être among their ranks. Their disingenuous campaign to eliminate false information belies a more dubious wish to censor dissenting views.

I was recently informed by several reliable sources that the content and access to this blog has been frequently blocked or marked as spam. While this does not have to do with net neutrality directly, it does indicate how the democratization of the internet is under assault from many angles. Powerful internet providers and telecommunications corporations create algorithms which make certain websites less visible and accessible on search engines or block content in order to “protect” users.  And it is fast proving to be yet another effective and insidious form of censorship as several left or progressive websites have been tracking a staggering decrease in traffic to their sites.

As ecocide and climate change accelerate, the industrial war machine expands, and socio-economic inequities grow, the wealthy and powerful elite will only become more ruthless in their desire to extinguish democracy and stamp out any defiance that comes as a response. Of course their only real interest is in securing their moneyed interests and political power, but censorship is a tactic which has proven very useful throughout history in achieving that end. The internet will not be the last place they attempt this, but it is certainly ground zero. And today’s battle might very well seal its fate.

***Addendum: Within a short time of this publication it has been confirmed that the FCC has voted in favour of repealing protections for net neutrality. It appears as though Mr. Pai, and the elite plutocrats he represents, have gotten their way. But the battle is far from over. Many of us will fight this and perhaps something will be salvaged of internet freedom. Only time will tell.
Kenn Orphan  2017

The Canaries We Ignore

The images and video that have come out of Southern California this past year have been nothing less than apocalyptic. Raging fires consume dry chaparral up to the edge of bloated freeways with 10 lanes. Entire neighbourhoods have been reduced to smoldering ash. And the lives of countless residents changed forever.
          I lived in Southern California almost half my life. Wildfires and hot, dry Santa Ana winds were a part of every autumn. But something palpable shifted in the last few years I was there. The fire season became year round, wildfires became more like firestorms and those desert winds, which I had loved so much in the early years, became more like infernal blasts from an open furnace, mercurial and desiccating to everything they touched.

Like the record breaking storms, floods and hurricanes of late, these fires are more canaries in the collective coal mine we all inhabit. And with each passing year and every accumulating catastrophe their clarion call becomes more urgent and shrill. Yet in spite of their insistence the global order remains relatively unchanged and alarmingly unperturbed.

It is becoming increasingly undeniable that human beings are now at a crossroad as never before encountered in history. In its relatively short time, industrial civilization has brought amazing technological advances. Diseases have been cured, massive feats of agriculture have fed millions, and we were able to break the gravitational bonds of this planet and become a spacefaring civilization. But its marriage to corporate capitalism was one made in hell. And the Faustian bargain that fossil fuels offered humanity unleashed a boundless and insatiable greed which blinds all who profit from it to their ruination.

The result has been the despoiling of the living biosphere on which we all rely. We have entered into the Sixth Mass Extinction where at least 150 species are lost every day to human activity. Recent studies have confirmed a catastrophic drop in insect populations worldwide thanks to petro-based pesticides used in industrial scale agriculture, climate change, and destruction of habitat. Marine life is suffering a similar fate with bird populations being decimated by loss of food sources and plastic pollution which is set to outweigh all fish in the ocean by mid-century. Fish stocks have plummeted and over 90% of Coral reefs, the ocean’s nurseries, will have disappeared by 2050 from bleaching thanks to ocean acidification. Forests are being felled at a rate akin to a New Zealand sized area every year. Yet despite these staggering developments little to nothing of substance is being done on the global scale that is needed.

Here is where people of conscience must be brutally truthful about our collective predicament. We must face the painful fact that our species has exceeded its limits in growth, population and the exploitation of the natural world. We must also grapple with the fact that the global north is most responsible for the decimation of the biosphere and the ruthless exploitation of the global south. And there will be no substantive actions taken by the corrupt political and business leaders who profit from this global arrangement, to halt this plunder or stem the carnage of the planet’s rich biodiversity. They are both unwilling and incapable of addressing the issue with the integrity and impetus necessary. Instead, they will continue their bait and switch dance of empty placation and denialism while they stuff their coffers with coin, even as the earth rapidly transforms into another planet before our eyes.

