We Have Always Belonged to Her

Some have expressed dismay that there is so much grief over the loss of a building and not over the loss of nature, or the biosphere, or of human beings. But why does there need be an “either or” response? Why do some human beings feel the need to limit the scope of their grief?

The razing of a primeval forest, the violent removal of an ancient mountaintop, the despoiling of a holy river, the unnatural death of a species. All of them wound the human psyche as well, and in far greater ways. These places are not venerated or preserved by the forces of capital except as exploitable property. Like Notre Dame, they represent our collective history and future. More than Notre Dame or any other human made structure, these places are the real world that we and countless species depend on for existence. But the fact that buildings and structures are reflections of the collective human psyche itself should not be downplayed.

Some have said that Notre Dame represented colonial oppression and feudalism. But indeed, the same could be said about the Imperial Palaces of China, the monasteries of Tibet, St. Basil’s in Moscow, the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Akshardham in Delhi, even the ancient ruins of the Acropolis or Teotihuacan. All of them represent some kind of oppression, caste or injustice. And of course each of them should be understood beyond mere romanticism and in this historical context. Many of the colonial structures we see today were erected on the razed temples or cities of conquered peoples and were placed there erase that peoples history. A message of ruthless and brutal imperial supremacy. But there is often a tendency to reduce the power of place, that enduring spirit of loci, to fit places and their nuanced and complex meaning into neat and tidy narratives. What is lost is ambiguity, movement, and the very weight of human history itself.

To be sure, there are no shortage of hideous human made structures, ones that stand atop nature scraped of its life, convey alienation, brutality and raw power. Shopping and strip malls are one example. They reflect the cold and ravenous narcissism and insatiable cupidity of our age. Desolate places of alienation, where mind-numbing Muzak is piped through sterile, air-conditioned, cavernous tombs. Big Box stores are another. They squat shamelessly on seas of pavement. Former wetlands, meadows and woodlands raked and drained clean of their original inhabitants. Monuments to banality and a fitting sarcophagus for capitalist consumerism.

There are more examples, from suburban sprawl to tract housing to freeway exchanges to municipal buildings devoid of character. Places that are everywhere and no where at the same time. Over time, the meaning of structures often change. Events change them. People change them. Nature changes them. But some places and structures are imbued with grace from the start. They convey both a sense of place and connection with nature and an inexplicable transcendence from the repressive systems of their times. So their destruction or desecration can understandably leave a deep psychic wound especially in a world where the wounds appear to be piling up.

Any conscious visitor to Notre Dame would have understood it to be one of those places. They would have noticed its graceful curved lines which boldly celebrated the feminine as divine. Indeed, it was built on an ancient and sacred pagan site and I cannot help but wonder if the artisans and architects reflected this either consciously or not in their work. Any visitor would have taken time to sit in its gardens which carved out a sanctuary of nature in a city bustling with noise, chaos and pollution. They would have taken refuge under the watchful gaze of more gargoyles and chimeras perched on virtually every ledge than in any Harry Potter movie. They would have marveled at the number of depictions of the Virgin Mary, a striking avatar for the pagan goddesses, and an amazing thing considering the repression of religious patriarchy elsewhere. They would have noticed its symmetry and geometry as reflections of nature and the universe or multiverse that we humans inhabit, often unconscious of it all.

So the loss of this structure is perhaps a portent of our times. A time where grace, beauty and nature itself are under perpetual siege. The flames we witnessed devouring her tender spire and arched roof are akin to the fires that are devouring our fragile biosphere. She was a refuge, now scorched. How many others await a similar fate?

It shouldn’t be too difficult to draw from the symbolism of Notre Dame’s desecration. Notre Dame, “Our Lady,” was considered the mother of God. How often is our living earth referred to as our mother? So we need not have to pare down our grief over the loss of this sacred temple. On the contrary, we should expand it to encompass the entire imperiled biosphere. The soul devoid capitalist class may have claimed her smoldering ashes as their own, as they have done with the entire planet. But they are merely pale and pitiful shadows against her walls. Notre Dame is perhaps the best human made symbol for the living earth, and she belongs to no one. On the contrary. We have always belonged to her.

Kenn Orphan   (2019)

 

 

 

On Burning Churches

I’ve seen a few supposedly leftist pages celebrating or laughing about the catastrophic fire that destroyed the historic cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris today. One particularly loathsome meme inappropriately uses a Buenaventura Durruti quote which says “the only church that illuminates is the one that burns in flames.”

Really? Well then would these self described “leftists” say that burning Black churches in the American south is “illuminating?” What about mosques bombed by the US or its allies? Or the destruction of Buddhist statues by the Taliban? Or how about the desecration of synagogues and Jewish cemeteries by neo-Nazis?

One can criticize and condemn the institutions of authoritarian religion, its repressive and abusive practices, its patriarchy and hierarchy, and its systemic support of reactionary government and societal trends. But to not recognize the value of place, or culture, or history, or art, or community, or strength that many of these places engender is the height of hubris. And to celebrate their destruction lacks basic humanity and the principle of solidarity. In short, it is far from leftist. It is fascist. But sadly today too many can no longer make the distinction.

Kenn Orphan   (2019)

Photo is of a Black church burned by white supremacists in the American South courtesy of Getty Images.

