Seeing the Sacred in the Mundane

These photos were taken 10 years ago at a train station in China. An old man apparently died while sitting there causing alarm among others awaiting their trains. But then a Buddhist monk calmly walked up to the man, held his hand and bowed. There was silence as onlookers took photos and took in this sight of reverence.

The photos resonated with me the first time I saw them. I felt sadness for the man because he died alone. But also because I think they offer a simple and profound meditation on what it means to have a body and what it means when that body is no longer animated by a soul. What it means when time stops for you or for another. And that all of that is the epitome of the sacred.

So often we think of the sacred as being something that exists outside of our ordinary lives, something necessarily ethereal, often within a religious setting or context and only the purview of saints. And I think when we do this we often miss it in the mundane transactions, travels, rituals and routines of our daily lives.

But sometimes it tears through the cloak of our illusions just long enough for it to demand our undivided attention, as in this instance. And in the simplest of gestures we see it clearly, if only for a moment. A few quiet words of reverence. A holding of a hand. A bow. And suddenly we realize, we are all waiting for our train to arrive.

Kenn Orphan, December 2021

Photo taken on November 25, 2011. (Reuters/Asianewsphoto)

As an independent writer and artist Kenn Orphan depends on donations and commissions. If you would like to support his work and this blog you can do so via PayPal. Simply click here:  DONATE

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Censorship, the Myth of Free Data, and the False Solutions on the Table

There is a line I keep seeing repeated on social media. It goes something like this: “They are allowed to decide what is acceptable to post and what is not. It’s free, after all.” Things like that may make snappy and snarky comebacks to people complaining about internet censorship. Only it isn’t true. Not by a long shot.

Facebook, Twitter and virtually every other social media company make billions of dollars off our personal information. Some of that information is freely given by us, most is not. Carefully crafted algorithms capture and bundle our mundane or most intimate details and sell them to advertising agencies and political public relations firms, who then attempt to manipulate our fears, desires, pleasures and prejudices to sell us a product or influence our way of thinking about an issue.

These social media giants hold a monopoly on what has become the commons for humanity. A place traditionally available to everyone in the community. They have privatized these commons and operate them without any oversight, no requirement for hearing and responding to complaints, and no democratic process.

This may sound like I am plugging for the supposed Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen. I am not. I believe that Haugen is advocating for the exact opposite of what is needed. In addition to this, her access to power should be suspect. She has been given exclusive interviews by Big Media and her testimony has been welcomed before government bodies in the US, UK and EU. She enjoys bipartisan support at a time when we are told such collaboration does not exist. Compare this with how Julian Assange, Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning have been treated.

Haugen is celebrated by the powerful because she is no threat to them. On the contrary, she made her career from the very algorithms that filter out dissent on search platforms like Google. She also worked in counterespionage in her time at Facebook, advocating for greater “protections” in the name of American “national security.”

If one reads between the lines it becomes obvious that Haugen’s “solution” to the problem of social media tyranny is to put even more control into the hands of despotic intelligence agencies and the ruling class. If she is successful, the new social media landscape will not only see the censorship of racist, white supremacy and violent nationalism, it will effectively silence the left in its analysis, criticism and resistance to the predations of late capitalism, war and ecological destruction and all of its mechanisms of oppression.

The hard truth is that none of this will be solved under the existing structures and arrangements of power. We live in an era of expansive, technological mass surveillance, by both corporations and the corporate state. The ruling class has always used this in order to quash dissent and control thought and resistance. That much has never changed. But its scope is greater than at any other time in human history. And it will use meaningless slogans like “protecting children” or “preserving democracy” to distract the public from its increasing authoritarian overreach. Therefore, putting more tools of censorship into the hands of the few and the powerful will only ensure less democracy, not more.

But we can use our own agency to resist both corporate censorship as well as data mining. We should oppose draconian legislative actions that curtail freedom of expression and speech, or put more control into the hands of corporations or intelligence agencies and the politicians who are in their service. And we can stop repeating the lie I stated at the beginning of this essay. Social media has never been a free service for any of us. But it has certainly given a lot of advertisers, wealthy investors, intelligence agents and politicians a free ride.

Kenn Orphan December 2021

As an independent writer and artist Kenn Orphan depends on donations and commissions. If you would like to support his work and this blog you can do so via PayPal. Simply click here:  DONATE

And thank you for your support and appreciation!

