Author Archives: Kenn Orphan

About Kenn Orphan

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

Ruth Bader Ginsburg and America’s Priestly Class

“It would be naive to depend on the Supreme Court to defend the rights of poor people, women, people of color, dissenters of all kinds. Those rights only come alive when citizens organize, protest, demonstrate, strike, boycott, rebel, and violate the law in order to uphold justice.” – Howard Zinn

 

The history of most ancient civilizations is one of caste and the ritualized enforcement of hierarchy. Subjects of these societies were conditioned to venerate a priestly class. Those ordained and ceremonially clad minsters of temple law who were untouchable figures endowed with enormous power over the day to day lives of ordinary people. Their primary role was protecting the interests of the ruling class through the dispensing of restrictions or rights on the laboring classes.

 

In many ways, the Supreme Court of the United States is an archetype of that priestly class. They are selected by the president, essentially the modern-day emperor and, once ensconced in this class of black robbed figures, they are there for life. As a hegemonic institution, they are the final authority on the issues of importance to ordinary people. That is, of course, the ones they take an interest in. But most of their work is in corporate and banking law because the transactions of the wealthy and powerful have always outweighed that of the lower classes in any empire.

 

It is only through the lens of empire that the hierarchy of caste becomes clear. And once it is illuminated, the fog of blind deference to the powerful is lifted. Indeed, we can see how these institutions have been constructed and designed to perpetuate a caste system. What else could explain the highest court in a republic that claims “all men are created equal” making a decision to deny citizenship to African slaves, only to later grant personhood to corporations?

 

Under late neoliberal capitalism, its most barbaric phase, the Supreme Court, or priestly class, has become one of the last refuges for the ruling class to hide in. But as the American Empire crumbles, this refuge is more and more resembling a fortress against the rightful anger of the masses, than a sanctuary for wealthy oligarchs. And it may be that the days of this refuge are numbered.

 

Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a more liberal voice of America’s priestly class known as the Supreme Court. Her defense of feminism and LGBTQ people are to be commended. But she, like her colleagues, dwelled in ivory towers far from the lived lives of the millions who reside under the oppressive weight of the American Empire’s hubris. It is why she had difficulty understanding protests against racist policing in the country. It is also why she denied Native American’s their sovereignty in one infamous case against the Oneida Nation, who attempted to buy back land that was stolen from them by the white colonial settler state. Ginsburg did express some regret for her remarks about Colin Kaepernick and the Oneida decision, but both instances signaled an underlying disconnect from these lived realities of caste and dispossession.

 

While Ginsburg’s death comes at one of the most tense moments in the recent history of the American Empire, it must be reiterated that the Supreme Court is not the true arbiter of change or a defender of the marginalized or disenfranchised in American society. It never was. There is a long succession of SCOTUS decisions to attest to the fact that it is an institution designed to protect the interests of the ruling class. In today’s context, this means corporations, banking and the US government, especially its surveillance and military wings.

 

Empire’s of the past relied on a priestly class to hold the angst and rage of its subjects at bay. They possessed all the ritualized accessories of authority, but they did not oppose the empire itself because they could not. The Supreme Court of the United States is no different in this regard. It carries out the will of the ruling class because it cannot do otherwise. And as we witness the American Empire begin to crumble under the weight of its own excesses and the avarice and cruelty of its ruling class, we should remind ourselves of this truth.

 

Donald Trump, the emperor without clothes extraordinaire, will now attempt to appoint one of the most fascist leaning justices the US has ever seen. He will delve into his cadre of ghouls of which there are many. And if history is a guide, he will likely succeed. But justice has never emanated from the powerful. Nor has it ever been dispensed by the priestly class employed to defend an empire’s caste system. It has always come from the din of the street. From those residents of the precincts of poverty and marginalization who have organized in solidarity, who have raised their voices in defiance, and who have put their bodies on the line to halt the engine of brutality. And now, more than ever before, we need to redeem this urgent lesson from history.

 

Kenn Orphan  September 2020

American Imperialism and the Murder of Jennifer Laude

“I have seen that we do not intend to free, but to subjugate the people of the Philippines.  We have gone to conquer, not to redeem… And so I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the American eagle put its talons on any other land.”
— Mark Twain October 15, 1900 The New York Herald

 

          On October 11, 2014, the body of Jennifer Laude was discovered in a hotel room in the Philippine port city of Olongapo. She had been viciously beaten, strangled, and drowned in a toilet. Laude was beloved by all who knew her, but her unfortunate fate was sealed when she met her killer, US Marine Joseph Scott Pemberton, at a dance club that evening. After months of the US military stalling the hearing process, Pemberton was finally put on trial. Jennifer’s family endured a trial full of smears, dehumanization and cruelty before eventually hearing the verdict and punishment for her killer. Pemberton was sentenced to jail for homicide, a lesser charge than murder, and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Because of the Defense Pact between the Philippines and the US, he was allowed to serve his term at a US military base instead of a Philippine prison. But earlier this month, after serving just a little over half of his term, Pemberton was given an “absolute pardon” by the authoritarian president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte.

