Category Archives: Archived

9/11: A Personal Reflection After Twenty Years

For 20 years I resisted making any personal remarks about the attacks September the 11th, particularly regarding the World Trade Center in NYC. I thought it was inappropriate and inconsequential because I did not suffer personal loss like so many that day. But I have been reflecting a lot on that historic event lately. And given that the US war against Afghanistan is now over, at least officially if not covertly, I think there is good reason for that.

I grew up in New York. Long Island to be specific. But I had family and friends scattered all around the tri-state area, from Queens to Manhattan to Union City to Astoria to Flushing. My father was born in a tenement in Manhattan to poor immigrants from Greece who barely spoke English. The twin towers loomed large in my childhood memory because we went into the city at least once a week, frequently more, to go to church and to visit family and friends. They, along with the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building, were usually the first dominant features one would see as they approached the city.

When I was a kid I went there on a class trip. I was the only child not allowed to go on the roof because my mom, who was one of the parent chaperones, thought it was too high and too windy and that because I was so skinny I might blow off. I went back again several times over the years, not to the top, just to the plaza or to the bars around the area. New York was a different place back then. This was before Giuliani’s disneyfication crusade. It was more gritty. More dangerous. And, to be honest, more exciting.

One rainy day in the mid-90s, when I was in graduate school on Long Island, I got a call. “How would you like to work in the twin towers?” asked a woman with a thick Bronx accent. The position would have been at Cantor Fitzgerald. I had no idea how she got my number. I didn’t even know what Cantor Fitzgerald was. And I wasn’t even studying finance, but rather public health and social welfare. “That doesn’t matter,” she said. “We are looking for a diversified group.” I found out later that recruiting college or university students in this way was pretty commonplace at the time.

I remember considering her offer for a long moment. I loved Manhattan. I would get there every chance I could. But my math skills are abysmal. “That doesn’t matter either,” she said. We will train you in what you need to know. It will be exciting.” I hung up the phone imagining myself taking the LIRR (Long Island Railroad) into work every weekday. That is, of course, until I could find an apartment in the city, preferably near the Village or Soho. I never called her back. But sometimes I’ve wondered what my life would have looked like if I had.

Now maybe some of you are scratching your heads right now. Me? Taking a job in investments and trading stocks? Capitalism on steroids, I know. But it was Manhattan. The city. And that was very enticing to me at the time. After all, my mother eagerly came to NYC from rural Nova Scotia when she was just 18 years old. She wanted nothing else than to get there. She only knew a couple people there at the time and got a place to stay and a job right near Gramercy Park in a matter of days. My parents met and fell in love in Manhattan. That is where they married. I went in often, met with friends, had a few flings, had a few adventures and made some ill advised decisions. It has always held a kind of magic for me.

Fast forward to 2001. I had moved to San Diego, California, right after grad school, at the invitation of my sister who had already been living there. It was in that city that I had met the love of my life and I was working in hospice care. The night before the attacks I was out at a pub with a friend after choir practice. Ironically, we had been talking about NYC and how he had always wanted to visit. I said we should plan a trip. Early the next morning, my sister called me and told me that planes had hit both towers of the World Trade Center. I rushed to the television and just minutes after I turned it on, the North Tower collapsed. Like millions of others, I stayed pinned to my tv for several hours, calling friends and relatives, some in New York, hoping they were safe, trying to make sense of what was unfolding.

Over the day I tried to go about my job visiting patients, but all anyone could do is watch the television. I drove around town in a daze, having to stop several times to just close my eyes. Like so many others, I remember seeing the clips of people jumping. My sister urged me to stop watching the news coverage because she saw me break down sobbing at the sight of one woman who plunged to her death, flying through the blue skies of that September morning, as if she were one of the thousands of papers falling with her to the pavement below.

I remember the dust coated survivors, trudging through the streets that no longer resembled a modern city. The haunting sound of the firefighters PASS units going off incessantly under the rubble, signaling their probable death. I remember the bewilderment on so many faces, the worried eyes, the hunched shoulders. And I couldn’t help but see the name Cantor Fitzgerald flash by several times. Later I would learn that every employee who went to work for that firm on that morning was killed. 658 souls.

In the weeks and months that followed those horrific events, I watched a country rally together in collective grief. Spontaneous vigils were held. Kindness and hospitality spread. Friendships were deepened. It was a time of collective shock and grief that could only be assuaged in embrace and distraction.

It wasn’t long, however, before I saw nationalism spread like a cancer throughout the country. Egged on by a criminal administration in the White House and their useful tools in corporate media, xenophobia, racism and the drums of war began to beat louder and louder. It was almost everywhere I went. Stores, restaurants, the post office, on the freeway, at dinner parties. A lust for revenge. For blood. Especially among those who had lost no loved one in the attacks. And then there were the chants of “USA,USA,USA.” Anything loud to numb the mind of reason, stamp out empathy and solidarity, and drown out any rational discourse.