A Land Uncharted

“The freedom of the press is not safe. It’s over. And I think our republic is in its last days, because unauthorized disclosures of this kind are the lifeblood of a republic.” – Daniel Ellsberg

The persecution and arrest of Julian Assange is the first and most definitive step toward full blown global fascism. The symbolism of a gravely ill journalist being manhandled by uniformed henchmen is the exact imagery it needed to send a chilling message to whistleblowers and the press. The assault and eventual dismantling of what remains of a free press has always been that first step, and it is what lies on the horizon barring mass dissent. For decades the mainstream media has acquiesced to the demands of the corporate world of high finance that now owns them outright and the military and surveillance state that informs their narrative. To be sure, many of them must be trembling at the events that unfolded in London.

That so many prominent American liberals are cheering this on is hardly surprising. History is replete with examples of how the privileged bourgeoisie are the first to capitulate to fascism. It happened in the 1930’s in Germany, Spain and Italy. It happened in the 1970’s in Argentina and Chile. It is happening now across the supposedly “democratic” western world. The animus they possess for Assange is not over his personal ethics, politics or affiliations, which are indeed open for criticism and debate. Like any human being, he is flawed. It is rooted in sore feelings over Wikileaks exposure of the machinations of the corrupt Democratic Party and their Wall Street favoured war hawk, Hillary Clinton. None of what Wikileaks revealed was untrue, but they blame the failure of their deeply flawed candidate on it nonetheless. They care little about the war crimes the platform helped expose through the courage of Chelsea Manning or the threat his persecution represents to press freedom itself.

That the fascist despot Trump has disavowed Wikileaks is hardly surprising either. After all, he may have used the leaks to his benefit, but the man who has relentlessly demonized the press will undoubtedly use this moment to his benefit again. Wikileaks as an organization isn’t perfect and, like any other media outlet, it is not beyond criticism. But nearly every major news outlet has used and published its material, without appreciation or gratitude, because it provided an unprecedented glimpse into the nefarious activities and guiding principles of the ruling elite. The veil had been finally lifted. But with the arrest of Julian Assange this makes all of those news outlets vulnerable to state or corporate repression and censure.

With the Trump administration chomping at the bit to launch a war against Iran and Venezuela, this must come as welcome news to them. After all, it was Wikileaks that exposed the war crimes of the Bush administration in Iraq, not the corporate media. So they can be assured little reporting, aside from a few courageous citizen journalists or those embedded with the troops who parrot Pentagon talking points, will be done to expose the Empire’s war crimes now.

Indeed, Trump has been given a green light with this one event to continue and expand the American Empire, moribund as it is, without reproach. And like a bloated corpse, it will undoubtedly infect and defile everything it touches. More brutal violations of the global south, more coups against democratically elected governments, and bolder acts of authoritarian cruelty at home. He has made no pretense of this. His minions, Pompeo and Bolton, are working tirelessly constructing the next war. And in the past several weeks he has purged his administration of monsters he deemed “too weak” when it comes to crackdowns against immigrants and asylum seekers. A classic tactic of all tyrants. He has anointed the rabid white supremacist, Stephen Miller, in this 21st century pogrom and has also toyed with the idea of making the military in charge of internment camps for migrants. Only a fool would not find such a thing chilling to the bone.

Indeed fascist leaders around the world, along with the military/surveillance establishment and their neoliberal enablers, are celebrating the silencing of Assange. After all, Wikileaks has represented a major thorn in their sides for a decade. From Netanyahu to Duterte to Bolsonaro to Modi and even Putin, all will be emboldened to expand their own attacks on press freedom. All of them will feel empowered to be even more unrestrained in their brutality.

We are on the eve of a sweeping, global, fascist tyranny. Thanks to the continued proliferation of nuclear arms, endless corporate and military assaults on the life sustaining biosphere, catastrophic climate change and the systematic dismantling of democracy, it is a land uncharted. Journalists, especially those who are independent of the corporate stranglehold, are being routinely and relentlessly persecuted and even murdered around the world. They are a bulwark against fascism we dare not lose. But the arrest of Assange is representative of a free press now under constant threat of annihilation. And it will without a doubt grow even more difficult for them to navigate through the mendacity of a ruthless ruling order that has become utterly unrestrained.

 

Kenn Orphan   (2019)

In Tribute to Blase Bonpane

I was saddened to hear about the passing of Blase Bonpane earlier this week. I remember hearing him speak in LA in the 1990s when I was doing an internship, and his lifelong antiwar and economic justice activism helped shape many of my values today and my worldview.

Beginning as a Maryknoll priest, an order known for their social justice stances, Bonpane applied his strong spiritual convictions to the material world. After going to Guatemala in the late 1960s those convictions transformed into what is now known as Liberation Theology, the joining of Christ’s teachings with real world political and economic inequality and injustice. It would become the subject of his doctoral thesis years later.

He witnessed firsthand the violence against the poor and indigenous by the rightwing regime which was installed in Guatemala by the CIA via a coup against the democratically elected president, Jacobo Arbenz, in 1954. This was done at the pleasure of United Fruit Company (now Chiquita) who would not allow economic reforms, let alone democracy, to cut into their enormous profits.

His political advocacy for the oppressed earned him the imposed silence of the Church at the behest of the rightwing Guatemalan government. But this did not deter his passion or his activism. He eventually left the order and gained notoriety for exposing the slaughter of thousands of Guatemalans by government death squads with the active support of the US government. He called it America’s “Latin Vietnam.”