 And their criminal ineptitude has never stopped at non-humans. As this century unfolds, cities will be lost to rising seas as governments will eventually find that they are too expensive to salvage. Regions will become uninhabitable from pollution and drought. The specters of famine and disease will haunt billions of people. And mass migration will put a strain on fragile social and economic systems that already suffer from vast, structurally imposed inequities.

Their answer to the concomitant unrest will be more Orwellian doublespeak and insidious distraction, coupled with draconian crackdowns on dissent, protest or objection. They will aggressively mock, smear and persecute truth tellers and peddle in jingoism, xenophobia and nationalism. War mongering, austerity and the scapegoating of vulnerable people will become their preferred method of deferring from their culpability. None of this is fiction. It has all happened, and not only in civilizations throughout history which have faced socio-economic or ecological collapse. It is happening today in societies which purport to be democratic.

Although “knowledge is power” is a cliché, it still holds some truth. We still have tremendous agency to affect the future, both personally and collectively. We have the power to create communities of solidarity and to meet the looming catastrophes and calamities with humanity, dignity and grace. But that agency is diluted and made ineffectual so long as we continue to lie to ourselves and others about where we are as a species. The risk we take includes being labeled an alarmist in a society lulled into a hypnotic trance by the slick marketing tactics of the consumerist wizards of Wall Street. But that risk pales in comparison to ignoring the screeching canaries in our midst.

 

Kenn Orphan  2017

Puritanism’s Long Shadows

“Puritanism, in whatever expression, is a poisonous germ. On the surface everything may look strong and vigorous; yet the poison works its way persistently, until the entire fabric is doomed.” – Emma Goldman

With an apparent raging storm of accusations and allegations against powerful men in the US, social media has erupted into another cause célèbre. While many are optimistic that this will lead to a revolution of sorts, some are cautioning us to beware of the terrible turn things like this can take, especially within a society with deep inequities and a dark legacy of punitive legalism. This isn’t to suggest that sexism, misogyny and sexual violence are not persistent and colossal problems, nor that they shouldn’t be exposed and condemned. But to look at American cultural trends without acknowledging its puritan roots is not only dishonest; history has proven it to have tragic consequences.

While most of the recent sexual harassment, abuse and rape allegations against powerful men in the US are not directly rooted in the rigid mores of puritanism it should be noted that its insidious tendrils still extend into every facet of American life. And it isn’t only the Christian Right that steers these kinds of societal attitudes. This legacy strongly influences modern liberalism and how institutions and the powerful make decisions and interpret human failings, morality and social ills. They look at culture through puritanism’s punitive lens which is reflected in a variety of ways.

 

In regard to accusations or allegations, America’s history is littered with examples of frenzied crusades reminiscent of puritanism. This is not in any way to suggest that most of the people making accusations about improprieties, harassment or assault today are lying or merely wrong. And it is not intended to protect powerful, wealthy men with status and influence; but the opposite. This is a society whose brutal past casts long shadows. There are countless instances in US history which document the detrimental impacts of hysteria created by false or exaggerated accusations.

The most historically infamous were the Salem Witch Trials, which mostly targeted women and endure as the tragic legacy of the Puritans themselves. The “Red Scare” of the 1950s which aimed to purge the US of communists and their sympathizers is another. Thousands of people lost careers, relationships, faced financial ruin, and even lost their lives in some instances due to suicide, thanks to being labeled a subversive, a homosexual (which was socially taboo and largely illegal at the time) or a pervert (which could be twisted to mean just about anything). The debunked day school “satanic ritual abuse” scandal of the 1980s and 90s is a more recent example, but to me one of the most tragic incidents involved a 14 year old black boy in Mississippi.