After that, came the justifications for invading another country. Feminism was used as a cloak for militaristic aggression. As if bombing impoverished villages to smithereens would somehow liberate women from patriarchal oppression. Then came the assault on civil liberties. The growth of the surveillance state. And after Afghanistan, Iraq. And the rampage went on and on and on throughout the global south. The lessons of Vietnam were buried. Forgotten. Scoffed at. It was now all about “shock and awe.” Anyone who opposed this madness, which included me, were cast as cowards, traitors or worse. How dare we dishonour the lives of those killed? How dare we defend terrorists? We were silenced. Marginalized. Our dissent was crushed.

And so it proceeded. Whole families would be incinerated by sophisticated “smart” bombs or gunned down at checkpoints by the mercenaries of Blackwater. Men and boys humiliated, tortured, raped and murdered at gulags like Abu Ghraib. Infants born with horrific deformities thanks to the depleted uranium the US military used liberally. Whole villages erased, countless lives shattered, mutilated. And all the twisted excuses to justify even more atrocities. Ironically, congresswoman Barbara Lee’s warning “let us not become the evil that we deplore” was merely a portent of what was to unfold.

Twenty years have passed. In my mind, I can still see the towers billowing smoke, the people falling to the earth, the dust of humans and concrete. But I can also see the many layers of deliberately caused misery that came after, in far off places. The attacks on 9/11 were unspeakable crimes against humanity. But if there is any lesson to be learned, it is that it was used by the most powerful empire in the world to crush the poorest people on earth. People who had nothing to do with the crimes committed on that day in the first place. Our shock and grief were used, not to end atrocities, but to expand on them.

I realize that my connection to Manhattan and to the iconic towers is far less than so many others. I realize that families and loved ones will always feel the weight of loss from that tragic day in September, 2001. But I also realize how our fears and prejudices can be cynically manipulated by the powerful to justify unimaginable brutality. And that is what I will be thinking about the most as we cross this twenty year threshold of unnecessary pain, destruction and despair.

Kenn Orphan September 2021

*Photo is a postcard of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, NYC

As an independent writer and artist Kenn Orphan depends on donations and commissions. If you would like to support his work and this blog you can do so via PayPal. Simply click here:  DONATE

And thank you for your support and appreciation!

A Letter to Americans about Afghanistan, from the Margins of Empire

Dear Americans,

I wanted to share some thoughts with you on Afghanistan, as it sits atop the rubble of another indifferent imperial folly with the dread of once again living under a fundamentalist authoritarian regime on the horizon. And especially on the American public’s disconnect from its own government’s culpability in spreading misery there and throughout the Global South. I wanted to talk about reflection too.

I wanted to talk about twenty years of drone bombing civilians, like a grandmother picking okra in her field, incinerating people, even in hospital, of Marine night raids on terrified civilians, including women and children. kicking in doors, torching villages. Twenty years supporting and propping up a corrupt Afghan proxy government despite US intelligence agencies being informed countless times of their corruption. Even though the Taliban will likely be worse, let’s not pretend that these last 20 years under American occupation has been a bucolic 4th of July picnic for the Afghan people.

I wanted to talk about what happened prior to these last 20 years. About the long covert war the US engaged in. You see, the Afghan people had suffered from endless wars between regional tribes and fiefdoms throughout its long, colossal history. They endured imperial incursions into their territory by Czarist Russia and then the British Empire. But through the tumultuous decades of the 20th century they began to modernize, and largely with the help of the USSR. And then, for a brief time, they experienced a surge in freedom and democratic reforms. It was under the socialists that illiteracy was virtually erased, infrastructure built, women’s equality enshrined, and healthcare and education guaranteed to all regardless of class or gender. But the US could not abide by any of that because of its obsession with the Soviets and communism. After suffering a humiliating defeat in Vietnam and inflicting untold horror there, American warhawks sought to ensnare the USSR in its own Vietnam as a way to bring it closer to collapse. Casualties, costs, democracy and civilians, be damned.

So, in 1979 President Jimmy Carter, under the guidance of that infamous ghoul of war Zbigniew Brzezinski, threw US support behind a loose band of criminals known as the Mujahideen. The CIA knew that this bunch of violent, religious fanatics, based mostly in Northern Pakistan, had no use for education or women’s liberation or anything secular, but they funded and armed them anyway. In fact, it was the Mujahideen’s bloodthirsty qualities that made them a more appealing choice to inflict terror on the Soviet forces and locals alike. The USSR, which was riddled with its own faults and problems, foolishly took the bait and suffered irrevocably because of it. They withdrew. Chaos ensued. And the Taliban we know today was born. A ragtag, theocratic junta with a penchant for cruelty, especially against women and minorities like the Hazara, and a vehement hatred of anything that might smack of human joy.