A legendary critic of militarism, he condemned many injustices around the world from the Middle-East to Africa to Central America. He and his wife Theresa, a former Maryknoll nun herself, founded the Office of the Americas in order to confront both American Imperialism and political and economic repression in Latin America.

He wisely observed about American society:

“I think we have to deal with the ideology of militarism, because the militarism has become the very fabric of our culture. Militarism has no relationship to democracy. If it’s militarist, it is anti-democratic. And if we base our thinking on might makes right, we really don’t care about who has a claim to anything, and we don’t care about law. We become lawless. Our policy has been lawless in Central America, in South America, in Africa, in the Middle East. It has been lawless. It has been an argument and a policy of power and militarism.”

May he rest in peace, and may all people of conscience gain courage from his life and his convictions to oppose the brutal militarism and fascism we see rising today.

Blase Bonpane, présente! (1929 – 08 April 2019)

Kenn Orphan   (2019)

Madonna Plays Apartheid

It may be difficult for some to understand the impact that a pop icon has on social and political events, but these cultural figures possess enormous psychological sway in the minds of millions. Their actions make a difference. So it can be quite jarring when one of those icons goes against the justified demands of an entire people, especially when they have been oppressed and persecuted for decades.

This May Madonna is set to perform two songs at Eurovision in Tel Aviv. She will reach an estimated 180 million viewers. She has moneyed backing too. Canadian billionaire Sylvan Adams has pledged to pay $1 million dollars for her performance at Eurovision. And she will simultaneously flip the bird to millions of Palestinians who languish under a brutal system of colonial oppression, ethnic cleansing and apartheid. Madonna is no stranger to this controversy. In 2012 she launched her MDNA tour in Tel Aviv against the urging of BDS activists.

There is a dark legacy of pop icons who play in places where there is rampant oppression or injustice. In the 1980s scores of artists played Sun City, a resort in the Bantustan state of Bophuthatswana. A state with limited autonomy created by the racist regime of apartheid South Africa in order to forcibly displace Black South Africans from their lands. Dolly Parton, Elton John, Frank Sinatra and Liza Minelli were among the big headliners there and reportedly received millions for their performances. In 2009, Sting reportedly got £1 million playing for Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of the notorious repressive leader of Uzbekistan. He was unrepentant about that gig.

In 2015 Nicki Minaj played for Jose Eduardo dos Santos, the repressive president of Angola who has been widely associated with human rights abuses and corruption. But Minaj wasn’t fazed by criticism. In fact, she laughed it off and inadvertently exposed the real reason these artists play in such venues in the first place. On Instagram she posted a photo of her and the daughter of dos Santos saying “Oh no big deal… she’s just the 8th richest woman in the world…. GIRL POWER!!!!! This motivates me soooooooooo much!!!!”

And therein lies the answer. Pop artists are products of an industry that is obsessed with wealth accumulation and privilege. In fact, they celebrate it as a virtue and promote the fallacy that wealth equates with liberation movements like feminism, personal success and agency. It is a fallacy that “motivates” them, as Minaj revealed. Indeed, the music industry, especially under late stage capitalism, churns out a banal formula for success, one deeply associated with wealth and power, uninterested in social, environmental or political movements. It shouldn’t be surprising then that most pop stars are consumed with this. They, like so many in the art and movie industry, are captivated by the excesses, bling and thrill of being connected with the powerful. Ethics be damned.

Many pop stars claimed in the aftermath of playing in repressive places that they were ignorant of the human rights, economic or environmental abuses. But Madonna cannot make that claim. In 2016 she paid $20 million dollars for a two story penthouse in Tel Aviv. She undoubtedly sees the headlines on Haaretz. She knows what is happening in that city to African migrants and refugees who are routinely demonized and persecuted by politicians and rightwing fascists. Migrants who are sent to internment camps in the Negev. She has undoubtedly heard about the Nakba and the refugee camps, and knows all too well what is happening now in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. She knows that Israel maintains a US funded army, navy and air force, and the Palestinians do not. She knows Israel has blockaded Gaza since 2007, subjecting nearly 2 million people to intolerable conditions that amount to collective punishment. Indeed, Gaza has been declared “unlivable” in many regards by the UN. She knows scores of unarmed protestors, as well as reporters and medics, have been gunned down in cold blood along the Gaza fence.

She knows about the checkpoints, settlements and the settler violence against Palestinian school children and villagers. She knows about the environmental terrorism of slashed olive trees and poisoned wells. She knows millions of Palestinians are subject to Israeli rule under the occupation without equal representation, the very definition of apartheid. She knows about the wall of separation that limits Palestinian access to their jobs, farmland, medical facilities and schools.

She knows Palestinians homes in the occupied West Bank are routinely demolished. And that scores of children are routinely whisked away in the middle of the night with no warning by the IDF, and taken to undisclosed detention facilities where they are often subjected to threats and violence and placed in solitary confinement, and then subjected to military tribunal unlike their Jewish counterparts who enjoy access to civil courts. She knows that Israel periodically flattens parts of Gaza killing scores of people with block decimating bombs and white phosphorus.  And she knows that under the racist Trump regime Israeli crimes against humanity have been given complete impunity.

