Author Archives: Kenn Orphan

About Kenn Orphan

Kenn Orphan is a social worker, artist, and human and environmental rights advocate.

Burning Books, Banning Art, and the Persistence of American Puritanism

“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

Bearing Witness

“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.

 

 

Hard Truths and the ‘Indispensable Nation’

“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

The Same Boat

This photo of a horned owl was taken on a beach in Malibu during the catastrophic fires currently devouring huge swaths of California. It had likely taken refuge here from the fires, smoke, heat and strong Santa Ana winds that are fueling them.
The fires in California are still raging largely out of control. At least 31 are confirmed dead, towns have be erased, and over two hundred people are still missing. Only a year ago fires churned up vast areas of Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties. This past summer the Pacific Northwest was ablaze, producing smoke that stretched as far east as Newfoundland and beyond and could be seen from space. But what is so often sidelined or downplayed is the enormous impact disasters like this have on wildlife.
This particular photo has a haunting, even iconic, quality. It is captivating. The owl almost seems to be looking at us inquisitively as if to say “what have you and your kind done to my world?” It is a stark and sobering reminder to us homo sapiens that this planet does not only belong to us, it belongs to a myriad of species, most of whom we shall never see or hear about.
Thanks to human caused climate change, pollution and rampant development, their world is disappearing like ours, but far more rapidly than anyone can imagine. In fact, according to the World Wildlife Fund, wildlife populations have fell an unimaginable 60% globally since 1970. This owl might be the best symbol for the cruelty of this normalized and ignored catastrophe because her eyes reflect the folly of our kind. They seem to show us that despite our enormous hubris, we are all in the same boat, and that boat is on fire and sinking.
Kenn Orphan  November 2018
Photo is by Wally Skalij of the Los Angeles Times, via Getty Images.

The World that is Slipping Away

“Global climate change, over-consumption of natural resources, terror-fueled wars that led to xenophobia—these were our ancestors’ mistakes. Nations were starving to death, and people were being massacred in the thousands by radicals, and do you know what the other nations did?

 They did nothing.

 The second they stopped caring for each other is when they sealed their fate. They closed their borders. Instead of trying to save, they instead sought to preserve what they had left. This forced nations to invade in order to survive, and nuclear weapons no longer became a deterrent but a catalyst, ultimately creating a war that ended their world.” – Courtney Praski, The Seven 

  

Watching what is happening in California is heartbreaking. I lived there half my life and it will always be another home to me. But I was especially sad to hear about the town of Paradise. I had the pleasure of staying there at a friends house years ago. It was a beautiful place full of iconic tall pines and majestic volcanic geo-formations. It has been all but destroyed.

When I lived there I saw the fire season extended, year after year, until it became the entire year. It, like so many other perpetual disasters, has become normalized. But the contributors to it have also been normalized: rampant development eating up chaparral covered mountains and verdant canyons, continued extraction of fossil fuels, no long term plans for mass transit apart from auto. I lived through what I thought were apocalyptic fires where I saw ash falling from the sky like snow under an orange tinted dome, and rings of fire licking the edges of the hillside only a mile from my home. Climate change is writ large across the California landscape.

At least 200,000 people have been ordered to evacuate in California, and there have been at least a dozen deaths. But it was only a year ago fires scorched Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino, killing dozens and leaving scores homeless. Following the fires were the floods that washed more homes, and people, away in waves of mud.

Catastrophic fires churned up vast swaths of the Pacific Northwest this past summer, leaving a thick haze over the continent that rivaled the choking and toxic pollution of Dehli and Beijing. Scores perished in fast, massive blazes in Greece and Portugal this summer at the same time floods were ravaging Kerala, India and West Africa. Recently, storms and floods have lashed and inundated parts of Italy, including Venice, as well as the Middle-East and Gulf States.

For any reasonable person the dire reality of climate change cannot be denied outside of a willfully obtuse and belligerent ignorance. And yet such incredulity persists. It doesn’t help that the president of the US once said it was a Chinese hoax. Indeed, the megalomaniac in the Oval Office took time out of his day to blame California for “mismanagement” and threatened to pull federal funds. Nero himself would not have stooped to such a public display of sadism regarding the suffering of thousands of his own people. But Puerto Rico learned about this callous disregard firsthand over a year ago.

