At the end of the first World War, as civilians and soldiers returning home were celebrating the end of a senseless and cruel carnage, another terror was lurking in the microscopic shadows. The 1918 flu pandemic, most commonly referred to as the Spanish Flu, would end up taking the lives of anywhere from 50 to 100 million people around the world. The first wave of the virus was bad enough, but the second wave mutated in a way that was far more lethal and rapidly swept through communities in every country, causing untold misery and bringing governments and economies to their knees.
Although the 1918 pandemic was named the Spanish Flu, it is unlikely the virus actually originated there. In fact, many historians believe it originated in the United States, and that an American soldier might have inadvertently brought it with him to Europe during combat assignments. But the deadly catastrophe was reported by the Spanish press in a thoroughly honest manner as opposed to other nations. Spain, which was neutral in WW1, had no propaganda to advance. But within the imperialistic nations at war, obfuscation and lies ruled the day in the media. Propaganda was considered more important than giving an appearance of weakness to the enemy. This blackout may have led to the initial and rapid spread of the pathogen. But another factor of this pandemic was how officials handled warnings from healthcare professionals after the war, and how humans’ relationship with animal species may have given the virus its start in the first place. With the world reeling from the latest pandemic, Covid-19, it is worth revisiting the lessons of this tragic era.
The 1918 pandemic was not the plague that ravaged Europe centuries earlier, but it emerged in an era of modern warfare which most certainly aided in its incubation and distribution. Tens of thousands of men were housed in huge barracks, in very close quarters. The spread of disease was almost a given. Indeed, without any properties of intelligence, this virus used militarism as one of its vehicles for its deadly global rampage. The first World War was vicious. It claimed millions of lives, of soldiers and civilians alike. Chemical warfare was one of the most cruel manifestations of modern weapons. Apart from the horrific effects of agents like mustard gas, the psychological toll was enormous. Throughout history, war and militarism have been linked to disease, and it isn’t too difficult to understand why. Contrary to what is commonly held as true, war is alien to humanity, and even more so in the last 100 + years. It not only rips at the fragile chords that link humanity together, but tears apart the very fabric of the natural world on which we all depend.
Following this horrendous war, public health officials and politicians continued to downplay the severity of the rapidly spreading disease. Many wanted to puff up their reputations with parades and festivities. One particularly tragic example of this was in September of 1918 in the city of Philadelphia. 200,000 people crowded together on clogged city streets despite a looming disaster in the making. In just three days the cities hospitals were inundated with gravely ill patients. The healthcare system would collapse within a week. By the end of it at least 12,000 people in Philadelphia had perished, but this account is likely underestimated as the city simply stopped counting the dead and mass graves had to be dug to bury mountains of corpses. Children starved after their parents succumbed. Bodies lay unmoved in houses due to the fear by city workers of contagion. Doctors and nurses would drop to the floor gasping for air while caring for the dying. Sadly, we have seen similar stories being repeated recently in China and Italy. It is a textbook example of how social distancing is key to the slowing of deadly contagions.
But the 1918 pandemic also revealed how understanding human interaction with animals is key to assessing how viruses flourish and become more lethal. This was, as in the case of all coronaviruses, a zoonotic disease. Meaning, it has its origin in other species and jumped the barrier to humans due to proximity and, in all likelihood, unsanitary and cruel conditions that livestock endured. And soldiers who were malnourished thanks to limited rations and who faced the utter barbarity of war, provided the 1918 flu virus a perfect host. Today’s modern globalized world has created new avenues for the distribution of pathogens. But it is in our relationship to other species that this latest pandemic was likely born.
It would be all too easy to simply blame one market in the bustling city of Wuhan for the current unfolding catastrophe. But it would ignore the glaring and stark reality that humanity has breached crucial planetary boundaries that have altered the very net of the biosphere. With little doubt, global industrialization fueled by the avarice of capital gain has made pillage of a liveable biosphere inevitable. Deforestation, mining, mass scale fishing and other deeply damaging practices have all but erased the frontier between humans and other species. Indeed, the habitat of other species has dramatically shrunk in the last century thanks to the rapid expansion of industrialized extraction of what have become known as “resources” and any damage done referred to as “externalities.” But it has done so at an extraordinary and existential price. A myriad of species have been decimated by the rapacious activities of capital accumulation for the economic powers who seek unending profit above planetary health. But, as Covid-19 is demonstrating, it is nature that has the ultimate power to shut this machine down.