 

In 1955 a false accusation of sexual assault led to the brutal murder of Emmett Till. He was a black boy in the Jim Crow south and his accuser was a white woman. He was accused of whistling at the woman, grabbing her hand, making sexual innuendos and shouting obscenities. The boy had a speech impediment, and he was undoubtedly schooled by his family on how to “behave” in the oppressively hostile environment of white America, so this woman’s accusations bore little resemblance to the lived reality of millions of people. But it was of no consequence. He was dragged from his bed by a mob of white men, tortured, mutilated, tied with barbed wire and thrown over a bridge. His tragically horrid fate was linked to hundreds of years of racist oppression. But it is worth noting that this was just a little over 60 years ago and his accuser is still alive.

The current maelstrom of sexual assault allegations in the highest echelons of US media and the political establishment in its current form is likely only to produce enduring, material benefits for the already wealthy, privileged and powerful.This is because without a mass movement from below which addresses structural injustices and inequities endemic to the American power structure, the elite will continue to dictate how such things will unfold. The spectacle, at this point, is a squabble among the powerful, wealthy upper classes. So unless that structure itself is ultimately overturned all other social justice causes will continue to be co-opted and tainted by its elitist brush.

 

This is especially so when most of the revelations being made are actually emanating from the elite classes themselves. To the powerful, sex and sexuality are little more than commodities to trade, and most of the accused among their ranks will not likely suffer in real world consequences, only in optics.  After all, they have plenty of money, influence and access to armies of lawyers who will ensure that their class is ultimately protected from the most damning aspects of the US legal system. It is the lower castes who will likely suffer disproportionately from any punitive or legalistic actions they may produce as a response.

Politicians operating under an already grossly unfair and corrupt US oligarchy that worships “free market capitalism” will never address the conditions that generally lead to abuse, crime or assault like imposed poverty, institutional racism, debt wage slavery or the dismantling of the social safety net, it will instead answer with the only thing it has at its disposal: more punitive and retributive laws which always disproportionately affect the poor, youth and the disenfranchised. Sex offender registries are an example of this. Designed to punish crimes of a serious sexual nature and protect the public from dangerous predators, they have all too often ruined the lives of people who pose no threat to society. Urinating in public, teenagers having sex with other teenagers, breast feeding in public, engaging in prostitution or being a prostitute, all these things have threatened ordinary people with the stigma of being on a registry for life. And once on, they are restricted in employment, education and housing, further impoverishing people who were already poor.

 

The good thing is that this apparent “reckoning” need not remain in its current form. It need not be an issue generated by the elite and privileged class who limit its scope and respond to it with repression rather than restorative justice. I know some, both women as well as men, who have become more interested in antiwar activism because of it, others who are becoming more involved in solidarity with those in the global south who suffer under our racist, capitalist fueled, sweatshop economy and military occupations. In ecological activist circles it is galvanizing many to make the needed connection between a culture of rape and the rape of the living planet. It most certainly seems to be helping many to find the courage to come out of shadows of torment and find community and a sense of personal justice and healing. And at the very least it appears to be igniting a long overdue discussion in the broader society about sexual harassment, abuse and assault, and may also be causing some to honestly face the insidious demons of patriarchal misogyny.

I applaud, celebrate and stand in solidarity with all of this especially if it continues toward the revolutionary paradigm shift we so desperately need. But even with all this I know there might be some who, after reading this essay, will somehow think I am being an apologist for powerful men or sexual predators. So I want to make it clear I understand where much of the anger is coming from. It is not only thanks to years of counseling people who survived different kinds of sexual assault, but because I am a survivor of an assault myself. I won’t go into the lurid details, but it took a long time to get through the panic and rage that ensued after a terrifying experience. I am only sharing this to let those reading this know I do not take such things lightly or hold survivors in contempt. Nor do I dismiss the courage it takes to come forward.

