Kenn Orphan 22 April, 2018
*Title art piece of Olivia is by Luis Tamani
*Title art piece of Olivia is by Luis Tamani
I must begin with a confession. I have always been troubled by Earth Day. As a lifelong activist I understand and appreciate the concept and how it came to be. But over the years I’ve seen it morph from an almost spiritual movement for ecological consciousness and justice into an opportunity for corporations and politicians to tout their empty gestures at “saving the planet” all while they mercilessly plunder it. Greenwashing has now taken center stage and the effect has often lead to the neutralizing of public outrage. Like so many things corporate, Earth Day has been tinged with a pathological optimism. The dominant message today exudes an all too pervasive “feel goodism” for a situation that is by all accounts truly monstrous, not only for countless other species on the planet, but for our own.
Nearly fifty years ago in April of 1970 people of conscience gathered to address the destruction of the planet. Since that time politicians, corporations, the fossil fuel industry and their mouthpiece think tanks have worked feverishly, not at addressing the crisis, but at polishing their image. Today their lavish conferences and consortiums generally serve as window dressing and are a distraction to our collective, growing existential angst, as each passing year gives us a terrifying glimpse into a fast approaching future for our planet, one rife with super storms, floods, mega-droughts, crop failures and species demise.
Within the last decade alone there have been monumental shifts in climate models leaving even the conservative Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) shocked and bewildered. Indeed, record breaking temperature extremes have become a defining norm of the 21st century, with an ice free Arctic summer now on the horizon. It is becoming apparent that things are more dire than anyone had previously anticipated. We are beginning to see the first stirrings of climate chaos; and it is set against the ominous backdrop of an already ravaged biosphere.
This past year we witnessed an American west coast at once bathed in fire and then awash in mud. We saw the Amazon rain forest, the vaunted “lungs of the planet,” belch out smoke as it reeled from over 200,000 fires. We stood aghast at the hurricanes which decimated the Caribbean and the floods that killed thousands and displaced many more over the summer and into autumn and winter, from China to India and Nepal, to Southeast Asia and West Africa.
Other revelations were equally staggering. Recent studies have confirmed a catastrophic drop in insect populations worldwide. Bird populations are being decimated by loss of food sources, and marine plastic pollution 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 warming waters and 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 required.
To be sure, history has demonstrated that most politicians will never face unpleasant realities until they are literally upon us. Our current climate and ecological crisis is no different. As this century unfolds cities and towns will likely be lost to rising seas as governments eventually find that they are too expensive to salvage. Entire regions may become uninhabitable from deforestation, pollution and drought. The specters of famine and disease will undoubtedly haunt billions of people, in fact they already plague millions today. Mass migration could easily make today’s issue appear negligible and would put a strain on fragile social and economic systems that already suffer from vast, structurally imposed inequities. Rich, biodiverse areas could become graveyards. Those in power would undoubtedly answer the concomitant unrest in more Orwellian doublespeak and with insidious distraction, coupled with draconian crackdowns on dissent, protest or objection. 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.
Here is where people of conscience, like those untarnished souls at the first Earth Day nearly fifty years ago, must be unabashedly truthful about our monstrous and 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 subjugation and exploitation of the global south.
And that there will be no substantive actions taken by our political and corporate leaders to halt this plunder or stem the carnage of the planet’s rich biodiversity. After all, according to their economic ethos they have no vested interest since they profit handsomely from this global arrangement to begin with. They have demonstrated that 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.
Despite all this 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 dignity and humanity. We possess the moral authority to oppose the further defilement of the water and the soil, the very source and sustenance of our lives and that of countless other species. 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.
Earth Day should no longer be taken simply as a gentle, yet trite, reminder to recycle, or use canvas shopping bags, or cycle to work one day out of the week. It should no longer be diminished to “lifestyle choices” that let corporations and governments off the hook. It must quite literally be transformed into a rallying cry for the life of the biosphere. Because anything short of that is merely whistling past the graveyard.
Kenn Orphan, April 2018
Let’s stop pretending that the war on Syria just began. The US along with Canada, the EU, the UK, the Saudis, Israel, Russia, and Iran, have been arming factions and reducing the region to smithereens for years, carpet bombing cities and killing scores of civilians in the process.
Let’s stop pretending that the US and its allies have any problem with dictators, death squads or authoritarian regimes since they have propped them up, applauded them, and aided them from Egypt to Honduras to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And they have no problem with carnage if it happens to come from one of their client states, like the Saudi kingdom’s genocide in Yemen or Israel’s slaughter in Gaza.