Even in its infancy, the Covid-19 pandemic has ripped the tattered and rotting cloak from the edifice of the global economic and political system. Markets are in free fall. Airports and streets are empty. Restaurants and movie theaters are shuttered. Workers have been laid off. In the US people are anxiously staying at home, fearful of any cough or headache because they are un or under-insured; and stupefied by the crumbling institutions which were supposed to protect them. It has revealed the sociopathology of world leaders like Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Benjamin Netanyahu and Jair Bolsonaro who are utterly incapable of addressing the urgency of this situation with even a modicum of decency or compassion; and whose solutions lie solely in increased authoritarianism or even fascism. It has demonstrated the complicity of “moderate” politicians like Emanuel Macron whose neoliberal austerity led to a dearth of medical staff and equipment, and Joe Biden who has long cozied up to Big Business and refused to consider the slightest hint of Medicare for All which might have stemmed the spread of this disease. It has shown us that the militarism of an empire is ruthless and relentless, even in a time of humanitarian disaster, as demonstrated by the ongoing sanctions against Iran and other nations. And it has revealed to us the cruelty that is routinely inflicted on animals and wildlife around the world.
But there are signs that Covid-19 is changing the way humanity looks at the way society is arranged. Some are questioning the cruelty and cost of militarism. Others are seeing how class has kept too many people in a cycle of demeaning poverty and disease, and many are demanding universal healthcare. The 1918 pandemic and a needless war of imperialism stole from humanity a young generation. The Covid-19 pandemic appears to be stealing from us our elders, and many of us are beginning to see the intrinsic worth of all people and the immediate need for an end to all war. And, as the waters clear in Venice’s canals and skies become cleaner over Wuhan, there are questions emerging about how our species has treated the delicate balance between us and the natural world. Indeed, many are realizing that there is no “us and the natural world” at all. Covid-19 might be the biosphere’s last and desperate warning to our species that the status quo is a one way ticket to extinction. The only question that remains is how we will respond to its urgent message.
Kenn Orphan 2020
Along with an odious spike in racism I have seen, it has been equally disheartening to see some unhinged conspiracy theories about the COVID-19 pandemic circulating on social media. And especially among some whom I thought were above that sort of thing. I have even seen a couple people whom I thought were intelligent sharing stuff from a discredited “journalist” who worked for Alex Jones’ InfoWars. So I wanted to take this opportunity to say that I will not entertain or argue these things any more.
Like human caused climate change, this outbreak is not a hoax. Real people are getting sick. Real people are suffering. And real healthcare workers are on the front line assisting these people while they are exhausted and have dwindling resources to work with. As a medical social worker myself I know of the great sacrifice of these people. Nurses, doctors, aids and all staff involved in care are putting their own health at risk. And it is often a thankless job.
Are governments and politicians reacting well to this crisis? No. Most aren’t. But if you think the powerful planned all this in some lab then you don’t understand how the world works. They are not omnipotent. But most are incompetent or are crooks or authoritarians who will use any crisis to profit themselves or to gain more power. But by all accounts, this pandemic is not working all that well in their favour, is it? Look at the stock market as an indication of this. Is the corporate media doing a good job? No. But when have they ever? Are there are those who will use this to their advantage? Surprise! That has always been the case. And is this whole thing a major inconvenience and terrible economic blow to hard working people? Of course it is.
None of that takes away from the fact that, by all accounts, COVID-19 appears to be a very different and very dangerous pathogen. And it is not the same as yearly outbreaks of influenza. It is far more serious because we understand what influenza is, we are only beginning to grasp what this thing is. And there are many who work in healthcare that understand how it can spread rapidly within populations, especially vulnerable ones, if precautions are not put in place. These people aren’t trying to make you panic when they give accounts of what they are seeing in hospitals or nursing homes. And they aren’t trying to rob you of your freedoms either when they warn of how contagious something like this is. They are trying to save your life, even the lives of those who disparage them.