 

Jennifer, who was affectionately called Ganda by her mother, which means “beautiful” in Tagalog, was a 26 year old woman who was deeply loved by her family and friends. But she was born into a reality beyond her control. She was Filipino in a nation where the US military is dominant and transgender at a time when this community is facing more and more violence around the world. This could be just another tragic story of assault, transphobia and murder, which is bad enough. But this heinous act has become emblematic of the long, blood drenched history of American imperialism.

First colonized by the Spanish, then by the Americans, with Imperial Japan making a short but brutal appearance, Filipinos who had fought long and hard for independence from Spanish colonialism found themselves to be yet another chess piece in the geopolitical game of the empires. The US struck a deal with Spain, ending its rule there, only to introduce a new era of subjugation on the indigenous population. Armed struggle against US forces were valiant and had many successes, but they ultimately proved futile for the Filipino people. The Americans had far more lethal weaponry. Hundreds of thousands of men, women and children, were massacred, or died of starvation or disease in the imperial war of the early 20th century. Waterboarding, commonly thought to be a relatively new torture technique for American forces, was used liberally on Filipinos. The cruelty inflicted upon them was breathtaking in its depravity. The book “In Our Image,” by journalist Stanley Karnow, detailed many of these atrocities including rapes, village burnings, indiscriminate killings and concentration camps. This was a race war, as identified by the murderous American president Theodore Roosevelt in a speech he gave at Arlington Cemetery in 1902. He characterized the imperial war as “the triumph of civilization over forces which stand for the black chaos of savagery and barbarism.”

 

As was the case with most people who inhabit the Global South, the dehumanization of Filipinos became embedded in American policy and practice. Anthropologist W. J. McGee said they were “monkey-like” and exhibited whole families at the St. Louis Fair in 1904 much to the amusement of curious white Americans. Prominent periodicals like National Geographic referred to Filipinos as “uncivilized.” And these attitudes had a direct impact on their rights. Under American occupation, they were segregated from whites, prevented from voting, owning property, or working in many careers all in the land of their birth.

Following WWII, and the Japanese occupation, the United States picked up where it had left off. And racism became the class designating factor, where those with more European features were favored and bestowed with greater access to resources and benefits than those with browner skin. With the force of the military, American imperialism morphed into the “defense of national security interests.” In a short span of time American businesses sliced up the country for their own profit and employed a loyal class of well paid locals to enforce American interests within the government. Vast swaths of land were handed over to US corporations, leaving most indigenous Filipinos impoverished and disenfranchised in their own nation. Slums and shantytowns exploded outside major cities like Manila, and public services were privatized for the profit of the wealthy. Labor movements were ruthlessly crushed.

 

The independence the Philippines eventually obtained was largely an illusion. Sovereignty was supplanted by the neoliberal “free market” with the result being gross income inequality, destruction of ecosystems by multi-national corporations, and pollution left behind by the US military. Subic Bay, where Jennifer’s murderer was stationed with the Marines, was also where the US Navy had one of its largest bases. Before withdrawing in 1993, it had dumped raw sewage, pesticides and chemicals like PCBs, lead, and asbestos for decades. This bay is also where tens of thousands of Filipinos live, and the pollution continues to cause disease, premature deaths and birth defects in the local population. But in addition to causing enormous economic, health and ecological devastation, US military personnel, as in Japan, Germany, South Korea and Iraq, have near total impunity for any crime they commit against locals. Joseph Scott Pemberton was not the first US military member to be let off the hook for murdering someone. He joins Edward Gallagher, Nicholas Slatten, and a whole host of others who walk free after serving little to no time for their heinous crimes and atrocities.

Over the last few decades, the Philippines has become fertile ground for the ruthless economic predation of multi-national corporations. And, as is the case in the entire Global South, they demand militarized protection for their “economic assets and geopolitical interests.” In the decades following WWII the Philippines has hosted a long list of presidents and politicians who may pay lip service to anti-imperialism, but whom eventually bow to Washington and Wall Street. Despite his hyper-masculine bravado, or his speeches decrying American imperialism, or his demands for the US military to leave or stay out of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte is no different than his predecessors in this regard. He may come from the south of the country, from a place that knows the barbarism of American occupation intimately, but he also comes from an elite political class. A class which has benefited greatly from American capitalist exploitation of the land and the working class of the Philippines. And his brutal policies of state violence against the poor and the marginalized, under the deceptive logo of the “war on drugs,” has taken tens of thousands of lives. Duterte aligns neatly with the politics of Donald Trump, and echoes other far right “strongmen,” like Modi, Bolsonaro, Netanyahu, and Orban. His anti-American rhetoric is steeped in opportunist game playing in order to obtain the favor of any of the imperial forces in the region, whether it be the US, China or Russia. And his “absolute pardon” of Pemberton serves as a stark example of this obsequious political nature.

