“There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches.” – Ray Bradbury
Today we may lose the internet as we know it. We may lose the “neutrality” which keeps it relatively democratized. Nominated by President Obama at the recommendation of Senator Mitch McConnell, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Ajit Pai, has been gunning for the destruction of net neutrality for years. And today, with one of the most mendacious governments at the helm, he might just get what he desires.
Net neutrality isn’t a glamorous cause. There are no passionate hashtags or viral videos of abuse that make its case. But its destiny is that of democracy itself, in the 21st century. Its what makes the internet viable and vibrant by allowing small websites with little money to compete with multi-billion dollar corporations. It provides diversity of speech and thought in this precarious age when it is so desperately needed; and this is what makes it a threat to the powerful. Although this decision is taking place in the US, and other nations have said they will strengthen their commitment to net neutrality, the internet does not exist in a bubble. And US corporations are major players in a global game that impacts virtually everyone.
None of this is new. A war of conquest over the internet has been waging for many years because its relatively free flow of information is the single greatest threat to the corporate elite’s monopoly on influence and information. With useful tools in both political parties this has manifested in several ways. And thanks to the current President’s penchant for outright duplicity the term “fake news” has become a raison d’être among their ranks. Their disingenuous campaign to eliminate false information belies a more dubious wish to censor dissenting views.
I was recently informed by several reliable sources that the content and access to this blog has been frequently blocked or marked as spam. While this does not have to do with net neutrality directly, it does indicate how the democratization of the internet is under assault from many angles. Powerful internet providers and telecommunications corporations create algorithms which make certain websites less visible and accessible on search engines or block content in order to “protect” users. And it is fast proving to be yet another effective and insidious form of censorship as several left or progressive websites have been tracking a staggering decrease in traffic to their sites.
As ecocide and climate change accelerate, the industrial war machine expands, and socio-economic inequities grow, the wealthy and powerful elite will only become more ruthless in their desire to extinguish democracy and stamp out any defiance that comes as a response. Of course their only real interest is in securing their moneyed interests and political power, but censorship is a tactic which has proven very useful throughout history in achieving that end. The internet will not be the last place they attempt this, but it is certainly ground zero. And today’s battle might very well seal its fate.
Like the record breaking storms, floods and hurricanes of late, these fires are more canaries in the collective coal mine we all inhabit. And with each passing year and every accumulating catastrophe their clarion call becomes more urgent and shrill. Yet in spite of their insistence the global order remains relatively unchanged and alarmingly unperturbed.
It is becoming increasingly undeniable that human beings are now at a crossroad as never before encountered in history. In its relatively short time, industrial civilization has brought amazing technological advances. Diseases have been cured, massive feats of agriculture have fed millions, and we were able to break the gravitational bonds of this planet and become a spacefaring civilization. But its marriage to corporate capitalism was one made in hell. And the Faustian bargain that fossil fuels offered humanity unleashed a boundless and insatiable greed which blinds all who profit from it to their ruination.
The result has been the despoiling of the living biosphere on which we all rely. We have entered into the Sixth Mass Extinction where at least 150 species are lost every day to human activity. Recent studies have confirmed a catastrophic drop in insect populations worldwide thanks to petro-based pesticides used in industrial scale agriculture, climate change, and destruction of habitat. Marine life is suffering a similar fate with bird populations being decimated by loss of food sources and plastic pollution which is set to outweigh all fish in the ocean by mid-century. Fish stocks have plummeted and over 90% of Coral reefs, the ocean’s nurseries, will have disappeared by 2050 from bleaching thanks to ocean acidification. Forests are being felled at a rate akin to a “New Zealand sized area“ every year. Yet despite these staggering developments little to nothing of substance is being done on the global scale that is needed.
