A Tale of Two Towers

On March 25, 1911 in New York City a horrific fire swept through the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory killing 146 women, men and children and injuring hundreds more. Most of the victims were women and most were working poor, Jewish and Italian immigrants. They died from the fire, smoke inhalation or by falling or leaping to their deaths to escape the heat and flames. The factory owners had locked the stairwells and exits to prevent workers from taking “unauthorized breaks”, a common practice at the time.

The result of this indescribable tragedy resulted in massive organizing for working people to demand safety codes and measures. It was, in many ways, one of the earliest examples of the regulation of industry.  This was a major accomplishment considering this deadly day happened in the midst of the notorious “Gilded Age.”  The excesses of the wealthy few were flaunted for everyone to see while the poor masses struggled to make ends meet, working 14 hour days and getting paid pennies for their hard labour.

In the years since there have been many other tragedies the world over where the poor, immigrants, people of colour and mostly women have suffered immeasurably from factory or housing fires or related disasters. In almost all cases industry has been let off the hook, allowed to continue its deadly practices at the expense of working people, children, animals and the living earth itself.

Thanks to the “market” dictates of global capitalism austerity, deregulation and the gutting or dismantling of social and physical safety nets has become the norm. Working people and the poor are told they must accept this in order to “grow the economy.” But these lies are as thin as the paper they are written on. And tragic greed-borne catastrophes are their hallmark.

The recent Grenfell Tower fire in London is the sorrowful sister to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. It is a testament to a duplicitous system of exploitation and greed on behalf of the wealthiest .001%. It may be too early to say what exactly caused the horrific fire in this residential tower in London in the early morning hours of 14th June, but it is not too early to say that the working poor, immigrants and people of colour are always disproportionately the victims of such tragedies. Prior to this event there were documented complaints about the “very poor fire safety standards” in the building and the questionable cladding that was apparently put up largely for cosmetic reasons because wealthy residents of the neighbourhood did not like the look of the towers.

The tower stands in Kensington and Chelsea which has one of the starkest divides between extreme wealth and poverty. It is on the Lancaster West Estate which houses poor, multi-ethnic families. As early as last November the Grenfell Action Group warned that “only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord, the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Association, and bring an end to the dangerous living conditions and neglect of health and safety legislation that they inflict upon their tenants and leaseholders.”

We have seen similar incidents around the world where the divides between the uber wealthy and the poor are growing sharper and in areas where real estate is in high demand. In neglected slums of Manila fires are an all too common occurrence. In Mumbai and Bangladesh we have seen this time and time again in sweat shops and shanty towns. The cries of the poor are seldom, if ever, heard. And this is by design.

Global capitalism cannot afford societies built on the values of mutual cooperation or respect of the dignity and inherent worth of all human beings. There is too much profit at stake to even allow this kind of conversation among the wealthy elite. But perhaps this tragedy, much like the one at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on that sorrowful day in NYC, will galvanize us all to challenge and dismantle this system of ruthless barbarity. Perhaps it will be a wake up call for us to begin constructing a world where the dictatorship of money is no longer acceptable.

In a very real sense we are all in that burning tower now and the wealthy and powerful are busy alighting the flames that will burn up the entire planet before our eyes. It is my hope that we will use this horrific and needless tragedy to awaken from our collective slumber and work to build the world that they will not permit. There isn’t much time left and irreparable damage may have already been done.  But we owe it to those who have already been lost to let this be a rallying cry for a revolution of the heart.


My deepest sympathy to the victims and their families.
Kenn Orphan 2017

The Perfect Freedom of a Meadow

Spring is in full bloom here on the coastal barrens of Nova Scotia.  And there are some who would want to neatly mow the grasses of our little meadow. Lawns, after all, have become synonymous with Western notions of how a well appointed home should look. But doing this right now seems savage to me. And our home is far from “well appointed” anyway, being situated within the crux of a nature preserve.