Dear Reader

As we draw closer to the new year, I’ve been reflecting more and more about the stories we humans tell ourselves and each other.  But there seems to be a greater urgency now. Perhaps it is due to me getting older and coming to understand time as fleeting. But I think there is more.

I believe we are living in an Age of Convergence. Catastrophic climate change, the pandemic, ecological devastation, the ruthless predations of late capitalism and increasing belligerence between world powers competing for the last resources on earth have pushed us to the brink of ecological devastation, societal collapse and war. Billionaires, not satisfied with their over-stuffed coffers, are now salivating for the conquest of space. And a war, whether it be cold or hot, seems to be brewing between the United States, China and the Russian Federation. No one really knows how all of this will play out or how fast, but there are signs we should all be paying attention to.

Given this, I believe it is imperative, now more than ever before, to retell the story of who we are. To wrest the narrative from the clutches of the misanthropes, the corporations, the war mongers, the avaricious, and the apathetic. Feeling powerless in this time of ruthless despotism, corruption and violence, where the very edifice of democracy appears to be crumbling, is understandable. But despite the tricks played on us by political parties, corporate entities and social media giants, we still have our voice.

This is what I strive to use this site for. I try to tell a different story. To use my voice to amplify the marginalized or disappeared. And I aim to connect even deeper with what it means to be human. To be just one species in a chorus of countless others. To be in possession of a spirit that transcends this world, yet is intimately wedded to it. I want to look even more to the Global South. To Indigenous ways of thinking and being. I am hoping to expand this even further in the coming year, with more essays, stories, poems, songs, art and conversations with others who believe another world is worth fighting for, and that we can do it together.

I made a commitment years ago to make most of my writing accessible to all. Everything here is free. But of course, this does not mean it is free for me.

If you are able, please consider a small donation to this site. I understand so many of us are struggling. As with previous fundraisers, this one does not place any requirements upon the reader. Whether one is able to help out financially or not, all articles will remain free, and no government or corporate entity will have sway over any of the content or what is written.

Thank you all so much for taking the time to read this. May you experience abundance and great joy this coming year. And I look forward to you coming back here.

Kenn Orphan, November 2021

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*Title photo is of Maasai storytelling and is by Joan de la Malla.

The Dehumanization of Ahmaud Arbery

Without a doubt, the outcome of the Ahmaud Arbery murder trial in Georgia was a relief for many reasons. But the closing remarks made by Laura Hogue, the defense attorney representing Gregory McMichael, understandably sparked outrage. Hogue said:

“Turning Ahmaud Arbery into a victim after the choices that he made does not reflect the reality of what brought Ahmaud Arbery to Satilla Shores in his khaki shorts with no socks to cover his long, dirty toenails.”  

There is a long legacy of dehumanizing Black people and people of colour in the United States. It isn’t just confined to the south, but it stems from centuries of slavery where Black people weren’t viewed as fully human, both in the legal and cultural sense. And vile, racist stereotypes have played an important role in reinforcing systemic racism.

Jim Crow, in particular, was a cruel parody of Black men, casting them as dirty and shiftless. It would later become the unofficial moniker for sweeping, brutal, discriminatory laws against Blacks in the American south. Hogue has drawn from that reprehensible well of degradation. And it is difficult to believe she did not know what she was doing. Her mention of Ahmaud’s toenails was unnecessary, but for tapping into a generalized, entrenched racial animus within American society.

Ahmaud was unarmed. He was running away from three armed white men. His supposed “crime” was being in the predominantly white neighbourhood of Satilla Shores. But all of this is rendered questionable in a country where gun rights, born of the slave patrols, and self defense are primarily reserved for white people. Kyle Rittenhouse is one example of how this works. Philando Castile is another.

Across the US white supremacy is on trial. The remarks made by Laura Hogue are emblematic of this and the deep-seated disdain that so many white Americans still harbour against Black people. The message is clear: Black people are still placed under suspicion for being in certain places while being Black. And if they resist any white reaction to this or to their own execution, their very humanity will be put on trial.

Kenn Orphan, November 2021

Toward the Undiscovered Country

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” –Hamlet by William Shakespeare.

This quote from one of Shakespeare’s most famous of plays has been debated many times over the years. And I think that this is so because it taps into something unconscious within so many of us. The character Horatio was a skeptic. He required evidence of a thing for that thing to exist. But when he saw the ghost that haunted Hamlet, apparently that of Hamlets dead father, he was frightened. It created a great feeling of unease within him.

