I don’t know this boy, but I know that smile. I know its cruelty; its sadism born in notions of supremacy. I’ve seen it when I’ve been mocked at antiwar rallies, or anti-racist demonstrations, water and land protection ceremonies, or LGBTQ events. I’ve seen it from young men whose insecurity cannot abide another’s liberation.
I’ve seen that face chasing me down the block with clenched fists or preceding a spit at my face. It is easily recognizable, that face, that smile. It is the smile of mockery that precedes violence, that is the precursor to atrocity.
Yes, he is only a boy. They are only teens. But history is replete with examples of youth who have been emboldened by the twisted lies of supremacy. Rivers of blood have poured down allies and stairwells by young souls twisted into beasts.
There is still time for this young man to change. Still time for him to reclaim his humanity. But there isn’t much time left for the society in which he emerged. The society that made that smile possible in the first place.
Kenn Orphan 2019
Mary Oliver was a poet in a world that routinely and ruthlessly crushes poetic vision. She possessed a gentle spirit exquisitely above the petty, soul-defying and self-absorbed epoch we reside in, a world thoughtlessly divorced from the natural world of which it is born of and sustained by. Hers was a vision of connection and invitation.
“You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” – from Wild Geese (1986)
“I stood willingly and gladly in the characters of everything — other people, trees, clouds. And this is what I learned, that the world’s otherness is antidote to confusion — that standing within this otherness — the beauty and the mystery of the world, out in the fields or deep inside books — can re-dignify the worst-stung heart.” – from Staying Alive (1995)
When Death Comes by Mary Oliver (2005)
“When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse
to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;
when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,
and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.
When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.”
~ Mary Oliver
Mary did not merely visit this world, she wove her words into its very fabric.
Rest in peace (September 10, 1935 – January 17, 2019).
I usually don’t write about this side of American culture, but it is hard not to these days. The man in the photo is Graham Allen, an “internet personality” (a meaningless, convoluted term I despise) who nevertheless has over millions of followers on Facebook and Twitter. He is known best for his “Rant Nation” and appearances on Fox News and other rightwing media. The photo was posted on Facebook and Twitter with the caption:
Practicing our “toxic masculinity”
Hey Gillette does this offend you?! 😂😂
I’ll raise my kids the way I believe they should be….thanks for your advice😉
To be clear, I despise corporate moralizing and virtue signaling. It doesn’t matter which corporation is doing it, Gillette, Nike. It’s a cynical and puerile marketing strategy designed to latch on to some au courant trend in bourgeoisie society. It inoculates consumers to the loathsome and abusive character of corporate capitalism and the record of egregious labour or human rights policies of these companies in particular. But what is interesting is that the Gillette ad had actually nothing to say about gun rights. It was an ad denouncing (albeit in the smug parlance of corporate doublespeak) that bullying and sexism are wrong. It was, in essence, the corporate sanctification of the #MeToo movement. But it is an interesting study into the psyche and entrenched angst at the heart of white America.
Most of Allen’s videos are too obnoxious or stupid to sit through (I have). He is a sort of rightwing Kim Kardashian. Spectacle with no substance. His bizarre Christian Oprah-esque self-help talks are complete with sappy background music, I guess to show his audience that he is being serious. But they are also juxtaposed to tirades against the demands of millennials, working people and the oppressed, which kind of goes hand in hand with the reactionary American evangelical notion of puritanism and punitive work ethics. Most try to be humorous in a lowbrow sort of way, but several of his videos are far from harmless.
He has minimized or denied police violence against people of colour, employed Donald Trump’s vile rhetoric regarding immigrants and refugees (see him blaming migrant parents for the inhuman policy of separating them from their children at the border), supported the idiotic border wall, dehumanized LGBTQ people through mockery or even the implied threat of violence (see his copious use of guns as props in various videos), promoted feckless nationalism (enforce the pledge allegiance to a piece of cloth or kneeling for an anthem drenched in racist blood), American militarism (Allen is supposedly an Army veteran who has had 2 tours of combat and pushes the tired trope of “support the troops or else” mantra despite decades of murderous wars of imperialism), many tirades against newly elected senator Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or what he believes is “socialism” sans any historical or class analysis (a topic forbidden in America to both liberals and conservatives alike). His favourite rants seem to be against people who supposedly hate America (the “greatest country in the world” and “better than everyone else” on the planet according to him), socialists, activists, etc, or posting sentimental slop that erases or glosses over the nation’s imperialistic militarism or its dark legacy of racism, bigotry, genocide and colonial oppression.
Some of Allen’s videos are full of blatant falsehoods. In one where he disparages Colin Kaepernick, for instance, he trots out the lie that another football celebrity, Pat Tillman, died for his country. In reality he was killed by “friendly fire,” a fact buried by the Pentagon. There is even evidence that suggests he was possibly murdered and his personal effects, including a personal journal, were destroyed. Prior to his death Tillman came out against the war and did not want his name to be used as a war propaganda tool. But Allen doesn’t care about those wishes. He would rather parrot Pentagon talking points that excuse the imperial war machine in Washington.
