Monthly Archives: April 2019

We Have Always Belonged to Her

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kenn Orphan   (2019)

 

 

 

On Burning Churches

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

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

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

Kenn Orphan   (2019)

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

A Land Uncharted

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Kenn Orphan   (2019)

In Tribute to Blase Bonpane

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

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

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

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

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

He wisely observed about American society:

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

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

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

Kenn Orphan   (2019)

Madonna Plays Apartheid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kenn Orphan    2019

Crying Babies on a Plane

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