Today’s Afghanistan is the result of your own governments interference in another nation, going back at least 40 years, and all because of an endless lust for dominance on the world stage. Now it should go without saying that the US should have pulled out of Afghanistan. It should have done so years ago. But the hard truth to swallow for so many of you is that it should have never been there in the first place. Not twenty years ago. Not forty years ago. Not ever. And the same can be said for any unwanted imperial incursion.

So please stop acting like all of this just happened. Stop acting like all of a sudden you care about plight of Afghan women or LGBTQ people without recognizing the enormous role your government has played in assisting in their repression and persecution for the last few decades. Stop lionizing the military industrial complex that committed heinous war crimes with impunity and treats its veterans like refuse once their usefulness is over. Stop listening to the very people who got us all into this mess or obfuscated the facts causing untold misery for the Afghans (and Iraqis, and Libyans, and Yemenis, and Palestinians, and Vietnamese, and Hondurans, and Chileans, and Indonesians, and everywhere else in the world where the US stuck its noxious nose). Stop invoking the memory of 9/11 to justify the mountains of corpses the American Empire has under its boots. Stop giving a pass to the arms industry that rakes in trillions of dollars in profits from each military foray the American Empire takes.

Take this time to do some hard reflecting. Reflect on your own homeland. On how the world’s wealthiest nation has shantytowns growing expansively within and around almost every major city, or how stressed average workers are being forced to provide their time and labor for slave wages, struggling to pay student debt, rent, mortgages, car insurance, healthcare and childcare costs, while the richest of the rich pay less and less in taxes. Reflect on how the lack of universal healthcare causes so many, including veterans of America’s endless wars, to forgo vital treatment and medication. On why your country has the highest amount of incarcerated people in the world, or why the police can continue to kill the poor with impunity. Reflect on why the pandemic continues to wreak havoc in a nation awash in vaccines that the Global South can only dream of. Reflect on how even as the west dries up and burns and the south and mid-west are inundated in flood waters that your lawmakers would rather steer policy away from anything “radical” that might stem or ameliorate the effects of climate catastrophe. Reflect on how most of your elected officials are in the service of the wealthiest 1% and the war and surveillance industry and how so many of them are millionaires themselves. On how at least half of your population still supports the proto-fascist who last held office. Reflect on why your nation has over 800 military bases and facilities scattered around the whole planet, and how your military sector easily gets hundreds of billions of dollars every year from both ruling parties, dwarfing the budgets of other nations, including China and Russia.

Please, once and for all, break the collective amnesia that has you ensnared, or we will be doomed to go through this again and again until the entire house of cards, including our fragile ecosphere and any decent vestige of society, collapses from the seemingly endless punishment it has received from the richest and most powerful empire humanity has ever known.

Sincerely, just some nobody at the margins of empire.

Kenn Orphan August 2021

*Title image is Women attending a rally in Kabul in the late 1970s. Source: Imgur via Pinterest

As an independent writer and artist Kenn Orphan depends on donations and commissions. If you would like to support his work and this blog you can do so via PayPal. Simply click here:  DONATE

And thank you for your support and appreciation!

The Nightingale’s Dream by Sandy LeonVest

Today, I am deeply honoured to welcome back one of the most prolific, talented and graciously human thinkers of our time: poet, singer/songwriter, playwright and political journalist, editor, and activist, Sandy Leonvest.

In some distant hinterland,
where the dream 
still moves in circles,
and the snake never dies,
and courts of angels 
play reluctant witness 
to time’s merciless whims,
the Nightingale 
surrenders her song
to a darkening sky;

Her flightless wings
lay under the Willow,
where remnants
of Light
disappear 
into the skin
of a withering sphere,
leaving behind 
a scattering of dust
and microcosmic particles,
which splinter on contact
into infinite versions 
of parallel worlds,
before returning
to ashes and bones.

Back in the city,
the streets go dark,
triggering colorful chains
of collapsing constellations,
strange and unseemly alliances,
and the collective unravelling
of obsolete institutions,
amid the collective eclipse
of empires.

This brings about
an excitement of stars,
all rushing to change shape 
amid mass evacuations,
cascading galaxies, 
and the emptying
of earthly planes,
their lengthening shadows,
leaving trails of dust
in their stead,

which causes
the dead,
who turn restive and grey,
to abandon their posts,
bewildered and distraught
at the random nature
of the unfolding order,
and, quite possibly,
disheartened
by the abdication
of stars.

And time,
unmoved by the specter
of its own passing,
retains no memory
of itself,
so shrugs nonchalantly,
confusing heaven with hell,
giving rise to rumors
of unspeakable endings
and the lowering of flags,
amid the arrant unravelling
of everything …

and the sweltering heat,
passes in waves of indifference
thru dense city walls,
leaving traces of Truth
(if truth there be)
and fragments
of time forgotten
to linger like orphans
between the cracks.

