Today, I am happy to welcome a guest writer to this site, Dan Hanrahan, who eloquently captures our current moment of collective angst, remorse and longing in the context of ghosts and their meaning and message.
Watching the final episode of “The Haunting of Bly Manor” tonight, I was reminded of those details we always hear about hauntings: Some traumatic event or unfulfilled vengeance or unrealized longing anchors a person to a place. Whether it is the residue of one’s spirit sunk into an area or the actual animated consciousness of a self, there is a presence which will not relinquish its claim to a place and which must assert itself. Ghosts emerge out of the unresolved. They haunt us to say: see me, remember me or give me what is my due. And something about their monomaniacal, unrelenting quest renders them grotesque over time – contorted in order to pursue one aim.
Before we switched to over Netflix to watch “Bly,” we had watched a few minutes of the presidential debate. The idea suddenly struck me: Is Donald Trump a ghost? Is he pure, animated id, now become hideous and mono-pitched as his quest for something… loved denied, perhaps, has overtaken him entirely?
But the sheer, careening force of his malevolence feels larger than that. Donald Trump is a phantasm who appears to lack a self. He seems archetypal, as a monster in a folktale. I had the sense tonight that none of what I am saying about this is metaphor. I had the sense that Donald is the hungry… the insatiable ghost of America’s longing and crimes and greed, now manifest to haunt us. To make us pay. And, as in what is perhaps the greatest American novel, “Beloved,” it is only through access to our ancestral memory of a time from before the horror story of our history began, and only through community will and rite that we will vanquish the dumb, plodding, suffocating ghost of him.
*** There is an exit to the nightmare of our history – to the slave ships bobbing on the eastern horizon, to the dread hooves and creaking wheels of the settlers’ wagons pushing west, to the villagers running from the flying armaments above them and the exploding landscapes around them in the Philippines, in Vietnam and Central America, in Iraq and Afghanistan, to boots kicking down doors – but it requires us to leave behind all of it, to stop our pursuit of the false gods and to listen to the spirits in the land around us and to our deeper selves that precede the nightmare. Trees, rivers, creeks, hills and mounds and mountains, the animal descendants of those animals we have punished, the human descendants of those sacrificed on the bloody fool’s errand of The American Dream – they all retain the memory of something previous to this ghost-driven present. It is to them that we must listen.
Dan Hanrahan is a musician, writer, translator and actor. His essays, poetry and translations have appeared in Counterpunch, El Beisman, The Mantle, OpEdNews, Brilliant Corners and the American Academy of Poets archive, among other places. Dan has written music for Chicago’s Colectivo El Pozo theater and recently had a feature role in the first film produced by the collective, Cuaco (2020, official release delayed due to the pandemic). In 2020, Dan released his third full-length album, Radical Songs for Rough Times, a collection of original protest songs in English, Spanish and Portuguese. www.danhanrahan.net
*Title image and all other images in this piece are by Dan Hanrahan.
Years ago, I had an opportunity to watch the dissection of a seabird. It was not an academic venture, but one of bearing witness to the devastation that industrial society has brought to countless species on our planet. The bird’s stomach contents revealed human detritus of all manner, plastic lighters, bottle caps, pens, even a spoon. This one creature represented hundreds of millions or more, and species of all kinds. All impacted by the byproducts of our modern consumer capitalist world. It was a surreal sight only later matched in intensity and horror when watching a video of the dissection of a deceased whale whose belly was bursting with tons of plastic bags and other hard synthetic polymers, or the sight of a deformed tortoise whose shell was strangulated throughout its life by a plastic beverage holder.
This month another set of photographs highlighted the global crime and catastophe of ecocide. It was by Sri Lankan photographer Tilaxan Tharmapalan, and it won the UK’s Royal Society of Biology photography competition. Tharmapalan captured images of a wild herd of elephants scavenging for food in a rancid landfill near a wildlife sanctuary. Many of the elephants have become ill or died as a result of feeding on plastic and other toxic waste. But it is the ubiquitous nature of plastic, the myth of recycling, and the normalization of its presence in our lives that I wanted to discuss in this essay.
Images like this make the greenwashing efforts by the plastic industry and Big Oil fall flat. In fact, they have been a lie from the start. It was the plastic industry that started the idea of “recycling.” But this was not intended to reduce the production of plastic. On the contrary, it was intended to give a veneer of “corporate responsibility,” while they ramped up plastic manufacturing. Over the decades recycling became the mantra of many “environmental” organizations. But the myth of recycling remains largely obscured. In every recycled plastic product there is an equal measure of new plastic, so there is no real reduction. It is the exact opposite.
Single use beverage containers have only increased, with only a fraction of the plastic packaging produced ever recycled. Most, over 90% in fact, wind up in landfills like the one in Sri Lanka, or on the side of roads where lazy and self-centered motorists dispatch them in haste from their car windows every single day, or in riverways that run to the ocean and wind up churning into a great toxic gyre in the centre. Today, there are more types of plastic than ever before. Most are unrecyclable, although they will be imprinted with a number on the bottom to add to the illusion of their future incarnation for use.