We all do what we need to do when confronted with issues that seem far bigger than ourselves. We make jokes, encourage each other, provide assistance to vulnerable people, or choose to work in cooperation with others. But many get mired down by paranoia of everything they read or see thanks to the scaremongering and poor communication of the mainstream media. Others hoard things like toilet paper or distrust people who are different from themselves, either on the other side of the world or in their own communities. Still others get lost in an echo chamber of their own making. Personally, I wish to connect with those in the first camp rather than the others. Those who see a crisis like this as an opportunity to be compassionate, confront injustice, and work in solidarity.
Do conspiracies exist? Of course. It is a crime in every law book on the planet. After all, a conspiracy is only “a secret plan by a group to do something unlawful or harmful.” People are behind bars at this very moment for being convicted of conspiracy. Do powerful people collude with each other to commit crimes or things that are harmful to people or even our biosphere? Yes. Should they be held accountable? Of course. But not every crime or awful thing that happens is some kind of conspiracy. And I have found that when people go down a rabbit hole of conjecture, it will lead where it always has led. Straight to no where.
I hope this thing gets resolved quickly. I hope no one I love gets it, especially those who are fragile. And perhaps it will fizzle out and the world’s attention will move to another topic. I hope so, because maybe then we can address truly existential crises like climate change and our besieged and imperiled biosphere, or confront rising fascism, social hatred and economic injustice, or fight colonialism and rampant militarism.
But no. I will not give anyone’s “theories” about the current pandemic credence above the firsthand experience of healthcare workers. And if you do, kindly keep it off my page.
Kenn Orphan March 2020
Photo is Alessia Bonari, a nurse in Northern Italy who took this photo to show the marks on her face caused by protective gear she has to wear for her 6 hour shift.
“I’m afraid to go to work. I’m afraid because the mask may not adhere to my face, or I may have accidentally touched myself with dirty gloves. I am physically tired because the protective devices are bad, the lab coat makes me sweat and once dressed I can no longer go to the bathroom or drink for six hours. I am psychologically tired, as are my colleagues, who have been in the same condition for weeks.
But this won’t prevent us from doing our job as we’ve always done. I will continue to take care of my patients because I am proud and I love my job. What I ask anyone who is reading this post is not to frustrate the efforts we are making, to be selfless, to stay at home and thus protect those who are most fragile.
We young people are not immune to coronavirus, we too can get sick … I can’t afford the luxury of going back to my quarantined house, I have to go to work and do my part. You do yours, I ask you please.”
Caught a glimpse of the American Democratic Party primary debates tonight. So here are some takeaways. Feel free to add your own:
Biden: I will invade China to stop the coronavirus!
Buttigieg: Commies bad. Gay capitalists good. Gay capitalist Christians even better! And hey, have you read about my cool socks, er um, I mean my cool gay socks?
Sanders: I’m seriously considering relocating to Cuba. I mean, this country is f*ckin nuts. Their rivers are clean, they have universal healthcare, and, dammit, the Canadians have been going down there for years. And some of them have timeshares there!
Klobuchar: I have a timeshare in Cuba.
Warren: I’m a big Christian. Really Big Christian. And did I mention that I REALLY love capitalism?
Bloomberg: I’m just Trump without the orange clown makeup. Seriously, you know it. I know it. We all know it. But I will tell you this: I can buy and sell each and everyone of you in a New York, er um, American minute.
Oh and Judge Judy thinks I’m hot.
Steyer: Look at me, dammit!
Yeah, it’s that pathetic.
Kenn Orphan February 2020
“Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” – Ronald Wright, A Short History of Progress
Since Bernie Sanders’ win in the Nevada primaries there have been remarkable, yet totally expected spasms within the American ruling class. They are justifiably fearful since they have enjoyed decades of unfettered capitalism in the form of neoliberal economics that have lined their coffers. And they see Sanders as the biggest threat to that amassed wealth. Now, to be clear, the senator from Vermont is not a socialist by any stretch. He has consistently voted in favor of military actions and for sanctions against nations like Nicaragua and Venezuela, and for budgets which increase American imperialism among other things. Things which are antithetical to the basic tenets of socialism. And he defines himself as a democratic socialist more in line with the policies of countries like Norway or Sweden. But besides Eugene V. Debs, Sanders ideologies are the closest to socialism any presidential candidate has ever come in the US, at least from either dominant political party.