Hamlet, himself, was uneasy. After all, his dead father’s ghost told him he was murdered by his brother, Hamlet’s uncle Claudius. What was Hamlet to make of this accusation? And what was he to make of this apparition? Was it a ghost, a demon of some kind, or some other manifestation? Of course, the story does not end well for Hamlet or his royal family, but the quote is powerful because, like all good quotes, it stands alone. It has a presence that transcends context and the literary work itself. Indeed, this one has endured centuries, if only now relegated mostly to the province of memes.

I have been thinking a lot about that quote lately. If one is being honest, to take even a minute to try and comprehend the scale and complexity of this universe is overwhelming. Certainly, it cannot be done in this unit of time we call a minute. It cannot be done in any measure of human time or with the mere five senses we are told we are limited to. But there is a space that is beyond this one that our corporeal selves inhabit. I can sense it. Many can.

But experiencing forces and realms beyond this one has never been welcomed within the lofty precincts of Western intelligentsia. And it has only been recently that some of the Western left has embraced the importance of recognizing and respecting Indigenous ways of thinking about our existence, spirituality, and our relation to each other and the earth as a living organism.

Still, to admit that one has been witness to what may be colloquially defined as the supernatural can mean a kind of social suicide in those circles. One loses credibility and intellectual capital in the world of the staunch materialists and rational thinkers. Jejune, superstitious and credulous outcasts to be placated, ignored or marginalized.

I have seen that kind of modern day shunning many times. A turning of ones’ gaze because the subject becomes too metaphysical, too spiritual or too supernatural in nature. And because these things can often border on irrationality or even madness, it is understandable why this is so. If one is too thick with the desire to experience existence beyond the confines of ones’ skin, they are delving into murky, strange and perilous waters. And that strikes terror in the hearts of those who want their universe to be complete, knowable and under control.

Delving into the transcendent cannot be tolerated in closed systems of thinking. And those who do open themselves to it are often derisively referred to as being “woo-woo.” Yet it is in this way that the strict materialist is much like the religious fundamentalist. They share a similar disdain for and fear of the unknown, as well as anyone who dares share their experiences regarding it. They abhor any questioning of the accepted dogma of the day, be it scientific or religious. Mysticism has been relegated to the outer margins of human experience. Not to be taken serious by the serious-minded. Because of this, it can be difficult to broach the topic in a serious manner these days.  

It doesn’t help that we are living in an era of mass confusion. Of anti-science crusades, far-right death cults and unhinged conspiracy theories. It doesn’t help that this is exacerbated by charlatans, political hacks, snake oil salesmen and a social media ecosystem whose algorithms continually obfuscate reality itself by design. Mountains of junk food, junk science, junk spirituality and junk culture have produced a sort of miasma of distraction. We have become malnourished in meaning and the truth. But these are distractions that desperate people cling to in a world that has been purposefully denuded of its sacredness. A world we are constantly informed we are separate from. Above and superior to. Even most contemporary stories or films about ghosts are made for easy consumption. Digestible, even momentarily satisfying, but devoid of nutrition. And nearly all of them are meant to provoke fear, not expand our understanding or consciousness.

But the ghost is one of the most enduring archetypical features of the human story. And I think this because it is the very emblem of grief. When we strip the ghost of this essential cloak of grief, we render it useless. It can no longer freight the grief that we will all experience on a visceral as well as spiritual level in this life. The ghost is our grief suspended in the weightlessness of all that is unknown. From the beginning of human history, its importance has been enshrined in all that is sacred, because the ghost reminds us that what we have is temporary. It exists outside of time. It is immortal, yet it remains unsatisfied. Forever longing and forever aggrieved. It cannot move on because it carried its grief from this world into the next.

I have thought a lot about my own experiences with ghosts. Of how I’ve felt them brush past me or hover over me in the darkness. How a sense of dread comes over me like a cold draft from under the floorboards. Begging me to look at them. To see them. And I have thought a lot about grief and how we face it. Like everyone else, I have lost loved ones. I have felt that punch in my chest, like all the oxygen has been suctioned out of your body, a pain that is almost indescribable. And I have thought a lot about where we are, standing on the precipice of extinction with only insane, rapacious and indifferent leaders to rule over our collective fate. I have contemplated the implications of the thin ribbon of air, water and life that embraces this rock in space we call earth, and how it is poised to dissipate before our eyes thanks to the accumulated abuses our species has heaped on it. And what does this look like in the grand scale of geologic time? A mote of dust in an eternal succession of epochs?