Indeed, Spring has unleashed a fury of colour and variety in our little meadow. And these places have sadly become all too rare in our world. They are often razed and scraped clean of their diversity to be replaced with a mono-crop of one species of grass; and they are frequently beset with life extinguishing pesticides and weed killers. Other times they are cleared to furnish the insatiable needs of urban sprawl. The housing and business industry sees them as great money makers since they are almost always level.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the smell of fresh cut grass and lawns can be fun to roll down or picnic and play badminton on. But there are no shortage of them in this world. And at a time when fragile ecosystems are being devastated at breakneck speed in the service of moneyed interests, I cherish this small piece of paradise beyond what I could ever describe.

I love the way the wind ripples through it as if pebbles were being cast into a still pond. How plump bumblebees bob through the tender reeds like drunken helicopter pilots with too much cargo; or how tiny birds peek through clearings as if negotiating a forest. The colours are truly revealed at sunset with breathtaking simplicity, and in the moonlit nightscape I like to imagine I am sailing through a nebula in search of a new star on a sea of sapphire drenched clouds.

I did mow a couple paths through it so that we can get to the trail, the composting barrel and to walk around and admire the wildflowers beginning to open. But I will likely leave it this way until the August sun dries much of it out. In the meantime I will revel in this sense of perfect freedom a meadow bestows on this humble admirer.

“How does the meadow flower its bloom unfold? Because the lovely little flower is free down to its root, and in that freedom bold.” ~ William Wordsworth


Kenn Orphan  2017

An Ally in Solidarity

“Unframed Histories” by Indian artist Rollie Mukherjee (2013).  Water colour on paper.
          Rollie Mukherjee’s art is intensely focused on the Indian occupation of Kashmir and the resistance to it.  She pays special attention to the women of Kashmir who are the backbone of protest against the violent repression of the occupying Indian military, now numbering between 500, 000 and 700,000. She said that her work is “the very notion of female agency, memory and remembrance as resistance in the context of Kashmir.”  Mukherjee’s art tells the world the story of the suffering of Kashmiris, who have endured rape, forced disappearances and massacres for decades.  It is also meant to awaken ordinary Indians to the injustices being perpetrated in their name by the Indian government and military establishment.
          Here she describes this painting: “Unframed ‘histories’” depicts a Kashmiri woman with a mike. She is not a mute beautiful showpiece as represented quite often. She is a reminder of the horror and wounds they are made to exist with. She is a speaking agency, speaking aloud to the whole world and thus breaks the patterned “way of seeing” of the Indians. The Kashmiri design in this painting acts as a trope for peace and unity on the one hand and on the other hand sneer at how its beauty is relished and their pains are cornered and erased.”
          The occupation of Kashmir is one of the longest of its kind in the world, sharing much in common with the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.  In this way Mukherjee’s art is much like the late Israeli artist Shimon Tzabar; and it stands as a light of hope at a time when the brutality of both instances can be demoralizing and disheartening.  Her passionate reply to tyranny is in humanizing the oppressed; and to do so not as their savior, but as an ally in solidarity.
Kenn Orphan  2017