Plastic has become integrated into every aspect of modern life, from medicine to food to furniture to clothing to machinery. Bathed in it from the delivery room of a hospital till the morgue, there is virtually no place in modern life that it cannot be found. And with it has come an incredible curse. All around the planet plastic waste has become a problem of monumental proportions, and most especially in the global south. But westerners need to halt themselves from distancing or heaping condemnation on the global south for this problem. Sri Lanka, where the award winning photo was taken, like so many other countries under the heel of the IMF and World Bank, are not the ones profiting from the plastic industry. The profiteers are multibillionaire companies like Dow Chemical, Hanwool Corporation, BASF, Lyondellbasell, Ihne & Tesch GmbH, Exxonmobil, Matsui Technologies India Ltd., and SABIC. And billionaires like Stewart and Lynda Resnick of The Wonderful Company or William Young of Plastipak or Warren Buffett. And as the demand for plastic continues to surge, their net worth has only grown larger.
In addition to this, it is the west, or global north, that has been shipping the bulk of its unrecyclable or “undesirable” plastic refuse to the global south. So the trash in these landfills that are fouling estuaries, deltas and wildlife sanctuaries around the world are from those of us in so-called “developed countries.” Some of these nations have pushed back against these acts of environmental colonialism, but they are in an uphill battle with some of the most powerful and wealthy corporations ever known.
The elephants in that landfill in Sri Lanka are no different than the seabirds, or the whales, or the sea turtles we have watched succumb to humanity’s insoluble and indigestible jetsam and refuse. In fact, they are all harbingers. Portents of what lies ahead for all of us. Whether we like it or not, we are all denizens of a plastic coated world. One that has made enormous profit from the overproduction of plastic for a few and incurred incalculable expense for us all. Plastic can now be found in virtually every corner of the planet, from the Arctic to the Pyrenees to the Marianas Trench. It has even been found in the cells of organisms and in every human tissue. And all of this has come about thanks to the political and economic arrangement of late capitalism, an arrangement that does not possess the capacity for ethical and moral direction in regard to a living planet.
The thin and fragile ribbon we call the biosphere is the only place that we know life exists for sure, and in its great abundance. And it has been relentlessly assaulted through rapacious mining, deforestation and the extraction of fossil fuels by a ruling and wealthy global elite. The byproducts of the latter being climate change fueling CO2, oil spills that ravage coral reefs, and plastic pollution. As for the latter, we will never fully grasp the carnage wrought upon countless species by plastic refuse, on the lands and in the seas we deceptively call the “wild.” We can only fight to protect what remains, even if it has all been tainted by the mad dissemination of synthetic polymers.
The following is a collaboration of poetry and prose with Jennifer Robin and Phil Rockstroh. Introduction by Kenn Orphan.
And who will join this standing up and the ones who stood without sweet company will sing and sing back into the mountains and if necessary even under the sea:
we are the ones we have been waiting for. ― June Jordan
“To be a poet is a condition, not a profession.” — Robert Graves
“Poetry is what happens when nothing else can.” ― Charles Bukowski
Kenn: Over the past few months we have witnessed climate catastrophe in the form of mega storms and ferocious fires, uprisings against racist police state violence, rising fascism, white supremacist militias, and a pandemic which has taken the lives of over a million people around the world. Now, that virus has poked its spiky, protein arms into the very centre of American imperial power.
It would be naïve to deny the deep psychic trauma that all of these events have inflicted on each and every one of us. Some have been galvanized to take to the streets as militarized police launch tear gas at mothers in Portland and students in Minsk. Others have become paralyzed by the weight of these wounds. A segment of the population has become entranced by the cult of Q, which reduces all of the human failings of our age to a fantastical and sinister cabal of supernatural beings.
It is perhaps the latter which has become the most emblematic of unhealed trauma. It provides a refuge, however irrational, for the wounded to hide in, away from the complexities of the world and its myriad and existential problems. But to make sense of our moment in history we must reconnect with a language that is far older than the parlance employed today. A language of the soul, of the psyche. One that is able to grapple with truths and trauma that we find impossible to face otherwise.
As ash from the West coast of North America drifted over my piece of the world here in Nova Scotia, and the sun became a dark orange and foreboding hue, my mind drifted along with it to places that once had form. Did this ash contain the remnants of an ancient tree? Or countless mammals who sought refuge from the flames deep in the forest? Or the bones and flesh of a fellow human being lost to the inferno? And with this came the trauma of knowing and not knowing.
We sit in the ashes of a world that is aflame, but we are not alone. With us sit the ghosts and the gods who implore us to do what conventionally is seen as a waste of time. To pause and reflect deeply on where we are as a species among billions of species, on a world in a deep state of trauma. The following is a reflection in prose and poetry by Jennifer Robin and Phil Rockstroh.
Jennifer: The first day of fire rise with anger; resignation the next. Take stock, no funds, dough-facedmoll, find a lens that keeps the blowflies elsewhere. Colonizers flaunt gas masks, King ArthurFlour, kiddie pools. A man hears a wild horse halt in fright and exhaustion and scream, tendonsseize and break, musk engulfed by flames. We’ve never met, virtual friend who fills my mindwith horse-fire.
What will the textbooks say? What are textbooks? A wall of ash is ten thousand tons of vinyl siding and particle board ambition; is rabbits, is moss. The Enchanted Forest’s heir pictured here, a smiling blond boy with his dog is lost, runs down paths made unfamiliar, undone.