But Allen’s recent photo is rather emblematic of the toxic rot at the heart of American society. Celebrity internet personalities are experts, albeit unwittingly, at illustrating this cultural degeneration. Excessive posturing to the point of making one appear more like a caricature than a human being, historical revisionism via sentimental language, belligerent nationalism for the sake of belligerence alone, a deep seated loathing for any intellectual curiosity and no real interest in the issues that ordinary working class people are actually facing or the systems that cause strife to begin with. But Allen’s “rants” are generally about distraction and he operates in an echo chamber that can be found among liberals as well. Insulated to reality and uninterested in anything that contradicts or dissents from their worldview.
This particular photo isn’t offensive because it fetishizes guns (it does, of course) but this phallic-like obsession is indeed associated with a pervasive insecure masculinity that is endemic to American culture. This photo is a sort of micro-study in how the culture itself has steadily become infantilized. Gillette’s ad was annoying in the same way all corporate moralizing is annoying. But the backlash is mostly hype. That there is no discussion of the malfeasance of corporate capitalism itself tells us who is narrating, directing and moderating this so-called discussion. And while #MeToo has had some successes, that Gillette has seized on it is telling. Most of this movement has remained a largely bourgeoisie phenomenon mainly because it fails to address the enormous role of class and capitalist exploitation in regard to institutionalized misogyny and sexism.
Allen, like so many of these “personalities” today, embodies this odd disconnect from reality we see on display among the corporate and political class and the mainstream media as well. While he posits himself as being different from his liberal nemeses, he is really the same. Peddling manufactured outrage about manufactured issues and nonexistent threats, e.g. attacks on masculinity or gender, terrorists coming over the southern border, communists, government taking away guns. And I would guess he makes a tidy sum doing so.
Meanwhile, the lived realities of most Americans are rendered a pale shadow. Nationalistic xenophobia becomes the narrative forced on the working poor by people like Allen who hardly represents them. Meanwhile, most Americans have blended families. Families with LGBTQ, people of colour, and members on either side of several borders. Families of faith or no faith at all. Families with little to no healthcare coverage, that have to commute hours to at least two or more jobs because they cannot afford rent or mortgage closer to them, and that could not economically survive beyond one paycheck. Families struggling to survive under corporate capitalism, imperialism, and the dictatorship of money that is, in fact, the real United States.
Kenn Orphan 2019
“Those who do not move, do not notice their chains.” – Rosa Luxemburg (5 March 1871 – 15 January 1919) German socialist and antiwar writer and dissenter of Jewish-Polish descent, murdered on this day 100 years ago by a rightwing death squad and thrown into the Landwehr Canal. She once wrote: “We stand today before the awful proposition: either the triumph of imperialism and the destruction of all culture, and, as in ancient Rome, depopulation, desolation, degeneration, a vast cemetery; or, the victory of socialism.”
Luxemburg understood that the trajectory of capitalism is inevitably towards imperialist barbarism, outright fascism and global annihilation. In fact, following her murder the capitalist elites in Germany, Italy, Spain and elsewhere eventually capitulated to and sided with fascist leaders which then resulted in the Holocaust, World War II and the related social and ecological catastrophes that came with it. And today, with the world in a state of constant and expanding imperialistic war, entrenched militarism, a burgeoning police state surveillance and prison complex, growing wealth inequity, and a biosphere ever imperiled by the greed of capital accumulation, her words of warning have become more dire and prophetic than ever imagined.
“The most revolutionary thing one can do is always to proclaim loudly what is happening.” – Rosa Luxemburg
Despite White House kitchen staff being furloughed thanks to a government shutdown (the longest in US history) Donald Trump still invited Clemson, the college football national title team. He remarked that he could have had his wife (and VP Pence’s wife for that matter) make salads, but that the team would prefer this slop instead saying “I think that’s their favorite food.” Never mind the fact that these guys probably had already eaten the rubbish he served that same week since most young, working class Americans can’t afford much more in the way of eating out. Putting the obvious sexism and bad taste aside, I guess it is because he believes “real men” supposedly eat meat even if that “meat” is highly processed garbage. After all, he has even special ordered the food on Air Force 1 for himself.
Although Trump may be the ultimate embodiment of ugly ruling class hubris with the veil ripped off, all over Washington there is a bizarre disconnect from the lived lives of working (and struggling) Americans. The Democratic Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, was just given 25,000 roses from the gushing sycophants at the DailyKos who raised $22,000 from a fundraiser as a thank you for passing healthcare legislation. This is the same Pelosi who has continued to deride single payer universal healthcare or “Medicare for All.” The same one who has supported the gargantuan $675bn military spending bill for an already bloated and murderous military industrial complex that would have easily funded healthcare. In other words: The “Resistance™.”
But it underscores the cruelty at the heart of the American Empire. Oblivious to a rapidly decaying system of corporate capitalist exploitation and its looming collapse. It gives the phrase “let them eat cake” a whole new meaning.