And I’ve also been thinking about Hermes. That quick, virile messenger of the gods. The trickster psychopomp whose aegis we need to ferry us from this realm to the next. We know that death is a certainty for all of us, we just don’t know when it will occur with any preciseness. In this way, I’ve come to appreciate the unknowing as a gift, especially welcome now in this era of deceit, certainty, avarice and sadism. Of crumbling world powers, floods, fires, drought, mass migrations, war, famine and ecological collapse. Of knowing things are unraveling, yet not knowing when or how long we have left. And arriving, through the passage of grief, to a peace about it all.

That peace does not mean apathy about the suffering in this world. It does not mean disconnection or giving up either. It is a place of clarity, a respect of ghosts and their message, an embrace of curiosity and wonder, of compassion and action, and an acceptance that not everything can be known. That the unknown need not be something to fear. That the ending of one world often means the beginning of another. And like the stars and planets and every other thing that exists, we are a part of it all in one form or another. 

Horatio is like so many of us when we are confronted by the unknown. He saw a ghost and was unsettled by that experience. I think most of us can commiserate with that kind of unease in our gut. When our worldview is turned on its head we are left with a choice. We can close our eyes and pretend that nothing has changed, as so many of us do all the time, or we can open them and adjust our vision to the new surroundings. The latter offers us a marvelous opportunity for adventure that can expand our consciousness into, as Hamlet averred, an “undiscovered country.”

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” There are, indeed.

Kenn Orphan, November 2021

*Title art piece is “The Ghost of the King Appearing to Hamlet, Horatio and Guards” (Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 4), 19th century, anonymous, French.

As an independent writer and artist Kenn Orphan depends on donations and commissions. If you would like to support his work and this blog you can do so via PayPal. Simply click here:  DONATE

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Critical Race Theory Playing Out in Real Time

“People tell me because I have this case against the city I’m all right. But I’m not all right. I’m messed up. I know that I might see some money from this case, but that’s not going to help me mentally. I’m mentally scarred right now. That’s how I feel. [There] are certain things that changed about me, and they might not [change] back. Before I went to jail, I didn’t know about a lot of stuff, and, now that I’m aware, I’m paranoid. I feel like I was robbed of my happiness.” – Kalief Browder

Over the past year, there has been massive backlash in the States and elsewhere, even among a few on the left, over the teaching of Critical Race Theory (CRT) in schools. Despite what many conservatives might claim, CRT has never been taught in elementary, middle or high school. It is an legal analytical framework which actually criticizes and challenges the way in which American liberalism has historically addressed racial issues. Unsurprisingly, few of its most vocal detractors understand this, or even want to. But here is a simple way to understand how it plays out in real time.

At the age of 16, Kalief Browder was sent to Rikers Island, a prison complex for adults notorious for its rampant violence, for allegedly stealing a backpack. He was held there without trial from 2010 to 2013 and put into solitary confinement for two of those years. While incarcerated, he was repeatedly beaten by gang members and correctional officers. At least once, he was handcuffed while assaulted by guards. He attempted suicide at least three times. And just two years after he was released, Kalief hanged himself at his parent’s home after suffering from major depression and PTSD.

In contrast, at age 17 Kyle Rittenhouse traveled across state borders to deliberately enter a Black Lives Matter protest fully armed with an AR-15 rifle. There he killed two people and attempted to kill a third. Claiming self defense later, he was able to walk right past the police with his rifle strung across his shoulder. They declined apprehending him despite witnesses shouting to them that he had just shot three people. In addition to this, some of these officers were seen fraternizing with him earlier in the evening.

Rittenhouse was able to drive home across state borders that night. He was not pursued. After he was arrested, he was placed in a juvenile detention facility. He was able to get out on $2 million bail in November, money mostly raised by conservatives through a legal defense fund. After being released, he went to a pub where he met with members of the Proud Boys, a far right, white supremacist militia, where he sang their anthem and proudly flashed white power signs, smiling before snapping cameras. The presiding judge of this trial forbid the use of the word “victim” to describe the two men gunned down by Rittenhouse. But he did allow them to be referred to as “rioters,” “looters” or “arsonists.” 

If this example isn’t enough to demonstrate how systemic racism plays out in real time in America, then perhaps this will. As I write, the murder trial of three white men accused of killing black jogger, Ahmaud Arbery, is taking place in the state of Georgia. These men hunted down Ahmaud and shot him at point blank range. Despite the judge admitting that he found “intentional discrimination” in jury selection (only one black juror was selected) the judge nonetheless allowed the trial to proceed. Throughout the trial, the defense attorneys have made numerous racist remarks.