A week before fire I watched a video of a man summon right-wing ghouls to poison Portland’s water source, coordinates of access roads not on maps, voice like a bowling pin, it teeters, hints of tributaries, haunts of thrush and owl, summoned, not yet done. A week before fire I stopped myself from sharing a video: Cops crush a medic’s head. A voice tucked behind my lung asked: Is this food I serve? What is fed?
When I was four I heard the fable of animals who were wise. They stored nuts for a winter long as childhood, while others frolicked by a stream. Winter fell like strychnine, dreamless sleep. The ones who lay in sun and danced under moon now ran in circles until their hooves and beaks could no longer scrape bark from trees, no longer dig for seeds, even wilted weeds, fur claimed in patches by ice.
Night is abolished. Night, like an escort, is hired. A party of three in hunting gear block a man delivering dinner for the color of his skin. Screens of powder-light show the West in flames; four thousand miles away friends on the Gulf face hurricanes, we once broke bread together, saliva, wishbone lullaby, heart emoji, look away, glad it isn’t me. My lover names those who fled on planes while we squat lower, breathe shallow, boil herbs that go the way of bees, our eyes stinging with future.
Phil: When the air is stippled with ashes, when the color of the sky has been usurped by thereflection of cataclysmic flames, and when the smoke of the burning world occludes city’smonuments to rich men’s vanity — will you then — only then — half-blinded by veils of smoke— be able to see clearly?
There must come an immolation of your view of the world held within. No — not by the fantasy of a flaming sword held by the hand of blazing blue Heaven — but by a baptism by inner flames that reduces to ashes clutched convictions.
Descend into your shadow that has been cast by the flames. To create a shadow one must possess a semblance of substance.
A Phoenix will build a nest for her fledglings within the shadow of your heart. She will sustain her young with the sustenance of your vehemence.
Jennifer: Unwind: Smallpox blankets, the Paxton Boys and the Glanton Gang, scalps dried in sun,saddles grow heavy with bounty hunter’s gold, gravel in the streams, land claimed for cotton,burn them out, trail of tears. Lies called treaties to gain timber and salmon and ore in high yellow hills, across two billionacres, monopoly ghosts who play guns, play cannons, play fire.
Trappers trace: Charred villages, mountains of skulls, truce is empty.
Standing Rock, private security hired to hose lives singing, bleats silence. No one gets out of here alive, not North Dakota, not the Siletz with their heads sculpted young by boards, songs of Shiok the Transformer who took people to sky, and eagles could pass between the lower and higher realms, and what rubella didn’t claim, tuberculosis took, until memory was null.
By 1860, four and a half million slaves are in the United States and they know no hour without the threat of murder.
Phil: Yes, there is blood pooled in your streets.
I have stared into your face until I disappeared, inhabited the shadow of your self-justifications, and read with the fingertips of my heart the braille of your scars.
I drown everyday in the rising of your blood-tide, unloosed by your sacred guns and rage-protected pride. Your children, from birth, fed on lie-rancid milk, have grown rifles for hands.
I recall being devoured by Alabama moonlight and deluges of jasmine fragrance as the rising waves unearthed the imprecatory chants of Creeks, Choctaws and Seminoles from their black soil entombment. I was given no choice other than to be undone by the rebuke of slaves chained in the haunted night air.
This is the news of the day: The lilies I brought to you, drenching your house with their saturating fragrance, report, the History that made your Now is watered with blood. The scented air demands:
Go to the dead and let them do to you what they will.
Jennifer: Can you count the tents? All of the tents? Above them rooms that fail to blink out of existence,even when they hover, chalk white and smelling of old refrigerators, with the weight of vacancy.
A Black Lives Matter march moves down the street and a cat’s head in slumber rises, listens to the cadence of honking horns until the surge fades.
Cops riot, rain bullets and acid and fists, shatter spinal cords, turn mothers to orphans. The march is a river and bends and I think of the words of Lao Tzu: Nothing is softer than water, but when it attacks something hard or resistant, then nothing withstands it.
Silence returns. The cat’s head settles into fur, amoeba sleep.
11th Hour Instruction Manual: Consult Marvel oracles for pushbutton salvation. Sing the song of self while pawning a wedding ring for five pints of ice cream and a bottle of Hair Buster Draino.
Cut and paste: Wishing the fascist well whom you said should get the guillotine three days earlier. The mind-virus of progress at any cost: Profit at any cost is antimatter. Do not revive.
This burned forest floor will be marvelous for fracking! Who doesn’t need the daddy? Who turns off thought, legitimizes mind-crimes, whispers: Anger is good. Arise and smite.
Our heroes are young again and fifty feet long! Biden has a new chin, Superman cleft, aborted glyph of Saint Michael and Dick Tracy. Trump has a neural stimulator, a fine skein of silver concealed under his game show quiff. Rumors abound—he gobbles french fries and Adderall, a maskless vigil outside Walter Reed Hospital assembles to faith heal, officers deputized as feds so that every protestor hogtied is a felon; ICE helicopters fly 10 hours a day, plan on “immigrant roundups” before the election. Thor-worshippers, Oath Keepers, and “rational thinkers,” oh my!