Kenn Orphan 2019
On January 7th the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) swept into a non-violent checkpoint set up by the Unist’ot’en and Gidimt’en clans of the Wet’suwet’en Nation. Fourteen people were violently arrested in the ambush by the militarized colonial forces. The camp was set up by hereditary leaders to defend the ancestral lands of the Unist’ot’en and other clans from the unwanted incursions of TransCanada and its Coastal Gaslink pipeline. Following the incident Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had the temerity to extol the neoliberal scheme behind the incident as something that is good for the earth. In a speech to supporters he said: “We moved forward on the LNG Canada project, which is the largest private sector investment in Canada’s history, $40-billion, which is going to produce Canadian LNG that will supplant coal in Asia as a power source and do much for the environment.” After being pressed in a radio interview about the brutal raid Trudeau said of the arrests that it is “not an ideal situation, but at the same time, we’re also a country of the rule of law.” Apparently he does not consider Article 10 of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to be law. It states: “Indigenous peoples shall not be forcibly removed from their land or territories.” It may be difficult for ordinary people to choke out hypocritical, ahistorical fallacies without missing a beat, but the Prime Minister has a gift for spouting empty platitudes that fly in the face of reality and he isn’t alone.
There is something familiar about Trudeau’s lamentation on this situation as well as his appeal for the rule of law. This is because neoliberal leaders around the world have used similar justifications for the violence of the corporate state. And while Trudeau has attempted to brand himself a leader on reconciliation with First Nations and for addressing climate change he has demonstrated time after time his true allegiance is to the corporate state. Last year he pledged 4.5 billion dollars of tax payer money to purchase the controversial, badly aging and perpetually leaking Kinder Morgan pipeline from the Alberta Tar Sands to BC. Protests and a court decision have stymied this for the moment, but in taking this action he has joined a cadre of world leaders who only pay lip service to indigenous concerns, ecological impacts and the science of climate change while steamrolling ahead toward a dystopic future. Of course like any neoliberal politician Trudeau ultimately does the bidding of the fossil fuel industry which works tirelessly behind the scenes writing and directing policy, like the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) who has an army of lobbyists that outnumber any other group in Ottawa.
Like the US, Canada is a settler colonial state founded upon the expulsion, ethnic cleansing and cultural genocide of its indigenous population. Its history is drenched in the blood of broken treaties with First Nations and tainted by the cruelties meted out over decades to the present day against indigenous children. And while Canada may now possess more progressive domestic policies than its ruthless neighbor to the south, it is a fallacy that it is a leader when it comes to indigenous rights, protection of the environment and climate change. One look at the Tar Sands is a testament to this. Bigger in area than England, it is the third largest reserve of oil on the planet. So it is of little surprise that those who profit from them the most have enormous sway in the Canadian political process. In addition to their tremendous greenhouse gas emissions the Tar Sands also use gargantuan amounts of fresh water creating massive lakes of poisonous effluent while belching out tons of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere. Great swaths of forest and wetlands have been decimated creating a new cancer alley mainly afflicting First Nations in the region. In short, it is a lethal, festering and human inflicted wound on the skin of the earth, so big that it can be seen from space. And Trudeau has fashioned himself to be the charming, boyish face that hides all its hideousness.
Trudeau, like Macron or Merkel, possesses an enormous capacity for doublespeak. He is well known for shedding tears for Canada’s crimes of the past on more than one occasion. Sometimes he genuinely appears to care for people and the environment. Barrack Obama had this gift too. And when comparing actions and policies to words it is easily demonstrated as a trick of optics and branding. Interestingly enough Obama has given several speeches since his presidency for his admirers on Wall Street, imploring them to thank him for making them so much money and turning the US into the world’s biggest oil producer while admitting those policies gave aid to the rise of the far right. It is a kinder face for plutocratic corporatism that may make it seem more palatable to some than the ugly face of fascism espoused by Donald Trump or Jair Bolsonaro. But we have seen how neoliberal policies are opening the way for these fascist populists so there is no innocent game being played here.
Neoliberal politicians ultimately strip people of their agency by supporting or enacting policies that break down the commons and privatize everything, all while drowning them in sugary bromides and platitudes of meaninglessness. They pay lip service to the plight of the poor, the oppressed, indigenous communities, people of colour, and the living earth itself while they laugh it up at galas done in their honour by the 1%. And in doing so they have paved the way for the rising global fascism we see today. The incident at the Unist’ot’en camp last week may not become Trudeau’s Standing Rock, but it certainly echoes it. The image of tanks, attack dogs and heavily armed police raining tear gas down and firing water cannons at unarmed Native Americans must certainly be in the back of his mind. But no matter what he is thinking, no tears he sheds now will obscure his role in defending an economic and political order that has maintained merciless colonialism, is ravaging the very foundations of democracy and may very well drive the biosphere toward its full scale collapse.
Kenn Orphan 2019
“Puritanism has made life itself impossible. More than art, more than estheticism, life represents beauty in a thousand variations; it is indeed, a gigantic panorama of eternal change. Puritanism, on the other hand, rests on a fixed and immovable conception of life; it is based on the Calvinistic idea that life is a curse, imposed upon man by the wrath of God. In order to redeem himself man must do constant penance, must repudiate every natural and healthy impulse, and turn his back on joy and beauty.” – Emma Goldman
“The important task of literature is to free man, not to censor him, and that is why Puritanism was the most destructive and evil force which ever oppressed people and their literature: it created hypocrisy, perversion, fears, sterility.” – Anaïs Nin
Several months ago I had a conversation about art with an American friend of mine. I consider him to be fairly left leaning, but I was puzzled when he told me he was seriously having to reconsider his “appreciation and enjoyment of certain artists” now that he knows of their “sexual abuse and sexist misogyny.” When I asked what he was referring to he mentioned Picasso and Gauguin as a couple examples. At the moment I was left nonplussed. In that short conversation I was taken aback by the swiftly moving and insidious undercurrent of puritanism still strong in American life.
