The Real World

                 “You must love nature,” she said as she passed; a stranger noticing me picking up the careless refuse dropped by another who apparently doesn’t.  Her comment strikes me as a somewhat absurd but common sentiment, and it stays with me throughout my hike. Industrial society seems to easily compartmentalize nature as just another interest or a hobby.

I smile at her as I hastily stuff the discarded plastic water bottles and chip bags into a sack I keep in my back pack, while thinking of the engorged body of a dead seabird I saw dissected by a meticulous biologist right in front of me.  Its stomach contents revealing human detritus of all manner, plastic lighters, bottle caps, pens, even a spoon. There are likely hundreds of millions like this one.  It was a surreal sight only later matched in intensity and horror when watching a video of the dissection of a deceased whale whose belly was bursting with tons of plastic bags and other hard synthetic polymers, or the sight of a deformed tortoise whose shell was strangulated throughout its life by a plastic beverage holder.

My enthusiastic, if not misguided, eco-warrior friend chides me. “We’re gonna clean up the oceans,” he says. If only it were up to him. But my mind drifts to the scale of the problem. It lingers on the seemingly unstoppable production of plastics, the enduring legacy of this Age of Petroleum and an enormous fount of wealth for the industries that harvest the earth’s primordial blood. Its not true that plastic lasts forever, but it persists, it morphs into other insidious forms, and as it breaks down it releases its copious stores of toxicity like a trillion, tiny, slow moving oil spills.

                 I wander further catching a glimpse of a dragonfly bouncing on the air between the suns waning rays. Her iridescent wings so thin they appear gossamer. The wind picks up and she is gone, adrift on the cooling late summer breeze. I think of my friend and his tenacity. I utter a silent prayer to the ether for there to be more like him, but as I wander on I come across another heap of styrofoam fast food containers and beer cans, the residue of effortless revelry, stuffed into the crevice of an ancient rock overlooking the ocean. And the truth of our cultural apathy, born of privilege and convenience, caves in my chest.

Perhaps we have evolved to this disconnection. Perhaps the only possible outcome of industrial civilization is estrangement from the natural world from which we emanate. The character of industrialization is, after all, defined by the brutal rape of the natural world. And like all rapists, this one has only contempt and loathing for his victim. She is the constant reminder of his violent crime. But in some deep recess of his mind he knows that she is in no way dependent on him, quite the contrary. The opposite is true.  And the limits of her beneficence are being recklessly pushed.

I stumble through the gathering orange and rose hued light of the evening to the trailhead. I think about rising seas and the land borne plastics and chemicals that will find their way to the ocean after relentless storms and flooding.  I remember a recent study projecting more plastic than fish in the sea by 2050.  I think about the Sixth Mass Extinction already well underway. About the human warmed world with acidic oceans, dead zones, algae blooms, blighted forests, collapsing ecosystems and besieged biota of all kind. And I realize even the language we use serves to alienate us from the imperiled world we live in.
                The real world is not the world of constructed oblivion where enormous towers of glass and steel conquer nature.  It isn’t even “responsible growth” or “sustainability.”  Those terms only reinforce a culture of estrangement that obscures the living earth in self serving euphemisms that perpetuate mass delusion and self destruction.  The real world is that of beetles, and bats, and mice, and moths, and mold, and trees, and birds, and grass, and sharks, and coyotes, and frogs, and coral, and worms, and moss, and salmon, and ferns, and snakes, and every other imaginable species now threatened with extinction, including our own. It is of obstructed rivers and polluted streams. Of molested mountaintops, developed coastlines, and felled forests.                 The moon begins to silently hum in its detached, pellucid presence above me. Field mice scurry across my path. Crickets begin their nightly serenades of solicitation unconcerned by my intrusion.  Mosquitoes make clandestine landfalls on my exposed arms and head, foolishly underestimating the racket their wings make in such close proximity to my ear drums.  I think once again about what she said, that passerby on the trail.  “You must love nature.”  