 

Each month opens a new and terrifying chapter in this climate changed world. A new catastrophe to be normalized and then forgotten and a new spike in fascist cruelty that accompanies it all. The job for us then is to refuse to normalize, refuse to forget, and to fight with all we’ve got for the world we see slipping away before us.

Kenn Orphan  November  2018

 

The Power That Must Be Resisted

“We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words.” – Ursula Le Guin

 

When the outright fascist Jair Bolsonaro won the Brazilian presidency in October, it wasn’t just the poor, people of colour, LGBTQ, or indigenous peoples that lost. Indeed, the earth’s weakened biosphere and imperiled climate lost even bigger. The president elect of the world’s 4th largest democracy has vowed to open up vast swaths of the iconic rainforest to multinational logging, cattle, mining and agricultural industries. With this one political victory the world’s ruling capitalist elite saw more dollar signs than in their wildest dreams, and the earth’s “lungs” were given a terminal prognosis.

Bolsonaro’s rise to power bears a strong resemblance to that of Donald Trump, Narendra Modi, Rodrigo Duterte and Viktor Orban. All of them have employed the techniques of classic fascism: demonizing political opponents and the media, rhetoric endorsing violence, stoking chauvinistic nationalism, scapegoating marginalized people. All them possess a disgruntled, demoralized, yet loyal base of supporters, and regularly connect with them through rallies that ridicule or bully those who dissent or disagree from their position. All of them manipulate information to spread confusion, false information or to obfuscate facts. But the most important thing these men share in common is their eagerness to wed corporate and state power, the hallmark of fascist governance. All of them sit atop treasure troves of “exploitable resources” and it is for this reason alone that they are lauded among the global capitalist elite.

Case in point, Bolsonaro received a lavish endorsement from the Wall Street Journal, the essential mouthpiece for the 1%. This should come as no surprise since their primary readership is the moneyed elite whose coffers only stand to burst with more spoils of the earth from this latest political disaster. But there are similar sentiments elsewhere. The financial newspaper Handelsblatt reported that German business leaders are “unfazed” by Bolsonaro’s election and are even “hopeful.”

Even the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), a media outlet that is supposed to be public, had the gall to suggest that this victory might be just what the Canadian economy needs. Of course, this “Canadian economy” is comprised of the wealthy mining and logging sectors alone which have already devastated vast swaths of Central and South America. Indeed, there are scores of multinational companies that must be salivating over the prospect of legalized looting they will be allowed to do under a Bolsonaro government. And they understand that they will likely get a pass for inevitable disasters. Companies like BHP, the Anglo-Australian mining company that is responsible for a massive dam break on the Doce River in 2015 that killed at least 17 people, displaced thousands, and polluted the river and beaches along the Atlantic coast. It was one of biggest environmental disasters in Brazil’s history.

To the 1% Bolsonaro’s sexism, racism and homophobia are a non-issue. His pining for the days of military dictatorship, endorsement of torture, or the slaughter of political opponents aren’t of concern either. On the contrary, these are minor footnotes on their blood soaked ledgers. While they might prefer a more polished figurehead to give inclusive sounding speeches that preserve the status quo of global capitalism with a pleasing face, they are completely fine with an outright fascist at the helm too. Look at the corporate leaders who have met with and gushed over India’s Modi to get an idea how this works. Given this, why would the complete destruction of the Amazon rainforest give them pause? To them this region of astounding biodiversity is a treasure trove of capital investment and extraction.

The Amazon rainforest loses an area the size of Costa Rica every year due to deforestation from the palm oil, soy, logging and beef industries. Illegal extraction activities, too, have defiled river ways and assaulted indigenous peoples on their ancestral lands. Indeed, the neoliberal economic policies of prior governments and championed by the liberal status quo had not prevented the ongoing destruction of the region or protected indigenous peoples. In fact they aided corporations who sought profits over the planet or people. But Bolsonaro stands to step up the carnage and open indigenous lands and areas that are now protected from the incursions of big industry. This will amount to genocide against those who live there and ecocide against the living biosphere itself.