Of course, there are countless more examples, from Eric Garner to Breonna Taylor to Elijah McClain to George Floyd. Only the ignorant or deliberately obtuse would not see how the system is set up to discriminate along racial boundaries, as well as class.

CRT isn’t meant to divide people. It isn’t meant to derail class consciousness either, and any argument in this regard is horrendously misguided. It is true that race is an invented category intended to maintain class hierarchy. But it is also true that its rancid legacy persists today. And poor working class white people are also adversely affected by this sadistic arrangement of power and disenfranchisement.

CRT is only a tool, however flawed, for understanding how this all works in a systemic way. It helps provide a framework to address disparities, some of which I listed above. To dismiss it as divisive might be risible, if it were not so catastrophic to so many lives.

Kenn Orphan, November 2021  

As an independent writer and artist Kenn Orphan depends on donations and commissions. If you would like to support his work and this blog you can do so via PayPal. Simply click here:  DONATE

And thank you for your support and appreciation!

Capitalism is Dying, but don’t expect the patient to accept the prognosis

“Capitalism, Marx said, never went beyond those economic models where a few dominate a majority. Capitalism just replaced the dichotomies of master/slave and lord/serf with a new one. A dominating and exploiting minority was still there, but it had a new name: employers.” ― Richard D. Wolff, Understanding Marxism

Perhaps you’ve noticed something. There have been massive staffing shortages throughout the US and elsewhere. Workers are walking out or just not showing up. Little analysis has been given to this phenomenon outside of left circles, but some have dubbed it “Striketober.” How ever it is termed, this is what late capitalism looks like as it dies.

How long did we think this would go on for? Millions of lives full of monotony, drudgery and economic lack and hardship, while billionaires jaunt off to the upper atmosphere in penis shaped rockets to the cheers of most mainstream media. But along with what we are witnessing there is a disconnect.

I have written a lot about how wealthy liberals in the US have affixed blinders to their political senses before and since the last election cycle. Biden won, that is all. But his political agency has been stymied at every turn, often by members of his own party. And few liberals seem to be aware that Trump is rising meteorically in popularity among the 74+ million Americans who voted for him last time. 74+ million votes, and there are only 168 million Americans eligible to vote. He has the Republican arm of the ruling duopoly in his tight grip. How many Republican lawmakers have seen their popularity and influence suffer gravely for simply condemning the January 6th coup attempt?

We can hope that the increasing frustration of workers will result in a revolution of sorts. A “times up” moment for capitalism. But this would be at the expense of understanding how labor movements have been crushed in the West. The States has one of the bloodiest records when it comes to suppression of workers. Yes, there have been many gains. But how many Americans are aware of the massacres carried out by government forces and militias? How many understand the lyrics of Woody Guthrie songs, or have ever even heard of the music legend? This imposed ignorance is by design. Civil rights can be celebrated. Labor rights? Not so much.

The American Empire is the seat of capitalist power in the world today, and its militaristic viciousness is unmatched when it comes to protecting the “interests” of that power. A 20-year long war against Afghanistan and the ruins of Iraq attest to this. But mass graves in South and Central America also demonstrate the empire’s unbridled brutality against anyone who dares oppose its economic and political hegemony. In short, we know what the American ruling class is capable of. And we would be foolish to think they would not use everything in their arsenal to protect their enormous coffers as things become more desperate.

And thus comes the specter of fascism. With a labor force increasingly atomized and pushed to the brink, and a Democratic Party unable and unwilling to address the very dire material conditions decimating vast swaths of the population, it is a threat that we ignore at our peril. Trump and those around him may not understand the term fascism, but they understand the alienation and angst among much of the population. They understand the power of nationalism, scapegoating and twisting facts. And when push comes to shove, so do corporations. Too many have been bamboozled into thinking they have evolved or are progressive-minded. Similar to agencies like the CIA or the military sector, their woke window dressing has been an effective one, focusing on the politics of identity rather than the vast inequities and injustices that their very existence perpetuate. Corporations are about profit, and they profit most when they are married to the institutions and power of the state. Without a doubt, the trajectory of capitalism, if not thwarted, is total fascism.