In addition to this, Madonna knows this is not really about “building bridges of peace and understanding.”  She knows that there are millions of Jews around the world and many Israelis who vociferously and courageously oppose the occupation, apartheid and the continued oppression and dispossession of the Palestinians. People who are horrified at the fascistic lurch Israeli society has taken, especially in recent elections. People from organizations like If Not Now who represents Israeli soldiers who are speaking out about what they have seen and have been asked to do, and Jewish Voice for Peace who have implored her not to artwash or even pinkwash apartheid and to stand on the right side of history. She knows that there has been a call by Palestinian civil society for a non-violent boycott of Israel as long as it continues to commit these ongoing crimes. But she ignored them then, and she will undoubtedly ignore them now.

So for those expecting more out of Madonna they are bound to be disappointed. And this may be a hard pill for some to swallow at first. After all, I remember growing up and coming out to Madonna tunes. Her liberated sexuality and avant-garde style (at least in regard to Hollywood culture) was refreshing for a youth immersed in a society of puritanical repression and rigid social mores. In truth, I still listen to some of her songs on occasion when I wax nostalgic. Those icons represent a torch for many youth looking for a way out from under the boot of reactionary authoritarianism. But somewhere along the line something changes for most people with a conscience. The “icons” are forced to descend from their pedestals and become human, and like any human, they are understood to be subject to the enticements and corruption of coin and privilege. In truth, they cannot be expected to be anything more than a product of an ethics devoid industry and economic order itself.

Millions of people will watch Madonna perform at Eurovision, a European musical contest ironically being held in the Middle-East, Europe’s last enduring colony. She will present Tel Aviv as a bastion of European values in a hostile environment, surrounded by savages. Her message is a new branding for an old orientalism writ large for a new generation. One can only hope that her performance will cause some to dig deeper and see that human rights are either universal or they are nothing. And that there is no justification for playing apartheid. Not in South Africa 40 years ago. Not in Israel and Palestine today.

Kenn Orphan    2019

Crying Babies on a Plane

Crying babies on a plane. “Why me?” I mutter to myself. I’ve never had a baby. Indeed, I’ve never had a strong desire for progeny. But here I am, aloft in a hollow, metal, tubular nursery, hurtling through the lower stratosphere. Trapped amidst unpleasant (often unidentifiable) smells, cramped leg room, subdued existential panic, and those crying babies.
Then one of the little humans (who happens to be right next to me) reaches out a tiny hand and grips my arm. I try not to pay attention as I peer at my open book assiduously rereading the same sentence over and over, as if to memorize for an examination. Damn, I still can’t remember what I just read. I stay in my allotted sphere (a seat that I imagine was conceived and constructed by a small robot with limbs that can bend both ways).
My mind drifts to the spider monkeys I just saw days earlier. The one with her baby clinging to her back as she swung branch to branch above my head in the Yucatecan rainforest stands out in my memory the most. I reflect on the fact that they are among our closest relatives on this life drenched rock in space.
I feel a tug at my arm again and glance over to the little human seated next to me and she giggles, gurgles and smiles. Her mom jests, “Oh, she likes you.” I nod, “how old is she?” I ask. “10 months.” I smile and turn back to my book. Then I hear her father singing a custom made song to the little human to the melody of “Frosty the Snowman.” It sounds like “Luna the grouch-babe” or something like that. And Luna, the little human, grabs my arm again and giggles. Her tiny fingers pinch the hairs of my forearm. She squeals in a high pitch and flashes a toothless grin at me and her mother.
My mind drifts once again to those spider monkeys. Of their way of life. Of their threatened habitat growing smaller by the day. Of their family bonds and common aspirations for living. Of the fact that they are the only known spider monkey troupe left in this region of the Yucatan peninsula.
And I sigh and forget what I am reading again. I forget for a moment my impatience with being in this nursery of sorts. My misanthropic feelings ironically seem to dissolve when thinking of those monkeys while surrounded by the screaming infant voices of my kin. They fade into the ether of the airspace surrounding the metal tube I am lodged in while one of them gently pinches my arm.
“Why me?” I mutter to myself. “Why did that little human, the one named Luna, reach out to an oft jaded, old grump like me?” Then I smile to myself, check the time, and realize we are making our final descent. And I hadn’t even noticed.
Kenn Orphan   2019
Photo is a spider monkey in the Yucatecan Rainforest, by Kenn Orphan

Grieving in the Anthropocene

“Having a conscience now is a grief-soaked proposition” – Stephen Jenkinson, author of Come of Age: The Case for Elderhood in a Time of Trouble

“We are the first generations to grow up surrounded by evidence that our attempt to separate ourselves from ‘nature’ has been a grim failure, proof not of our genius but our hubris.”  – Paul Kingsnorth, Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist and Other Essays

“The greatest challenge we face is a philosophical one: understanding that this civilization is already dead. The sooner we confront our situation and realize that there is nothing we can do to save ourselves, the sooner we can get down to the difficult task of adapting, with mortal humility, to our new reality.”  – Roy Scranton, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization  

 

A few years ago I saw my first glacier. I was on a trip to Alaska with my family before my father died and he had always dreamed of seeing the region; so we were happy we could do this one last trip to fulfill it for him. We cruised through the Inside Passage past glimmering mountains of cerulean blue ice, drove through part of the Yukon Territory of Canada by turquoise lakes, and hiked close to a receding glacier. It was breathtaking, yet throughout the journey a specter of sorrow accompanied me.