Let’s stop pretending that any of the global players are troubled by or concerned about war crimes. In the West the selective outrage over the horrific gas attack on civilians in Syria is absurdly obvious when it comes to the fact that the US and its allies have used depleted uranium, napalm and white phosphorus and bombed hospitals and mosques, wedding parties and shelters as a matter of course.
Let’s stop pretending that any of them care about Syrians or Syrian society either. While Russia has turned a blind eye to Assad’s crimes and bolstered his regime’s power to crush any meaningful dissent, the US, UK and EU have funded extremists, foreign mercenaries and reactionary militants who have terrorized local populations almost as much as the regime itself. They’ve also made it near impossible for refugees and others trying to flee the misery and chaos they have helped to create.
Let’s stop pretending that any of this is about human rights or the rule of law, or that this will bring about an end to barbarism since the cold hard fact is that stocks are surging for Lockheed Martin, Grumman Northrup and Boeing. This is indeed a global, capitalist arrangement that ultimately benefits the coffers of the wealthy. Endless war, chaos, terrorism and state violence are, to put it bluntly, a boon.
The escalation this time may signify a new level of madness. Thanks to unhinged psychopaths like John Bolton who is back in a position of power, and the generals of the military industrial complex, we are being led down a path that could easily begin a world war with other nuclear armed powers. We’ve been down this road recently with North Korea, so we should not downplay that grim fact because it really could quite literally spell out the final chapter for civilization at any given moment.
So should we be angered? Yes. Surprised? No. While the powerful have never once tried to hide their crimes from us, they would prefer that we forget them. They would like us to pretend that their hypocrisy and selective outrage makes perfect sense. So the choice is really quite simple. We can either continue playing along in this bloody theatre of the absurd or stop being played for fools once and for all.
Kenn Orphan, 14 April, 2018
Indeed, the US has always been supremely authoritarian but it is rapidly slipping into outright fascism with each passing day. Military analysts and generals are running the show behind the scenes of the narcissist in the Oval Office and are salivating at the next geopolitical assault (see quagmire) be it against Iran, North Korea, Venezuela or even Russia or China, all while a complex police state has been meticulously constructed domestically.
It is an empire where the ruling class create a narrative to serve the purpose of maintaining their power while they continue to hack through what is left of the rag we call a social safety net and fill their already bloated private coffers with stolen public coin. And it enforces it all through coercion, intimidation, marginalization and violence, both at home and abroad. This is why social movements cannot have real success if they are largely generated and sustained by members of the elite or the establishment. They serve only as an illusion of agency, not true power; and often end with more terrifying results.
It is my sincere hope that many of the young people rising up today make this crucial connection and the #NeverAgain movement will grow to encompass US militarism, the prison/surveillance/police industrial complex and systemic economic inequality, because the failure to do so will only speed them toward an even more terrifying totalitarianism within a deeply unequal and warrior society neutered of its political agency and chomping at the bit for more war and a militarized world. But they will need to do this quickly. This isn’t simply a march for their lives; it is a stampede against time for us all.
Kenn Orphan, 26 March 2018
“One can have Fascism come in any form at all, through the Church, through sex, through social welfare, through state conservatism, through organized medicine, the FBI, the Pentagon. Fascism is not a philosophy but a murderous mode of deadening reality by smothering it with lies.” – Norman Mailer
“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction and the distinction between true and false no longer exist.” – Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism
Fascism can be a difficult concept to understand. The word often conjures up images of Hitler and Mussolini, but this narrow understanding can be deceptive since fascist thinking can occur and rise within any society or among the ranks of practically any ideological following. This is because fascism is not really an ideology itself but more a collection of reactionary and cynical beliefs. It has become a popular pejorative hurled from many corners of society today; but the true danger is that its shadows haunts the precincts of every human heart.
Fascism in any given country will not look exactly like the German or Italian fascism of the 1930s. Swastikas and salutes are lightening rods for scorn. In truth, it is a subtle mindset which arises within a society as a seemingly familiar creature. It uses a nation’s symbols, songs and institutions, and it generally targets the young and those who see their privilege or status imperiled. It envelops itself in a skin of familiarity, and that’s what makes it so insidiously dangerous.