Here is where people of conscience must be brutally truthful about our collective predicament. We must face the painful fact that our species has exceeded its limits in growth, population and the exploitation of the natural world. We must also grapple with the fact that the global north is most responsible for the decimation of the biosphere and the ruthless exploitation of the global south. And there will be no substantive actions taken by the corrupt political and business leaders who profit from this global arrangement, to halt this plunder or stem the carnage of the planet’s rich biodiversity. They are both unwilling and incapable of addressing the issue with the integrity and impetus necessary. Instead, they will continue their bait and switch dance of empty placation and denialism while they stuff their coffers with coin, even as the earth rapidly transforms into another planet before our eyes.
And their criminal ineptitude has never stopped at non-humans. As this century unfolds, cities will be lost to rising seas as governments will eventually find that they are too expensive to salvage. Regions will become uninhabitable from pollution and drought. The specters of famine and disease will haunt billions of people. And mass migration will put a strain on fragile social and economic systems that already suffer from vast, structurally imposed inequities.
Their answer to the concomitant unrest will be more Orwellian doublespeak and insidious distraction, coupled with draconian crackdowns on dissent, protest or objection. They will aggressively mock, smear and persecute truth tellers and peddle in jingoism, xenophobia and nationalism. War mongering, austerity and the scapegoating of vulnerable people will become their preferred method of deferring from their culpability. None of this is fiction. It has all happened, and not only in civilizations throughout history which have faced socio-economic or ecological collapse. It is happening today in societies which purport to be democratic.
Although “knowledge is power” is a cliché, it still holds some truth. We still have tremendous agency to affect the future, both personally and collectively. We have the power to create communities of solidarity and to meet the looming catastrophes and calamities with humanity, dignity and grace. But that agency is diluted and made ineffectual so long as we continue to lie to ourselves and others about where we are as a species. The risk we take includes being labeled an alarmist in a society lulled into a hypnotic trance by the slick marketing tactics of the consumerist wizards of Wall Street. But that risk pales in comparison to ignoring the screeching canaries in our midst.
Kenn Orphan 2017
“Puritanism, in whatever expression, is a poisonous germ. On the surface everything may look strong and vigorous; yet the poison works its way persistently, until the entire fabric is doomed.” – Emma Goldman
With an apparent raging storm of accusations and allegations against powerful men in the US, social media has erupted into another cause célèbre. While many are optimistic that this will lead to a revolution of sorts, some are cautioning us to beware of the terrible turn things like this can take, especially within a society with deep inequities and a dark legacy of punitive legalism. This isn’t to suggest that sexism, misogyny and sexual violence are not persistent and colossal problems, nor that they shouldn’t be exposed and condemned. But to look at American cultural trends without acknowledging its puritan roots is not only dishonest; history has proven it to have tragic consequences.
While most of the recent sexual harassment, abuse and rape allegations against powerful men in the US are not directly rooted in the rigid mores of puritanism it should be noted that its insidious tendrils still extend into every facet of American life. And it isn’t only the Christian Right that steers these kinds of societal attitudes. This legacy strongly influences modern liberalism and how institutions and the powerful make decisions and interpret human failings, morality and social ills. They look at culture through puritanism’s punitive lens which is reflected in a variety of ways.
In regard to accusations or allegations, America’s history is littered with examples of frenzied crusades reminiscent of puritanism. This is not in any way to suggest that most of the people making accusations about improprieties, harassment or assault today are lying or merely wrong. And it is not intended to protect powerful, wealthy men with status and influence; but the opposite. This is a society whose brutal past casts long shadows. There are countless instances in US history which document the detrimental impacts of hysteria created by false or exaggerated accusations.
The most historically infamous were the Salem Witch Trials, which mostly targeted women and endure as the tragic legacy of the Puritans themselves. The “Red Scare” of the 1950s which aimed to purge the US of communists and their sympathizers is another. 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). The debunked day school “satanic ritual abuse” scandal of the 1980s and 90s is a more recent example, but to me one of the most tragic incidents involved a 14 year old black boy in Mississippi.