 

I understand that the current reckoning unfolding among the powerful elite has not yet turned into anything described above. And it is my sincere hope that women from all strata of society will benefit from the societal sea change that could come as a result. But I also know how purges and other movements based on accusation, inference or allegations can often lead an already deeply unequal society down an even more frightening path. I know that, whether or not it is acknowledged, puritanism still persists in American culture and society. I know how the poor and people of colour (especially women), and the LGBTQ community have historically suffered the worst ramifications from such turns. And however unpopular a stance it might be, being silent about these concerns is simply not an option.

 

Kenn Orphan  2017

The Reckoning

          The current reckoning unfolding against powerful men in the United States whose alleged abuses are being reported on every day by the corporate media has made me reflect on a performance by artist Marina Abramovic done in 1974. Filmed on camera, she stood in a room for six hours and allowed the audience to do anything they wanted to do to her body without resistance. It was a piece that left me shaken. As the hours progressed the artist endured humiliation, torture and even near death as individuals, mostly men, cut off her clothes, groped her and even made her point a loaded gun at her neck.*

Of the experience Abramovic observed:

“This work reveals something terrible about humanity. It shows how fast a person can hurt you under favorable circumstances. It shows how easy it is to dehumanize a person who does not fight, who does not defend himself. It shows that if he provides the stage, the majority of ‘normal’ people, apparently can become truly violent.”

The performance piece was a powerful display of the lengths human beings, particularly men, will go to degrade, violate and even mutilate other human beings, particularly women, whom they view as powerless or inferior. But I found it to have even broader implications. On some level it exposed a latent animus on a micro-scale that echoes how most women and children are treated day in, day out largely throughout the global south thanks to a system of exploitation imposed by the global north. But it also speaks to the way industrial capitalism has long treated the living earth which is often portrayed as a mother and as “not fighting back” against her assailants

          The West’s relationship with nature and the “wilds” has always been problematic at best. It has long been viewed as something to be feared, then conquered, then subdued and exploited. Where its pagan progenitors generally celebrated the divine feminine of Gaia, patriarchal Christian Europe mostly denigrated it. Feminine sexuality, often conflated with nature, was also painted in a fiendish way giving rise to puritanical repression, persecution and witch trials. Those women who allegedly “communed” with nature were cast in a diabolical light and were subjected to the most heinous forms of torture and execution imaginable. Then, thanks to the greed of the feudalistic elite and the industrial revolution, capitalism took this animus toward nature and women to another level: commodification.

          I believe it was at this point when humanity started on its modern path toward a nihilistic psychological severance from the natural world. This is demonstrable by the compartmentalization of the biosphere by government and business entities as simply another category or issue of discussion. After centuries of conditioning by the moneyed powerful this disconnect has so deeply corrupted the collective psyche of the global north that to call it out is viewed as preposterous to most and heresy to many. Yet it underpins every societal problem from mass shootings and drug addiction, to racism and misogyny, to political corruption, genocide and war. Indeed, the commodification of the planet by the ownership class is an existential threat, rapidly unwinding the entire lifeweb on which we rely.

Abramovic’s performance art in 1974 stands as a striking example of our pathological culture of detachment in that it shows us how ordinary human beings are capable of depravity and violence when they spurn meaningful connection with the “other.” It also demonstrates how misogyny and sexism work as functions of this pathological detachment. But it is perhaps best understood as a prophetic warning for our species.
          As we enter headlong into the Sixth Mass Extinction, with biomass imperiled and global insect, bird, tree, coral and marine populations in a literal free fall, we do not have the luxury of ignoring our role in this violence anymore. As long as this paradigm persists there will be no substantive change in time to matter to our species or others in any consequential manner. Like Abramovic, the earth herself continues to be molested and desecrated before our eyes by wealthy and powerful men. As a testament to the sickness of our age they commit most of their acts of violence, pillage and rape under full protection of the law. But their hubris and folly will not prevent her fighting back. And without a doubt, her reckoning will be like nothing any of us could ever imagine.

 

Kenn Orphan 2017

 

*Writers note: I want to distinguish between the observations and impressions gleaned from Abramovic’s artistic performance “Rhythm 0” (1974) and its societal and ecological implications, and adult, consensual relationships and activities within the BDSM community. Conflating the two is not in any way intended as I understand, value and appreciate the diversity and fluidity of human sexuality.