 

Jennifer Laude’s murderer is now free to go on to live his life like so many other soldiers, or agents, or mercenaries, or contractors of the US government who have enjoyed pardons or near total impunity for their crimes. That Laude was transgender made her nearly sub-human in Duterte’s eyes, but also to the American military and the Trump regime in Washington. Her killer used the tired excuse that Jennifer lied to him about her identity as a trans woman. Even if this was so, it is no excuse for this brutal attack. But this defense has been used time and time again against LGBTQ people, and it has often let murderers off the hook. But militarism, itself, begets violence and atrocity. And women and children, LGBTQ and working poor, Indigenous, Black and people of color, as well as sex workers, are the most common victims of its barbarism.

 

Jennifer deserved better. She deserved a life free from violence, poverty and exploitation. A homeland free of despotic leaders and foreign occupation. And after her murder, she and her family deserved justice. But her life, like countless others, was deemed disposable by the Duterte regime and the American military establishment. Sadly, her story can be repeated over and over and over again throughout the Global South. And as long as this barbaric cycle born from a legacy of colonial imperialism is allowed to continue, she will not be the last to suffer this fate.

 

Kenn Orphan  September 2020

Fascism and the Quickening of History

          Over the last few months I have been revisiting research I did a long time ago on fascism. Pinochet’s Chile, Suharto’s Indonesia, Montt’s Guatemala, Hitler’s Germany and beyond. I’ve spent time poring over the accounts of the survivors, the details of the crimes, the descriptions of the torture, of the camps, the ghettos, the dehumanization, the cruelty, the terror, the photos of the train cars headed to concentration camps, the mass graves, the massacres, the piles of corpses. And reading through the accounts of people who knew things were going in this direction, that something ghastly was being done to other people, yet did nothing, not even raised their voice when they had the chance.

 

Sadly, I have come to believe that it is, once again, reasserting itself globally and more overtly. And it isn’t just in incendiary speeches from the US president or others who stoke the flames of racism, and scapegoat and demonize the poor, the immigrant, the marginalized, or the oppressed. In recent days, I have seen far right trolls on social media sharing memes with gruesome photos of the deceased in Kenosha. Photos mocking them, memes celebrating it, and cheering on more of the same, and worse. From my research, I realized that this is how it all started. How fascism became normalized in those societies that fell to its barbarism. A level of callous dehumanization that cannot be sated. Cannot be reasoned with. And that, when joined with state agencies, becomes a force that is lethal and next to impossible to stop. I can tell you, the research has taken an emotional and spiritual toll, and led to many sleepless nights.

 

But Americans have already tolerated the precursors of fascism. The atrocities they have largely chosen to look away from, or normalize, or conveniently blame on one president. They know of the imperialistic invasions and bombings of scores of non-Americans in the Global South by the US military. And at home, they have seen immigrant and refugee families torn apart and put in cages. They have heard the sobbing of children in detention camps. They have seen people prosecuted for daring to help these people in the scorching desert. They have seen police departments acquire tanks and armour, and use tear gas and fire at people on their front porches. They have seen unarmed protesters beaten, and maimed, and disappeared in unmarked government vans. And much of this was happening long before Donald Trump darkened the doors of the White House. To be sure, fascism has always simmered just below the surface in the United States. History’s pages, dripping with the blood of Indigenous genocide and the suffering of African slaves, has nurtured the ground for fascism to flourish whenever the conditions were ripe for it. Indeed, the Nazis took lessons from America’s ruthless systemic supremacism. So anyone who argues that “it can’t happen here” has no interest in this history. Because it already has happened here, it just hasn’t affected the majority of white Americans yet.

As the election looms closer it has become undeniable that the proto-fascist in the Oval Office will do everything he can to stop his potential removal from office. Indeed, Trump has already started pulling the levers of power available to him, from attacks on the US Postal Service to casting doubt on the process itself. He is employing one of the few gifts he possesses, incitement, to activate his far right base, including armed white supremacist militias. He has accelerated his demonization of opponents and any political group who dissents, including anarchists and Black Lives Matter activists. And he has aligned himself with the most unhinged and violent factions of the notorious conspiracy engine known as QAnon. If anyone thinks he will leave office without trying to cause immeasurable chaos and misery, they have not been paying attention to the last four years. And his opposition comes from the most stale, neoliberal precincts in recent memory. A cadre of ghouls and grifters for the interests of capital, who offer little hope outside of platitudes to the millions of Americans struggling with a pandemic, an economic downturn not seen since the Great Depression, as well as climate change fueled catastrophes.