From the Athabasca to Standing Rock to the Niger Delta to the Amazon and beyond, the earth and its peoples are under attack. Those who are leading this assault are without conscience or rationality. They are apathetic to the existential crisis we face as a species because they sincerely believe they can buy their way to higher ground; and they are virtually untouchable by the rule of law which in most cases has been constructed to protect their interests. They are a supranational capitalist class whose power lies in the dictatorship of money. But while they wield great power, they are not all powerful.

As the late Ursula LeGuin reminded us, “any power can be resisted,” and this truth is no more urgent to understand and take hold of than at this moment in history. But resistance cannot come from the status quo establishment. After all, this is the same machine that produced fascists like Trump and Bolsonaro in the first place. Resistance must be radical and it must be global because, given the circumstances and our collective predicament, only a radical paradigm shift offers a chance of creating a different world than the dystopic one we are seeing unfold before us.

 

Kenn Orphan   November, 2018

The Legacy of Emmett Till

“Emmett Till’s death was an extreme example of the logic of America’s national racial caste system. To look beneath the surface of these facts is to ask ourselves what our relationship is today to the legacies of that caste system – legacies that still end the lives of young African Americans for no reason other than the color of their American skin and the content of our national character. Recall that Faulkner, asked to comment on the Till case when he was sober, responded, ‘If we in America have reached the point in our desperate culture where we must murder children, no matter for what reason or what color, we don’t deserve to survive and probably won’t.’ Ask yourself whether America’s predicament is really so different now.” – Timothy B. Tyson,  The Blood of Emmett Till

Recently in Brooklyn, New York, a white woman, Teresa Klein, accused a 9 year old black boy of “groping” her in a deli. She called the police, but surveillance video proved this claim to be false. The boy, Jeremiah Harvey, was left shattered and in tears by the incident. I couldn’t help but be reminded of another instance like this that proved far more tragic. In 1955, a false accusation of sexual assault led to the brutal murder of Emmett Till, a 14 year old black boy in Mississippi.

 

It was the Jim Crow south and his accuser was a white woman who claimed Emmett whistled at her, grabbed her hand, made sexual innuendos and shouted 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 a racist white America. It is highly doubtful he would have even approached this woman. 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 horrendous fate was linked to hundreds of years of racist oppression. But this was just a little over 60 years ago and his accuser is still alive.

Emmet Till was the victim of a culture of entrenched racist cruelty. The mob that tortured, murdered and then mutilated his body had no problem viewing black children as adults and intrinsically guilty of being a sexual or existential threat to the dominant white society. Thousands of black, brown and indigenous people, and some whites, were hanged or burned alive at events that were publicized, photographed and well attended. Postcards and popcorn were even sold to the ghoulish onlookers who sometimes took home body parts as souvenirs. It is worth noting that the last officially documented lynching took place in 1981 in Alabama, not even 40 years ago. But if could be said that the brutal murder of James Byrd, Jr. in 1998 qualified as a lynching, and there are several other modern examples.

 

The lynch mobs of the post-Civil War era in the US were a form of organized terror, not too unlike the genocidal gangs of colonial settlers who exterminated or ethnically cleansed much America’s indigenous population. But the phenomenon differed in that most cases involved a white woman accusing a black male of sexual assault or rape. For centuries racial stereotypes permeated the American consciousness. But following Reconstruction, ever more insidious myths were circulated among a demoralized white majority. They conditioned an entire society to view black people as devious and savage. Black males, in particular, were cast as threats to the so-called purity of white women. This was exemplified in the notorious film “Birth of a Nation” which was shown in Woodrow Wilson’s White House to much praise. The “brute” moniker was a pejorative term that dehumanized black men as threats and was common over a century ago. It has evolved into the use of the word “thug.”

Today the legacy of America’s racist beginnings can be seen in its institutions that carry out a modern day version of lynching in the form of harassment, incarceration and police brutality. Children like Tamir Rice are among the victims of a system that justifies this continued violence in the name of public safety. It should come as no surprise, then, that Teresa Klein called the police after her spurious claim in a New York deli. She was confident of her social position and, after all, why shouldn’t she be? We have seen several instances of this recently in viral videos capturing white people claiming to be victims while making frantic 911 calls on others for the crime of existing while black. Seldom, if ever, do these people face real consequences save being called out on social media, despite the fact that they are literally putting more black or brown bodies in harms way for nothing. Consciously or not, these individuals are maintaining a caste system built through violence that has existed long before the formation of the republic itself.