In the West we are conditioned to chase those specters away. Grief itself is often viewed as something unnatural, as some kind of disorder to be dealt with by silencing ourselves, ignoring it or medicating it to numbness. We often hear well-meaning people suggest to the bereaved that they “keep themselves busy.” If our grief lingers, we are told that we are “depressed” or “not coping well” or that we need “closure.”

But like many others I have found myself encountering a grief that envelops my entire being more and more. An existential grief that cannot ignore our collective predicament as a species and that often accompanies a sense of panic and powerlessness. And I have begun to relate even more to Edvard Munch’s iconic painting “The Scream.” It seems to me to be the perfect emblem of our times, an unheard anthem of despair silenced by the absurdity of an omnicidal status quo. And so many of us feel that sense of terrorized paralyzation at the madness of rising militarism, fascism and brutality and an unfolding ecocidal nightmare. But so often we feel confined to an interior space that our culture has consigned us to.

Today we are bombarded with distraction. Our brains are flooded with carefully programmed and meticulously marketed algorithms that condition us to respond to screens rather than each other and the living planet. The dominant economic order robs us of our feelings, thoughts and even our grief and transforms them into capital and commodities for sale. Indeed, it is incapable of doing anything else. But many ancient traditions grappled with grief in a public way that was not exploitative.

Years ago, in Europe and in the Americas, those who were mourning the death of a loved one announced their grief to others by wearing a piece of black cloth around their arm or by placing a black wreath upon their front doors. Many indigenous cultures have elaborate rituals to mark the death of loved ones and the passage of bereavement. In the small fishing and farming community where my mother grew up every able bodied person was expected to follow the casket up to the cemetery in a solemn procession. And these public expressions of private grief provided a bridge of solidarity and community.

Now many of these traditions have been rejected or forgotten. They are vestiges buried by modernity; and in their absence a deep sense of alienation has grown. Facing our grief can be transformative. It can foster empathy and has the power to galvanize people to action. It cannot alter the past. It does not have the power to halt climate feedback loops or predict and prevent tipping points. And it cannot stop a looming biospheric and societal chaos that is all but locked into the system. But it can strengthen the pysche, offer us an insight into resilience, and give us the tools we need to resist the inhumanity that accompanies collapse. It can also help us appreciate and protect what remains.

I remember pouring over wildlife books when I was a boy, always dreaming of exploring their exotic locations in person one day. The natural world was at once terrifying and abundantly rich with mystery and wonder. Of course in those days I never thought I might witness its end. I never considered that the Great Barrier Reef and scores of other coral reefs around the world would succumb to a bleached death. I never thought that the Arctic Ocean would be ice free, or that it would rain in Greenland in winter, or that gigantic nation-sized shelves of ice would simply break off and fall into the sea in Antarctica.  I never imagined the Amazon Rainforest would suffer from catastrophic fires every year, or that 40% of wildlife would be sponged away from the living earth, or that plastic in the seas would be so ubiquitous that a bag would be found in the deepest part of the ocean, the Marianas Trench. Now, decades later, I have witnessed all of that and more. This is the reality of the Anthropocene, so with all of this it becomes impossible at some point for any rational human being of conscience not to grieve.

But on that trip years ago I had the opportunity to meet grief face to face. I stood alongside my father in silent reverence at the nature before us. At the time I could not have known that he would not be with me on this earth much longer. Perhaps some other sense did. Standing on the deck of the boat, passing under great mountains of melting ice, I felt that sense of awe that a child does. I also felt immensely small. My heart beat hard in my chest as I attempted to comprehend what my species and, in particular, my society has done to this precious life giving earth.  I felt the cold air from that melting glacier roll over me.  But this time I decided to not chase that specter of sorrow away. For a brief moment I wouldn’t view him as an adversary, but as a companion. So I embraced him like a long lost friend and he smiled at me and said, “What took you so long?”

Kenn Orphan  2019

The Blindness of Empire

“The essence of capitalism is to turn nature into commodities and commodities into capital. The live green earth is transformed into dead gold bricks, with luxury items for the few and toxic slag heaps for the many. The glittering mansion overlooks a vast sprawl of shanty towns, wherein a desperate, demoralized humanity is kept in line with drugs, television, and armed force.” – Michael Parenti, Against Empire

“What do nations care about the cost of war, if by spending a few hundred millions in steel and gunpowder they can gain a thousand millions in diamonds and cocoa?” – W.E.B. DeBois

“It’s being made out that the whole point of the war was to topple the Taliban regime and liberate Afghan women from their burqas, we are being asked to believe that the U.S. marines are actually on a feminist mission.” – Arundhati Roy, Come September

“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” – J. Krishnamurti

Last week a startling meme showed up on my Facebook newsfeed. It pictured what was apparently the youngest US soldier fighting in the war on Afghanistan today, and noting that he was not even born when that war began. Perhaps what is more startling, however, is how quickly that shocking fact was buried. I imagine for many Americans it was simply one more news item to scroll on by.

It was about 1 ½ years ago that President Trump vowed to expand the US war in Afghanistan, now the longest one in American history. Started by George W. Bush (with the help of his father who made preliminary advances in the latter part of the 20th century) and maintained by Barrack Obama who happened to drop over 26,000 bombs around the planet in his last year in office alone, Afghanistan has become one of the most vital colonial assets to the American Empire. It has been called the “graveyard of all empires” a statement which tends to downplay the enormous suffering ordinary Afghans have had to endure through these imperialistic incursions over the centuries. But with each passing year that phrase appears to carry more weight. And as this assailed nation sits atop a treasure trove of rare earth minerals amounting to at least a trillion dollars, there is little doubt why the American Empire refuses to leave.