 

And so how then shall we proceed? How shall people of conscience, those who reside at the margins of an empire in a state of collapse, live? There are times when history feels quickened. When the merciless maw of barbarism cannot be avoided. But there are moments every step along the way which give us a window of reprieve. A chance at redemption. A space to build solidarity with others of like mind and spirit. Others who cannot stand silent or paralyzed while the heel of ruthless hatred stamps out our very humanity. It is up to us to seize those moments when we can, because they can often lead us toward preventing unthinkable atrocities. I believe this is one of those moments, but I also believe that it is rapidly fading away.

 

 

Kenn Orphan   September 2020

The Empty Theatre

Media personality figure and former prosecutor, Kimberly Guilfoyle, perhaps gave the most crazed speech at the Republican National Convention. In a shrill tone, she repeatedly claimed that Joe Biden and the Democrats are socialists. This is how far down the rabbit hole the American political landscape has fallen. If they are socialists, they are the worst ones in living memory.
          After all, Wall Street heaved a sigh of relief when Biden was nominated, and again when he picked Kamala Harris. And Biden has vowed to veto Medicare for All and Green New Deal policies. While those things aren’t necessarily socialist, they are far more left than Biden or Harris’ politics. In truth, any socialist would laugh at the notion of these candidates being one of their own.
          But this doesn’t matter in American politics. It never has. And this is all part of the delusion. Both ruling parties are plutocratic in nature. Both are capitalist. And both support American militarism and imperialism, with varying degrees of minute difference.
          Guilfoyle, like Nick Sandmann, the smirking MAGA hat wearing kid who mocked a Native American elder in Washington DC, also brought up “cancel culture.” It has become a hot topic for these types, which is rich given the fact that they are giving speeches before millions of people carried by every corporate, national news outlet.
          But what struck me most about Guilfoyle’s speech was the pitch. It was unhinged to a degree I have seldom seen in American politics. And I have seen a lot. Of course, she was a television personality, which has its own theatrical melodrama. But before that, she was a prosecutor. An astonishing fact that should make any sane person shudder. And she is now the partner of one of Trump’s sons. So the stark nepotism is remarkable in and of itself. But it was the fanatical look on her face which took me aback the most. It was the look one sees in the faces of cult followers. And all of it has been normalized to such an extent that too many Americans simply shrug things like this off.
          To date, over 180,000 American have died from Covid-19. This is the most for any nation. A quarter of the entire world’s deaths, and the US only represents 4.25% of the planet’s population. It is facing an economic downturn not seen since the Great Depression. Millions of Americans have lost their jobs, millions may lose their homes due to an inability to pay rent or mortgages, and millions have lost health insurance because the nation has tied healthcare to employment. It is a time where uprisings against systemic racism and police brutality are being met with more police brutality and murderous rightwing militias. And like the rest of the world, it is facing enormous ecological catastrophes on the horizon from climate change. In fact, thousands are reeling from fires in the west and the aftermath of a hurricane in the south. But to people like Guilfoyle, Donald Trump has done the best job ever, and is the only hope Americans have against all of its enemies, foreign and domestic.
          Guilfoyle ended her bizarre speech by yelling “the best is yet to come” before an empty theatre. And perhaps this is what best sums up the madness of this historical moment. The political class is playing to an empty theatre because most Americans cannot afford to attend the play, or are too sick, or too over-worked, or are not white enough to be admitted. But this class has never really paid much attention to the audience to begin with, so for them, little to nothing has changed.
Kenn Orphan  August 2020

Holding on to Love, in Memory’s Fading Light

My partner Patrick and I have had my mom here with us for a few days so that my sister, who does a marvelous job caring for her, can have a respite. She is 87 and suffers from dementia, and has done remarkably well so far. But she recently had a test where she scored 10 points lower on cognitive ability. So we all know she is declining.

This journey has had its measure of pain. And my long work in hospice care helps, but doesn’t extract me from the landscape of mourning we must all traverse. When my father died, she held him in disbelief sobbing, and begged God to take her too. He was the love of her life, after all. She was with me, my sister, brother and nephew, at the time, and the agony of loss was acute for all of us.

After that we began to notice her becoming more detached. She wound up in a wheelchair and eventually a nursing home for a brief stint. With much attention, especially from my sister, she was able to go from a wheelchair to a walker, and then back home. Eventually she was able to glean joy once again from life. Soon after, we moved her from Florida, which is where my parents retired, back home to Nova Scotia, the land where she was born.

She has had tremendous support here, was put on excellent medications, and was involved in a wonderful day program for people with dementia, which kept her socially and cognitively engaged. Unfortunately, they had to suspend this due to the pandemic. And the loss of that interaction has been marked.