 

Noting that American policing was, at least in part, rooted in the legacy of slave patrols, it is worth reflecting on how it has evolved since. Under a capitalist system the police function primarily as the protectors of private property. As the dispossession of Native Americans from their ancestral lands and the African Slave Trade were both key factors in the economic growth of the United States, it is important to understand that throughout its 242 year history, and long before, the ruling class in America enshrined white supremacy into its governance. Prior to 1856 only landowning, white men could vote, approximately 6% of the population at the time. So it is easy to understand how this history has informed the culture to this day.

 

Today’s spate of viral videos showing, in many cases, unhinged white fragility at the mere existence of free black people in their presence is a reflection of a broader and generalized angst over a perceived loss of power, privilege and social control. And with a president who has employed racist canards, demonized immigrants, transgender people and Muslims, and has routinely dehumanized people of color, it isn’t too difficult to understand how this persistent strain within American society has been emboldened once again.

 

Emmett Till still haunts the American consciousness. His torn face is emblematic of the racist strain that still runs deep in the culture. The photographs of his mutilated body show a boy chewed up by a violent culture of entrenched privilege, class repression and virulent social hatred. He was photographed in the coffin that he was laid to rest in at his mother’s request, and we should be forever grateful to her for what must have been the most difficult decision of her life. Because with that one act, she showed the country what it truly was.

 

Kenn Orphan  24, October 2018

Newsfeed Takeaways

Been away from social media for a bit and I have purposefully distanced myself from news in general, but here are my newsfeed takeaways for anyone interested:

‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ isn’t just a terrifying fiction after all. It looks like an unfolding reality in the US where Roe v Wade will soon be a distant memory and patriarchy will assert itself once again. Will people soon be fleeing for the northern border?

Apparently white, hetero, Christian men are “feeling scared” now for some reason according to a few (mostly rich, powerful and privileged) white, hetero, Christian men. I mean seriously?

War is really permanent. No, really. It is. The industry just won’t let it die thanks to booming (no pun intended) profits for Lockheed Martin, Northrup Grumman, Bectel and Halliburton and the distraction, powerlessness and apathy of the vast public. Meanwhile Yemen is facing an imminent genocide.

Migrant children in the US empire are going to be housed in internment camps that are former military bases polluted with radioactive and carcinogenic waste.

The vastly ignored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued yet another “life or death warning” for climate change and the earth’s biosphere that will of course go vastly ignored.

Been good to be absent from all this for a while.

Carry on, be kind, fight fascism and stay human in spite of it all.

 

Kenn Orphan   2018  October

The Power of Language in the Anthropocene

“So we are left with a stark choice: allow climate disruption to change everything about our world, or change pretty much everything about our economy to avoid that fate. But we need to be very clear: because of our decades of collective denial, no gradual, incremental options are now available to us.” – Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate

 

“The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum.” – Noam Chomsky

“We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words.” – Ursula K. Le Guin

 

“Let us wake up, humankind! We’re out of time. We must shake our conscience free of the rapacious capitalism, racism and patriarchy that will only assure our own self-destruction.”  – Berta Cáceres, Indigenous and environmental activist, murdered by a rightwing Honduran death squad.

 

At a certain point reality crashes headlong into toxic naivety. It is inevitable. One can only go on so long in denial before it intrudes. This is also true of societies. As I write, several “unprecedented” deadly hurricanes, typhoons and tropical storms are literally swirling around the world’s oceans. One of them has churned through the Carolinas. But this is a place where analysis of the threat of sea level rise was forbidden by a state determined to erase any public discourse on climate change in deference to its moneyed industries. Another one, the strongest on the planet, has devastated swaths of the Philippines and Hong Kong. On the opposite end of the spectrum wildfires have scorched huge swaths of North America, Greece and Spain and floods have inundated villages from Italy to India. Year after year the broken records and damages pile up, and it is becoming increasingly difficult for even the most irrational or dimwitted to ignore the unfolding climate chaos. Yet still the language of the Anthropocene remains a convoluted mess of obscurantism and outright denial.