And Love
alone waits
for light to return,
her dream of tomorrow
circling the sun,

a lonely satellite,
cold as a stranger
growing old
in a starless sky

~Sandy LeonVest has, over the course of her writing career, been a poet, playwright, singer-songwriter, political journalist – radio and print – and the editor/publisher of SolarTimes (solartimes.org), a groundbreaking energy publication and newspaper distributed throughout the San Francisco Bay Area from 2006 through 2013. Today she spends most of her time writing poetry and fiction, which she believes was “who she meant to be all along.” Sandy’s poems capture the spirit of the 21st century, with all of its circularities and contradictions – fathomless beauty and incomprehensible ugliness; infinite joy and endless grieving; and the inevitability of “the ever-spinning circle.” Sorrowful endings followed by new beginnings. Her poetic voice seems to channel the poets of long ago, at once emanating from another era, yet echoing universal and timeless themes.

*Title image is a wall painting from the ancient Roman city of Pompeii, 79AD.

The Myths of Empire and the Real Message of Dune

This fall, the much-awaited remake of Frank Herbert’s science fiction epic Dune will hit theatres. Dune tells the complex and multi-layered tale of a feudal interstellar empire in the future, where noble houses compete, often violently, for dominance over the planet Arrakis, a desert world that possesses the only source of a substance called the “spice.” It is essential for space navigation and also has the potential to enhance mental and metaphysical senses and abilities. The imperial powers of the Dune universe use political chicanery and treachery to manipulate various political figures within the noble houses. Arrakis has a desolate and hostile environment. Its inhabitants, the Fremen, are looked down upon by most of the noble houses as savage, inferior and backward. They are the last to see any benefit from the trade of spice, if any at all.

Over the last few days I have been thinking a lot about this book, as well as the movie adaptations. When Westerners (see: Americans, Canadians, Europeans, Brits, Australians) see Dune this fall, I wonder if any of them will have any idea that Arrakis is a perfect symbol for Afghanistan (or even Iraq, or Bolivia, etc.). Or that the much coveted and fought over “spice” is code for opium (or oil, or lithium, or whatever the Empire and its imperial houses demand or wish to control). Or that the imperial bad guys in the film, complete with their noble houses, obscene material wealth and military might, are symbolic of their own governments, corporate powers and armed forces?

Of course the same questions could be asked about other modern cinematic epics, from Star Wars to Avatar, even The Hunger Games. Despite the obfuscation of Hollywood and its unholy alliances with the Pentagon, the underlying mythic message remains, if even as a whisper largely drowned out by the latest computer-generated effects and Pentagon approved technology. An empire brutally forces its hegemony on the poorest and most maligned peoples. These people happen to sit on a vast wealth of minerals or resources or “spice.” And many of them resist the brutal incursion onto their lands. But it always seems lost on the audience that should get the message the loudest and the clearest. There is a disconnect with most Western audiences when it comes to the reality of their government’s foreign policies and military aggressions in the Global South. How much of the propaganda have Westerners swallowed?

I see this kind of disconnect with recent remarks from American pundits, politicians and many ordinary American citizens when talking about the 20-year long war in Afghanistan. How many hundreds of thousands of Afghan civilians were slaughtered, maimed, displaced and whose lives were forever upended by the most powerful, imperial military the world has ever known? Yet, for so many of them, this is only an after thought. The first, and often the only, acknowledgement of casualties is of American troops. And I think to practically anyone the inference is clear: only Americans matter.

Of course, it is a tragedy that anyone was killed or maimed in this hideous war of imperialistic aggression. And soldiers have been used as cannon fodder by empires since time immemorial. But in the belly of the empire, very little care is given to the millions of Afghans whose nation was ravaged by indiscriminate drone strikes, scorched earth policy and the so-called “mother of all bombs” that Trump dropped. The Obama administration dropped 26,171 bombs on seven countries in 2016 alone, according to an analysis by the Council of Foreign Relations. That is roughly three bombs every hour, 24 hours a day, every day, for a whole year.

The US bombed a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz in 2015, incinerating at least 42 people, including medical staff, and injuring scores more. We hardly hear of that obvious war crime anymore, and the perpetrators will never see the inside of cell or even be tried in the Hague. The same can be said about the torture and deaths of Iraqis at the hands of American troops at the gulag Abu Ghraib, or the massacres in Fallujah or Haditha, or in Nisour Square. The empire never faces justice for its copious crimes in the Global South.

And when some in these regions dare to resist such incursions, abuses and exploitations, they are cast in the vocabulary of empire. Terrorists, guerrillas, insurgents. We tend to forget that it is the empire that created this formulary of terms to suit its own ends.

When Dune airs this fall, how many Americans will think of Afghanistan? Or the 20 year reign of terror and brutal occupation? Or the opium fields? Will the term “American Imperialism” even make them pause while they purchase popcorn? Without a doubt, the Taliban are not the Fremen and they possess no heroic figure like Paul Atreides. In fact, they evolved from the CIA funded, armed and trained mujahideen, the poisonous result of Washington’s pathological obsession with defeating “Soviet communism.” Their hatred of different ethnic and religious groups, women, music and anything secular, as well as their violent sadism, is legendary and in accordance with the etiquette of every other American supported, aided and endorsed death squad, from the infamous School of the Americas to Indonesia’s genocidal Communist Purge of the 1960s.