I breathe deeply, sigh, and make my way home through the gathering darkness.

~ Kenn Orphan  2017

Trailhead near Prospect, Nova Scotia, by Kenn Orphan:

 

Getting Out ain’t that Easy

Yesterday the Governor of Florida, Rick Scott, delivered an ominous warning.  He said that Hurricane Irma was “the most catastrophic storm the state has ever seen.”  He went on to tell the residents of areas in its crosshairs to “get out.”  Ironically, this is the same man who forbade the mention of the term “climate change” in his administration.   He has also made no effort to fund projects to make the state more capable of dealing with climate change disasters like sea level rise, drought and stronger storms.

Telling people to “get out” is easy.  It has also become terribly easy to ridicule or judge those who do not “get out.”  We saw this during Hurricane Katrina when poor, mostly people of colour, were castigated for not “heeding” the warnings given by local officials.  And we are seeing it once again.  Hurricane Irma is behemoth at 400 miles across. The length of the state is a mere 400 miles or so. Bigger and stronger than any hurricane recorded in the Atlantic. In addition to this there has been little to nothing done by the state (or the federal government) to assist people or adequately address the looming catastrophes associated with human caused global warming.
 
It’s true that there are wealthy people in this region. The media informed us about some of the sprawling island estates owned by billionaires that have been decimated already. But as is the case of many of the Caribbean islands, most of the residents of Florida are not rich by any stretch. I know this state. My parents had lived in Florida for 20 years. I have a brother and his family and several friends who are there now. They work hard, have bills to pay and don’t have second homes to flee to or mansions that can be simply written off.
 
Many are elderly, many are working people, many are immigrants or undocumented people escaping dire circumstances, some are homeless, some are disabled, some are mentally ill, many have children, beloved pets they won’t abandon, and most have enormous debt and little to no healthcare or financial resources. Bearing this in mind, with gas stations closed, supermarkets empty, and the two main arteries in and out of the state clogged, where should they go?  Where would they stay if they did?  How would they pay for all of it? And who will reimburse them? They remember (as we all should) how badly things went after Hurricane Katrina and Sandy. Most of those people are still putting their lives back together with little help from the government services supposedly set up to address the aftermath, all while disaster capitalists profited off the misery.
 
It should go without saying that these people deserve our assistance and solidarity, not self righteous judgement or ridicule. This is especially true for the coming months when the focus of attention will shift from this storm to the next disaster or spectacle. In the coming years to decades most of us will find ourselves in similar situations, as victims of the convergence of a system infested with corporate greed and political corruption and facing the harsh realities of a militarized, resource depleted, climate changed world.

Whether we accept it or not, we are all facing this frightening new world.  And I think its time we face it together.  
Kenn Orphan  2017

While Rome Burns…

          More often than not a photo or work of art captures a moment in history far better than any words can.  I think this one does just that.  It is of a golf course in Oregon during the recent fires that have plunged much of the west into one of the worst disasters in its history.  The players may be oblivious or the fire may not be near enough to them to pose any immediate danger, but it is a striking metaphor for our times nonetheless.
          For years many Americans have been sleepwalking into a climate changed world. It has become common in the culture for scientists to be ridiculed and even persecuted, shattered record after shattered record to be normalized and then forgotten, and the looming catastrophes to be minimized or obscured by political jargon and corporate legalese. It is a bizarre concoction of indifference, privilege and cognitive dissonance.
          Now with the west in flames, the Gulf coast submerged and the east preparing to be pummeled by a monster of a storm it seems that the entrenched obstinance that has been allowed to fester is becoming even more intransigent. And it makes images like this one all the more surreal.
          It is almost like Nero fiddling while Rome burns. Only there are millions of Neros. And this time the whole world is on fire.
~ Kenn Orphan  2017
(Photo credit: Golf Digest via Oregon Live)