There are moments now when she asks me: “you’re my son, right?” These lapses in memory don’t last long, and they aren’t very often, but the sharp stab of sorrow I feel in my chest is becoming too real for me to ignore now. And they are becoming more frequent with each passing day. After I shake off the grief, she is back to herself again, asking about my partner Patrick, whom she adores. Or her other son, George, who lives in the States. Or where my sister is. Or about her sister Marilyn, who also lives here in Nova Scotia. Or she talks about my father, and how much she still misses him.

There are other moments of irritation and exasperation that come with being asked the same question ten times in ten minutes. Or hearing the same story over and over again as if it were the first time she was telling it to you. This is the rocky territory of caregiving in the unforgiving land of Dementia. And then there are the conversations that were never finished, conflicts that were never resolved, and memories she can no longer grieve or celebrate with me. That, and the sleepless nights and guilt for all of those feelings. And I know this is only part of what my sister has experienced.

Despite that, we have found solace in the small things that make us spontaneously smile, like her colouring. She was never one to do any kind of art, now she loves colouring. And singing old hymns. “Great is Thy Faithfulness” is one of her favourites. And, after singing it with her for what seems like over one thousand times, it has become mine too. And watching travel shows. Every time she watches one with us she is so grateful, because she laments not having traveled the world the way she dreamed of when she was a kid. She somehow remembers that I’ve been lucky to travel a lot, and asks me for each country we see: “were you there, and were the people friendly?” And sitting by the bonfires this summer while she does her word puzzles. And marveling at trees and flowers. I have never seen anyone become so enraptured by looking at trees and flowers as my mom.

We know the days will grow shorter. But I hope I can collect as many memories that I can, like old letters in a shoe box. I hope I can keep them alive, somehow, in some compartment in my heart, even as I know they will slowly fade into the evening dusk for her.

 

Kenn Orphan   August 2020

We do Not Live in the World of Before

Following the announcement of US presidential candidate Joe Biden picking Kamala Harris for VP, I have seen many social media posts. US American liberal friends seem thrilled and some have already started the “vote shaming.” Biden and Harris have been forgiven or, better yet, not even noted for their centrist, rightwing past. And I have US American leftist, anarchist, and socialist friends lamenting the betrayal, once again, of the Democratic Party to working class people. Most of them are anticipating another four years (or more) of Trump. As one who is considered to be far left, I must concur with the latter. The Democratic establishment is once again banking on identity politics over substance. It is digging in its heels to the noxious muck of late capitalism, as it always has. That might have worked before, but we do not live in the world of before.

 

So it causes me to ponder what might have won? Medicare for All in a country where healthcare (a fundamental human right) is linked to employment, where millions have lost their jobs and are un or under-insured? And during a global pandemic that is poised to take hundreds of thousands of American lives? Comprehensive programs for housing and debt relief, including student debt, in an economic downturn not seen since the Great Depression? Defunding and abolishing the police as it exists as an institution today, in the midst of massive uprisings against documented, ongoing, entrenched brutality and systemic racism? A true “Green New Deal,” that isn’t merely a cloak for green corporate capitalism and the fossil fuel industry? An end to the surveillance state that vastly eroded civil liberties, and a bloated military industrial complex that sucks billions of dollars each year to destroy poorer nations in the global south in the defense of capitalist interests? A decisive criticism of diplomacy and the human rights crimes of American allies, like medieval Saudi Arabia, which continues to commit genocide in Yemen with US bombs? Or apartheid Israel, which has just annexed the occupied West Bank with little opposition even though it violates international law? Just a few things here, I know.

 

Trump is perhaps the final and most visual symbol of the American Empire’s depravity. Perhaps, even, of its collapse. And his proto-fascistic character thrives on centrist weakness as much as it feeds on the fears of the privileged, ignorant and bigoted. He has been erroneously mocked as stupid, and yet those who mock him cannot see that this is his strength in a sham republic, where education and science are routinely viewed with suspicion and met with derision by an enormous swath of the population.

 

Forgive me, but I have no encouragement regarding these events at the moment. Because to me, it is as if the Weimar Republic is reaching its bony fingers through the soil of its grave to warn the apathetic and the unaware. An omen to those who live in the shadow of an empire in collapse.

 

I can only encourage people of conscience to build solidarity and stay sharp. As Lenin said, “sometimes decades pass and nothing happens, and then there are weeks where decades happen.” From here until January of 2021, we shall find out if that is the case in our moment.