But there are striking parallels that cannot be ignored. And it is fatally easy for many in the West to think we are immune to despotism, theocratic terror or militaristic authoritarianism. This is at best willful ignorance, and at worst racism and cultural supremacy. In other words, don’t get too comfortable. A Taliban is in the genes of all societies. And it only requires certain conditions, inside and outside of its borders, for it to assert itself forcefully and comprehensively.

The American Empire, like those of the past, is facing a conflagration of catastrophes. Climate change, a global pandemic, ecological collapse, loss of confidence in its institutions, gross economic disparity. And it, like those of the past, will likely ignore them all until it is too late. It is losing ground in its former colonies, even as it desperately tries to stay relevant with military blustering against its adversaries. It is warmongering society unable to grapple with the complex issues of our time outside the rhetoric, posturing and policy of aggression. But Dune, as well as other heroic epics, have a message for those of us living at the margins of empire: despite their myths of glory and grandeur, all empires fall. Some sooner than others. All of them with a pervasive sense of incredulity. And we had best prepare for the fall-out when it does.

Kenn Orphan  August 2021

*Title photo is from the upcoming release of Dune, 2021. Warner Bros. Studios.

As an independent writer and artist Kenn Orphan depends on donations and commissions. If you would like to support his work and this blog you can do so via PayPal. Simply click here:  DONATE

And thank you for your support and appreciation!

There Will Be No Ferries

Titanic fires lay waste to vast forests in Siberia, California, Algeria and beyond. Violent muddy rapids sweep through quaint German villages, and the city of Sochi in Russia, and inundate modern subway systems in China and NYC. Marine life bakes in their shells, not in any cooker, but in the very ocean habitat where they were spawned. Stunned crowds clamor onto ferries surrounded by flames that stretch upward to the sky on picturesque Greek islands… It is that last image that somehow strikes at the heart, and somehow in a way that is different.

Over this summer we have seen billionaires spend millions to scratch the thin ceiling of air that embraces the earth. They made references to climate change and the need to address our collective predicament. But it is almost as if these billionaires were just trying to find ways to ferry themselves off of a burning planet just like those panicked people on that Greek island.

And then there is the recent video of terrified Afghans chasing a massive military plane down a runway in Kabul, several poor souls falling to their deaths after latching themselves onto the winged monstrosities they had hoped would save them from an advancing theocratic terror. That strikes at the heart as well, and in a similar manner to the videos and images of those evacuees on that Greek ferry. Perhaps it is because many of us can imagine the sense of desperation they must have felt. The need to jump onto something to escape what is coming, even if it means risking injury or death.

The visceral fear many of us are feeling has a lot to do with a pervading sense of paralyzation in the face of unfolding catastrophe. The realization that we are all trapped in a predicament, not of our own making and beyond our individual control. The earth that the most powerful of our species has continually abused is beginning to punish us all for that abuse. The world’s wealthiest and most powerful empire is beginning to collapse under the weight of its hubris and folly, starting with its far flung colonies.

We are living in the age of the convergence of very bad things. Climate change, ecological collapse, the failure of political ideologies, religious fanaticism, a loss of confidence in societal and cultural institutions, rising nationalism and xenophobia, resurgent fascism, growing inequality and all of the ravages inflicted by late capitalism. But there is no boat or spaceship that will ferry us to safety. Perhaps it is that realization that has flooded many of us with a kind of resigned despair these days. We know that there will be no ferries coming to save us. The task, it seems, is up to us and us alone. And it begins by staying where we are and learning how to live in and navigate our way through a terrifying new world.

Kenn Orphan August 2021

*Title photo is of evacuees escaping fires on the Greek island of Evia. Source: NYT.

As an independent writer and artist Kenn Orphan depends on donations and commissions. If you would like to support his work and this blog you can do so via PayPal. Simply click here:  DONATE

And thank you for your support and appreciation!

Kabul has Fallen

“The Taliban is not the North Vietnamese army. There’s gonna be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of a embassy of the United States from Afghanistan.”— US President Biden, July 2021


Kabul has fallen. Thousands are fleeing. Tens of thousands more are terrified about their future. The religious fundamentalist Taliban has prevailed. And all after twenty years of American occupation, drone attacks, gulags, supposed “reforms.” It’s time to acknowledge that everything the American Empire has touched in the last half century and more has resulted in untold misery for millions of people in the Global South, and most especially in Afghanistan.

But the wealthiest, most powerful, empire the world has ever known did not fail. Indeed, it succeeded handsomely while it was profitable. Human rights have always served as a glossy cover for exploitation. When it got too costly, the empire withdrew. This historical moment attests to this.