Practice past; it repeats. Dive into the past; the past is finite, is done. The past is re-written, rummage its lacunae with your fingers while your eyes are too stunned to see. Feel old letters, wrinkled paper. Severed tongues reanimate. The past absolves you of future, fills you like a chalice with blood-curdle hymns: We are the elect, when men were men, and women were—
Trump: My mother prays for him.
Rouged cheeks are practice-fever. Move closer. Hear the clink of horse brass, smell the reek of rotting hay. Tulsa, 1921: Black Wall Street burns, bombed by air and ignited in alleys. Hamburg, 1941: A woman replaces the star on her Christmas tree with a photo of Adolph. The pushbutton ones swim in mythology until the trains come. Which was the string of strings that unraveled the silken purse called earth-hive?
Commune mind: Earnest, under thirty. Black lives hold their ground in the streets, getting published, on screens as living minds instead of dead bodies. Earnest, under thirty. Find each other, learn to use the crossbow and irrigate corn. Earnest, under thirty. Learn the uses of elderberries and sage. This is no longer practice fever.
Earnest, under thirty with no illusions about the dynamo spinning down, cities blinking out, programming growing erratic, the fires yet to come.
Moon, like a scoop of lemon sherbet, shines so bright.
Jennifer Robin is the author of Death Confetti (Feral House), Earthquakes in Candyland (Fungasm Press), and Even Snowflakes Heal and You Can Download Skin (Ladybox Books). She also posts on Medium.
Kenn Orphan is an artist, writer, nature lover, antiwar and anti-capitalist activist, sociologist, spiritualist and hospice social worker. He writes for this blog and numerous other sites, including Counterpunch, Hampton Institute and Dandelion Salad.
Apparently, Donald and Melania Trump tested positive for Covid-19. Part of me wonders if this is a publicity stunt meant to downplay the virus even more. But it is unlikely, since Trump does not possess the acumen for that level of scheming. But regardless of that, it is hard to muster up sympathy for a man who said “it is what it is” when asked about the death toll from Covid-19. Or for his wife, who wore a jacket to an immigrant child detention centre that was emblazoned with the words “I really don’t care, do you?”
This president’s administration threw out the handbook on how to deal with pandemics. He spent the first crucial month of the pandemic downplaying its seriousness. He then continued to lie about it even after he knew how deadly it was. He admitted this to Bob Woodward. He then proceeded to blame China for it and said “I don’t take responsibility at all” when asked about a lag in testing for the virus. He has never expressed empathy for the millions of Americans who contracted the disease or the families who lost loved ones to it. He peddled the drug hydroxychloroquine despite the fact that there is no evidence it does anything to cure or even treat Covid-19 and can have serious side effects. He talked about injecting disinfectant as a cure. And he was just on national television mocking his opponent for wearing a mask.
There is no reason to express any sympathy for Trump or his wife. Like other leaders who downplayed the pandemic, Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil and Boris Johnson of Britain for instance, it is certain they will receive the best treatments and healthcare available. The same cannot be said for the citizens under them.
212,869 Americans have died so far from Covid-19. 1,029,094 worldwide. 7,505,074 Americans are infected with Covid-19. 34,578,919 worldwide. Most of them are the working poor. Most of them are Black, or Indigenous, or Latinx. Most of them lack access to adequate healthcare. Most of them will suffer in other ways beyond the virus itself, from losing income or housing. Or from poor mental health.
Our solidarity, not sympathy, should be with them. As for Donald and Melania Trump? It is what it is.
To say we live in absurd times is perhaps the greatest of understatements. Today, I have seen flurry of posts about the Trump/Biden debate. “Biden won the debate” or “Trump trounced Biden” or “Trump was mess” festooned my social media newsfeed. Was it really a debate? I confess, I did not watch it in its entirety, but from what I saw I would dispute that designation.
I have also seen people write “Biden is a socialist” which honestly made me laugh, as well as give me a headache. I mean, this is 2020. How can an adult think that a person who is beloved by Wall Street is a socialist? How can an adult think that the Affordable Care Act, which is a financial boon to insurance companies, even remotely resembles a socialist program? Or that he consistently refuses to consider universal healthcare? Or boasts about “beating the socialist?” Biden isn’t even a social democrat like most politicians in the EU, or New Zealand, or Canada.
And this gets to the root of the problem. Most Americans cannot really define terms like socialism, democratic socialism, communism, anarchism, capitalism, authoritarianism or fascism. Most do not understand the spectrum of politics, from far left to centrist to far right, or that the political climate in the US, on both sides of the aisle, has steadily moved to the right over the past several decades. When you cannot define something, you become easy prey for influential or powerful political players to manipulate. But this doesn’t even begin to capture the gravity of this historical moment.
When Trump was asked last night to condemn white supremacy and rightwing militias he said the real problem was Antifa and the left. He also proclaimed: “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by.” Right after this, Proud Boys leader Joe Biggs shared a PB logo with the president’s words on it.
The Proud Boys are a far right, fascist organization founded by the racist, anti-Muslim, misogynistic, antisemitic, English born Canadian, Gavin McInnes. They are infamous for their threats, intimidation, and supremacist ideology. Trump is a huckster. A snake oil salesman. And his only interest is self interest. But that does not mean that his appeal to fascism is not real. His self interest is in remaining president, emperor of the flailing American Empire, by any means available to him.