Militarism is essential to empire; but it is also its Achilles’ heel. This is because it exacts a heavy price and takes an enormous toll on the stability and capacity of a government to provide for the basic needs of its citizens. This is especially true of capitalist societies where profit flows upward to an increasingly smaller group of extremely wealthy people. While it spends trillions on war, it denudes its own society’s well-being in the process.

That the United States began by expanding westward across North America through violent ethnic cleansing, genocide and slave trade economics is no exception to the general course of empire. And in its short time on the world stage it has managed to become the most powerful dictatorship of capital wealth and money the world has ever seen. Here the ruling elite routinely buys the allegiance and voice of politicians and the media, and police and military agencies serve to protect the accumulated wealth of those upper classes. But like its forebears it is now an empire teetering on a precipice of social, financial and ecological catastrophe thanks to a convergence of climate change, endless exploitation of finite resources, and perpetual war to maintain it all. Join this with rampant corruption, gross social and economic inequities, a rising fascist element and the militarization of the police/surveillance state and a recipe for collapse is writ large.

Perpetual war is a hallmark of the American Empire. It has been in some kind of military action, occupation or intervention for at least 224 of its 243 years as a self-described republic. Yet despite the enormous and appalling healthcare, social and financial neglect of the working class veterans of its many wars, the magicians of the ruling class never cease in casting the spell of “American exceptionalism” over the general public. They routinely conjure up new villains and boogeymen, foreign and domestic, for ordinary Americans to project their animus, frustration and alienation on. Maduro today, Qaddafi a few years ago. Hussein some years before that. None of them were or are an actual threat to the American homeland, but they stood in the way of wealth and capital, the only thing the American ruling class truly cares about. And for that reason the lie of militarism and war must continue to go unchallenged.

In this way collective amnesia is induced every time a flag is unfurled or jets fly over a packed stadium. The illusion extends to popular entertainment. Themes of the “white savior” persist and are ubiquitous, giving American military exploits a veneer of nobility while masking its inherent racism. Even the American super hero genre continues to thinly mask an insidious militarism that almost always casts wealthy capitalists in an esteemed light while promoting a distinctly orientalist worldview. Others who happen to live outside the beneficent grace of capital, and in some cases within, who are in opposition to Empire, are vilified. This well financed and popular Hollywood generated mythology is no small thing since so much of the arts and humanities in the US have been greatly defunded or cancelled over the last few decades. And this has served to hollow out much of the conscience, awareness and critical thinking skills necessary for organized dissent to its violent, unending excesses.

But like so many other empires of history America is sleepwalking into calamity and, quite possibly, its quietus. Its ruling class, which includes the corporate media, routinely ridicules or renders invisible the warnings of its scientists. The moneyed and powerful from both ruling political parties continue to disregard the worsening plight of the working class. Infrastructure continues to crumble and the social safety nets that remain are riddled with holes. The police/surveillance state violently stamps out any real or substantive dissent. And the moral imagination of young people is diminished even as “reality” stars, the celebrity class, corporate executives and military generals continue to be put on pedestals. Most ordinary and working class citizens of the American Empire are perpetually repressed in a sort of prison of entrenched or intractable debt, terrified of being incarcerated or shot for a petty crime, and the growing costs associated with being sick, injured, educated, or housed. And all this while being ladled with guilt from the ruling classes who perpetuate the damning and willfully obtuse mythos of “self-determination” and “personal responsibility.”

It is no wonder, then, that the wide use of psychotropic medications and opioids, two of the most heavily marketed items, have become normalized within American society. Of course there are many cases where these medicated responses to human suffering are warranted, but at some point one must also see that there is a goal, whether conscious or not, to numb the senses of the public to the crushing weight of their alienation, oppression and disenfranchisement and, indeed, to the looming crises ahead. Even young children are heavily medicated should they show “antisocial signs” which conflict with the required conformity to a profoundly ill society. And this speaks volumes to a system incapable of grappling with the root of its malady.

To be sure, in its present form and on its present course the American Empire cannot be salvaged.  Nor should it be. After all, it represents a global capitalist class whose aim is nothing less than the full scale plunder of the planet via unending war on one side and utter contempt for the consequences of its ecocidal plunder on the other. And it must be understood that this is the reason for such a bloated military in the first place.

The US surpasses any other nation on the planet by far in military expenditure, but it would be foolish to think this is merely a sign of obsessive defense or excessive nationalism. While they are a component, the larger role of the US military is to protect the interests of global capital. It has no viable threats to its hegemony, especially following the fall of the USSR, so it invented the “war on terror,” a phantom that makes the US military into mere mercenaries in service to corporations and finance. While there are rivals like the Russian Federation or China, the US stills remains the most militarily powerful. Its client states including Canada, the UK, the EU, Australia, Israel, Saudi Arabia, India, Brazil and beyond understand that role completely and accept it. And this global ruling elite does not care about the future of the planet in the least.