 

Kenn Orphan  August 2020

Ghosts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

On this day, 75 years ago, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, killing 80,000 civilians instantly and injuring tens of thousands of people, many fatally, in the days and weeks that followed. Human beings were reduced to ash shadows, burned into the pavement. Women, men and children wandered through the firestorms, their skin hanging from their bodies like tattered clothes. The US would go on to bomb the city of Nagasaki days later, bringing the total death count to well over 140,000 and possibly as high as 226,000. This figure does not include those who died of their injuries later or the ones who perished from cancer caused by the radiation.
          The myth that these bombings stopped the war and saved millions of lives persists to this day, thanks to historical revisionism. But by multiple historical accounts, including American ones, the Japanese were on the brink of surrender. There were peace overtures that the Americans simply ignored. The Japanese Empire committed atrocities themselves prior to and during the war, primarily against the Chinese. But this in no way justified the murder of over 140,000 civilians. It was merely a show of force to the Soviets. It proved to the world that the American Empire would replace all others.
          After this horrendous crime, the US went on to bomb the Marshall Islands and irradiate the native population, as well as expose US soldiers to deadly radiation without their knowledge, in tests done in the Nevada desert and in the Pacific.
          Today, the world continues to face the existential menace of nuclear war and annihilation thanks to reckless American militarism. Smaller, more “usable” nuclear arms have been designed by the US in recent years, showing a willingness to use them on any nation that dares defy their hegemony. Other nations are now racing to keep up. But to think nuclear war can be contained is the height of ignorant hubris. The very definition of madness.
          Humanity is facing its ultimate nemesis with climate change and nuclear annihilation. And if we are unable to stop the madness of ecocide and empire, we shall face our quietus. From the maw of cruel history, the ghosts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki cry out.
–  Kenn Orphan  August, 2020
Title artwork is “Fire II” (1950) by Iri Maruki and Toshi Maruki. Paper, Indian ink, coloring. Artworks courtesy of Maruki Gallery for the Hiroshima Panels

The Tactics of Terror

“There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen.” – Vladimir Lenin

 

Between 1973 and 1990 scores of people were disappeared by the US supported fascist regime of Augusto Pinochet in Chile. They were incarcerated, tortured and thousands were murdered. In fact, the official total of those killed by the regime is just over 40,000. But some critics suggest it was much higher. Pinochet was able to do all of this with the blessing of the CIA who assisted him in the coup against the elected President, Salvador Allende, and in his reign of terror afterward in Chile. The painful lessons of the Pinochet years has often been obscured under neoliberal historical revisionism, but with what is currently unfolding in cities like Portland, Oregon, it is urgent to revisit them.

 

When Donald Trump’s federal agents rolled into Portland last week, they began to employ classic police state tactics of intimidation. Tear gas was employed, “non-lethal” munitions, and the psychological terror of unmarked vans snatching protesters, and even those simply standing by, off the streets without arrest warrants and whisked off to undisclosed locations. The use of forced disappearance should not be underestimated because it is, perhaps, the most effective tactic at crushing dissent and eliminating political rivals.

 

Under the fist of General Pinochet, the state became a ruthless force of terror. In September of 1973, at least 10,000 people, many of them students, activists and political dissidents, were rounded up by the military shortly after he took the office of the presidency by a US supported and orchestrated coup.They were taken to the National Soccer Stadium in Santiago where they were subjected to torture or were massacred outright. Thousands of bodies were buried in mass graves. Thousands were never recovered as they were discarded in rivers and even in the Pacific Ocean. Even today, families await justice and the chance to bury their loved ones.

 

Forced disappearances are a crime against humanity according to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. And there is no statute of limitations on this crime. But, as we have seen over the past few decades, the US government and military cares little for the international rule of law. Indeed, it has enjoyed impunity for its atrocities while those who violate these statutes in the Global South are often brought to trial and punished severely. The US invasion of Iraq, along with the occupation and atrocities are clear examples of this. And under Trump, the American Empire has divorced itself even more from international bodies that seek at least some regulation of state excesses or the management of crises. His withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on climate change and his recent withdrawal from the World Health Organization during a global pandemic point to a brazen disinterest in engaging with the international community.

 

Pinochet’s Chile was not alone in its use of forced disappearances. During the Dirty War in Argentina at least 30,000 people were disappeared and murdered by the US backed, rightwing military junta. In fact, under the US implemented and CIA backed and assisted “Operation Condor,” which targeted leftist or socialist political activists, student organizers, and academicians, the entire South American continent became a killing field from the 1970s well into the 1980s. Unsurprisingly, the genocidaire Henry Kissinger was deeply involved in these atrocities in much the same way as he was in Southeast Asia and on the African continent. And he assisted in marrying federal agencies, surveillance and state police, and paramilitary mercenaries and death squads to one another in order to carry out the crimes successfully.