The Trail of Tears and the Celebration of a White Supremacist

“Trail of Tears”, oil on panel, 1995, by American artist Max D. Standley (1943-2013).
          When Max D. Standley painted this epic painting he said of it: “There was considerable research involved in this, truly the saddest painting I have ever done.”  One can understand why.  It captures a sorrow reminiscent of all similar horrors in history.  It is at once emblematic of the Native American genocide and universal in the plight of all oppressed or marginalized people throughout humanity’s relatively short story.
          This work depicts the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans, including the Cherokee, Muscogee, Seminole, Chickasaw, and Choctaw Nations as well as some black slaves and freedmen, by the United States government from their ancestral lands, beginning with the “Indian Removal Act” passed by the US congress in 1830.  The act was enthusiastically championed and signed by President Andrew Jackson.  At its end nearly 46,000 people were forcibly relocated.
          The Trail of Tears refers specifically to the last act of removal involving the Cherokee Nation, who were expelled from their lands after gold was discovered on them by settlers.  Cherokee society had thrived for centuries in North America in primarily what is now the state of Georgia.  The Cherokee silversmith Sequoyah developed a written alphabet.  They had established schools, built elaborate settlements and by the 19th century printed a newspaper in the Cherokee language.  There was valiant resistance to this expulsion from all the Native American communities and even among Christian missionaries and some white politicians like Daniel Webster and Davy Crockett.  But Jackson and American colonialism prevailed and the Cherokee were forced off their land to make way for white settlers of European ancestry.
          Nearly 15,000 Cherokee were forced to make a perilous journey through the wilderness, with few provisions and under freezing conditions.   They had to leave precious belongings behind, wealth and cultural items later claimed by white settlers.  It is estimated that at least 4000 perished from disease, exposure or malnutrition.
          This dreadful historic event is even more important to remember today.  In the past few months US President Donald Trump has gone out of his way extolling the late Andrew Jackson, going so far as to spend the night at his plantation the Hermitage, to commemorate what would have been his 250th birthday.  Trump said of him: “It was during the revolution that Jackson first confronted and defied an arrogant elite. Does that sound familiar to you?” he asked a crowd of his fans.  “Oh, I know the feeling, Andrew.”   Trump’s version of history is limited at best.  Jackson did defy the aristocratic elite of his time.  But unlike Trump he came from rather humble beginnings relatively speaking.  He was not the heir of a multi-million dollar fortune.  But all this belies what Trump and Jackson share.  Like Trump, Jackson aspired only to rule as one of the elitists that he so deeply loathed, in that he acquired his wealth and power through much the same way, via exploitation, cruelty and greed.   He simultaneously despised the aristocracy and was a part of it.
          Jackson owned hundreds of slaves, not uncommon for white, male landowners of his time; but enforced a brutal system of loyalty through violent punishment.  He also favoured war and militarism over diplomacy and cooperation, invading Spanish Florida in an effort to re-capture runaway slaves and expel the Seminoles from their ancestral land.   And he committed what would today be considered war crimes, encouraging militias to kill not only Native American warriors, but to exterminate women and children as well.   He was the founder of the modern day Democratic Party (1828) demonstrating that war mongering and white supremacy are bipartisan values.  Outside of the supremacist myths of “American Exceptionalism” and “Manifest Destiny” Jackson deserves to be remembered only as a despot who championed ethnic cleansing and passionately defended and benefited from the institution of slavery.

          After these first 100 days one can see why Trump revels in his legacy.  Like Jackson, Trump sees himself as a populist defending beleaguered white working men against hordes of those whom they falsely believe are the source of all their misery and demoralization.  Trump purged many government agencies of staffers just like Jackson did, only to replace them with loyal supporters.  He promotes a worldview that celebrates hypermasculine militarism, even going so far as to advocate killing the families of suspected terrorists.   His reckless penchant for war in place of diplomacy is in alignment with Jackson’s legendary blood lust.  He has showed no hesitation in robbing Native Americans of even more of their land to create “jobs,” a code word for the empowerment of white men exclusively.


          The Trail of Tears is Jackson’s most damning legacy and one of countless cruel chapters of colonialism which many would like forgotten.   Celebrating one of its main architects only mocks the dead and displaced, and dishonours their descendants.   But it does provide us one crucial insight.   It shows us how Donald Trump sees the world and its people.
Kenn Orphan  2017

The Insatiable Lust for Plunder

“Rocky Mountain Landscape” by Albert Bierstadt (January 7, 1830 – February 18, 1902), oil on canvas.

Like many of his colleagues Albert Bierstadt was captivated and awed by the beauty of the North American continent. He painted grand and sweeping scenes of the American west at a time when little was known about it to European Americans except in rumour.  His use of light and space thrusts us into the sphere of the transcendent splendor of nature and its power.

Of course Native Americans knew of this beauty for many centuries prior to colonialism. They revered it as sacred, and understood that human beings and nature were not separate entities but were one in the same whose identity and destiny were inextricably linked.  Today much of that land has be despoiled or is imperiled by industry and development.  Protected areas are increasingly hemmed in by the interests of corporations, petroleum companies and mining, creating islands of besieged wildlife.

The battle for these last remaining lands has never ceased.  The capitalist robber barons of the 21st century have never sated their lust for plunder, and Donald Trump’s executive order attempting to rescind national monuments is a living example of that sad fact.  One might wonder what someone like Bierstadt, or his contemporaries in the Hudson River School, would have thought about the reckless and insane drive to rid the continent of its last remaining sanctuaries for wildlife.  But looking at this painting it isn’t too difficult to imagine the sorrow he would have felt.