Attorney Steven Donziger is a current example of this. He won against Chevron-Texaco. Against Big Oil for creating a toxic sludge wasteland in the pristine Amazon rainforest killing countless Indigenous people and species, some of which we have never even seen before, and refusing to take any responsibility for it. Yet it was he who was punished. First jailed in his home, now in prison, on charges of contempt of a contemptable system. Next to the persecution of Julian Assange, the conviction of Steven Donziger counts as one of the most flagrant examples of the corruption of the US judicial system. It proves, without any pretense of illusion, that the judiciary is merely a handmaiden to corporations.

The stirring among American workers, and scores of others around the world, is encouraging. This is the result of decades of neoliberal policies that denuded the commons and replaced them with nothing but austerity, deregulation and privatization. And the stakes have never been higher. The current arrangement of economic and political power is a cult of death, for us and for the biosphere on which we all depend. It is a system of codified cruelty that benefits an ever-shrinking class of the super rich who become more and more detached from humanity and the needs of our besieged planet by the day.

There is no reformation that will alter the character of this arrangement. Our only hope lies in euthanizing the beast before it does even more damage. In uniting workers around the world and across all sectors of society in common cause. Because as capitalism dies it will not go down gracefully. It will lash out violently at anything in its path as it flails. And we should not expect any of its most ardent adherents to abandon the faith either. Indeed, most of them haven’t even realized that its prognosis is a terminal one.

Kenn Orphan   November 2021

As an independent writer and artist Kenn Orphan depends on donations and commissions. If you would like to support his work and this blog you can do so via PayPal. Simply click here:  DONATE

And thank you for your support and appreciation!

Remembering Sister Megan Rice

I was saddened to hear of the passing of Sister Megan Rice of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus. She died last week at the age of 91. Rice was imprisoned for two years in federal prison when she was in her 80s after she broke into a government complex to protest nuclear weapons. This was not the first time Rice was arrested. In the 90s she protested torture at the infamous US Army School of the Americas.

Her activism was influenced by her parents who worked with Dorothy Day for economic justice during the Great Depression and by her uncle who had spent four months in Nagasaki, Japan, following the criminal nuclear bombing of civilians by US forces. After living and working in West Africa for 23 years as a teacher and pastoral guide she returned to the US and became a major activist in the peace movement.

Sister Megan Rice will not get the attention of a dead general in the mainstream press or by politicians of either ruling party. Those who expose war crimes or who advocate peace are generally marginalized, imprisoned or silenced in militaristic societies. But she deserves far more accolades than any one of the war mongers.

May she rest in peace.

Kenn Orphan October 2021

As an independent writer and artist Kenn Orphan depends on donations and commissions. If you would like to support his work and this blog you can do so via PayPal. Simply click here:  DONATE

And thank you for your support and appreciation!

Even in Death There is No Flag Large Enough to Cover the Shame of Killing Innocent People

Colin Powell just died from Covid-19. So we should expect a tsunami of eulogies from politicians, the mainstream media and even a few liberals who seem to enjoy sanitizing the murderous lives of the ruling class. Those of us on the left who refuse to play the games of polite society when it comes to war crimes will likely be chastised. And he will take his place among the “great generals” of the American Empire. All warmongering societies do this, so it should come as no surprise. But no amount of gushing tributes can erase the truth.

The man who helped whitewash the massacre of civilians at My Lai during the war against Vietnam, pushed hard for the Gulf War in the 1990s, and gave the green light to Ariel Sharon in his murderous assault on civilians in Jenin and land grabs in the occupied West Bank, also sold the war against Iraq at the beginning of this century with a fistful of lies. Iraq never attacked the US. It did not have “weapons of mass destruction.” But the Bush administration was salivating for blood and oil after the attacks on the US on the 11th of September, 2001. And any morsel of fiction that would justify their lust for violence was welcomed.

Powell would later blame his role in peddling these lies on an “intelligence failure.” This is the go to excuse for the American military establishment, as we see with the latest atrocity they committed in Afghanistan, the recent drone bomb incineration of a family in Kabul after the disastrous pull out of American troops. Now that he is dead, he will not face justice at the Hague for these crimes. But really, no member of the American ruling class ever does.

Just last week we lost Sister Megan Rice who was 91 years old. Rice was imprisoned for two years in federal prison when she was in her 80s after she broke into a government complex to protest nuclear weapons. Her activism was influenced by her parents who worked with Dorothy Day for economic justice during the Great Depression and by her uncle who had spent four months in Nagasaki, Japan, following the criminal nuclear bombing of civilians by US forces. After living and working in West Africa for 23 years as a teacher and pastoral guide she returned to the US and became a major activist in the peace movement. Sister Rice will not get the attention of a dead general in the mainstream press or by politicians of the ruling parties. Those who expose war crimes or who advocate peace are generally marginalized, imprisoned or silenced in militaristic societies.