 

An interview with Marina Abramovic about“Rhythm 0” (1974):

On Identity Politics and the Struggle Against Capitalism

“I am human, and I think nothing of which is human is alien to me.” ~ Publius Terentius Afer, Roman playwright  (195/185 – c. 159 BC)
Recently, I’ve seen the topic of identity politics coming up in certain forums. Without a doubt this is commonly misunderstood concept that has been deliberately manipulated for political reasons. But the so-called “alt-right” (see far right, white supremacists) have seized on this confusion with a vengeance. Even some on the left have decried its influence because to them it serves as a distraction and undermines the importance of fighting classist exploitation under late stage capitalism. It should not come as a surprise that many of them are white, heterosexual men with Christian European ancestry who have never experienced oppression, systemic discrimination or state violence based on their skin pigment, gender, religious expression, sexual orientation, disability, language or ethnicity. As a white man myself I concede that this is indeed a luxury most of the planet does not enjoy.
          Human beings are not a mono-crop. We have personal and shared identities based on how we look, speak, act, who we love, how we worship (if we choose to worship) and from our experiences of being different from the dominant group in our society. And it is undeniable that many are mercilessly persecuted for those differences. While it is undoubtedly true that cynical political operatives of the American Democratic Party use identity to curry support and distract from the oppressive economic structure of capitalism, it does not make the reality of white supremacy, patriarchy or oppression based solely upon identity, any less true.
          Racism and sexism, for example, are existential realities faced by the vast majority of humans on the planet every single day. Women endure the most violence of any group and while it must be understood that there is no such thing as “race” in a biological sense, there is indeed such a thing as racism. And both forms of oppression work in similar ways, through violence, loss of status, and coercion or the threat of these things. These forms of oppression predate capitalism, but as a descendant of colonialism it makes them an easy fit for an economic model which places human beings (and other species for that matter) into categories of hierarchy and class for easy exploitation. So it is undeniable that since capitalism is the dominant economic and political global order it is also the primary engine for persecution, discrimination and even genocide against the oppressed in the world today.
           It should therefore go without saying that capitalism is at the root of the problem, but even given this truth or that identity is cynically manipulated by certain political parties, it does not make the reality of oppression based upon ones identity any less real or existentially threatening. I believe anarchists, radicals and socialists offer the best solution to these monstrous problems, but not if they dismiss, ridicule or deny the existence of identity within the human species or the brutal persecution people face because of them. Recognizing ones own privilege and extending solidarity to oppressed, marginalized or disenfranchised people is not a distraction from the struggle against capitalism. On the contrary. It offers us the best bridge toward societal transformation that no stale ideology could even dream of.
Kenn Orphan  2017
Title image is “Capitalism and Racism” by Paul Domenick.