Fanatics, Dogma and Disarray

Recently, I had an interesting (see disturbing) back and forth with a self-described Stalinist who told me that if it were up to him I would be “sent to the gulag” for my “bourgeois brand of Trotseyist socialism.”  I had a hearty laugh at the time, but he wasn’t kidding.  Later I thought about the historic, real world implications of that comment.  After all, is a gulag any different than a concentration camp? And is it somehow okay or even funny to suggest sending a human being you dislike or disagree with to a warehouse of misery, torture and death?  Apparently, in the minds of many ideologues, it is.
This person represents a certain mindset.  Despite his protestations, when it came down to tactics and ultimate goals he bore very little discernible difference from a Nazi or a fascist.  In fact the course of our “discussion” took on the same tone.  Given the current social and political climate I do not think it is hyperbolic to be concerned by this attitude.   And the previous century is certainly a cautionary tale on the dangers inherent to purist ideas and “isms.”
Human history has been drenched in oceans of blood shed for the sake of purist dogma and buried under mountains of corpses for the supposed righteousness of an idea.  All manner of atrocities have been justified and, in many cases, celebrated for the sake of religious beliefs, “national security interests,” greed and material profit, to “protect” the public or society from a perceived menace, or for political ideologies which purport to be the answer to all our problems.
Being a human being in community, however, is a messy business.  It requires patience, a willingness to listen, and the arduous bridge building work of solidarity.  But the fervid ideologue cannot countenance such disarray, at least not for very long.  To them it is not about cooperation, movement building, or respecting the inherent worth of all human beings.  It is about achieving an end.  And, ultimately, about control and power.
We are entering a troubled age of rapidly dwindling resources, chaotic and catastrophic weather, and an imperiled biosphere coupled with seemingly perpetual militaristic aggression, corporate greed and a growing global police state.  Now more than ever we need radical ideas and a massive paradigm shift in the way we see the world and live in it.  But this makes the discomfort of fanatics even more troubling.  It isn’t simply these monumental challenges we all face or the change that is needed that bothers them, but the flawed, fragile and tangled nature of being human itself.  As a result they are often drawn toward despots and their savage solutions.
But a dire warning to all who encounter or who may be swayed by such zealots:  Be cautious of the utopia they promise.  Because it may very well be built upon a mass grave that will one day contain your bones.

Kenn Orphan  2017

 

Title painting is by Ukrainian artist Nikolai Getman who survived one of the USSR’s gulags thanks to his talent at illustration.

Beware the Witch Hunter

“I am against justice … whenever it is carried out by a mob.” – Mokokoma Mokhonoana

Most of us have seen this happen.   The old smear train tears through social media with nary a warning. Its rallying cries are generally unoriginal.  It is a simple recipe of character assassination, hearsay, bigotry, exaggeration, dehumanization, pettiness, hyperbole, misrepresentation and prejudice.  It’s seldom surprising, but always devastating for the target and anyone else in its wake.

 

Social media is prime terrain for these kinds of reckless ventures.  Its algorithms are honed to deliver pleasure inducing neurochemicals like dopamine and adrenaline as a reward for manufactured scandal. The fact that most of the witch hunters often do not even know the targeted individual or members of a maligned group lends it to enjoying an even greater success.  After all, anonymous acts of viciousness are far more easier to carry out and get away with.

 

At their core all witch hunts are emblematic of a deep sense of self loathing.  They are a vestige of puritanical thinking and the byproduct of jealousy and dissatisfaction with ones own life.  This is why they appeal to the sensibilities of the mob.  Carrying torches, real and figurative, that alight some pseudo-sense of self righteousness is a temporary balm for the tortured soul.  For a brief moment, they feel as if they are not alone.  They serve the purpose of momentarily obscuring the disappointments, banality and everyday terrors of life via the frenzied lynching of the other.

To the witch hunter the perceived imperfections of human beings are most often held in contempt. Difference is considered perverse or dangerous. This is reflected in fascist art which so often uses lynch mobs to further its ideology.  While it demonizes its opponents it blots out those characteristics it considers defects in humanity at large.  It uses human weakness and fragility as a bludgeon on anyone it considers strange or deviant.  It inflates a pseudo sense of supremacy while it unites people in cause against some contrived external injustice or existential threat.