It should come as no surprise then that on the same day President Trump announced the expansion of America’s imperial reach he also disbanded an advisory council on climate change. This was not some denialist ploy either. Trump, or at least some of the moneyed class and elite brass who surround him, understand that climate change calamity is not only real, but imminent. Indeed, the Pentagon has done several studies on the unrest that would accompany the unfolding chaos, albeit with a focus on containment and paying special attention to the risk toward the private property and resources of the rich.

In fact in the short time following this decision the US has seen several major climate change caused catastrophes, including the hurricane that devastated Puerto Rico, the one Trump callously ignored and which claimed thousands of lives. To be sure, this is the primary reason for the “build the wall” campaign along the southern border. The ruling class understands that with drought and flooding comes famine, shortages and unrest. And all of the nations the American Empire has plundered to the south over the last two centuries will justifiably demand reparations. But Trump’s reasoning for disbanding the council on climate change is banal and simple. He merely does not want anything to impede or derail the flow of capital, and scientific evidence along with public panic might actually do that.

The only coherent response to any of this brutality is an unflinching solidarity among all who are oppressed by the Empire. Those who live at the margins of its selective beneficence. Those who have been disappeared or erased by its ruthless machine. And this, of course, extends beyond the artificial borders that it maintains. This solidarity must take the form of building communities of resistance and resilience that go beyond our personal or group identities. They must be about our status as an underclass within a ruthless global socioeconomic order bent on the rampant destruction of the biosphere for the profit of a few. These communities must be organic in origin and remain uncorrupted from the powers that be, because the unraveling of empire will undoubtedly be both chaotic and terrifying. And a ruling class that has remained drunk on its own purulent privilege, insulated to the real time suffering of the masses, and surrounded by the most elaborate surveillance/police state apparatus in history, will also be more belligerent and cruel when their power is finally challenged.

Indeed, the aim of the ruling class has always been the same: first to expand, then to crush, exploit, rape and plunder the vulnerable of the earth and the living earth itself for the gain of power and coin; and then to rewrite or erase them and their stories entirely from the pages of history. This much has never changed and it is aided today by a digitally enhanced, inverted totalitarianism, where self-censorship and bourgeois values of conformity to power not only go unquestioned, but are unassailably taken as absolute truths.

And this is why that story about the young American warrior, the one who wasn’t even born when the Empire began its bloody foray in Afghanistan, went buried so fast. It is why the memory of the dead civilians of Afghanistan, and Iraq, and Libya, and Syria, and Gaza, and Yemen, and Vietnam, and North Korea, and Laos, and Honduras, and Congo, and Indonesia, and so on, all victims of Empire, have also been buried alongside their bodies.

But we must remember also that irony is a gift of awareness most often missed by the powerful. So another thing that occurred on that day a year and a half ago might be seen as an omen. As he stepped out unto the White House balcony, appearing generally uninterested and even doltishly bumptious at the magnitude of the celestial event about to take place, Trump ignored the warning of scientists and stared briefly into the blinding rays of a solar eclipse without protective eyewear. And so it goes for the American Empire as it stares arrogantly into a blighted and brutal future, only seeing its own inflated greatness while the searing beams of reality scorch it all to ash.

Kenn Orphan   2019

 

The Global Assault on Indigenous Peoples

“There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.” – Arundhati Roy

We must answer their call. Our Mother Earth, militarized, fenced-in, poisoned, a place where basic rights are systematically violated, demands that we take action. Let us build societies that are able to coexist in a dignified way, in a way that protects life. Let us come together and remain hopeful as we defend and care for the blood of the Earth and of its spirits.” – Berta Caceres, Indigenous rights and environmental activist of the Lenca people, murdered in Honduras in 2016

A few years ago when I was in Panama I was fortunate to spend some time with the indigenous Ngäbe–Buglé. They reside in the lush rainforest that blankets much of the country. Their villages are simple, but graciously laid out with the natural world around them. The people have a reverence for wildlife, using only what they need; and culture, ancestral ways and community are paramount. But as in every other place on the planet they have been under siege by the forces of capital.

Dam projects largely devised to benefit mining companies have inundated scores of villages and devastated farms and fishing. Rare species like the Tabasará rain frog are threatened with extinction due to the loss of habitat. Four years ago a dam claimed a small indigenous village on the sacred Tabasará River. The villagers narrowly escaped drowning as their homes flooded in the night. They were given no warning.

In May of last year the river was shut down for maintenance on the Barro Blanco hydroelectric dam. Tens of thousands of fish and crustaceans were left to suffocate in the mud. Many more dam projects are planned for this small country. While the Ngäbe–Buglé have protested their dispossession and the destruction to their way of life, they have been met with threats, disappearances and violence from the state and operatives from various companies who stand to benefit from the projects. But the lords of capital, the banks, hold the most power. For instance, FMO Bank of Holland and DEG Bank of Germany were responsible for the Barro Blanco dam.

In stark contrast to the Ngäbe–Buglé way of life is the wealthy new high rise section of the capital, Panama City. Here glass and steel towers scrap an unforgiving hot Central American sky. Yet there are few sidewalks in this area. The moneyed elite drive directly into their palatial condos through secured garage doors on the street. There isn’t a need nor is there a desire to walk here unless you are poor.

It is a landscape of alienation repeated around the world from Jakarta to Manilla to Mumbai where the wealthy cordon themselves off from an ever growing peasantry behind gilded gates. But about an hour and a half away from the capital is the forgotten city of Colón where most of the inhabitants are people of colour and poverty is crushing. In truth, most of the extreme wealth entering the Panama Canal is concentrated in the ruling top .01%.