100 Years Later, to Move Beyond Our Chains

This year is the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution which brought about the USSR and as usual I’ve seen the same banal hit pieces and smug denunciations of Marxism bandied about on social media that I do every year around this time. “Communism failed, just look at the Soviet Union.”
          Of course nothing is said about the horror that Russia was for most of its people under Czarist dictatorship for three centuries. Or that after the Czar was jettisoned the new coalition had to cope with their legacy of crushing poverty, illiteracy and famine. Or that they had to deal with the onslaught of foreign invasions, embargoes, blockades by the far wealthier empires of Europe and the US, and lost over 20 million people thanks to Nazi barbarism. Or that despite all of this they managed to become a super power in just a matter of decades.
This kind of thing is unsurprising to many of us. After all, poor and obtuse analysis of historical movements are a dime a dozen, particularly in the US where the public discourse is tightly managed and capitalism has been elevated to religious status. But I’ve noticed something different of late. The arguments aren’t flying as much as they used to except in elitist circles.
          Maybe this is due to greater awareness of how capitalism ultimately always benefits the .01% to the detriment of the rest of us, and that now a mere handful of men own as much wealth as half of all humanity on earth. Maybe it is because more people are realizing their enslavement under a system of perpetual credit debt, student loans, healthcare costs and a brutalizing judicial and police state which is all too eager to crush dissent. Perhaps this is thanks to the fact that the biosphere has been brought to the brink of destruction thanks to the rampant greed of corporations which commit ecocide with impunity.
Whatever the reason might be it is, nonetheless, refreshing. As the great Rosa Luxemburg said: “Those who do not move, do not notice their chains.” I would only add that sometimes the forces of history compel us to move and that we should be grateful when this happens in a manner that shows us both our power and agency at once.
          Soviet Russia was a long, painful experiment in socio-economic justice that was far from perfect. In fact many pages of this legacy were undeniably written with the cruel ink of totalitarianism, including a bloody counter-revolution that undid much of the progress made by the early soviets. But it gave us a glimpse into the potential of ordinary people to be agents of societal and civilisational change. If there is anything we can glean from this remembrance 100 years later is that when the oppressed, marginalized and disenfranchised unite in solidarity against tyranny they are far more powerful than the powers that be would ever want them to realize.
Kenn Orphan  2017

(Title artwork for this essay isThe Bolshevik,” 1920, by Boris KustodievOil on canvas. 101 x 140.5 cm. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow)

The Scream of Canadian Colonialism

           The title of Kent Monkman’s painting, “The Scream,” is appropriate to the experiences of First Nations people across Canada who continue to suffer from ethnic cleansing, the erasure of cultural identity, and ecological and economic disenfranchisement. The painting depicts the forced removal and displacement of indigenous children from their homes by the Church with the assistance of the federal government. For decades First Nations children were abducted from their homes and placed in residential schools where they were compelled to reject their culture and language and suffered horrific physical, sexual and emotional abuse. Monkman, who is of Irish and Cree ancestry, was able to capture this horror in living colour on canvas. He said of this and related works:
          “Canada’s 150 years old—what does that mean for the First People? When I thought about it, I thought it includes the worst period, because it goes all the way back to the signing of the treaties, the beginning of the reserve system, this legacy of incarceration, residential schools, sickness, the removal of children in the ’60s, missing and murdered women.”

            The tragic history of colonialism in Canada is, arguably, a vastly under studied and addressed atrocity. But its legacy endures to this day even under the leadership of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau who has been slow to address abysmal access to clean drinking water, crushing poverty, suicide, substance abuse and violence against Aboriginal girls and women. His government has also greenlighted ecologically destructive pipeline projects over indigenous lands. Kent Monkman’s paintings implore us to shine a light of truth on this veiled history, understanding that if we do not do this the crime of colonialism will only continue.

Kenn Orphan  2017

For more information on Kent Monkman’s paintings please visit his web page:  http://www.kentmonkman.com/

Canonizing Criminals and the Lobotomization of Public Memory

What becomes of a man who started a war based upon lies that killed thousands, displaced millions, and destabilized an entire region, decimated civil liberties with sweeping powers granted to government surveillance agencies, instituted torture programs and rounded up scores of innocent people in secret raids sending them to wither away in a gulag in the Caribbean, left thousands of his citizens to languish in disease infested flood waters in the Gulf Coast following a major hurricane, gutted environmental regulations in favour of industry, and created the predatory and neoliberal economic conditions that led to the “Great Recession?” Apparently, if you are a former US President you get transfigured into saint.
          Like a bad penny, this past year has seen the curious resurfacing of George W. Bush in public life. And in this absurd era of Trumpism he is being canonized by many top Democrats with several prominent Liberals following suit. It seems that over night a war criminal has been miraculously transformed into a lovable “senior statesman;” a granddad who paints delightful pictures and gives “inspiring” speeches against bigotry. Bush, like practically all of the ruling political class in Washington, should have been brought before the International Criminal Court in the Hague for his crimes against humanity and the living planet. But as a response to the mendacioussexistracist behaviour and policies of Donald Trump, and with the assistance of a corporate media which delights in collective, cultural amnesia, many establishment Liberals have been pining of late for the GWB presidency.