For those living on the margins of empire no statement can be too exaggerated when it comes to the existential threats they are facing. Along with climate change they are on the frontlines of a war waged against them by the forces of capital. Along sacred rivers in the American Dakotas, in the life drenched rain forests of Ecuador, Peru and Brazil, the poisoned wetlands of the Athabasca, the unforgiving, mineral rich deserts of Western Sahara and Afghanistan, the melting tundra of the Arctic circle, the carcinogenic corridors of the American Midwest, the sun baked Niger Delta, the sullied waters of the Flint River, and in the misery laden, blockaded and besieged shanty’s of Kolkata, Manilla and beyond, battles are raging against the poor and time is running out.

 

These are the forgotten of the earth. The ones whose lives or struggles don’t register in a corporate press beholden to profits and enamored by spectacle. Their tragedies, though measured in the hundreds of thousands if not more, don’t spur hashtag movements, or generate round the clock coverage on network and cable news, or even cause the Eiffel Tower to dim. Facebook doesn’t have an option for safety check ins on these kinds of catastrophes either. Their poisoned fields, flooded villages and dried out crops pass away to more scintillating news about salacious celebrities or idiotic tweets from the bloated narcissist in the Oval Office. But they are the first victims of climate change and the merciless cupidity of the global capitalist class. The 1% whose corporations ransack and pillage the world leaving countless bodies and shattered communities in their wake.

 

In their quest to maintain and indefinitely grow their coffers, they see all of these unfolding and looming catastrophes as economic opportunities. And if they do not employ think tanks to muddy the waters of public discourse with outright denialism, they use obscurantist language designed to rationalize the unfettered exploitation of capital. Dissolving ice caps are a strategic option for geopolitical and business advancement. Atmospheric warming gases are the chance to advance a scheme of carbon trading. Hunger and famine are economic and technological opportunities to litter the world with more profitable pesticides, chemically/genetically altered food, or factory farms. Flattened woodlands and fouled rivers become excuses for moving indigenous peoples into overcrowded, cordoned off corporate colonies for easier exploitation, social control, neglect and abandonment. They see the resulting unrest and political dissatisfaction as opportunities for technological advances in surveillance and security, selling arms and weapons to any faction or regime that is interested and can pay.

 

Sometimes it may be difficult to identify who they really are. And to some extent, we are all complicit in the destruction of the earth’s habitat, especially those of us in the global north. But we have been conditioned to perceive our world by the dominant culture of our time; and that culture is undeniably defined by the forces of capital. Historically, language has always served as a means for social control. Colonized indigenous peoples understand this all too well. One of the first actions by colonizers was to erase indigenous history. The next was to erase the language.

 

Today the 1% have imposed a culture of obfuscation and use language that is intentionally duplicitous. This isn’t that difficult to grasp when we are reminded that only a handful of corporations control at least 90% of the media. Their technicians are peddlers of meaningless, alienating or demoralizing jargon. And they are integrated into the highest precincts of power. The Pentagon and the Department of Defense have long dictated Hollywood propaganda, but now social media has emerged and taken it to a whole other level. Its algorithms are designed to prick neuro-signals that enable social control and conformity. It has been a boon to the surveillance state. In the meantime a parlance of pale, placating euphemisms numbs us to our own oblivion. And it is done with such staggering precision and ease that it has become ever more difficult to decipher and parse.  But in the end not even the most viral of memes or clever of hashtags will be able to eternally hide atrocity or cloak the stench of a dying world.

 

While there are cracks in the façade, the zeitgeist of the era still demands a kind of militant optimism and the denial of reality. One can see this in a simple test. Mention the words ‘climate change’ in the comment section of a report on a hurricane or wildfire on almost any mainstream news page and you will see a flurry of laugh emojis and comments of ridicule. Such coordinated assaults on reason have the fingerprints of denialist think tanks like The Heartland Institute all over it. But even many self-described progressives perpetuate a language that denies the lived reality of millions of people or pose solutions that do nothing to dislodge the failed and utterly corrupt capitalist paradigm. They insist on political solutions, even pseudo-socialist ones, within a bipartisan framework that has proven to be a sham. And how has this helped anyone? In the US most live in state of perpetual stress and distraction. Distracted by the demands of work, shrinking social safety nets and a political landscape that has merged with mass entertainment, the corporate surveillance state keeps the masses in line by neutralizing public opinion, policing thought and censoring dialogue. Many live in states that are destined to experience more and more catastrophic flooding or prolonged and entrenched drought thanks to climate change.