What is more interesting to me is that this strain of authoritarianism is quite strong in many on the left end of the political spectrum. I’ve encountered similar attitudes when it comes to books. In fact, many 21st century American liberals appear all too willing to run to the bonfire when a new cause célèbre calls out a book that may contain offensive language or a work of art that may display a difficult, complex or nuanced sexual content. But what has been lost in this maelstrom of purging the past (and the present for that matter) is a needed dialogue about censorship, sexuality in relation to fascism, and the pernicious role it plays in suppressing political dissent. It has in many ways become a rush to censor and erase artists and writers from the pages of history for infractions they may have made against current sensibilities and silence current writers and artists for daring to speak in a voice that differs from the mainstream.
There are seemingly countless instances of conservative driven censorship. The book Stick by Andrew Smith, for example, faced backlash because it contains themes of gay and adolescent sexuality. Even The Diary of Anne Frank, a young girl’s thoughts and feelings while she hid with her family during the Holocaust, was edited of parts where she writes about exploring her body. Yet the fact that adolescents have a sexuality to begin with is a topic that is oft forbidden and increasingly censored even among many on the left and among liberals. One example of this was at New York’s Metropolitan Museum where Manhattanite, Mia Merrill, launched a campaign to remove a painting by Balthus entitled “Thérèse Dreaming” due to an apparent psychological projection about an alleged sexual sub-context. She attached her outrage to the #MeToo movement. Other works of art have been targeted as well for related “concerns.” Even in Britain, J.W. Waterhouse’s painting depicting the Greek myth “Hylas and the Nypmhs” was removed by a Manchester museum to supposedly start a “conversation.” Yet one would be hard pressed to start any conversation about a missing piece of artwork sans the topic of censorship.
But American culture in particular is rooted in a persistent and often insidious puritanism and a generalized panic when it comes to expressions or representations of human sexuality. And this continues to inform it and shape the contours and boundaries for what is deemed acceptable speech or thought for that matter. It is a toxically puerile form of selective corporate censorship. For example, Hollywood pumps out a flood of sappy movies and sitcoms that make the 1950s look risqué all while producing films that parrot hyper-militaristic, Pentagon endorsed, hagiography of the nation and war. While its productions often masquerade as edgy, at its core it is profoundly reactionary via its authoritarian demands for conformity to the so-called “American way.” This all has deep misogynistic, racist, anti-Semitic and homophobic undertones to it as well. Historically, but even today, and even on the left.
Sexuality has always been weaponized to oppress an underclass or caste within American society. One of the earliest forms of it was organized violent misogyny. From the onset, the Puritans were determined to eradicate Native American culture and implant a stoic version of Christian piety based on a rigid work ethic and moral conformity onto the “New World.” Borrowed from medieval Europe, this of course led to the trials, tortures and executions of scores of women as witches in New England for the “crimes” of consorting with or having “unnatural relations” with the devil. In one sense this represented a deep loathing of feminine sexuality and even nature itself, but what is often left out of this narrative is the powerful class motive for the usurpation of women’s land and property. And this fetishization of female sexuality is often portrayed today in contradictory forms. The so-called virtuous, upstanding woman is juxtaposed to the promiscuous one with little nuance, depth or complexity between the two stifling stereotypes.
African slaves were stereotyped over centuries as being hyper-sexual and promiscuous thus an existential threat to so-called “white purity.” It may have culminated in the culture in the form of the racist film “Birth of a Nation” which was lauded by President Woodrow Wilson and shown in the White House, but the racist stereotypes persist in contemporary media. Historically, this served as a way of dehumanization and othering, particularly in regard to the creation and promotion of the supremacy myth. And it translated into actual policies of segregation and discrimination. The societal impact can be seen manifested in the copious crimes of rape and assault against black women by white men during and after slavery, and in the horrific era of lynching in the 20th century throughout the country where tens of thousands of men were hanged, burned alive and often tortured to death because of allegations of rape or sexual improprieties against white women. Today that legacy continues in the form of police brutality and incarceration. But African American culture suffered as well from this stereotyping and was largely marginalized and censored, only later to be appropriated by many white artists in what was considered a more acceptable or sanitized form. Jazz and blues being good examples of this.
Antisemitism plays a large role in this too. For decades Jews were demonized and censored via the use of puerile and often arcane “obscenity” laws which were constructed in large part as a purity tests for Americanness. Author Josh Lambert outlined this in his book “Unclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews and American Culture.” Jewish influence on the arts have long been painted as dangerously sexual, politically subversive and debased by the white Christian establishment. And this has played out historically in the political class as well. Nixon and Billy Graham’s infamous recorded White House chats give us an insight into how that reached to the highest offices. Even today anti-Semitic conspiracy theories persist which suggest Jews control the American media, art and movie industry; once again providing an excuse for a crusade of white “purity” against supposed “obscenity.”