Kenn Orphan  2917

Flirting with the Fires of Hell

“It is such a supreme folly to believe that nuclear weapons are deadly only if they’re used. The fact that they exist at all, their presence in our lives, will wreak more havoc than we can begin to fathom. Nuclear weapons pervade our thinking. Control our behavior. Administer our societies. Inform our dreams. They bury themselves like meat hooks deep in the base of our brains. They are purveyors of madness. They are the ultimate colonizer. Whiter than any white man that ever lived. The very heart of whiteness.” – Arundhati Roy


With tensions rising around the world thanks to Donald Trump’s escalation of militarism, and US warships being sent to the Sea of Japan, there are many who are jittery about the potential of a confrontation involving chemical weapons or worse, a nuclear incident between North Korea and the US.  There is reason to be.  A narcissistic megalomaniac with the moral intelligence of a tsetse fly is seated on the throne of the American Empire.  With one unhinged tweet the world could be plunged into instant misery.  And North Korea is a paranoid authoritarian regime which has elevated the worship of the State to an art form.  It has recently unveiled what appear to be new weapons,  and it is widely known to possess nuclear weapons.  

Nuclear weapons are arguably the most totally destructive weapon ever conceived of by our species.   Even now, years after the Cold War ended, they continue to menace our world with irreversible and utter devastation.  But there has been only one nation on the planet which has actually detonated not one but two nuclear bombs on two cities, incinerating thousands of civilians in a micro-second and killing nearly 130,000 women, children and men.  The United States did this in spite of evidence that Japan was already in ruins and was perhaps ready to surrender.  Borrowing tactics from other imperial entities in history, it was most likely an effort to send a message  of dominance to another rising power, Soviet Russia.
At its heart the nature of empire is to see itself as noble.   Edward Said observed: “Every empire, however, tells itself and the world that it is unlike all other empires, that its mission is not to plunder and control but to educate and liberate.”  Said understood that the role of these myths were to obscure its supremacist character.  Its atrocities can always be justified via empty slogans like “freedom” and “democracy,” or the lie of “humanitarian military intervention.”   The disease of nationalism convinces the public of its virtuous intentions.  And “the nationalist”, as George Orwell noted: not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them.”

In the years following the second world war the United States launched an aggressive assault on the Korean peninsula completely leveling Pyongyang in a war that took the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, mostly civilians.  The growing American super power also tested its nukes out on the once pristine Marshall Islands and its indigenous population in the Pacific, forever poisoning the land and causing untold misery for generations.  It exposed its own soldiers and citizens to the detrimental effects of radiation from nuclear tests in the Nevada desert from 1951 and 1957.  It dropped napalm and Agent Orange on Southeast Asia, and carpet bombed entire regions.  During the Gulf War in the 1990s the US exposed hundreds of thousands of soldiers to nerve gas which continues to cause suffering today.  More recently the Pentagon has admitted that it used depleted uranium in Iraq and Syria, causing horrific birth defects and cancer.  It did all of this with the noblest of intentions, or so we have been told.

Of course the United States is not the only nation to have committed large scale atrocities.  Imperial Japan was brutal and ruthless, and Nazi Germany was a genocidal monster.  Stalinist Russia had its own brand of cruel repression and mass murder, and the history of European colonialism is drenched in the blood of millions.  Indeed, small nations too have committed barbarous acts of savagery often with the blessing of super powers like the US, Europe or Russia.  With all of this in mind one must ask what moral leg any government has to stand upon when it comes to making the world safe or bringing peace?  How can any one of them be trusted with sweeping military power?  Are we really expected to believe that in this day and age any of them have the best of intentions when they use such powers?