 

Hyperbolic? Perhaps to some. But in the global south, which often includes areas inside Western nations, dystopia is now. They inhabit capitalism’s sacrifice zones, places where ruthless exploitation, destruction and abandonment are considered acceptable. For them water is already scarce, food is already insecure, addiction is already an epidemic, cancer and other diseases are already the norm, and their homes are already sinking beneath the tide. They understand that denialism, false hope and language that cloaks reality only perpetuate the misery and maintains the status quo death march to extinction. They have taught us all how we must dissent to the madness of the Anthropocene. Thanks to centuries of massacre, exploitation and having their histories rewritten, from Chiapas to Sápmi, they have responded by nourishing solidarity and resistance. They have demonstrated to us that agency rests in a relentless drive to push back, build economies independent of the “free market,” foster independent media and journalism, create representative forms of governance despite cynicism, stand united against the violence of the state against the odds, paint murals that reflect the people’s history and speak in a language that boldly defies the ruling class narrative.

 

As a species we have either created, permitted or have been oppressed by an order that has been threatening our collective demise for decades in what amounts to a mere blip of geologic time. Indeed, it is this order that has already sentenced countless species to the halls of extinction, carpet bombed millions over the last century, justified slavery, devastated verdant regions, and enslaved millions of people around the world in for profit prisons, sweatshop fire traps, pesticide ridden fields and lung choking mines. But we should understand that the language of this era is no accident. It has been carefully crafted by the forces of capital to control the dominant narrative, condition our thinking, and dictate how we will act. It is designed to keep us distracted while they keep up their pillage. The beginning of dissent and resistance, then, lies in learning a different tongue.

 

Kenn Orphan   September 2018

American Militarism, a Bipartisan Affair

“I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today, my own government.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

“As societies grow decadent, the language grows decadent, too. Words are used to disguise, not to illuminate, action: you liberate a city by destroying it. Words are to confuse, so that at election time people will solemnly vote against their own interests.” – Gore Vidal

“A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

On August 25 the American senior Senator John McCain succumbed to a brain tumor; and the US media exploded in unbridled praise. He was lauded as a “war hero” in the paper of record and there has been a seemingly endless stream of tributes since on social media and on network cable news. What was perhaps more telling was the outpouring of grief among liberals. McCain represented to them a sort of bulwark against their arch nemesis Donald Trump. Without a doubt McCain’s sparring with the megalomaniacal liar in the Oval Office made headlines almost weekly. But it was the surreal erasure of public memory that was overwhelming.

McCain came from the ruling class. His great, great grandfather, William Alexander McCain, owned slaves on a cotton plantation in Mississippi. Both his grandfather and father were admirals and had a record of advocating for American military expansion. But John McCain’s foray into war mongering began when he bombed civilian targets in Vietnam, a crime under international law since Nuremburg. Following the war McCain chose the route of militarism and for that he was given an exalted position among the elite in American Empire. Others, like Phil Berrigan and Howard Zinn, who shared similar experiences chose to face the reality of America’s imperialistic war machine and were largely marginalized from the mainstream because of it.

McCain’s death has inadvertently torn the veil off of American supremacy. Americans, both liberal and conservative, shared memes drenched in patriotic colours and accolades for the deceased politician and chided those of us who dared question the Senator’s well documented history of war mongering and viciousness. Yet unsurprisingly, few of these same people appeared to raise an eyebrow over the recent Saudi slaughter of dozens of Yemeni boys on a school bus by a US made bomb. McCain lobbied hard for that war too.