 

But buyer of such noxious crusades beware!

 

Witch hunts can entice the unsuspecting by their facade of seeking justice, but they are notoriously mercurial in nature, and frighteningly subject to the ever changing winds of collective paranoia and animus.  Scapegoating becomes an end in and of itself.  And those winds have a tendency to blow toward many torch bearers in an instant, scorching them with the same priggish flames they once thought of as trusted companions.

 

Kenn Orphan 2017

Jellyfish Chips and Making Biosphere Collapse Trendy

In a recent puff piece by National Public Radio (USA), Danish journalist Sidsel Overgaard gushed over an upcoming trend for exuberant foodies: “jellyfish chips.”  Overgaard extolled them as an answer to falling fish stocks and the concomitant explosion of jellyfish blooms around the planet thanks to global warming.  Puerile?  Perhaps.  But the normalization of climate change and our existential crisis has become all too common in recent years.  And the trend to make it profitable is even more disturbing.

It may be a symptom of oversimplification and the pervasive nonsense of an aggressive, irrational and willfully blind optimism; or a byproduct of the corporate mindset and the repressed angst that accompanies late stage capitalism. But the curse of positive thinking has aided in creating huge blind spots that allow us to ignore the impending collapse of the biosphere that sustains us all.  It is not to say that we should all be pessimists of course. Far from it. But ignoring reality or greenwashing it with trendy alternatives will not make the looming catastrophe vanish either.

 

The prevailing and dominant economic model based upon industrial scale consumption and neoliberal (free market) capitalism 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.  Forests and farms have also suffered from insatiable plunder of more profitable timber or the “monoculturing” of crops.

Industrial scale technology fed the all consuming, insatiable monster of global capitalism.  Today all life is being rapidly commodified for fast profit and easy disposal.  But this scale of industry demands the burning of the earth’s deadly, primordial blood and a livable climate can only withstand so much.  Global biodiversity is now in a staggering state of free fall, out doing the speed of the previous five mass extinction events in the earth’s geologic history.  Climate change is wreaking havoc on the world’s oceans.  Acidification, coral bleaching, plastic pollution, dead zones, toxic and radioactive chemicals are all contributing to the mass extinction of scores of fish species and other marine life.  It is a human driven carnage that is off the scale.

 

But don’t worry. According to some enthusiastic foodies we’ll have tons of jellyfish chips to feast on in hip bistros when every other lifeform in the sea is gone forever.