Homophobia and transphobia are ever present in today’s moral policing as well and its roots stem from a long history of puritanical sexual repression and rigid gender conformity. LGBTQ people had long been persecuted by the police, the church and corporations and have lost jobs, homes or were incarcerated for decades while antigay laws were still on the books. The “Red Scare” of the 1950s which aimed to purge the US of communists and their sympathizers is an example of how that unfolded in relatively recent times. Thousands of people lost careers, relationships, faced financial ruin, and even lost their lives in some instances due to suicide, thanks to being labeled a subversive, a homosexual (which was socially taboo and largely illegal at the time) or a pervert (which could be twisted to mean just about anything). How this relates to book burning is informative also since it was at the behest of Senator Joseph McCarthy that US State Department libraries purged their shelves of books deemed “controversial” or communist. And this happened across the board in Hollywood too, a bastion of American reactionary bigotry. Today queer sexuality in American culture is often portrayed by Hollywood in ways that appear more like pantomime. A parody or shtick rather than lived reality. But this is what sells to corporate buyers. Honest representations of human sexuality in its rich, multilayered and complex forms does not.
One could spend days ruminating on the pious drenched and often hysterical puritanism of the religious right, yet without understanding how puritanism itself is a broad cultural phenomenon deeply effecting the liberal left as well, one cannot analyze current trends of censorship with true accuracy or, indeed, honesty. The reason all of this history is important is that it relates to the moral policing going on today under the often nebulous auspices of “social justice.” That rape culture and sexual harassment have been called out for the social maladies they are is a good thing. But movements, especially when they are championed by the wealthy elite, must always be looked at critically and approached with caution.
And this is where class comes in. After all, it is the lower castes within American society who already suffer disproportionately from a draconian and punitive legal system. Sex offender registries are one example of this. Designed to punish crimes of a serious sexual nature and protect the public from dangerous predators, they have all too often ruined the lives of people who pose no threat whatsoever. Urinating in public, teenagers having sex with other teenagers, breast feeding in public, sex work, all these things have threatened working class people, especially queer people and people of colour, with the stigma of being on a registry for life. And once on, they are restricted in employment, education and housing, further impoverishing people who were already poor. And corporate media culture reinforces this, giving the public a paranoid, hysterical narrative that the nation is somehow awash in predators of all kinds. This is not to diminish the very real abuses of a very real culture of rape, but to show the arbitrary nature of a deeply unequal system which has historically been based on a skewed and bigoted moral value system and administered via sweeping class disparity.
It is in this disparity in particular that I find liberal, and to some extent some leftist, outrage at certain art works, books or music so telling and peculiar. It displays a stunning lack of curiosity and an insularity to the lived lives, lived realities really, of others. And it willfully ignores the enormous role of bigotry and class differences in it all. That art or literature might be offensive to some is a given. That it should be censored or erased from the commons and from public memory should never be. It is sponging away what is often deeply relevant out of a fear that it might trigger an unwanted feeling; and in doing so diminishing the growth that can come with exposure to different ideas and perspectives. Of course one should decide for themselves what they are able to view based on their emotional or mental state, but when it becomes a public crusade of sorts the dangers should be obvious.
What’s more is that I often see a desire for kitsch to replace art, and this reflects a kind of childish or toxic naivety rife in the culture today. This is not to say that kitsch has no place at all, but it has become the overarching artistic genre of the American modern era and this is striking to say the least because sexuality and its expression are stunted, infantilized and deformed in such mediums, which might explain its appeal in the current era of hyper corporate consumerism and diminished human connection. It can also explain how the porn industry, a medium rife with hollow or kitsch representations of human beings, has largely replaced erotica. That kitsch is considered art at all may be problematic, but it is what it has replaced that should trouble us more. The seriousness of artistic expression is diminished by what is absent, not what is displayed and it is often done so to soothe bourgeois sensibilities, not challenge them. And this is the sort of thing that can be an indicator or precursor to a sharp rise of fascism within a society. Because within the fascistic framework human sexuality is a another potent mechanism for social control.
But today’s digital culture aids this. It is one that encourages little interest in historic, cultural or artistic content. It isn’t one that encourages reading much either and this has led to a truncation of the language and critical thought in general. Now communicating ideas are often done in a staccato versing that has arisen from the text, meme, emoji, hashtag and Twitter mediums. But that is what makes this rush toward censorship even more alarming.
As has been revealed several times, social media has aligned with corporate and state interests to censor alternate or opposing views. It often begins with the repression of marginalized communities, banning art, alternate viewpoints, ideas and even thought deemed perverse or obscene, essentially any threat to the status quo hierarchy. But this is a poison that can rapidly spread to the rest of society. And American puritanism has long shadows that reach far beyond its borders now, making the implications rather chilling in that regard. Indeed, we should look at this erasure of public memory as not only a corporate approved curbing of curiosity and a purge of intellectual imagination; but also a pernicious repression of dissent and the systematic curtailing of our political agency. And this is what is so very dangerous about it all.
Kenn Orphan 2019
“Extinction is the rule. Survival is the exception.” – Carl Sagan
“To argue that the current extinction event could be averted if people just cared more and were willing to make more sacrifices is not wrong, exactly; still, it misses the point. It doesn’t much matter whether people care or don’t care. What matters is that people change the world. This capacity predates modernity,” – Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
According to a study by the WWF the earth has lost over half of its wildlife in just 40 years. A staggering statistic that should shake every conscious person to their core. Each of us is a witness to this Great Dying, the sixth mass extinction, the last one being 65 million years ago which wiped out the dinosaurs. Yet despite overwhelming evidence of a rapidly crashing biosphere many leaders, if not most, in the privileged global north seem oblivious or apathetic to the carnage. All around the planet wildlife populations are in a free fall, from birds to amphibians to mammals to marine life to insects. But today the interests of capital not only dominate our economic, media and political order, they dominate our consciousness.