We have seen this adoration before, and very recently. After all, what becomes of a man who started a war based upon lies that killed thousands, displaced millions, and destabilized an entire region, decimated civil liberties with sweeping powers granted to government surveillance agencies, instituted torture programs and rounded up scores of innocent people in secret raids sending them to wither away in a gulag in the Caribbean, left thousands of his citizens to languish in disease infested flood waters in the Gulf Coast following a major hurricane, gutted environmental regulations in favour of industry, and created the predatory and neoliberal economic conditions that led to the “Great Recession?” Apparently, if you are a former US President you get transfigured into saint.

Like a bad penny, this past year has seen the curious resurfacing of George W. Bush in public life. It seemed that overnight a war criminal had been miraculously transformed into a lovable “senior statesman;” a granddad who paints delightful pictures of world leaders and gives “inspiring” speeches against bigotry. Bush, like practically all of the ruling political class in Washington, should have been brought before the International Criminal Court in the Hague for his crimes against humanity and the living planet. But as a response to the mendacious, sexist, racist behaviour and policies of Donald Trump, and with the assistance of a corporate media which delights in collective, cultural amnesia, many establishment liberals have been pining for a time that never was.

When one understands the machinations of American political power and its ruling class it isn’t all that strange. Mythology dominates the American psyche. This kind of unreality fuels the engine of American bellicosity on the world stage. “Exceptionalism” and an idea of America being an “indispensable nation” are common themes. No one dares question the supremacist character of such beliefs because they are bipartisan, through and through. Militarism underpins it all because it is the most popular religion of the empire. Any American sporting event demonstrates this blind devotion in spades. Yet at home its veterans sleep on the streets and struggle with PTSD and neglect. With a failing VA, Go Fund Me has become their healthcare system along with millions of other Americans.

The Obama administration, too, is pined for even among the conservative elite. After all, while bailing out Wall Street and the banks, his administration expanded the wars and forgave the torturers of the previous administration. He dropped over 26,000 bombs in seven Muslim majority countries, assassinated a 16 year old US citizen without due process, drone bombed wedding parties and ambulances and supported a rightwing coup in Honduras which has helped exacerbate a massive migration crisis. This is all par for the course of the American ruling class. Lockheed Martin and Northrup Grumman could not be more pleased. To them as well as many ordinary Americans, foreign lives simply do not matter much, if they matter at all. And after veterans serve their usefulness, they are generally cast aside lest their hidden and festering wounds reveal the fruitlessness of imperialistic war.

But today liberals are united in a fight against Donald Trump at all costs. Indeed, he is a living dumpster fire of grotesque vulgarity and mendacity who has surrounded himself with the most malignant people in power today. He has reinvigorated white nationalists, cheered on police brutality, stoked xenophobia, all while bamboozling many in the working class into thinking he cares about their problems. And his foreign policy is so erratic and volatile that it makes one shudder to think he has access to the nuclear codes. He and his administration must be opposed. Yet without recognizing the larger picture of empire and how it works, or how the ruling class still reigns supreme, Americans will continue to canonize their war criminals and support a bipartisan death machine that has caused untold misery for decades.

The Civil Rights veteran and Senator John Lewis recently said John McCain was a “warrior for peace.” Orwellian doublespeak that defies all logic. Aside from his overt racism (“I hated the g**ks,” a comment made long after the war was over which he never apologized for, or his vicious fight to stop an MLK holiday, or his stealing water rights from the Navajo, or his multiple defenses of apartheid South Africa), McCain enthusiastically supported and championed every single war of American Empire. After Vietnam he campaigned for bombing Cambodia, then Kosovo, then the Middle-East, culminating with the invasion of Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. Now those last three countries are in ruins and slavery has made a disturbing comeback in Northern Africa. He even said he would be fine with US soldiers occupying Iraq “for 100 years.” He joked about bombing Iran, something not uncommon among America’s ruling class, and lobbied for that privilege hard. Thankfully he never got to see that one pan out.

All of this has been lost down the bipartisan memory hole in its unfettered adoration of the myth of American militarism. A “warrior for peace?” Such historical revisionism and cruel indifference to the incalculable suffering caused by American militaristic aggression is a hallmark of a bipartisan ruling class. It’s what Martin Luther King, Jr. realized at the end of his short life. And it is all of this, and the failure to face squarely its well decorated, distinguished and odious demons, that continues to lead it toward the spiritual doom he warned us about.

Kenn Orphan   August 2018