Yet, most Americans have shown little interest in the fact that it was their government that sent Afghanistan in its trajectory toward religious fundamentalism decades ago. And all because they feared the dreaded specter of Soviet “communism.” The US (CIA) supported and funded the religious extremists that laid the foundation for the Taliban. Now, 20 years later, after failing in every one of its stated goals, it simply leaves.

And, of course, it should leave. In fact, it should have never started this war or occupied the region in the first place. But it did. And this is the result.

By and large, American liberals are ignoring this moment.

By and large, American conservatives are thirsting for more blood, even though NOTHING was accomplished from the 20 year reign of drone terror they imposed on the region.

By and large, American leftists are laughing smugly at the failure of this murderous American imperial military adventure, even as thousands of people flee for their lives.

I think the lesson is clear. The world has had enough of American policy. All of it… liberal, conservative, leftist, and everything in between.

Seriously, America. Just go away.

Kenn Orphan, August 2021

*Photo: Americans airlifted from Kabul as Taliban sweeps through capital. Source: Reuters.

As an independent writer and artist Kenn Orphan depends on donations and commissions. If you would like to support his work and this blog you can do so via PayPal. Simply click here:  DONATE

And thank you for your support and appreciation!

The War on Wokeness

“I am human, and I think nothing of which is human is alien to me.” ~ Publius Terentius Afer, Roman playwright  (195/185 – c. 159 BC)

Anyone who has been paying attention to politics and culture, particularly in the US, has most certainly encountered the term “woke.” It refers broadly to being “alert to injustice in society.” But it has become a vague umbrella covering anything from transgender bathroom access, to the mental health of athletes, to the #MeToo movement, to BLM protests against police state violence, to Meghan Markle, to the stunt by Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats, kneeling and wearing Kente cloth. And it has become a weaponized term by several factions on the political right, center and left. At its core, it has to do with identity politics, the culture wars, and late capitalism trying desperately to save itself. But there is a nuanced approach to the topic which has largely been ignored.

The Democratic Party has long used identity politics to mobilize certain sections of its base, whether they are women, people of color, immigrants, LGBTQ, etc. By speaking directly to and promising to address the unique challenges and injustices that each group faces, the Democrats have been able to ignore other, more unifying issues such as economic class disparity, the lack of universal healthcare, corporate crimes, the lack of affordable housing, increased surveillance and policing, never ending war and rampant environmental degradation.

It is a cynical, but rather effective, method. And many liberals, as well as Democratic Party officials, have used it to tar the reputation of anyone who dissents from their neoliberal policies. For example, many leftists who opposed Barrack Obama’s drone wars, record deportations, or attacks on whistleblowers were labeled racists. Progressives and leftists who refused to support Hillary Clinton were often labeled misogynists. The Republican Party, too, has used identity as a way of uniting their traditional base. Evangelical Christians, the white middle class and white men, to be exact. But lately, there has been a growing backlash against “wokeness culture.” On the right, the paranoid hysteria being peddled is about the ludicrous threat of censorship and “cultural Marxism.”

All of this was to be expected. American society has never fully grappled with its oppressive and murderous history or its enduring legacy. And with the spotlight being put more and more on police killing of unarmed Black people, the entrenched discrimination against women, or longstanding anti-gay policies, this denial was bound to come to a head. But there is also pushback from the left. Much of this is due to the almost complete absence of capitalism and class in any mainstream discourse about societal injustices or “wokeness.” Now even corporations and the military/surveillance state can be “woke” sans irony regarding their egregious and abusive histories. Even an agency like the CIA, whose history is littered with crimes against humanity, can make risible claims about their “commitment to intersectional feminism” and inclusivity.

That Goldman Sachs uses Critical Race Theory or that there are rainbow flags flying at the US State Department does not mean that those entities are suddenly “woke.” Powerful corporations and state agencies have always made symbolic gestures to appeal to the public. But just because they employ certain inclusive practices does not automatically negate or discredit those practices or the theories behind them.

Indeed, there is a danger in downplaying or completely erasing the issue of identity from the discourse on the left. People are targeted everyday for their identity alone.  Certainly, the wealthier you are the better access to resources you will have. But to some leftists, capitalism is the only true evil in this world, and if were to be dismantled all other forms of injustice or inequality would magically disappear over night. I am exaggerating, of course, but I have read many commentaries that appear to imply this.

As ahistorical as this is, to even talk about the existence of different forms of injustice, or to use terms like intersectionality or systemic racism in some leftist circles is to be cast as a “liberal social justice warrior,” a “reformer,” or worse, a “grifter.” Some suggest that the “woke” crowd aren’t “real leftists,” which is basically the old logical fallacy of “No True Scotsman.” They insist that every opposition to an injustice, if it is not fundamentally anti-capitalist, is merely performative or a “grand display of liberal virtue signaling.” They claim they don’t want gatekeepers, yet seem to be happy to take up that occupation for their own flock.