And this gets to one of the most tragic outcomes of these economic and ecological assaults: displacement. Millions of indigenous people around the world have been evicted from their ancestral lands only to wind up in the hellhole slums of megacities. Here they are most often locked in poverty, forced to abandon their culture and language for conformity, and forgotten by society. To be sure, this is the world that global capitalism envisions for us all.

But whether it is the Ngäbe–Buglé in Panama, or the Bonda in India, or the Wet’suwet’en in Canada, or the Papuan in New Guinea, or the Kariri-Xoko in Brazil, or the Aboriginal in Australia, or the Ogoni in Nigeria, or the Lakota in the US,the threat of annihilation is both real and imminent. Thanks to a system of global capital they are up against powerful forces that seek to strip the earth of every last resource for the profit of a few. And they will eliminate anyone who stands in their way. The NGO Global Witness reported that over 200 indigenous rights activists have been murdered around the world last year. A record. The activist Berta Caceres was a victim of this global crime. And today there is no sign of this carnage slowing down.

The assaults on indigenous people around the world bear one thing in common. These are the people on the front lines of a war for what remains. A war of resources that amount to enormous profits for the very few. Of course they have always been on that front line since the early days of colonialism. Days where outright genocide was common. But through the lens of catastrophic climate change and biospheric collapse the current economic order must be seen as the death cult that it is. Incapable of introspection or self-restraint. Drunk on their hubris and narcissism. Ominicidal in their pursuit of coin. And it is the indigenous who are closest to the living earth who stand most in the way of their plunder. They are rendered non-persons in corporate media and displaced or eliminated so that the flow of capital continues uninterrupted. And with capitalism itself on its last legs, that death cult is becoming ever more desperate, duplicitous, vicious and bold.

I remember when I was in Panama walking through a Ngäbe village on a balmy afternoon. Insects hummed around me. Tropical birds pierced the canopy of trees with shrieks. The humid air dampened my clothes. I could hear the sounds of children laughing as they came home from school. Old women hung out colourful clothes to dry and they immediately reminded me of Tibetan prayer flags. A young artist was sitting in his cabin with the door open carving a beautiful piece of fallen wood. He looked at me and smiled. “Welcome, and come in,” he said. I wonder sometimes what has become of him and that village. But I will admit I am afraid to find out.

Kenn Orphan   2019


What They Want Us To Forget

At least 50,000 people have been killed in the US supported war against Yemen by the medieval kingdom of Saudi Arabia, with tens of thousands on the brink of a famine that is human caused. In fact, the US along with Canada and the UK continue to provide military assistance and arms to the kingdom. Yet no crisis has been declared by the US or its allies.

Over 10,000 people have been killed by US ally Duterte in the Philippines due to his supposed “war on drugs.” The vast majority were impoverished and non-violent ‘offenders.’ Yet no crisis has been declared by the US and its allies. In fact Trump has applauded Duterte’s crimes.

The UN has warned that the medical and water treatment systems of Gaza are on the brink of catastrophic collapse in just a few years thanks to apartheid Israel’s murderous siege in 2014 which destroyed infrastructure and its brutal blockade which has been in place for over a decade. Well over a million people, mostly children, are facing death. Scores of unarmed Palestinians, including children, nurses, doctors and members of the press, have been shot at and killed at the security fence when they protest their collective punishment and imprisonment. Yet no crisis has been declared by the US and its allies. In fact, Trump has ended US aid to the Palestinians.

The US backed military junta regime of Sisi in Egypt has executed hundreds of political dissidents following what are widely seen as show trials in kangaroo courts. Thousands more are in prison awaiting their fate. Yet no crisis has been declared by the US and its allies.

But in Venezuela, a socialist country that has suffered under US sanctions for years and where elections have been shown to be fair and equal, 42 people have been killed in clashes with government forces at violent “opposition” demonstrations. And there, a “humanitarian crisis” has been declared with the full weight of the US military behind it.

The message we are getting from the ruling elite is quite clear. We are supposed to believe that the US cares about the people of Venezuela. We are supposed to downplay the fact that Trump appointed a presidential pardoned liar and apologist for genocide in El Salvador and Guatemala in the 1980s, Elliot Abrams, as envoy to Venezuela. We are supposed to ignore John Bolton’s comments on Fox News about how the Trump administration is in conversation with fossil fuel companies and that the US will benefit greatly from regime change. We are supposed to look the other way when the opposition raises US and Israeli flags in Caracas or when they use racist epithets and attack people of color. We are supposed to believe this is not about it being a socialist government, or that it has pivoted its nexus away from the US dollar, or that it sits on one of the world’s greatest oil, mineral and precious metal reserves. We are supposed to believe the corporate media’s manufactured crisis and ignore their selective outrage while they ignore every other humanitarian crisis mentioned above. We are supposed to forget how Libya and Iraq were “liberated” or the ruins their nations are today because of it. And to forget Honduras, and Chile, and Indonesia, and Congo and countless other places where US “humanitarian intervention” had led to atrocity, slaughter and devastation. We are supposed to forget about imperialism or its dreadful implications.

The most important job for people of conscience to do then is to remember it all. Remember every single lie, every single crime, every single mass grave. And to never let them forget.

Kenn Orphan  2019

*Cartoon is by Brazilian freelance political cartoonist, Carlos Latuff.