Kenn Orphan  2017

The Willful Blindness of Empire

Last night President Trump vowed to expand the war in Afghanistan.  The longest war in American history, started by George W. Bush (with the help of his father who made preliminary advances in the 20th century) and carefully maintained by Barrack Obama who dropped over 26,000 bombs around the planet in his last year alone.  Afghanistan has been called the “graveyard of all empires” which may be hyperbolic and ignores the enormous suffering Afghans have had to endure after each foreign incursion. But with each passing year that phrase carries more weight.  And as this assailed nation sits atop nearly one trillion US dollars worth of rare earth minerals there is little doubt why the US is there to begin with and why it refuses to leave.
Militarism is essential to empire; but it is also one of its biggest weaknesses.  It exacts a heavy price and takes an enormous toll on the stability and capacity of a government to provide for its citizens.  This is especially true of capitalist societies where profit flows upward to an increasingly smaller group of extremely wealthy people.  The United States which expanded across North America through violent ethnic cleansing, genocide and slave trade economics is no exception to the general course of empire.  And like its forebears it is teetering on a precipice thanks to the convergence of climate change caused chaos, exploitation of finite resources and perpetual war. Join this with rampant corruption, gross social and economic inequities and militarization of the police state and a recipe for collapse is written.
Like so many other empires of history America is walking into calamity and, quite possibly, its quietus with a boastful and willful ignorance.  It ridicules the warnings of its scientists, disregards the just cries of its oppressed, and diminishes the moral imagination of its artists as it elevates its “reality” stars, corporate executives and generals. Most of its citizens are perpetually repressed in a prison of debt and terrified of the costs associated with being sick, injured or incarcerated for a petty crime.
Despite the enormous disdain in which it treats the veterans of its wars, the magicians and high priests of ruthless state capitalism deliver a steady diet of jingoistic nationalism and the lie of “exceptionalism” to the public.  They manufacture new villains and boogeymen, foreign and domestic, for them to project their animus, frustration and alienation.  In this way collective amnesia is induced every time a flag is unfurled.  The empire has little interest in the arts or humanities either.  Those were abandoned a long time ago to be replaced by corporate mass media and pop culture.  And in doing so it has purposefully hollowed out much of the conscience necessary to keep its excesses in check.
In its present form and on its present course America cannot be salvaged.  Nor should it.  Its aim is nothing less than the full scale plunder of the planet via unending war on one side and utter contempt for the consequences on the other.  The same day President Trump announced the expansion of America’s imperial reach he disbanded an advisory council on climate change.  Now even the mitigation of the inevitable, human caused climate catastrophe is off the table.  This should not come as a shock. Belligerent obtuseness to reason is emblematic of late stage capitalism and of empire itself.  It will ultimately be up to ordinary people organizing at the grassroots level to choose how they will respond to its coming fall, but time is running short and there are enormous shocks and challenges coming that will not be addressed by those who govern now.
Irony is most often missed by the powerful.  But on the same day that Trump announced his monstrous plans for Afghanistan it spelled it out across the sky nonetheless.  Stepping out unto the White House balcony he was a visual metaphor for the trajectory of the United States.  Appearing generally uninterested, even doltishly bumptious at the magnitude of this celestial event, he ignored the warning of scientists and stared briefly into the sun’s blinding rays.   And so it goes for the American Empire as it stares arrogantly into a blighted and brutal future, only seeing its own inflated greatness while the searing beams of reality scorch everything else around it to ash.

 

Kenn Orphan  2017

Emblems of Supremacy

The controversy over Confederate war memorials and statues that has ignited protests and a resurgence of violent white nationalism cannot be understood outside of the historical context in which these and other monuments in the United States were erected. Many white Americans are unaware that these were the consequence of coordinated efforts to enshrine white supremacy. They do not exist to preserve history or heritage, but to ensconce the notion of white dominance over previously enslaved or ethnically cleansed groups of people. One way this was achieved was in placing them in gentrified neighbourhoods which displaced local black communities or desecrating the sacred places of native peoples forced off their ancestral lands.

Surges in their construction were seen in the 1910s through 1930s following Reconstruction and a rise of the Ku Klux Klan, and in the 1950s and 60s as a racist answer to the Civil Rights Era. Concurrent with the dedication of many Confederate war memorials were the horrors of lynching and Jim Crow. And there was a coordinated effort to whitewash history in these eras as well. Examples of this include the notoriously racist film “Birth of a Nation” and the puff piece “Gone with the Wind” which sought to cast the Antebellum south in a noble light.

In truth, most statues and monuments in the United States are emblems of white supremacy. Even the much beloved Mount Rushmore is little more than a testament to ethnic cleansing. On it the images of four US presidents were carved into a sacred mountain for the Lakota by Gutzon Borglum, a member of the Ku Klux Klan, from 1927 to 1941. The choice of presidents was no accidental message either. As Ron Way, a former official with the Department of the Interior and National Park Service, put it:

 

“George Washington and Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. Abraham Lincoln famously emancipated slaves, but he supported eradicating Indian tribes from western lands and approved America’s largest-ever mass execution, the hanging of 38 Dakota in Mankato for their alleged crimes in the 1862 war along the Minnesota River. Teddy Roosevelt, in his “The Winning of the West,” wrote: “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of every ten are … .””