 

It is not hyperbolic for there to be great alarm over Trump’s use of forced disappearances. Although there have been no deaths because of it, his flouting of the rule of law and use of this tactic of terror is not an accident. And the people under him have proven time and time again that they are ever willing to carry out his orders. As the election looms in November, we should not underestimate the timing of this either. Across the nation protests have arisen to confront the long legacy and continuing ruthlessness of racist, police state violence. The rage has been simmering for a long time, and the murder of George Floyd ignited and galvanized millions to take a stand. To Trump, who is one of the most overtly racist presidents to have taken office since Woodrow Wilson or Teddy Roosevelt, this represents the greatest threat to his legitimacy.

 

The US is now leading the world in cases of Covid-19 with over 140,000 deaths. Indeed, the pandemic is currently wreaking havoc on an American healthcare system which was already suffering from disorganization and beholden to the whims and will of merciless capitalist predation. When Trump came in, he literally threw out the handbook on how to deal with global pandemics, so the ongoing protests to police brutality provide him a perfect distraction from his colossal blundering and incompetence.

 

And of course, there are other ingredients to this recipe for disaster. Trump faces a weak candidate in Joe Biden, who cannot seem to form a coherent opposition to his blatant fascist impulses. If there is no meaningful alternative that represents real change in ordinary people’s lives then, like it or not, the people will not bother to vote. There is also the precarious economic situation, the elephant in the room that few wish to acknowledge. With millions unemployed and facing eviction or foreclosure, the elements of fascism may be coalesced even further. God help us if a climate change fueled catastrophe comes this summer or in the fall, because it will be the perfect storm for him to pull whatever levers necessary for him to quell dissent and remain in power. He has such mechanisms at his disposal thanks to the Patriot Act and the NDAA. He can detain any US citizen indefinitely by merely calling them a terrorist, thanks to legislation designed and endorsed by George W. Bush and Barack Obama. And he has already begun branding anyone who opposes his tyranny, like Antifa and Black Lives Matter, with that spurious charge.

 

The uprisings taking place across the US are the stirrings of a global mass movement that shows great promise. That they are taking place in the most wealthy and powerful empire on the planet is an indication that this empire itself is beginning to unravel under the weight of its hubris and a long legacy of cruelty, racism and brutality. But no one should underestimate the tremendous pain a wounded giant can inflict as it falls. Its violence is unoriginal, but it will use the only tactics it knows. And we should remember that it is very familiar with atrocities, because it has visited them frequently on the Global South for decades. Portland is a portent. And, as Lenin inferred in the quote above, things can happen rapidly and in a short span of time. We would be wise to heed these urgent lessons before it is too late.

 

Kenn Orphan  July 2020

It’s True, America has been”Running the World Since 1776″

Lately, there doesn’t seem to be a week that goes by without another viral video of some white American going ballistic in public. Even before an outright racist was put in the Oval Office, in the age of social media we have been allowed to see countless moments of racist intimidation and threats that, although common, were most often hidden from public view. But the latest spate of outbursts seems to be related to mask wearing in stores and other public spaces to stem the spread of Covid-19. One incident involved a man in a Costco store in Florida who screamed at an elderly woman who asked him to wear a mask. The man yelled: “I feel threatened! Back off! Threaten me again!” as he stepped toward the woman in a threatening manner. This moment of unhinged rage would be like every other if it were not one other glaring characteristic about the man. He was wearing a t-shirt that read: “Running the world since 1776.”

 

To most Americans there is nothing odd about this t-shirt. I lived most of my life in the States and I understand the mindset. American Exceptionalism is a noxious myth that permeates virtually every aspect of the culture. It is embedded in almost every speech given by politicians from either side of the aisle. There was Ronald Reagan, the man who supported rightwing death squads and genocidaires in Central America, who described the US as being “a shining city upon a hill.” And there was Hillary Clinton who said in a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations that the US is “the indispensable nation.” This was in 2013 after the invasion of Iraq. After Libya. After scores of atrocities committed by the American military and intelligence establishment. She went on to say: “we are a force for progress, prosperity, and peace.” Orwellian doublespeak in real time.

 

Indeed, Americans are constantly told they “live in the greatest country on earth.” But even prior to the pandemic around 60% of the population was not in possession of a passport. Meaning, most Americans have never been to another country, not even to one neighboring them to the north or south. So how, then, did they know they were the greatest country on earth? The oft used argument is that it is because so many people are clamouring to “get in.” Yet few Americans bother to ask why there are so many immigrants from certain countries as opposed to others. No one dare suggest that decades of belligerent and ruthless American foreign policy against these nations, which has destabilized and made life a misery for millions, might have something to do with this phenomenon. And this indicates how toxically uninterested and myopic the American worldview is.

 

Most Americans do not see themselves as imperialists. Yet this t-shirt, worn as a testament to ones’ patriotism, is emblematic of this detestable truth. And it belies the murderous foreign policy of the US government which has overseen countless atrocities, from the carpet bombing of South Asian countries, the invasion and bombings of Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, and beyond, and state-run gulags like Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.  And the way in which America has “run” the world has most often been to suppress democracy and support dictatorships and oppressive governments who favor the interests of corporate capital.