Sanders ascendancy in the polls has caused some rather odd meltdowns among the American elite. Chris Matthews, the gaseous, bloviating talk show host, compared Sanders win to the Nazi invasion of France. Aside from the sheer odiousness of this and that the comparison callously ignores the fact that Sanders is Jewish and lost a significant portion of his family to the Holocaust, it is an incredibly over the top thing to say. But other talking heads have made similar comparisons. Chuck Todd, for instance, likened Sanders supporters to Brown Shirts. Indeed, this phenomenon exposes the true inclinations of the corporate media and the panic they feel over having to cover a candidate who stands very much apart from the rest of them. The imagery they are evoking is clearly meant to stoke fear. It is the imagery of terror and war.
After being ignored by the press since well before the current primaries began, Sanders successes can no longer be pushed aside. It is a breath of fresh air to see some coverage of a politician with an impressive career, rather than meaningless puff pieces about the socks Pete Buttigieg prefers or ‘gotcha’ clickbait like Joe Biden’s latest inappropriate grope. But we shouldn’t expect too much more from the mainstream press. For decades, the corporate media has acted to reinforce the status quo. They are in the business of manufacturing images, feelings and spectacle, not substance. And this goes beyond the news. American pop culture is drenched in a mythology about how great America is. Here, every injustice or atrocity, no matter how horrific or ongoing, becomes a footnote to its supposed inclusivity, innovation, ideals and aspirations.
Movies and television are inundated in themes that glorify the rich. The working poor are rarely represented, and when they are it is generally done in a supremely unrealistic fashion. These characters are usually struggling to make ends meet, but quick to praise the “American way of life.” Seldom, if ever, are subjects of class even approached. In addition to this, egregious and anti-democratic institutions like the CIA, DHS, and the Department of Defense are endlessly lauded. Shows where secret or special agents are the protagonist are nothing new in American pop culture, but in an era where information is readily available it is quite remarkable that these tropes can survive, much less thrive. These characters may have some endearing or troublesome personal flaws, but in the end their mission and core values are presented as unassailable. They will fight to the death to preserve the “American way of life.” It is never questioned why the supposed threat to this way of life seems to lie most frequently in the Middle East, or in Cuba, or North Korea, or Venezuela. They protect American “freedom” which seems to always reside in oil rich, ‘socialist’ countries elsewhere. But otherizing and externalizing is classic American style distraction. The real threat to ordinary Americans can never be discussed because, of course, that threat is the ruling class establishment itself. But it begs the question, what is the American way of life?
There is no other country on the planet where a billionaire with a detestable personality and a past littered with racism, misogyny and disdain for the poor, could seamlessly buy himself into a prominent spot in the election cycle. Not one. But this is rarely, if ever, questioned in the mainstream. Michael Bloomberg, who ran New York City in a manner the likes of Chile’s Pinochet would have been proud of, was able to sweep into the national spotlight with little to no objection in the media. And this is because the wealth class in the US is still lauded for their supposed “success.” The myth is rather simple and banal: the poor are poor because they simply do not work hard enough, or they are getting hand outs that make them lazy. The reality, of course, is that more and more Americans are working two to three low wage jobs, living paycheck to paycheck, using payday loans to pay for groceries, living in their cars or vans, and are perpetually terrified of getting sick because they understand all too well that getting sick in America can turn you into a life time debtor, just kill you, or both.