Arguably, in terms of global violence it is the American Empire which is leading the way today.   Indeed, under Obama and Trump  it has excelled when it comes to nuclear proliferation in the first half of the 21st century.   It justifies all of this with the same old canards about the need for an effective deterrence against the threat of “rogue states” or terrorism.  But to accept this line of thinking is deny these documented crimes of Empire, and to deny that war itself is terrorism and nuclear bombs are its supreme expression.
It has been seventy two years since those bombings in Japan.  Seventy two years of forgetting the horror.  Seventy two years of normalizing the inhumanity.  Seventy two years of nation states, big and small, creating newer, more fearsome, more cruel and more totally annihilating weapons, with the most powerful one of all leading the pack in this mad journey toward oblivion.  But in those seventy two years very little has been learned from those hateful skies about building a just and peaceful world, or from the shadows of human ghosts cast from them onto the unforgiving pavement.  Their shadows are a haunting reminder to all of us of the preciousness and fragility of all life.
As the Empire flirts with the fires of hell once again, may those ghosts have mercy on the rest of us.  And may they forgive us for ignoring their silent warning.
Kenn Orphan  2017

 Addendum:  I wanted to add something personal to this article.  My father was in the US Navy during the second world war, and was scheduled to be deployed to Japan just before the bombing of Hiroshima. So I did not write this with flippancy. If he had been deployed I may not have been born.  But I rarely entertain hypothetical arguments, especially when real flesh and blood human beings have been killed.  And I cannot rationalize incinerating hundreds of thousands of civilians for a theory that it might have saved millions.  To me it is a ghoulish game that is only relished by the powerful.

I loved my father, but he was told and believed one version of the story: the victor’s version.  There is now strong evidence that indicates the contrary or at least other possibilities.  Empires lie, and they lie well.  Especially when they are the victors of war.  It is up to us to parse through those lies and reject the insidious nationalism they use to justify their crimes against humanity.

Monsters, Inc.

And yet another dark page is turned in the saga of humanity versus Empire. One monster attacks a smaller monster and other monsters join in, each vying for a place at a table of rot where the pie is being slowly polluted by industry, violence and greed. Big monsters, little monsters, monsters with nukes, monsters with barrel bombs, secular monsters, religious monsters, monsters with money, monsters with none.

And in the end its everyone else, the mothers, the fathers, the children, the elderly, the artists, the scientists, the teachers, the doctors, the nurses, the janitors, the addicts, the pious, the prostitutes, the sick, the poor, the mentally ill, who get bombed, who get gassed, who get tortured, who have their water supplies poisoned, or who get maimed by the state, or who get blown apart to smithereens.

This lament, and perhaps epitaph, is in regard to what a sad species we are if this is the best we can do.

(Photo is of airstrikes by the American Empire against Syria in the last couple hours, source is Reuters).

Kenn Orphan  2017

Resistance in an Age of Absurdity

“One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.”
― Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark


From an incessant flow of paranoid tweets to bizarre statements about massacres that never happened or secret cameras fitted in microwaves, Donald Trump’s regime has ushered the unhinged spectacle of reality show television right into the Oval Office with stunning success.  Were this absurdity to be contained within the confines of a political thriller it might be mildly entertaining.  But in the real world, a world in which real civilians are being blown to bits by smart bombs, real children are starving to death, real refugees are being turned back to face certain death, and where the real biosphere is perilously close to the edge of catastrophe, this derangement is utterly terrifying.


Trump is a master at manipulating the corporate media via the manufacture of controversy and melodrama.  Of course the irony is that the very same broadcasting behemoths he routinely demonizes provide his unhinged theatrics with non stop coverage which, in turn, has given them unprecedented ratings and profits.  But behind the spectacle lurks a far more insidious method to this madness.  In a mere three months the Trump regime has managed to replace the heads of institutions like the Department of Education, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, with individuals who wish to dismantle them.  He has codified racist xenophobia through executive orders which ban Muslims and persecute undocumented immigrants. And through his elevation of white supremacist Steven Bannon to astonishing power, he has animated the latent white nationalist movement.

The Trump regime has also demonstrated its eager willingness to expand the war machine of American Empire, pouring billions of dollars into an already bloated military industrial sector while gutting social and medical services.   In this short time Trump’s militarism has empowered the Pentagon and has claimed the lives of scores of men, women and children from Syria, to Yemen, to Iraq, and it is only just ramping up.   There is also little to cast doubt on the prospect of wars and military conflicts involving China, North Korea and Iran in the not too distant future given the administration’s unhinged saber rattling and provocation.