Many of the identifiers of fascism might be familiar to some because historians and those who have survived its horrors have analyzed its character for decades. These include aggressive xenophobia, chauvinism, racial, ethnic or religious supremacism, support for state violence and brutality, rigid belief in traditional (see subservient) roles for women, support for censorship or suppression of dissent, denial of historical atrocities committed by one’s own government, admiration of dictators (foreign and domestic), a general disdain for or open hostility toward diversity, belief in mythic tales that underpin notions of supremacy and a glorious past, and scapegoating and dehumanization of other groups of people for society’s ills.
It is often thought of as a rightwing phenomenon, but it should be understood that there are many elements of the Western “left” which are vulnerable to the fascist mindset. We see this happening today among liberals who fecklessly support the surveillance state apparatus in the form of the FBI and other nefarious governmental agencies because of their loathing of Donald Trump.
It is evident in the Russophobia among them as well. It is undeniable, based upon the above criteria, that Trump has fascistic characteristics; and his unhinged tweets, cabinet appointments and policies reflect this. But liberals may be especially susceptible to propaganda handed down to them from the establishment elite who protect the fragile bubble of privilege in which they are ensconced. It may also be why there aren’t many protests when it comes to America’s imperial war machine or capitalism in general because it simply does not effect most of them directly.
But there are some on the “far left” in the West who, in their justified hatred of American imperialism, show admiration for various authoritarians who happen to buck the imperialist system, or at least the American version of it. And this is done often while absolving or ignoring the documented crimes these regimes commit, from Myanmar to Syria to the Philippines. The far right (now labeled in the en vogue parlance as “alt-right”) has seized on these weaknesses, even attempting to bamboozle some into joining their ranks. But this isn’t anything new. From Hitler’s brown shirts to today’s neo-Nazis, the tactic has always been to focus on the easiest targets for influence, those prone to accept information that confirms their prejudices, bias and base fears. Today is only different in the optics.
This is certainly not an argument in favour of imperialism or their lie of “humanitarian intervention.” It is also not a support for violent militias who commit atrocities or acts of terror against civilians. In fact, my record as an advocate of non-violence in this regard is well known. But I believe this principle must be applied to all instances and to all actors, otherwise it is a worthless position to hold. Given this, it is incongruous to have admiration for any totalitarian leader or regime however charismatic or “anti-imperialist” they might appear.
This has come up in regard to Russian president Vladimir Putin who is sometimes painted as a leftist, an assertion which defies reality. Of course the liberal conspiracies involving Russiagate are mostly ridiculous, but that segment of the “left” which idolizes foreign authoritarians to near sainthood status is equally injudicious and ignores historical facts.
Indeed, today’s Russia is far from the leftist utopia some would like us to believe. The political landscape of post Soviet Russia, which was viciously taken advantage of by American capitalists who sought to infuse the nation with neoliberal policies in the first years, gave rise to an oligarchic system not much different then the current one ruling Washington. By installing Boris Yeltsin, a much loathed dolt with a drinking problem, the Americans created the conditions for the current geopolitical quagmire. Yeltsin, echoing his neocon supporters in the West, opted on whipping up ethnic animosities and invaded impoverished but oil drenched Chechnya, appointing former KGB Lieutenant Colonel Vladimir Putin to conduct the brutal and bloody affair.
In the meantime, a robust fascist strain had arisen within Russian society bolstered by the atmosphere of political confusion, foreign subterfuge, economic disempowerment and geopolitical humiliation following the collapse of the USSR. It asserts itself to this day within a climate of state repression where the LGBT community continues to be persecuted by reactionary elements. But this phenomenon is happening around the world, from India, to the Middle-East and to Europe and beyond. And it manifests in a variety of ways.In India, the rise of Narendra Modi attests to the universality of fascism. The biggest democracy on earth has also seen the terrifying rise of Hindutva nationalism, a supremacist ideology akin to white nationalism in Europe and the US. It should be of no surprise, then, that violence against non-Hindus, women, lower castes and transgender people has exploded. Fascistic regimes routinely employ violence or tacitly encourage it from armed militias and vigilantes. And the brutal occupation of other regions often plays a role by bolstering ideas of militaristic prowess. The occupation of Kashmir is a testament to this.
In Israel, the far right has become emboldened by a decades long military occupation aided by the US and Europe. The ideology of Zionism has led to an apartheid-like system which is undeniably fascistic in its character. And the Palestinians are not the only victims of this. Anti-immigrant sentiment and policies of expulsion have gained popularity. But antisemitism plays a part in this as well. Fascist thought at once loves the idea of the state of Israel while simultaneously loathing Jews, and one can see that play out in rightwing Christian media. Even white supremacist Richard Spencer has jumped on this. On the “far left” there have been troubling instances of antisemitism which only serve to derail Palestinian solidarity by alienating Jewish peace activists.