But the American ruling class live in a bubble unto themselves. Take the case of celebrity “judge” Judy Sheindlin who has been stumping for billionaire Bloomberg. Her disdain for Sanders and those who support him is quite palpable in this quote: “America doesn’t need a revolution… It’s the most perfect country in the world and those people that are trying to change it and revolutionize it, don’t have a chance, because I’ll fight them to the death.” The “judge,” who no longer is a judge but plays one on television, is emblematic of this bubble. She has made a career out of denigrating the poor. In fact, her program would not have been a success without a large pool of them in America. The rich don’t go to small claims court. The rich don’t care about paltry sums like $200 or even $1000. The poor do. And they get paid a small amount to appear on her kangaroo court stage set and humiliate themselves for the pleasure of their peers and those who might be better off at the moment. Sheindlin’s net worth is $420 million. She has several mansions and a private jet; so it stands to reason why she would think the US is “the most perfect country in the world” or why she would fight to the death to save that kind of ostentatious privilege and obscene wealth. Bloomberg is, understandably, her last best hope. But I have a feeling she would be just as comfortable with another four years of his golfing buddy Donald Trump, since under his regime her wealth and privilege would be just as preserved.
As Bernie Sanders campaign gains momentum so too will the smears and slander against him. Establishment centrist and moderate Democrats, a term which in and of itself is laughable since the needle on this spectrum has been pushed drastically to the right, perhaps loathe the senator even more than the far right itself. Capitalism, after all, has been quite good to them. Hiding away in ‘wine caves’ for the past several decades, attending high priced galas and rubbing elbows with the uber wealthy and jet set has numbed them to the crushing reality of the majority of the world. To them the working poor are maids that clean their condos when they are off at a DNC fundraising luncheon or the guys that park their BMWs when they go to an exclusive club. And while they might employ the well-timed virtue signal or post a meme to indicate that they care about economic injustice, they generally see the poor as a “basket of deplorables.” The kind that get ridiculed and denigrated by Judge Judy in her fake tv courtroom. Unfit to lead or even vote for that matter. Best kept in the shadows, invisible except to be occasionally trotted out on stage behind one of their Wall Street endorsed candidates carrying a sign, and especially if they happen to be wearing a hijab, or are a member of the LGBTQ community, or are a person of color.
From its inception, the United States has been a nation founded upon inequality, racism and oppression. The land was seized violently from its original inhabitants who were then systematically ethnically cleansed from it. African slaves and indentured servants from Ireland, China and beyond built its plantations, dug its mines and built its railroads. Wealthy, white, male land and slave owners, unsatisfied with an allegiance to a monarch an ocean away, were the only ones permitted to vote for their chosen oligarch. And they never intended for this arrangement to be altered. Their “revolution” was not one for democracy, but one to retain wealth for their own class. Every single gain that ordinary people made in the US was due to a struggle against this ruling class, a struggle that often led to their deaths. Today, that struggle continues but thanks to the behemoth corporate surveillance/police state and a media that acts as a mouthpiece for that same class, it has become hobbled, muted and crushed. The poor have been encouraged to identify not with each other, but with a system that largely views them as subhuman or simply doesn’t see them at all.
Sanders popularity signifies a small cry against the ongoing assault against working people. An assault that began before the nation’s founding and that has been sustained ever since. To be sure, the ruling class, whose power has become ensconced in every single institution from the Supreme Court on down, will stop at nothing to silence this lamentation. If distraction does not work, chicanery might. And if all else fails they will rely on state violence to guard their vaults. One look at France at the moment and we can get a glimpse of how far they will go to protect their “interests.” They may not personally fight to the death to hold on to their status, but we would be fools to think that they wouldn’t bat an eye killing any one of us, or even the biosphere on which we all rely, to keep it.
Kenn Orphan, February 2020
Recently, I was asked a couple times what my thoughts were on the impeachment proceedings unfolding in Washington DC. Without a doubt, the trial is dominating many news cycles, and not only in the US but outside of it as well. It is a strange phenomenon that is astonishingly divorced from the pressing issues of its time. Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle writ large across ubiquitous screens.
Trump is a vile human being. This much is a given. But let’s be honest. This is a battle among the wealthy ownership class about crimes that this class commits on a regular basis. It isn’t about real crimes any of us would be tried or convicted for, and it isn’t about things humanity should be appalled by, like separating children from their parents and putting them in cages, or carpet bombing civilians, or drone bombing foreign nationals on foreign soil, or training death squads, or deregulating planet killing industries, or opening up untouched lands to mining, fossil fuel, agriculture and timber interests. No crimes against humanity or the living planet, the ones that count, are being addressed here.