In 1955 a false accusation of sexual assault led to the brutal murder of Emmett Till. He was a black boy in the Jim Crow south and his accuser was a white woman. He was accused of whistling at the woman, grabbing her hand, making sexual innuendos and shouting obscenities. The boy had a speech impediment, and he was undoubtedly schooled by his family on how to “behave” in the oppressively hostile environment of white America, so this woman’s accusations bore little resemblance to the lived reality of millions of people. But it was of no consequence. He was dragged from his bed by a mob of white men, tortured, mutilated, tied with barbed wire and thrown over a bridge. His tragically horrid fate was linked to hundreds of years of racist oppression. But it is worth noting that this was just a little over 60 years ago and his accuser is still alive.
The current maelstrom of sexual assault allegations in the highest echelons of US media and the political establishment in its current form is likely only to produce enduring, material benefits for the already wealthy, privileged and powerful.This is because without a mass movement from below which addresses structural injustices and inequities endemic to the American power structure, the elite will continue to dictate how such things will unfold. The spectacle, at this point, is a squabble among the powerful, wealthy upper classes. So unless that structure itself is ultimately overturned all other social justice causes will continue to be co-opted and tainted by its elitist brush.
This is especially so when most of the revelations being made are actually emanating from the elite classes themselves. To the powerful, sex and sexuality are little more than commodities to trade, and most of the accused among their ranks will not likely suffer in real world consequences, only in optics. After all, they have plenty of money, influence and access to armies of lawyers who will ensure that their class is ultimately protected from the most damning aspects of the US legal system. It is the lower castes who will likely suffer disproportionately from any punitive or legalistic actions they may produce as a response.
Politicians operating under an already grossly unfair and corrupt US oligarchy that worships “free market capitalism” will never address the conditions that generally lead to abuse, crime or assault like imposed poverty, institutional racism, debt wage slavery or the dismantling of the social safety net, it will instead answer with the only thing it has at its disposal: more punitive and retributive laws which always disproportionately affect the poor, youth and the disenfranchised. Sex offender registries are an 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 to society. Urinating in public, teenagers having sex with other teenagers, breast feeding in public, engaging in prostitution or being a prostitute, all these things have threatened ordinary people 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.
The good thing is that this apparent “reckoning” need not remain in its current form. It need not be an issue generated by the elite and privileged class who limit its scope and respond to it with repression rather than restorative justice. I know some, both women as well as men, who have become more interested in antiwar activism because of it, others who are becoming more involved in solidarity with those in the global south who suffer under our racist, capitalist fueled, sweatshop economy and military occupations. In ecological activist circles it is galvanizing many to make the needed connection between a culture of rape and the rape of the living planet. It most certainly seems to be helping many to find the courage to come out of shadows of torment and find community and a sense of personal justice and healing. And at the very least it appears to be igniting a long overdue discussion in the broader society about sexual harassment, abuse and assault, and may also be causing some to honestly face the insidious demons of patriarchal misogyny.
I applaud, celebrate and stand in solidarity with all of this especially if it continues toward the revolutionary paradigm shift we so desperately need. But even with all this I know there might be some who, after reading this essay, will somehow think I am being an apologist for powerful men or sexual predators. So I want to make it clear I understand where much of the anger is coming from. It is not only thanks to years of counseling people who survived different kinds of sexual assault, but because I am a survivor of an assault myself. I won’t go into the lurid details, but it took a long time to get through the panic and rage that ensued after a terrifying experience. I am only sharing this to let those reading this know I do not take such things lightly or hold survivors in contempt. Nor do I dismiss the courage it takes to come forward.
I understand that the current reckoning unfolding among the powerful elite has not yet turned into anything described above. And it is my sincere hope that women from all strata of society will benefit from the societal sea change that could come as a result. But I also know how purges and other movements based on accusation, inference or allegations can often lead an already deeply unequal society down an even more frightening path. I know that, whether or not it is acknowledged, puritanism still persists in American culture and society. I know how the poor and people of colour (especially women), and the LGBTQ community have historically suffered the worst ramifications from such turns. And however unpopular a stance it might be, being silent about these concerns is simply not an option.
Kenn Orphan 2017