Fascism thrives on weak political responses of the opposition, plays on nationalism, and taps into the irrational fears of a segment of society who perceive that they are under threat. Whether or not this is true does not matter. And Trump has provided a segment of white American men a voice for their unhinged fantasies of supremacy. These men, and many women, are in the country’s police departments. They are in the Department of Homeland Security and ICE. And the fact that many others are armed and organized into militias should keep anyone with even a scant grasp of history up at night.
If they are “standing by,” we should be doing the same.
“It would be naive to depend on the Supreme Court to defend the rights of poor people, women, people of color, dissenters of all kinds. Those rights only come alive when citizens organize, protest, demonstrate, strike, boycott, rebel, and violate the law in order to uphold justice.” – Howard Zinn
The history of most ancient civilizations is one of caste and the ritualized enforcement of hierarchy. Subjects of these societies were conditioned to venerate a priestly class. Those ordained and ceremonially clad minsters of temple law who were untouchable figures endowed with enormous power over the day to day lives of ordinary people. Their primary role was protecting the interests of the ruling class through the dispensing of restrictions or rights on the laboring classes.
In many ways, the Supreme Court of the United States is an archetype of that priestly class. They are selected by the president, essentially the modern-day emperor and, once ensconced in this class of black robed figures, they are there for life. As a hegemonic institution, they are the final authority on the issues of importance to ordinary people. That is, of course, the ones they take an interest in. But most of their work is in corporate and banking law because the transactions of the wealthy and powerful have always outweighed that of the lower classes in any empire.
It is only through the lens of empire that the hierarchy of caste becomes clear. And once it is illuminated, the fog of blind deference to the powerful is lifted. Indeed, we can see how these institutions have been constructed and designed to perpetuate a caste system. What else could explain the highest court in a republic that claims “all men are created equal” making a decision to deny citizenship to African slaves, only to later grant personhood to corporations?
Under late neoliberal capitalism, its most barbaric phase, the Supreme Court, or priestly class, has become one of the last refuges for the ruling class to hide in. But as the American Empire crumbles, this refuge is more and more resembling a fortress against the rightful anger of the masses, than a sanctuary for wealthy oligarchs. And it may be that the days of this refuge are numbered.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a more liberal voice of America’s priestly class known as the Supreme Court. Her defense of feminism and LGBTQ people are to be commended. But she, like her colleagues, dwelled in ivory towers far from the lived lives of the millions who reside under the oppressive weight of the American Empire’s hubris. It is why she had difficulty understanding protests against racist policing in the country. It is also why she denied Native American’s their sovereignty in one infamous case against the Oneida Nation, who attempted to buy back land that was stolen from them by the white colonial settler state. Ginsburg did express some regret for her remarks about Colin Kaepernick and the Oneida decision, but both instances signaled an underlying disconnect from these lived realities of caste and dispossession.
While Ginsburg’s death comes at one of the most tense moments in the recent history of the American Empire, it must be reiterated that the Supreme Court is not the true arbiter of change or a defender of the marginalized or disenfranchised in American society. It never was. There is a long succession of SCOTUS decisions to attest to the fact that it is an institution designed to protect the interests of the ruling class. In today’s context, this means corporations, banking and the US government, especially its surveillance and military wings.
Empire’s of the past relied on a priestly class to hold the angst and rage of its subjects at bay. They possessed all the ritualized accessories of authority, but they did not oppose the empire itself because they could not. The Supreme Court of the United States is no different in this regard. It carries out the will of the ruling class because it cannot do otherwise. And as we witness the American Empire begin to crumble under the weight of its own excesses and the avarice and cruelty of its ruling class, we should remind ourselves of this truth.
Donald Trump, the emperor without clothes extraordinaire, will now attempt to appoint one of the most fascist leaning justices the US has ever seen. He will delve into his cadre of ghouls of which there are many. And if history is a guide, he will likely succeed. But justice has never emanated from the powerful. Nor has it ever been dispensed by the priestly class employed to defend an empire’s caste system. It has always come from the din of the street. From those residents of the precincts of poverty and marginalization who have organized in solidarity, who have raised their voices in defiance, and who have put their bodies on the line to halt the engine of brutality. And now, more than ever before, we need to redeem this urgent lesson from history.
“I have seen that we do not intend to free, but to subjugate the people of the Philippines. We have gone to conquer, not to redeem… And so I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the American eagle put its talons on any other land.”
— Mark Twain October 15, 1900 The New York Herald
On October 11, 2014, the body of Jennifer Laude was discovered in a hotel room in the Philippine port city of Olongapo. She had been viciously beaten, strangled, and drowned in a toilet. Laude was beloved by all who knew her, but her unfortunate fate was sealed when she met her killer, US Marine Joseph Scott Pemberton, at a dance club that evening. After months of the US military stalling the hearing process, Pemberton was finally put on trial. Jennifer’s family endured a trial full of smears, dehumanization and cruelty before eventually hearing the verdict and punishment for her killer. Pemberton was sentenced to jail for homicide, a lesser charge than murder, and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Because of the Defense Pact between the Philippines and the US, he was allowed to serve his term at a US military base instead of a Philippine prison. But earlier this month, after serving just a little over half of his term, Pemberton was given an “absolute pardon” by the authoritarian president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte.