His appointment of former ExxonMobil executive, Rex Tillerson, to the State Department signifies a blatant display of the influence of the fossil fuel industry in regard to US foreign and domestic policy.  Tillerson presided over the company in the 1970s, a period in which the oil giant launched massive campaigns to deny its own research which confirmed human caused global warming.  Trump’s recent executive order related to climate change delivered a blow to reason.  It was meant to.  His absurdist view that it is a hoax manufactured by the Chinese is a hallmark of his risible ignorance and, remarkably, still has currency in many conspiratorially minded circles.  But in this Age of Absurdity facts and the truth itself have become the first victims.

As a resurgent fascism stands poised to sweep over the West we can expect increasing brutality against dissent; and it would be foolish to think the repercussions of this would remain localized.  We will be increasingly asked to choose between compliance with monstrous state repression or bold resistance. The protests which have sprung up against the onslaught of misogynistic and xenophobic polices have been encouraging to see, but there are already a slew of laws in the works designed to stifle direct action. And the Democratic Party establishment is not interested, nor is it equipped to offer up any kind of meaningful resistance since it has acquiesced to the demands and interests of Wall Street, corporations and the war industry long ago. Their role has been one of normalizing the ruthless exploits of global capitalism.  Indeed, the Clinton and Obama administrations championed the brutality of neoliberal capitalism and weakened civil liberties and gutted social safety nets for the poor while deporting millions of undocumented immigrants and bolstering the imperialistic war machine.  


If there is anyone to look to in these dark times for inspiration it would be the ongoing struggles of Black Lives Matter, Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS), and Standing Rock Sioux which largely began during the previous administration and are international in scope.  These movements have endured and weathered police and state intimidation, brutality, violence and arrest; and it is their fortitude and integrity which offers us all a living example of how bold we will need to be in the face of an ever more oppressive tyranny.  They were born of the historic struggles of indigenous peoples against colonialism, police brutality and environmental racism.  And with the perilous times that lie ahead solidarity with them is needed now more than ever before.

Thanks to the convergence of a climate ravaged world and a fragile biosphere that is teetering on collapse and extinction, the global despotism rising today will be unlike anything we have ever seen before.  The flames of nationalism and xenophobia will be fanned by fascists who will ride a rising and unfortunate tide of climate chaos.   They will use famine, austerity and social unrest and uncertainty to justify brutal authoritarianism, repression and state violence; and they will have no problem employing chicanery, scapegoating and dehumanization to achieve their end.  Indeed, their embrace of absurdity, or its pretense, is their strength.


In The Origins of Totalitarianism Hannah Arendt said: “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the dedicated communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction, true and false, no longer exists.”    The more fascists are permitted to make a mockery of justice, humanity and protection of the living earth, the more easy it will be for them to manipulate the deepest fears and prejudices of the public.  They will continue to launch mendacious smears against climate scientists, assault the poor and the most vulnerable, advance racism, expand war and militarism, disparage the press, and promote the inversion of reality to their favor even as the planet burns.   And if we continue to allow them to bend the arc of truth we will most assuredly see truth itself begin to die.   Our resistance to tyranny begins the day we refuse to allow this to happen on our watch.


Kenn Orphan 2017

The Ghosts That Roam Among Us

To many of us who live near to nature the idea of ghosts is far from fantasy.  The concept is neither childish nor macabre.  We commune with our ghosts and respect them.  They are the embodiment of our lost dreams and elusive joy, and only haunt those who misinterpret their messages.  They have no malice, only longing.


Ghosts are the shadows of our psyche.  They, like other archetypal figures, represent our lost aspirations both as individuals and as a species.  In many indigenous societies it is the ghost who guides us toward emancipation and actualization, not the angel.  This is because every one of us can identify with a ghost. Few of us have the piety or inherent detachment necessary to make us an angel.  In mythology ghosts can never attain angelic or demonic status.  They live outside the rhythm of life like dissonant chords, condemned to only remember loss.  And it is in this very quality that we see our selves reflected.  In this time of the Great Dying, ghosts call to us more than ever before.

Unsurprisingly, the reductionist cannot understand this embrace of the mystery of transcendence.  The intangible is broken down into facile explanations which extinguish imagination and deride wonder. They equate spirit with superstition or magical thinking.  Authoritarian and patriarchal religions are much the same and have had a lot to do with this backlash.  It is understandable why this is so given their legacy of cruelty, crusades against science and repression of free thought.  But even all of that does not make the narrow reductionist perspective a correct one.