The Latin meaning for homo sapiens is “wise man.” But as I ponder our precarious position on the precipice of the Sixth Mass Extinction I cannot help but be struck by its glaring irony. Standing in a cemetery crowded with the bones of countless species I am left with little room to marvel at our cleverness. The magicians and merchants of corporate consumerism have fostered this pernicious disconnection from the natural world and have created a labyrinth of distractions and doubts that numb the senses to our own looming demise. It is a difficult box to break free from. Insipid optimism is demanded of all subjects of the global corporate kingdom. Those who defy it are often derided or ridiculed as alarmists. Sometimes they are rendered invisible. It is a kind of optimism that eschews facts. A cult of thinking that chides anyone who dares look at things as they truly are.
But to deny the ecocide unfolding before us today is a feat of astounding absurdity. And it should be clear to anyone paying attention that this is not a natural event. Human beings have become a force of nature. And an extraction and exploitation economy, that benefits fewer and fewer people each year, has created the conditions that are leading toward the collapse of the biosphere on which we all depend. Thanks to decades of indoctrination, however, we have been meticulously trained to ignore, downplay or rebrand capitalism, a planet killing ideology, which separates living beings into worthiness categories for the wealth accumulation of a few. It has ushered in an age where when one species is decimated another “previously less desirable” one is turned to for unbridled exploitation. Haddock, cod and tuna were ruthlessly harvested until their numbers crashed catastrophically, so fish like farmed tilapia were “up marketed” to replace them. And this is not only true of fish populations.
Biodiverse forests are scraped away for more profitable monocrops like palm oil with the result being a catastrophic loss of habitat for scores of species like the endangered orangutan. Mountaintops are blown to smithereens and once pristine streams are buried under tons of toxic ash for mere minutes of electricity. Plastics continue to be manufactured for one use while the detritus lasts millennia, dumped into the world’s oceans by the truckload every minute of every day, choking hundreds of thousands of species of birds, turtles, whales and other marine life. Indigenous habitats are sponged off the landscape to make room for squalid factory farms that sentence millions of sentient beings to a life of unimaginable terror, cruelty and gruesome horror all to meet the demand for cheap and unhealthy fast food. And the ever untouchable war industry continues to decimate wildlife. In fact, the US military has been cited as one of the world’s biggest polluter and contributor to global climate change.
But ours is a culture that encourages denial, obfuscation and distraction. It relies on our indifference and uses it to rob us of our collective agency. After all, paying attention might cause us to question aloud the entire premise on which this madness is based and demand radical systemic and societal change. The choice, however, is ultimately ours. We can continue to avert our gaze from the looming chaos and believe the lie fed to us that we are separate or even superior to the lifeweb that envelopes this planet. We can sleepwalk toward extinction with a shopping bag in one hand and the latest smartphone in the other. Or we can acknowledge sorrow as a natural response to catastrophe. In grief we make a choice to not only honour the countless species that have already been lost, but to oppose the ongoing carnage, recognize our part in it especially in the global north, and realize we too are subject to extinction. It is in no way accepting things as they are or giving up; and it is not a solitary affair either.
Stepping into our grief is indeed bearing witness to the monstrous crime of ecocide. It is a bold act of defiance to a culture of denial, distraction and death. Grief is the beginning of transformation. And acknowledging it with sincerity lends a voice of testimony that can lead toward revolutionary dissent. It is the only coherent answer to an imposed and unnatural extinction. But it is also a rallying cry for solidarity and rebellion. Indeed, this may be the last chance we have left to make a stand on a dying world.
Kenn Orphan December 2018
*Note: this is a revised version of the original “Bearing Witness” done a few years ago.
“Americans, like human beings everywhere, believe many things that are obviously untrue. Their most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for any American to make money. They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and, therefore, those who have no money blame and blame and blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class since, say, Napoleonic times.” – Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Slaughterhouse-Five
“I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence.” – Eugene Debs
“The genius of our ruling class is that it has kept a majority of the people from ever questioning the inequity of a system where most people drudge along paying heavy taxes for which they get nothing in return.” – Gore Vidal
It was about a year ago that United Nation’s special rapporteur, Philip Alston, issued a report on the dire state of the American republic. It revealed that upwards of 40 million Americans live in poverty. Among its findings:
- By most indicators, the US is one of the world’s wealthiest countries. It spends more on national defense than China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, United Kingdom, India, France, and Japan combined.
- US health care expenditures per capita are double the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) average and much higher than in all other countries. But there are many fewer doctors and hospital beds per person than the OECD average.
- US infant mortality rates in 2013 were the highest in the developed world.
- Americans can expect to live shorter and sicker lives, compared to people living in any other rich democracy, and the “health gap” between the U.S. and its peer countries continues to grow.