Jennifer, who was affectionately called Ganda by her mother, which means “beautiful” in Tagalog, was a 26 year old woman who was deeply loved by her family and friends. But she was born into a reality beyond her control. She was Filipino in a nation where the US military is dominant and transgender at a time when this community is facing more and more violence around the world. This could be just another tragic story of assault, transphobia and murder, which is bad enough. But this heinous act has become emblematic of the long, blood drenched history of American imperialism.
First colonized by the Spanish, then by the Americans, with Imperial Japan making a short but brutal appearance, Filipinos who had fought long and hard for independence from Spanish colonialism found themselves to be yet another chess piece in the geopolitical game of the empires. The US struck a deal with Spain, ending its rule there, only to introduce a new era of subjugation on the indigenous population. Armed struggle against US forces were valiant and had many successes, but they ultimately proved futile for the Filipino people. The Americans had far more lethal weaponry. Hundreds of thousands of men, women and children, were massacred, or died of starvation or disease in the imperial war of the early 20th century. Waterboarding, commonly thought to be a relatively new torture technique for American forces, was used liberally on Filipinos. The cruelty inflicted upon them was breathtaking in its depravity. The book “In Our Image,” by journalist Stanley Karnow, detailed many of these atrocities including rapes, village burnings, indiscriminate killings and concentration camps. This was a race war, as identified by the murderous American president Theodore Roosevelt in a speech he gave at Arlington Cemetery in 1902. He characterized the imperial war as “the triumph of civilization over forces which stand for the black chaos of savagery and barbarism.”
As was the case with most people who inhabit the Global South, the dehumanization of Filipinos became embedded in American policy and practice. Anthropologist W. J. McGee said they were “monkey-like” and exhibited whole families at the St. Louis Fair in 1904 much to the amusement of curious white Americans. Prominent periodicals like National Geographic referred to Filipinos as “uncivilized.” And these attitudes had a direct impact on their rights. Under American occupation, they were segregated from whites, prevented from voting, owning property, or working in many careers all in the land of their birth.
Following WWII, and the Japanese occupation, the United States picked up where it had left off. And racism became the class designating factor, where those with more European features were favored and bestowed with greater access to resources and benefits than those with browner skin. With the force of the military, American imperialism morphed into the “defense of national security interests.” In a short span of time American businesses sliced up the country for their own profit and employed a loyal class of well paid locals to enforce American interests within the government. Vast swaths of land were handed over to US corporations, leaving most indigenous Filipinos impoverished and disenfranchised in their own nation. Slums and shantytowns exploded outside major cities like Manila, and public services were privatized for the profit of the wealthy. Labor movements were ruthlessly crushed.
The independence the Philippines eventually obtained was largely an illusion. Sovereignty was supplanted by the neoliberal “free market” with the result being gross income inequality, destruction of ecosystems by multi-national corporations, and pollution left behind by the US military. Subic Bay, where Jennifer’s murderer was stationed with the Marines, was also where the US Navy had one of its largest bases. Before withdrawing in 1993, it had dumped raw sewage, pesticides and chemicals like PCBs, lead, and asbestos for decades. This bay is also where tens of thousands of Filipinos live, and the pollution continues to cause disease, premature deaths and birth defects in the local population. But in addition to causing enormous economic, health and ecological devastation, US military personnel, as in Japan, Germany, South Korea and Iraq, have near total impunity for any crime they commit against locals. Joseph Scott Pemberton was not the first US military member to be let off the hook for murdering someone. He joins Edward Gallagher, Nicholas Slatten, and a whole host of others who walk free after serving little to no time for their heinous crimes and atrocities.
Over the last few decades, the Philippines has become fertile ground for the ruthless economic predation of multi-national corporations. And, as is the case in the entire Global South, they demand militarized protection for their “economic assets and geopolitical interests.” In the decades following WWII the Philippines has hosted a long list of presidents and politicians who may pay lip service to anti-imperialism, but whom eventually bow to Washington and Wall Street. Despite his hyper-masculine bravado, or his speeches decrying American imperialism, or his demands for the US military to leave or stay out of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte is no different than his predecessors in this regard. He may come from the south of the country, from a place that knows the barbarism of American occupation intimately, but he also comes from an elite political class. A class which has benefited greatly from American capitalist exploitation of the land and the working class of the Philippines. And his brutal policies of state violence against the poor and the marginalized, under the deceptive logo of the “war on drugs,” has taken tens of thousands of lives. Duterte aligns neatly with the politics of Donald Trump, and echoes other far right “strongmen,” like Modi, Bolsonaro, Netanyahu, and Orban. His anti-American rhetoric is steeped in opportunist game playing in order to obtain the favor of any of the imperial forces in the region, whether it be the US, China or Russia. And his “absolute pardon” of Pemberton serves as a stark example of this obsequious political nature.