In the meantime, the working class and ordinary people in the US continue to contend with little or no healthcare coverage, increasing wealth disparity, increasing debt and increasing homelessness. In the meantime, people who live outside the US, and in places targeted by its belligerent foreign policy, contend with literal life and death situations caused by a bloated and unhinged military state that spends more on its endless wars than on the welfare of its own people. In the meantime, the biosphere continues to be assaulted by the timber, mining, agricultural and fossil fuel industries, plastic continues to be dumped into the world’s oceans, fish stocks are plummeting, coral reefs are bleaching, forests are being felled at record pace, and climate change fueled calamities are increasing dramatically. In the meantime, people who expose the crimes of the powerful are languishing in prison, like Chelsea Manning, with little to no coverage in the mainstream media. In the meantime, people who assist desperate human beings dying of thirst in the desert or drowning at sea, or who want to ease the suffering of sentient beings on factory farms, or who try to defend our water from pipelines that always leak, are being portrayed as terrorists and are facing jail time for it.
One of the greatest gifts the ruling class possesses is distraction, and in this they create the conditions for a pervading sense of alienation. Alienation from each other. Alienation from the natural world on which we depend. Alienation from our own humanity. And this is because it creates a series of unconnected moments where each one has little or nothing to do with the last one. This creates collective amnesia and a sense of powerlessness. It is how a war criminal like John Bolton, a man largely responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, can be cast as a defender of justice. It is how the real crimes of corporations or the military industrial complex go unpunished. Forgotten, until the next catastrophe.
So forgive me if I simply do not care much about the squabbles among the powerful or the ruling class, but I am sick to death of the distraction, of the spectacle. Trump will likely ride this new calamity out like he has the last ones. But even if he doesn’t nothing of consequence will change in time to matter to the majority of living beings on this planet unless the whole house of cards comes down in a heap. Until then the global capitalist class will go on pillaging, polluting and raping humanity and the living planet, and putting on show after show to distract us all while they do so. Producing shadow puppets on the wall of the cave, chiding or mocking those who question or dissent, and keeping us chained to it all.
So isn’t it time to climb out of the cave that Plato so long ago described? And while there is still time? As an fyi, the ominous “Doomsday Clock” of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists was just moved to a mere 100 seconds before midnight, the closest it has ever been.
Kenn Orphan January 2020
Iran does not only possess priceless treasures from the ancient world. Art galleries and museums abound, many of them modern and containing pieces from Gauguin, Kandinsky, Miró, Pissaro, Monet, Léger, Picasso, Pollack, Van Gogh, Rivera and more. Here are some photos of the world renowned Museum of Contemporary Art in Tehran.
Although the Pentagon has attempted to step back from Trump’s threats to destroy Iranian cultural sites, Trump himself has doubled down on them. Would these treasures be targeted?
The Tomb of Hafez, which is located in the city of Shiraz, Iran, is widely regarded as a treasure of all humanity. Hafez was a poet in 14th century Persia, who wrote about love and mysticism. He is still beloved today by most Iranians. Besides being a poet, he was also a fierce critic of religious hypocrisy and corrupt politics and used satire to do so.
Although the Pentagon has attempted to step back from Trump’s threats to destroy Iranian cultural sites, Trump himself has doubled down on them. As satire is lost on most politicians, can we assume that this cultural site would also be a target for destruction?
Kenn Orphan January 2020
Persepolis was the capital of the Achaemenid Empire (ca. 550-330 BC) until it was invaded, looted and destroyed by Alexander the Great in 330 BC. Today, the ruins are a UNESCO World Heritage site, beloved not only by Iranians, but anyone who respects and appreciates history. Each year tens of thousands of tourists visit this marvelous city from the ancient world and archeologists are still unearthing treasures, while working to protect it from the ravages of climate change.
It has withstood 2500 years, so it would be a supreme and terrible irony if it were destroyed completely. But it is a place of great significance, and although the Pentagon has attempted to step back from Trump’s threats to destroy Iranian cultural sites, Trump himself has doubled down on them. Would this be targeted too?
Kenn Orphan January 2020