Americans have a remarkable ability of sanitizing the crimes of their ruling class. Their lives often seem to eclipse the mountains of corpses on which they stand atop. The regions left in disarray and ruin. The lives and families and hopes that were forever disfigured or shattered. All of that disappears, is explained away, or is designated as a mere footnote when one of the elite dies. The nationalistic panegyrics that are employed are designed to do just that. A kind of novocaine that glazes over eyes and numbs collective memory. But as the late Howard Zinn said: “‘There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people.” And, despite the enormous effort made, that shame cannot be sponged away in death.

Kenn Orphan October 2021

*Title image of is Colin Powell testifies before the UN in 2003, holding what is supposed to be a vile of anthrax, as a demonstration of supposed “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq. A lie that would only be debunked after the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. Source US government archives.

As an independent writer and artist Kenn Orphan depends on donations and commissions. If you would like to support his work and this blog you can do so via PayPal. Simply click here:  DONATE

And thank you for your support and appreciation!

A Time of Plague in an Era of Corruption, Distrust and Irrationality

Over the past couple years of this pandemic, it has been breathtaking to see the depth of the rabbit hole so many have fallen into. And that many of them purport to be on the left is both fascinating and terrifying. For far too many people, masks requirements, vaccine mandates or any kind of public health measure is looked at solely through the lens of conspiracy. To them, anything that might come from government or “Big Pharma” is to be distrusted or discounted. A virus that continues to bring healthcare systems to their knees and send millions to their premature deaths is still being referred to as a hoax or the flu. And despite decades of documentation on the effectiveness of eradicating or controlling deadly diseases through vaccines, there is a persistent paranoia when it comes to medical advances and science. It is worth examining what led us to this point in history.

That so many are willing to take the word of any contrarian rather than that of peer reviewed science is astonishing. But after decades of government and corporate malfeasance and abuses, it isn’t too difficult to understand the roots for this skepticism. Indeed, government agencies and business institutions have constructed this atmosphere of distrust. Just one look at the CIA, the military, or the tobacco and fossil fuel industries and we get a litany of lies, crimes, and the obfuscation of those crimes. Indeed, most drug companies have gotten away with the many crimes they have committed, with the recent opioid scandal and the Sackler family coming to mind. But there is also a kind of collective fear and a legacy of anti-scientific credulity that is common in far-right political circles that goes beyond justified criticism of and opposition to the crimes of the powerful.

None of this is especially original. Climate change deniers have long latched on to the proclamations of a small, but loud, group of scientists who confirm their narrative. A major part of this is thanks to a well funded campaign of disinformation by the fossil fuel industry who began lying to the public about the damaging effects of burning fossil fuels decades ago. And there are dozens of think tanks in Washington whose sole purpose it to peddle corporate propaganda to politicians on the dole and a public that is already inclined to be against any scientific warning that may alter the Western lifestyle. But there is also a conspiratorial way of thinking about these things. The very real and existential issue of climate catastrophe has been linked to crackpot theories about a tyrannical “one world government.” Those who have been alienated from society often become targets for this kind of delusion. And social media amplifies it all through echo chambers of confirmation bias, connecting the alienated with one another, albeit in a very superficial manner.

When it comes to the pandemic, the people who may be termed “vaccine hesitant” are not necessarily in the same camp as anti-vaxxers, the latter being a more militant subset of modern society who rely largely on the spurious claims of outliers in the scientific community or public figures like Robert F. Kennedy. The vaccine hesitant may be so due to a horrifying legacy of racist experimentation on people of colour or who have been persuaded by disinformation campaigns to distrust the efficacy and safety of the current Covid-19 vaccines. This population appears at least willing to consider the science and rational arguments in favour of taking the vaccines. Anti-vaxxers are not. And like the QAnon cult, few of them seem to possess the capacity to think about this critically.

There is an overarching theme amongst many anti-vaxxers that can be seen in many other conspiratorial trends. A common belief is that the world is dominated by a powerful, shadowy and evil group of people with an intent to enslave, harm or even eradicate large segments of the population. To many this may sound ridiculous. But it is often easier to look at the world in black and white, good vs. evil, than to face its complexity or the fact that no one is really in control. This is not to say that powerful people do not engage in crimes against humanity or the living biosphere on which we all depend. On the contrary, and I have written extensively about them. But there is a difference here that I will try to explain.