 

Many of the monuments we see festooning city parks, on university lawns or looming over government buildings were designed to obscure the people’s record, not enhance our understanding of history. When the Spanish built cathedrals over razed Aztec, Mayan or Inca temples and replaced imagery of native history with statues of Catholic saints and European “explorers” they were sending a clear message of dominance and demoralization to the indigenous population. They understood the ruthless power of erasing a people’s history. Similar actions have been taken all around the world where one group dominates another.

And the same can be said of the many statues that elevate racists, slave owners and military generals to a place of honour dotting the American landscape. They are not remembrances of fallen soldiers, most of whom did not own slaves and were poor, but tributes to the powerful who launched wars and military campaigns of conquest to maintain their ill gotten privilege from coerced labour. They are not a celebration of ethnic heritage, but painful symbols and daily reminders of the brutal oppression people of colour have endured and continue to face under a tenacious, violent and persistent societal racism.

 

Removing statues from parks or university plazas is not burying history, not by a long shot.  It is in fact correcting an egregious and gross misrepresentation of it. The best these emblems of supremacy deserve is placement in museums of tolerance or history where everyone can discuss and critique their impact on society today. As for Mount Rushmore, returning the entire mountain to its rightful owners and letting them decide can be the only just solution.

Kenn Orphan 2017

The Only Answer to Fascism

What happened in Charlottesville this past weekend was more about racist fascism than an alienated white “under class.”  To say such is a smack in the face to the millions of working class whites who struggle side by side with their black and brown counterparts everyday.  They raise each other’s children, share each other’s health costs, weep at each other’s weddings and funerals, all in the fight to survive in capitalism’s cruel game of manufactured competition.

Many of the racists who came to Charlottesville drove in on SUVs from other states wearing Louis Vuitton sunglasses.  They are weak kneed reactionaries emboldened by tiki torches and idiotic speeches by rockstar bigots like Milo Yiannopolis, afraid of losing the ill gotten privilege they enjoy thanks to their skin hue, sexual orientation, gender and religion.  It is true many are saying class warfare had something to do with this and they would be right; but equating the millions of the working class with this kind of raw racism and social hatred is inaccurate and beyond insulting.  And they deserve better than that.
As for the fascism that was on display in that small, college town in Virginia there can be only one answer.  There is no compromise to be made with fascism.  No common ground can be found.  No bridge built.  No excuse made.  For fascism is at its core an ideology of death.  And if it is allowed to flourish, if it is permitted to prevail, it will most assuredly spell out a chapter of misery that will end with our epitaph.  The only answer is a resounding NO!

Kenn Orphan  2017

Dedicated to the courage and memory of Heather Heyer who paid the ultimate price for standing up against racism, social hatred and fascism.  May she rest in peace.

The Day Before Parting

“The Day before Parting” 1862, Jozef Israëls (Dutch, 1824–1911). Oil on Canvas.
Jozef Israëls was a Jewish Dutch artist who became one of the most celebrated artists of the latter half of the 19th century. His art was admired much by Vincent Van Gogh who said of him “in Jozef Israels, the precious pearl, the human soul, is even more in evidence and better expressed, in a noble, worthier, and if you will allow me, more evangelical tone.”

Israëls work was mostly landscapes, but he had a tremendous ability for capturing the most fragile and beautiful features of human suffering and had a particular affinity for the working poor. This painting poignantly shows the grieving widow of a fisherman the day before her husband’s funeral.

Grief is a universal response to the loss of a beloved. But in our times it has become poorly articulated thanks to the alienating culture of consumerism and mass media.  Regardless of this, artists from all generations are drawn to its depicting its expression and honouring the role it has in deepening our experience of love and grace, and its unmatched transformative power.

Kenn Orphan  2017

Dedicated to the memory of my aunt, Elizabeth “Betty” Orphan (4th July, 1927-2nd August, 2017).  You were a star to me, once on earth, now in the sky.  I will always remember the spark you had for living, your “New York” wit and humour, and your embrace of adventure.  You will be deeply missed and forever loved.