 

In addition to this, the fact that this man employed the commonly used excuse of feeling threatened, when in fact he was the one making the threats, underscores the contradictory nature of this culture. How many police officers, for instance, have used this same excuse when shooting unarmed Black people or people of color? How often has this excuse been used by politicians and policy makers when justifying yet another military foray against a nation in the Global South?

 

The American project has always been predicated on two conflicting narratives. One is the supremacist myth of Manifest Destiny, a divine right to ethnically cleanse the land of indigenous peoples and grant it to white European settlers. This myth was built on the slave economy and its violent dominance would inevitably extend well beyond the continent.  The other is the myth of the perpetually threatened “white race.” Throughout American history this has influenced and informed every policy and action of the settler state. Not only are non-whites, as well as whites who are non-conforming, to be cast as inferior players on the world stage, they are also to be seen as an existential threat to white people and white culture. They must therefore be subdued, assimilated, and if all this fails, they must be eliminated.

 

The man in that Florida Costco was asked to wear a mask by several people before he had that public meltdown. And in video after video the same scenario is being played out. Some throwing items of food around supermarkets, others brandishing firearms. All of the videos feature white people exploding in rage for simply being asked to care about the welfare of the most vulnerable people in their society, or to think deeply about the privileged status they have enjoyed thanks to their skin pigment.  It is no coincidence that people of color, Indigenous, Latinx, and Black people in the US are the most impacted and devastated by Covid-19. On the contrary, this sad reality aligns perfectly with the precepts of a supremacist culture. Trump has emboldened this sense of white fragility, but a global pandemic has torn the garments of its entrenched conceit to shreds.

 

The t-shirt the Florida man was wearing was one of the most honest things I have seen emanate from far right, imperialistic, white America. “Running the world since 1776.”  Indeed, the American Empire has been running things for that long, and ruining them as well. It has saturated the planet with its noxious ideology of capitalist predation, exported its tactics of political repression to client regimes and “allies,” bullied and brutalized the people of any nation that dared dissent, committed countless atrocities, and has defended corporations and businesses which have polluted vital ecosystems and accelerated climate catastrophe.  So it is refreshing, given the current state of the world, that at least one of its subjects would finally take responsibility for its horrendous crimes, abysmal leadership and disastrous legacy.

 

Kenn Orphan   July 2020

On Susan Rosenberg and Black Lives Matter

          Since the uprisings against police state violence following a spate of recorded instances of brutality, there has been an unrelenting effort by far right and pro-establishment critics to tarnish organizations like Black Lives Matter. Not surprising for anyone who has studied US civil rights history. The American government has long sought to demonize anyone who dissents from their repression and violence. The latest effort has been to link BLM to terrorism.
          Susan Rosenberg, who apparently is on the board of directors of BLM, has become the latest victim of this old smear. According to Wikipedia:
“Rosenberg was charged with a role in the 1983 bombing of the United States Capitol Building, the U.S. National War College and the New York Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, but the charges were dropped as part of a plea deal by other members of her group. After living as a fugitive for two years, she was arrested in 1984 with an accomplice, Timothy Blunk, while unloading 740 pounds of dynamite and weapons from a car into a storage locker in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Convicted of explosives possession, she received a 58-year-sentence, which was sixteen times the national average sentence for such offenses. Her lawyers contend that, had the case not been politically charged, Rosenberg would have received a five-year sentence.”
          After her release from prison, she was also made communications director of the American Jewish World Service, yet there was little said to denounce that organization or accuse it of being violent when this happened. So we should all understand that the basis of this is simple racism and suppression of dissent to state violence.
          Rosenberg became an activist at a time when the US was carpet bombing south Asian countries, napalming children, and spraying rain forests with Agent Orange. The FBI, who had just tried to convince Martin Luther King Jr. to commit suicide prior to his assassination, was also running the infamous COINTELPRO program which infiltrated and sought to discredit a wide spectrum of political organizations they saw as subversive. And scores of anti-racist activists were being targeted for non-violent protest. Rosenburg’s alleged crimes didn’t target innocent people and no lives were lost. One cannot say the same in regard to the millions lost around the world by US wars and state violence.
          Rosenberg spent her time in prison as an advocate for prisoner rights and for people with AIDS. Since then, she has devoted her life to activism on behalf of the poorest and the most vulnerable, both in prison and out, and of the global south which continues to suffer at the hands of American imperialism. That she has been chosen to serve on the board of directors for Black Lives Matter should not be seen as troubling in the least. On the contrary, as one of the most important mass movements of our time, it is absolutely where she belongs.
Kenn Orphan  July 2020