These accusations have, in fact, become a rather de rigueur pejorative in some online circles. What’s more is that many of the people who make this jump in logic often become very defensive when criticized for it. Thus, the false assumption that they are being “canceled” when someone merely disagrees with them, as well as ridiculous histrionics about the supposed dangers of “woke culture.” Glenn Greenwald, Matt Taibbi, Bill Maher and the philosopher Slavoj Zizek come to mind.

Certainly, canceling does occur. And it is usually nasty when it does. But this has to do with a combination of factors, including the noxious culture of social media, doxing, trolls, and the rapid, mob “justice” campaigns that all of this often encourages, more than any “woke” movement for social justice. And there is something rather humorous to the notion of “cancelling” when it mostly comes from people who have enormous platforms, which they continue to maintain, with scores of followers.

On a personal note, I know what it feels like to be “canceled.” In fact, anyone who has been involved in Palestinian solidarity knows what it is like to be silenced or censored. To be excluded from certain forums. To be unfairly labeled a bigot. Yet, most people in this movement continue nonetheless, and do so without continually complaining about this kind of suppression. Censorship has always been used against those who dissent. But the way it is being framed now makes it seem like it is some new, liberal, authoritarian menace that will wipe out freedom of expression once and for all.

Without a doubt, real censorship is something that should be fought. And freedom of speech and expression are under threat. But that threat comes more from far-right lawmakers who are criminalizing protests and the corporatocracy we are all living under, rather than some fictitious “woke” mob. And there are certainly more pressing issues than any individual group’s rights or concerns. Global capitalism, ecological collapse, climate change, the pandemic, war, all of these are existential issues that affect all of us, regardless of our identities. We have more in common with each other than we do with the ruling, uberwealth class. This should unite us.

But human beings are not a mono-crop. We have personal and shared identities based on how we look, speak, act, whom we love, how we worship (if we choose to worship) and from our experiences of being different from the dominant group in our society. To deny that people are, indeed, persecuted, discriminated against, or even killed for their identity alone, is the height of disconnection from the lived reality of billions of people around the world. Yes, capitalism makes all of that exponentially worse. Yes, it must be dismantled if we are to have any future. But the ironclad law of the left is solidarity. So if that is what some consider “woke,” I will gladly adopt that moniker.

Kenn Orphan  August 2021

As an independent writer and artist Kenn Orphan depends on donations and commissions. If you would like to support his work and this blog you can do so via PayPal. Simply click here:  DONATE

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Why the Ruins of a Little Village Called Lifta Still Matter

In the Middle East stand the ruins of an ancient settlement known as Lifta. Archeological digs have traced its’ origins as far back as the Iron Age. It contains the remains of a court-yard home from the Crusader period at its centre and the ruins of several other beautiful homes, and once housed a vibrant and culturally rich community.

In the first half of the 20th century it had a modern clinic, two coffee houses, schools, a mosque. Lifta was also well known for its fine embroidery. All of that changed in 1948 when the residents of this village were ethnically cleansed. It remains one of the only surviving testaments of that tragic era. But this, too, may change in a very short time.

Following the Nakba, or Catastrophe, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were violently expelled from their ancestral lands. Hundreds of Palestinian villages were razed to the ground in what is now known as Israel. Many had forests planted over them, with trees that are not indigenous to the region and that are susceptible to wildfires, especially thanks to climate change. Many others were taken over by Jewish Israelis with the support of Israeli law. But, in violation of international law, the former residents of these villages are not permitted to return. Many of the families still have the keys to the homes that were stolen from them.

In the 1980s, Israel designated Lifta as a nature reserve, and for decades it as been used by Israelis for recreation. An ancient pool fed by a natural spring became a popular swimming hole. But now the ruins of this ancient village are on the brink of being razed once and for all to make way for luxury villas, a shopping mall and a hotel. The UN had listed Lifta as a potential World Heritage Site, but since Israel left UNESCO in 2019, it is no longer interested in that highly desired heritage designation, especially if it may enshrine a piece of Palestinian history or reveal the crimes that emptied that village decades ago.

Lifta is important because it represented a visual example of the Nakba to Palestinians and Israelis alike. As Israel becomes more entrenched in its apartheid policies, it is symbolic of the lengths colonial settler ideology will go to erase history. And it isn’t just history we are talking about. At this very moment, Palestinian residents of the neighbourhoods of Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan are being forcibly expelled from their homes to make way for Jewish settlers and a biblical theme park. These struggles are what make the ruins of Lifta iconic.

Throughout history, colonial settler projects frequently targeted indigenous houses, burial sites, temples, villages and cities for demolition. The Spanish razed the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan and replaced it with Mexico City. The Americans carved the faces of four white men, known for their role in slavery and in Manifest Destiny, into the rockface of Tȟuŋkášila Šákpe (Six Grandfathers), one of the most sacred places to the Lakota in the Black Hills. Australian mining company Rio Tinto just recently destroyed a sacred Aboriginal site that was a 46,000-year-old rock shelter at Juukan Gorge.