Jennifer Laude’s murderer is now free to go on to live his life like so many other soldiers, or agents, or mercenaries, or contractors of the US government who have enjoyed pardons or near total impunity for their crimes. That Laude was transgender made her nearly sub-human in Duterte’s eyes, but also to the American military and the Trump regime in Washington. Her killer used the tired excuse that Jennifer lied to him about her identity as a trans woman. Even if this was so, it is no excuse for this brutal attack. But this defense has been used time and time again against LGBTQ people, and it has often let murderers off the hook. But militarism, itself, begets violence and atrocity. And women and children, LGBTQ and working poor, Indigenous, Black and people of color, as well as sex workers, are the most common victims of its barbarism.
Jennifer deserved better. She deserved a life free from violence, poverty and exploitation. A homeland free of despotic leaders and foreign occupation. And after her murder, she and her family deserved justice. But her life, like countless others, was deemed disposable by the Duterte regime and the American military establishment. Sadly, her story can be repeated over and over and over again throughout the Global South. And as long as this barbaric cycle born from a legacy of colonial imperialism is allowed to continue, she will not be the last to suffer this fate.
Over the last few months I have been revisiting research I did a long time ago on fascism. Pinochet’s Chile, Suharto’s Indonesia, Montt’s Guatemala, Hitler’s Germany and beyond. I’ve spent time poring over the accounts of the survivors, the details of the crimes, the descriptions of the torture, of the camps, the ghettos, the dehumanization, the cruelty, the terror, the photos of the train cars headed to concentration camps, the mass graves, the massacres, the piles of corpses. And reading through the accounts of people who knew things were going in this direction, that something ghastly was being done to other people, yet did nothing, not even raised their voice when they had the chance.
Sadly, I have come to believe that it is, once again, reasserting itself globally and more overtly. And it isn’t just in incendiary speeches from the US president or others who stoke the flames of racism, and scapegoat and demonize the poor, the immigrant, the marginalized, or the oppressed. In recent days, I have seen far right trolls on social media sharing memes with gruesome photos of the deceased in Kenosha. Photos mocking them, memes celebrating it, and cheering on more of the same, and worse. From my research, I realized that this is how it all started. How fascism became normalized in those societies that fell to its barbarism. A level of callous dehumanization that cannot be sated. Cannot be reasoned with. And that, when joined with state agencies, becomes a force that is lethal and next to impossible to stop. I can tell you, the research has taken an emotional and spiritual toll, and led to many sleepless nights.
But Americans have already tolerated the precursors of fascism. The atrocities they have largely chosen to look away from, or normalize, or conveniently blame on one president. They know of the imperialistic invasions and bombings of scores of non-Americans in the Global South by the US military. And at home, they have seen immigrant and refugee families torn apart and put in cages. They have heard the sobbing of children in detention camps. They have seen people prosecuted for daring to help these people in the scorching desert. They have seen police departments acquire tanks and armour, and use tear gas and fire at people on their front porches. They have seen unarmed protesters beaten, and maimed, and disappeared in unmarked government vans. And much of this was happening long before Donald Trump darkened the doors of the White House. To be sure, fascism has always simmered just below the surface in the United States. History’s pages, dripping with the blood of Indigenous genocide and the suffering of African slaves, has nurtured the ground for fascism to flourish whenever the conditions were ripe for it. Indeed, the Nazis took lessons from America’s ruthless systemic supremacism. So anyone who argues that “it can’t happen here” has no interest in this history. Because it already has happened here, it just hasn’t affected the majority of white Americans yet.
As the election looms closer it has become undeniable that the proto-fascist in the Oval Office will do everything he can to stop his potential removal from office. Indeed, Trump has already started pulling the levers of power available to him, from attacks on the US Postal Service to casting doubt on the process itself. He is employing one of the few gifts he possesses, incitement, to activate his far right base, including armed white supremacist militias. He has accelerated his demonization of opponents and any political group who dissents, including anarchists and Black Lives Matter activists. And he has aligned himself with the most unhinged and violent factions of the notorious conspiracy engine known as QAnon. If anyone thinks he will leave office without trying to cause immeasurable chaos and misery, they have not been paying attention to the last four years. And his opposition comes from the most stale, neoliberal precincts in recent memory. A cadre of ghouls and grifters for the interests of capital, who offer little hope outside of platitudes to the millions of Americans struggling with a pandemic, an economic downturn not seen since the Great Depression, as well as climate change fueled catastrophes.
And so how then shall we proceed? How shall people of conscience, those who reside at the margins of an empire in a state of collapse, live? There are times when history feels quickened. When the merciless maw of barbarism cannot be avoided. But there are moments every step along the way which give us a window of reprieve. A chance at redemption. A space to build solidarity with others of like mind and spirit. Others who cannot stand silent or paralyzed while the heel of ruthless hatred stamps out our very humanity. It is up to us to seize those moments when we can, because they can often lead us toward preventing unthinkable atrocities. I believe this is one of those moments, but I also believe that it is rapidly fading away.
Media personality figure and former prosecutor, Kimberly Guilfoyle, perhaps gave the most crazed speech at the Republican National Convention. In a shrill tone, she repeatedly claimed that Joe Biden and the Democrats are socialists. This is how far down the rabbit hole the American political landscape has fallen. If they are socialists, they are the worst ones in living memory.
After all, Wall Street heaved a sigh of relief when Biden was nominated, and again when he picked Kamala Harris. And Biden has vowed to veto Medicare for All and Green New Deal policies. While those things aren’t necessarily socialist, they are far more left than Biden or Harris’ politics. In truth, any socialist would laugh at the notion of these candidates being one of their own.