All around the world fascism is seeing a terrifying resurgence. Indeed, the neoliberal capitalist policies of the late 20th century helped to create conditions favourable to its rise; but climate change, imperialistic wars of exploitation, religious or sectarian extremism and the long legacy of racist colonialism has fueled its ascendancy as well. In the 21st century we, as a species, are faced with its looming specter, a phantom composed of the billions of corpses from mass graves, gulags and interment camps throughout human history. There is no doubt that it must be fought at every turn, but to do so it must first be seen for what it is and where it lurks.
Fascism is a disease of the mind. It is that plain where internal fears meet the external realities of the world we live in. These fears are projected onto that world and react in such a way as to attempt to shut them down; and this is why those with such a mindset find authoritarian figures so appealing. The comfort offered by a black and white world, albeit a false one, replaces the seemingly chaotic randomness of life. Under the rubric of fascistic thought, all ambiguities, context and nuances are conveniently sponged away. The “other,” whether they be foreign, indigenous or simply different, is scapegoated, then dehumanized, then incarcerated, then exterminated. Empathy is slayed. To the organized fascist, confusion is a supreme virtue. Truth is an enemy met with ridicule, then suppression, then death.
As human beings we all hold within us both light and dark and all shades and colours in between. It is true that there are many who commit unconscionable acts of cruelty or wickedness. In fact, many of them hold great power. It is also true that the current global order is predicated upon the ruthless exploitation of billions of people and countless species and the systematic rape of the planet for coin. It is a despotism driven by cupidity and violent domination. Each of us, however, has an agency within that can enable us to step outside of these factors and engage with the world. We possess the power to see beyond our fear. But if we allow fascism to flourish, if we do not push back, it will undoubtedly rob us of that agency and, in turn, rob the world of its very future.
Kenn Orphan, 9 February 2018
Title piece for this article is is entitled “The Weeping Woman” by Pablo Picasso, 1937. It is a painting which reflects his other seminal work “Guernica,” which was a piece on the horror of war and, in particular, the brutal assault by the Luftwaffe on behalf of the fascist dictator Francisco Franco on the titular Basque village during the Second World War.
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 over sized franchise signs scraped the sky in all their 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.
These are the hard truths about America, a “shithole” shrouded 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 hotel hallways or for traffic violations and get away with it. Where investment in military weapons that terrorize the poor in other nations is exponential, but investment in veterans assistance is nil.
And yet despite this dire landscape where inequity is exploding and infrastructure is failing at breakneck speed, the supremacist concept of “American exceptionalism” has bamboozled millions into believing they live in the greatest nation on the planet. A comment I read recently on a rightwing social media page underscores this disconnect from reality and parochialism even when it comes 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/short lifespan/terrible infant and maternal mortality. They should let Trump work to save their sad nation.”
The ignorance about “socialized medicine” is the tragic result of decades of indoctrination by the capitalist class. And, by proxy, the insurance industry, Big Pharma and other lobbies that have done their part to crush single payer, universal care. The result has been ridiculously high infant mortality rates compared with other developed countries, skyrocketing levels of bankruptcy due to medical expenses, and the resurgence of diseases associated with poverty, like hookworm. That some still think of Trump as a saviour is 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 and trials.
As a medical social worker I attempted to assist scores of families and individuals navigate these miseries. 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.
Poverty is an imposed oppression, the byproduct of rampant greed and the bastard child of the capitalist class. 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. 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 the deceptively cruel mantra of positive thinking. One can see this quite clearly in media and entertainment. Any one who is wealthy is cast in an almost deified light while the poor are punchlines, routinely lampooned as “trailer park trash” or demonized as “welfare queens.”
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 the social safety net while they make it easier for them to amass more wealth. By deflecting analysis and criticism of the current order to things like “personal responsibility” they create the conditions of what Sheldon Wolin called “inverted totalitarianism.” In this kind of society 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.” Societal infrastructure and works for the public good are neglected or demolished. Ecosystems are denuded and degraded. And each person becomes an island unto themselves without agency.
History is replete with examples of how this type of framework fails, especially when it is sustained by perpetual war, economic oppression and the destruction of the biosphere. It will eventually break simply due to its dearth of substance and integrity. To be sure, no one knows when this will happen, or how. But we should all tremble before the storm of rage that will rise when it does.
Kenn Orphan, 17 January 2018
“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
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