- U.S. inequality levels are far higher than those in most European countries
- Neglected tropical diseases, including Zika, are increasingly common in the USA. It has been estimated that 12 million Americans live with a neglected parasitic infection. A 2017 report documents the prevalence of hookworm in Lowndes County, Alabama.
- The US has the highest prevalence of obesity in the developed world.
- In terms of access to water and sanitation the US ranks 36th in the world.
- America has the highest incarceration rate in the world, ahead of Turkmenistan, El Salvador, Cuba, Thailand and the Russian Federation. Its rate is nearly 5 times the OECD average.
- The youth poverty rate in the United States is the highest across the OECD with one quarter of youth living in poverty compared to less than 14% across the OECD.
- The Stanford Center on Inequality and Poverty ranks the most well-off countries in terms of labor markets, poverty, safety net, wealth inequality, and economic mobility. The US comes in last of the top 10 most well-off countries, and 18th amongst the top 21.
- In the OECD the US ranks 35th out of 37 in terms of poverty and inequality.
- According to the World Income Inequality Database, the US has the highest Gini rate (measuring inequality) of all Western Countries
- The Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality characterizes the US as “a clear and constant outlier in the child poverty league.” US child poverty rates are the highest amongst the six richest countries – Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Sweden and Norway.
- About 55.7% of the U.S. voting-age population cast ballots in the 2016 presidential election. In the OECD, the U.S. placed 28th in voter turnout, compared with an OECD average of 75%. Registered voters represent a much smaller share of potential voters in the U.S. than just about any other OECD country. Only about 64% of the U.S. voting-age population (and 70% of voting-age citizens) was registered in 2016, compared with 91% in Canada (2015) and the UK (2016), 96% in Sweden (2014), and nearly 99% in Japan (2014).
These are staggering figures; but the report resonated with me on a visceral level. I’ve lived all over the United States for most of my life, but it was my crisscrossed traverse across the continent two years ago that opened my eyes to the scale of destitution of which so many have become desperately ensnared.
I drove across the north, south and middle of the United States with my sister several times because we had to care for my mother who resided in Florida. We finally decided to move her back to Canada with us after my father died because we knew she would not receive the care she needed in the States. In those many long days on the interstate I saw what America had transformed into.
The blight of corporate neglect and economic depression was nothing less than breathtaking. The main streets of town after town were boarded up, with only a smattering of dollar stores, payday loan shops, liquor vendors and storefront churches open. Hideously oversized franchise signs scraped the sky in an all too familiar impertinence. Big box stores and fast food restaurants were clustered around predictable junctions along the highways in an uninspired, formulaic pattern. It became apparent to me that these islands of banality offered some of the only employment for the people who lived in these regions. And the police patrolled every street constantly, making life feel rather like a prison camp.
These are the hard truths about America, a nation drowning in delusions, feckless nationalism and layers of supercilious bravado, where corporations, which siphon hundreds of billions of dollars from public coffers via tax evasion and subsidies are rarely held to account. Industry poisons the water, eviscerates ancient mountains, and devastates urban and rural communities with impunity. This is the “indispensable nation” where more of its citizens are locked behind bars than elsewhere in the world and usually for non-violent offenses. Where police murder unarmed people in stairwells, or hotel hallways, or for routine traffic stops and almost always get away with it. Where domestic violence often spills over to mass shootings which have become an almost daily occurrence. Where life expectancy is rapidly declining in a trend not seen since World War I. Where investment in military weaponry that terrorize the poor in other nations is exponential, but investment in veterans assistance is nil.
And yet despite this landscape of misery where inequity is exploding and infrastructure is failing at breakneck speed, the supremacist concept of “American exceptionalism” has managed to bamboozle millions into believing they live in the greatest nation on the planet. Social media has become a strange place to see this mythology in living colour. One comment on a Facebook post about the refugee crisis underscored this disconnect:
“These people need to clean up their own sorry countries. People all over the world just want to get into America because of its free stuff. It is the greatest nation on the planet!”
The sentiment echoed many others I read that exhibited an extraordinary lack of curiosity and willful ignorance about their nation’s enormous role in creating the miserable conditions these people were fleeing from in the first place. That the CIA supported and aided rightwing coups in these nations (and scores of others) was simply not in their orbit. Another comment parroted Donald Trump’s dehumanization of asylum seekers as “invaders.” Never mind the fact that it has been the US which has invaded dozens of nations, including several in Central and South America over its rather short history. And the reference to “free stuff” is shocking too, considering social services have been drastically cut in most places.
But it was this comment I read recently on a rightwing social media page that I found the most dumbfounding because it referred to one of its nearest neighbours:
“Canada compared to the United States is a third world nation. Roads full of potholes, slums, and terrible healthcare and short lifespan. They should let Trump work to save their sad nation.”
I’ll admit I had to stop and read that one twice. Of course Canada has many problems, its Tar Sands, arms dealing, and abysmal treatment of the First Nations communities among them, but the one thing that stood out was the ignorance about so-called “socialized medicine.” This is a recurring theme and is the tragic result of decades of indoctrination by the capitalist class of the country. Both ruling parties have long been in bed with the insurance industry and Big Pharma which has derailed every effort for universal, single payer healthcare. The result has been ridiculously high infant mortality compared with other developed countries, skyrocketing levels of bankruptcy and foreclosures due to medical expenses, and the resurgence of disease associated with poverty.