Neither science or religion have the final answers to the questions all of us hold deep inside us about life and death, our existence and the existence of this marvelous universe, and the meaning of it all. Throughout history there have been numerous visionaries that have found the courage to step outside their esteemed roles and institutional bias and open their hearts and minds to a greater understanding of who we are. They not only asked questions or sought truth, they yearned for a meaning greater than their societal worldview. A meaning greater than the sum of their parts. The best of them used the arts to express their quest. But art is accessible to all of us. It is the greatest passage way toward understanding.

I think that is why I have appreciated the artist Joan Jonas ever since I encountered her work. She considers rural Nova Scotia, my home, her second home. And I can see why. Outside the city, a place where the songs of ghosts are often mercilessly drowned out by modernity, there are vast stretches of wilderness dotted with sparse communities carved into history and nature like a sculpture. Jonas’ art not only touches on the ghosts of human beings, but of animals and other species, especially the ones who have disappeared forever.


Her and other works of this nature bring up many questions for me. When humans pass into the void will our ghosts roam with them? Are those who have gone on already doing this now? Or will we damn our souls to the mediocrity of pseudo separation and supremacy? Will we listen to the ghosts struggling to teach us? Will we hear their pleas for connection, community and solidarity with one another and the myriad of other species that inhabit this life drenched world?

Truthfully, I do not have the answers for any of these questions. But we are all staring down a gun. This is an unprecedented epoch in the age of homo sapiens.  We are witnessing the alarming acceleration of species extinction mostly caused by human activity. With this terrible knowledge we must all choose if we are going to continue to ignore the carnage or face it with courage. Of course awareness alone is not enough. But it is the beginning of transformation. Facing death, ours and that of other living beings, can ignite a fire that can burn away the illusions that fill our modern, congested lives; and rise us out of the din.  Illusions that crowd out our capacity for connection and solidarity.


The ghosts that roam among us should not to be feared. They are merely the refracted reflections of our missed opportunities, wars of conquest, folly, misplaced rage, scorned wonder and repressed joy.  They are, in truth, us.  But they have an urgent story to tell; and if we ignore or dismiss them it will be at our own peril.


Kenn Orphan 2017


Title art piece for this essay is Japanese Ghosts, Katsushika Hokusai: Phoenix, 1835.

An interview with artist Joan Jonas:


On International Women’s Day

Today is International Women’s Day.  Truthfully, every day should be International Women’s Day. Roughly half of humanity are women and most live lives of imposed poverty, under brutal repression, or in the killing fields of war.  The threats of sexual or economic exploitation persist and the violence of patriarchy, authoritarianism and empire continue to be the dominant form of governance the world over.

Many stodgy politicians have taken to the stage to express their “admiration” for women. I guess it was nice of them to take a moment away from bombing their villages to smithereens, or polluting their water supplies, or enacting new laws to legislate their bodies; but I digress.  Today is not about them.

From indigenous women fighting the mining companies polluting the land in Peru and Ecuador, or trying to protect the water from fossil fuel industries in North Dakota or Alberta,
to Palestinian and Jewish women struggling arm in arm against apartheid and women of colour standing courageously against police brutality in the US.

From women who work 20 hour days for a pittance in sweatshops in Bangladesh to Indian women protesting sexual violence.
And all the women who must traverse dangerous passages to safety for them and their families in the midst of imperialistic war and its turmoil, from Yemen to Iraq to Syria to Somalia to Afghanistan.
This day is about them.  And it is an opportunity to renew our commitment of solidarity with all women, but especially those who face immediate and unmerciful violence and oppression.
Women have been at the forefront protesting wars, colonialism and racism and demanding fairer economic realities. They have been and continue to be warriors for the biosphere. And they have done this with great risk, often inviting death threats, discrimination and injury.  But without a doubt, there could be no social justice, peace or ecological protection without the perseverance of women against the most brutal of regimes and cruel of systems.  We remember, honour, and reaffirm our shared struggle today and everyday.
Kenn Orphan  2017
Note: The featured image for this essay is a painting by the Indian artist Amrita Sher-Gil (30 January 1913– 5 December 1941) and is entitled Tribal Women.