But this doesn’t matter in American politics. It never has. And this is all part of the delusion. Both ruling parties are plutocratic in nature. Both are capitalist. And both support American militarism and imperialism, with varying degrees of minute difference.
Guilfoyle, like Nick Sandmann, the smirking MAGA hat wearing kid who mocked a Native American elder in Washington DC, also brought up “cancel culture.” It has become a hot topic for these types, which is rich given the fact that they are giving speeches before millions of people carried by every corporate, national news outlet.
But what struck me most about Guilfoyle’s speech was the pitch. It was unhinged to a degree I have seldom seen in American politics. And I have seen a lot. Of course, she was a television personality, which has its own theatrical melodrama. But before that, she was a prosecutor. An astonishing fact that should make any sane person shudder. And she is now the partner of one of Trump’s sons. So the stark nepotism is remarkable in and of itself. But it was the fanatical look on her face which took me aback the most. It was the look one sees in the faces of cult followers. And all of it has been normalized to such an extent that too many Americans simply shrug things like this off.
To date, over 180,000 American have died from Covid-19. This is the most for any nation. A quarter of the entire world’s deaths, and the US only represents 4.25% of the planet’s population. It is facing an economic downturn not seen since the Great Depression. Millions of Americans have lost their jobs, millions may lose their homes due to an inability to pay rent or mortgages, and millions have lost health insurance because the nation has tied healthcare to employment. It is a time where uprisings against systemic racism and police brutality are being met with more police brutality and murderous rightwing militias. And like the rest of the world, it is facing enormous ecological catastrophes on the horizon from climate change. In fact, thousands are reeling from fires in the west and the aftermath of a hurricane in the south. But to people like Guilfoyle, Donald Trump has done the best job ever, and is the only hope Americans have against all of its enemies, foreign and domestic.
Guilfoyle ended her bizarre speech by yelling “the best is yet to come” before an empty theatre. And perhaps this is what best sums up the madness of this historical moment. The political class is playing to an empty theatre because most Americans cannot afford to attend the play, or are too sick, or too over-worked, or are not white enough to be admitted. But this class has never really paid much attention to the audience to begin with, so for them, little to nothing has changed.
My partner Patrick and I have had my mom here with us for a few days so that my sister, who does a marvelous job caring for her, can have a respite. She is 87 and suffers from dementia, and has done remarkably well so far. But she recently had a test where she scored 10 points lower on cognitive ability. So we all know she is declining.
This journey has had its measure of pain. And my long work in hospice care helps, but doesn’t extract me from the landscape of mourning we must all traverse. When my father died, she held him in disbelief sobbing, and begged God to take her too. He was the love of her life, after all. She was with me, my sister, brother and nephew, at the time, and the agony of loss was acute for all of us.
After that we began to notice her becoming more detached. She wound up in a wheelchair and eventually a nursing home for a brief stint. With much attention, especially from my sister, she was able to go from a wheelchair to a walker, and then back home. Eventually she was able to glean joy once again from life. Soon after, we moved her from Florida, which is where my parents retired, back home to Nova Scotia, the land where she was born.
She has had tremendous support here, was put on excellent medications, and was involved in a wonderful day program for people with dementia, which kept her socially and cognitively engaged. Unfortunately, they had to suspend this due to the pandemic. And the loss of that interaction has been marked.
There are moments now when she asks me: “you’re my son, right?” These lapses in memory don’t last long, and they aren’t very often, but the sharp stab of sorrow I feel in my chest is becoming too real for me to ignore now. And they are becoming more frequent with each passing day. After I shake off the grief, she is back to herself again, asking about my partner Patrick, whom she adores. Or her other son, George, who lives in the States. Or where my sister is. Or about her sister Marilyn, who also lives here in Nova Scotia. Or she talks about my father, and how much she still misses him.
There are other moments of irritation and exasperation that come with being asked the same question ten times in ten minutes. Or hearing the same story over and over again as if it were the first time she was telling it to you. This is the rocky territory of caregiving in the unforgiving land of Dementia. And then there are the conversations that were never finished, conflicts that were never resolved, and memories she can no longer grieve or celebrate with me. That, and the sleepless nights and guilt for all of those feelings. And I know this is only part of what my sister has experienced.
Despite that, we have found solace in the small things that make us spontaneously smile, like her colouring. She was never one to do any kind of art, now she loves colouring. And singing old hymns. “Great is Thy Faithfulness” is one of her favourites. And, after singing it with her for what seems like over one thousand times, it has become mine too. And watching travel shows. Every time she watches one with us she is so grateful, because she laments not having traveled the world the way she dreamed of when she was a kid. She somehow remembers that I’ve been lucky to travel a lot, and asks me for each country we see: “were you there, and were the people friendly?” And sitting by the bonfires this summer while she does her word puzzles. And marveling at trees and flowers. I have never seen anyone become so enraptured by looking at trees and flowers as my mom.
We know the days will grow shorter. But I hope I can collect as many memories that I can, like old letters in a shoe box. I hope I can keep them alive, somehow, in some compartment in my heart, even as I know they will slowly fade into the evening dusk for her.