          When one understands the machinations of American political power it isn’t all that strange. Most Democratic partisans did the same for the Obama administration which got a pass (and still does) for deporting more immigrants than the previous administration and prosecuting more whistleblowers than all US presidents combined. It is what they did when they overlooked, cheered on or forgave him and his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, for the decimation of Libya or dropping over 26,000 bombs in seven Muslim majority countries, or assassinating a 16 year old US citizen without due process, bombing wedding parties, ambulances and a grandmother picking okra in their field. It is not surprising, but it is no less repulsive and disheartening for anyone with any respect for civic or political memory.
          Time has proven the only tactic of the wealthy Liberal establishment is minimal protest and major capitulation to reactionary power in order to preserve their position in the current order. It is why most serious socialists, anarchists, radicals and leftists refuse to be allies with them. They have all too often felt the sting of betrayal. Nancy Pelosi infamously said “we’re capitalists” when she smugly admonished a young progressive disillusioned with capitalism at a “town hall meeting.” And she was not kidding. The Democratic Party establishment has benefited from and supported Wall Street over and over again and it has always voted in favour of a bloated and aggressive military industrial complex.  They have done their part to sponge away the crimes of the capitalist class so long as their place, privilege and status in this sick societal paradigm had a remote chance of being secured.

One can almost understand and predict this behaviour. Trump is a living dumpster fire of grotesque vulgarity who has ignited a bolder white nationalism and bamboozled many poor whites into thinking he cares about their problems. Despite being the ultimate plutocrat, he was able to get this lie across to many of them while the Democrats in all of their smugness ignored them. He is a master at manipulating their fears and bigotries and at muddying the waters of discourse. He employs scapegoating of minorities or oppressed groups with ease. And his foreign policy is so erratic and volatile that it causes even a seasoned intelligence officer to lose sleep at night thinking of him having access to the nuclear codes.

          It is a dangerous delusion, however, to believe George W. Bush or any of the powerful elite, are any different from one another in the end. GWB’s persona might have had a makeover, but his class hasn’t. And Trump is the most accurate emblem of that class. Bush and Trump alike sit atop an extraordinarily cruel and oppressive power structure in American society. The moneyed class only hates Trump because he reveals the true face of predatory capitalism to the public without the cloak of their “blue blooded” pomp, flourishes and sentimentality. Of course he must be opposed, but this alone is meaningless unless the entire oppressive, self-destructive, planet decimating system, of which he and Bush both belong, is brought down with him.
          America may be the last, most powerfully lethal, empire on earth. Its wealthy elite have mastered the insidious art of inverted totalitarianism and ensconced corporate capitalism into every institution. What’s worse is that it has forcefully transported this malignancy around the world through the subversion of democracyeconomic imperialism,and military aggression. On a planet with dwindling resources, a climate getting angrier by the day, and mass extinction of species its powerful operate within a global capitalist class who enjoy near total impunity for their crimes against humanity and the planet as they push us closer to the precipice of collapse.
         Given all of this, going back in time may seem desirable for some. This is especially true for those who were not adversely affected by the egregious or even murderous policies, plunder and wars of the past. But it is only the privileged who can entertain such flights of fancy. To cozy up to power or erase their crimes is to become allies with the very forces that threaten our collective doom. The current order is one which is poised to destroy not just civilization but the entire biosphere.  Rapid, monumental action is required to halt a system which is leading us to certain ruin, and address and mitigate the chaos of an unfolding dystopic present and future. In politics, this is not the time to protect a murderous status quo or preserve one’s own privilege within it. This is an existential crisis which requires a global revolution in thought and practice. Nothing less will do.
I can only hope most liberals will learn this painful lesson soon, while there is still time left to do so.
Kenn Orphan  2017