That some still think of Trump as a saviour may be risible, but there is a deeper wound that has been ignored by most establishment liberals too ensconced in their privilege to notice. Magical thinking is like a drug. It can easily become a balm to those who face a daily litany of miseries, humiliations and trials. As a medical social worker I attempted to assist scores of families and individuals navigate these miseries. My battles were with insurance companies refusing coverage, not doctors.
But I personally know what it is like to not have any kind of insurance and be fearful of getting sick or injured with no money to pay for exorbitant bills, and then to be handed an $11,000 bill for a few days stay in a hospital. I’ve felt the stigma myself of accepting county healthcare assistance which didn’t even cover a fraction of the costs and being treated like a social pariah because of it. I also know what it is like to watch loved ones who had no money and, although they were deathly ill, try to leave the hospital because they had incurred $80,000 in medical bills which they knew they would never be able to pay. It alters every aspect of a person’s life and leaves one in a state of perpetual anxiety where the only escape is often found in either addiction, magical thinking or some combination of the two.
In contrast I’ve taken a relative to the hospital in Canada for severe abdominal pain and saw her met with immediate care. She was rushed into emergency surgery without ever once having to worry about the cost. This not to say the Canadian healthcare system does not have its problems. It does. And we can discuss them at some other point. But there is no comparison to a nation where ordinary citizens put off vital treatment or medicine for fear of a staggering bill or where GoFundMe has fast become the go to source for assistance with exorbitant medical expenses.
Poverty is an imposed oppression, the byproduct of rampant greed and the bastard child of an ever decadent capitalist class. And the way it is imposed is through food, housing and healthcare insecurity. But Americans who are poor are ladled with both the torment of financial worry and the noxious guilt of feeling like they are defective human beings because of their predicament. The “Oprah Effect” has convinced many that their failure to succeed in this inherently unjust system is a personal flaw. It is all about the self and its deceptively cruel mantra of positive thinking. One can see this quite clearly in media and entertainment. Anyone who is wealthy is cast in an almost deified light while the poor become punchlines, demonized, pitted against one another or ignored completely. But both ruling political parties espouse these values too. Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi is on record chiding a young constituent for daring to question this inherently unjust economic order by stating with pride “We’re capitalists.” As if making a religious declaration of faith.
This arrangement as the late Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. alluded to has been a boon for the ruling classes who, year after year, strip away the last vestiges of a beleaguered social safety net while making it easier for them to amass even more wealth. They have managed to deflect analysis and criticism of the current order by constantly referring to “personal responsibility” as the source of the problem, and this has created what Sheldon Wolin called “inverted totalitarianism.” A kind of partially self-imposed oppression of the corporate mind, where citizens are transformed into “consumers.” Civics and politics are reduced to spectacle. Every political leader is a millionaire or billionaire. Celebrity scandals dominate the media cycle. The wealthy are endlessly lauded for their “accomplishments” while societal infrastructure and works for the public good are neglected or demolished. Ecosystems are denuded and degraded for corporate profit. Each person becomes an island unto themselves without agency. And all of it is normalized by mass media.
History is replete with examples of how this framework often leads to fascism. Neglect of civic education and economic justice create the conditions that enable its rise. Trump, then, shouldn’t be regarded as an anomaly. He is the logical result of decades of neoliberal capitalist corruption in both ruling political parties. And he is pulling the levers that he knows will work in this machine: nativism, xenophobia, misogyny, conspiratorial thinking, racism, authoritarianism, demonization of the press, scapegoating, nationalism, confusion.
Distracting the populace (and the press for that matter) from the real threats to their existence and their day to day economic degradation has become Trump’s raison d’etre. Of course he is downplaying recent dire climate change reports despite the scorched earth in California or the flattened towns on the Florida panhandle because his focus must be on the other, the foreigner, the migrant. He can dehumanize, deport or easily exterminate them if politically necessary. In other words, deal with the “problem.” Climate change? Not so much.
Thankfully there has been push back, but the fundamental narrative must still be challenged. The US is textbook example of neoliberal, corporate capitalism run amok. Most taxes go for a bloated military that slaughters the poor in other countries and protects the interests of the wealthy. But there is entrenched illiteracy in the culture when it comes to this rather odious reality. The military is still adored in most precincts of society, from sports to education to religion. To criticize its’ size or the money ($716 bn) it receives is considered heresy in both ruling political parties. This might explain the impunity an increasingly militarized police force has when they crackdown on dissent or terrorize communities of colour. And there is little to no mainstream public discourse that addresses any of it.
It is the American mind that needs to be deprogrammed of this narrative for there to be any meaningful change. A mind rife with fallacies and delusions about its greatness. An attitude that ignores the reality of its dire condition and instead embraces national myths and fantasies. As long as the issue of class continues to be ignored or talked about in terms that obscure its role in political agency desperate people will look to authoritarian answers and despots that soothe their base fears and prejudices. The gap between the extremely wealthy and the rest will grow ever wider as the ecology and living standards degrade. Neglect in an age of biospheric crisis will become even more normalized. Civil rights and liberties will continue to be weakened and chipped away. As long as capitalism remains sacrosanct and considered irreproachable, the descent toward full blown fascism will eventually turn into a free fall.
Kenn Orphan November 2018