As the late Ursula Le Guin said, “we live in capitalism.”  So, while most of us are simply trying to navigate our way through this deeply corrupt, oppressive and unfair arrangement of economic and political power, some are taking advantage of it for personal gain, and are in a position to do so. These people can appear as though they are all powerful, when in reality they just have more access to power and privilege based on status or money. And when one considers the conditions of modern life, in many ways it is easy to understand how so many people can become ensnared in conspiratorial thinking. The times we live in can be demoralizing for so many. Long, tedious work hours with little financial reward or time off. Inadequate or no healthcare. No paid time off. Loss of political agency. Mounting debt. All of this is overwhelming.

Undoubtedly, social media only adds to the confusion by creating an artificial bubble where all manner of reality is possible. Watch some Youtube videos and you become immersed in this bizarre world of secrets, mysteries and “hidden agendas,” that can never be truly understood. Behind one door there are a thousand others. This is what conspiracy thinking is. A labyrinth that is ultimately a dead end. Often this takes on a supernatural tone, as is the case in the QAnon cult. There are no accidents, ineptitude or unintended consequences. It is a puzzle that can never really be solved because the villains in these storylines somehow always stay just one step ahead of justice. And that is the point. It is meant to be continuous.

There is an unmistakable racism to much of this, beginning with Trump’s “China virus” comments and culminating in conspiracy theories about Wuhan and attacks on Asians in the West. And there is no doubt that much of it has an antisemitic tone: the “bankers,” the “Rothschilds,” the “globalists.” These shadowy figures play an important role in far-right pedagogy because they serve as necessary mechanisms for otherizing and scapegoating certain groups.

Of course, none of this is about the real crime of conspiracy. People, powerful and not, often conspire to do harm for personal gain. But conspiratorial thinking is a way of simplifying most problems in the world into something deliberately done or planned by an evil entity, in almost total secrecy, with near absolute power. And despite their sinister plans being widely revealed and discussed among the conspiratorial thinkers on such public forums as Facebook and Youtube, they are somehow able to get away with it all due to a supposedly sheepish and gullible public.

In truth, the pandemic hasn’t created anything new in the way humans organize themselves. On the contrary, it has revealed the tremendous failings and fissures in the current arrangement we live and labour under. And the anti-vax movement was born of a betrayal of public trust that arrangement. How could anyone expect a capitalist system to respond in any humane way to a global pandemic when it cannot even mitigate the worst effects of climate change or ecological destruction? How can anyone expect it to garner trust from the public when it has betrayed that trust over and over again, and then lied about it?

The stark truth is that the dominant capitalist system of the world today has addressed this latest catastrophe in the only way it knows how. It has implemented public health measures, but not without throwing tons of money toward corporations while shafting the working class, including front line workers. It has created vaccines, but not without remaining true to its mandate of capital accumulation for the ruling classes, which means barbaric patent laws that pad the pockets of corrupt pharmaceutical executives while adversely impacting the global south, most of which has yet to see even the first dose of the vaccine. Lockdowns without universal basic income, rent control or social safety nets. Vaccine mandates without public transparency and access to universal healthcare. All of this has facilitated the rise of the anti-mask, anti-lockdown and anti-vax movements.

On the left, we need to do a better job at understanding the economic and political conditions, disenfranchisement and alienation that gave rise to the spread of far-right conspiracies. We need to look at the long legacy of betrayal by government, military and corporate entities that has encouraged anti-science attitudes and cynicism to grow so easily throughout society. We need to learn from public health systems that do not put profit first, like Cuba and Vietnam. We cannot let corporations or governments off the hook for their crimes. And we need to continue the hard work of building solidarity, the ironclad law of the left, spreading the message that a better world is indeed possible without the predation of capitalism. But we need to push back against those who spread misinformation, even if we are accused of being “gatekeepers,” and especially when it has such an adverse impact on the working poor, people of colour, and the marginalized of the world. That last part is the most difficult of all, but unless we do that, everything else we do will be useless.

Kenn Orphan   September 2021

*Painting is Sepulchral darkness- Humana Fragilitas (Human Frailty), c1657, by Salvator Rosa. Photograph: DEA/A. DAGLI ORTI/Getty Images/DeAgostini

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