Perhaps the destruction of Lifta is not on the same scale, but it bares striking similarities. This is of a piece with Israel’s ongoing attempt to erase Palestinian heritage, culture and history. And it enables the Israeli apartheid system to proceed with further demolitions and erasures, while pretending it isn’t destroying anything at all. Lifta still matters because it is a reminder that the Nakba never really ended.

Kenn Orphan July 2021

As an independent writer and artist Kenn Orphan depends on donations and commissions. If you would like to support his work and this blog you can do so via PayPal. Simply click here:  DONATE

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On a Ten Minute Joyride in Space, Capitalism’s Endgame, and a Radical Imagination for the Future

“It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” – Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?

To say we live in bizarre times would be an understatement. How else could you explain a billionaire, who pays virtually no taxes, launching himself into space in a rocket, releasing 300 tons of climate warming carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and then thanking his underpaid, over-worked employees for whom he doesn’t allow bathroom breaks, and the customers he fleeces, for that 10 minute joyride? Or the corporate media literally giving this stunt endless praise and more coverage than the global climate crisis? Or the near emotionless automaton, aka POTUS press secretary Jen Psaki, actually lauding this spectacle as “a moment of American exceptionalism?”

While all of this was unfolding, thousands of people have been displaced, killed or are missing from record breaking floods in Germany, China and Japan. And in Siberia and the west of North America lakes are drying up and forests are being burnt to ash (again). The type of capitalist adventurism Bezos and other billionaires are engaging in isn’t original. Capitalists of all stripes have used their inordinate wealth on extravagant displays like this for years. But on a planet with a rapidly unraveling biosphere, it is a demonstration of how disconnected the powerful are from the existential moment we are standing in.

None of this is to condemn space exploration. In fact, many people (myself included) love learning more about our solar system, our galaxy and our universe. Many of us (myself included) dream about being able to physically go to space and visit other planets. But the recent jaunts and escapades of Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson and Elon Musk, are not about that at all. This is space escapism for the ultra-rich at the expense of the biosphere we all share. It is worth remembering that it is the excesses of the capitalist class that have brought us to the brink of ecological disaster. That they would somehow be cast as humanity’s saviors by so many is the very essence of collective lunacy. But what is the alternative?

I have no definitive answers to that question. But I think we could start by looking to visionaries who embody values that are not rooted in an exploitative, capitalist worldview. Kim Stanley Robinson is one such visionary. As a revolutionary science fiction writer, Robinson presents to us a future that is distinctly different than the prevailing theme of dystopia that is in so much of the genre. There are no zombies or gangs of marauding mutants in his works. But there are the real life consequences of climate change, ecological devastation, political discord and economic disparity. Robinson frames all of these complex issues through the lens of radical imagination. He gives us a world that is post-capitalist, post-war, and post-ecological exploitation.

With billionaires competing to privatize the planet as well as space, Robinson offers us a far more appealing alternative. Viewing earth and solar system as a commons to be cared for and protected, even with various countries working on their own projects, sometimes in conflict, his books help us envision the potential of our species beyond this present moment. Without resorting to tired tropes or frequently used literary devices, Robinson pulls us in to our own collective human experience.

The expensive experiments of the uber-billionaires are not only costly to the working class, they are costly to the planet’s ecosystems and human civilization itself. But the left, and I include myself in this, has all too often relegated itself to the margins of this discourse by being excessively cynical. Doomerism has become a sort of cultish enclave for many leftists to hide in and await the apocalypse. It sees the violent ruthlessness of capitalism. It understands that this global arrangement of power and wealth has the potential to destroy everything, including our future. But it frequently fails to possess the courage and radical imagination necessary to engage with the public and entertain ideas and the steps for radical transformation. So, it should come as little surprise that people like Bezos or Musk or Branson would fill the void.

Capitalism is in its end game. And that game involves ruthlessly oppressing the working poor and the global south, as well as destroying our fragile biosphere. And it is in a race to carve up what is left of the planet and venture into space to do the same. But, as the late Ursula Le Guin once said:

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

Perhaps it is time we took back the vision stolen from us. To imagine what the world will look like with capitalism gone. And perhaps it is time to be radical about that vision, more radical than an 10 minute joyride in space by a self-absorbed, parasitic billionaire.

Kenn Orphan July 2021

As an independent writer and artist Kenn Orphan depends on donations and commissions. If you would like to support his work and this blog you can do so via PayPal. Simply click here:  DONATE

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In the End, it is the Embrace that Matters Most

I have been in a state of shock since I lost my little feline companion, Pippa. She died so suddenly this week. Just over an hour after I had been holding her on my lap as I wrote, her playing with the computer keyboard as I gently held her paws back from making a mistake on my behalf, purring, nuzzling my chin, she became violently ill. I had no idea that in a matter of hours she would be taken from me.

Pippa was relatively young for a cat, and by all accounts healthy. But the vet believes she had an aneurysm and there was nothing they could do to save her. Since then I have found myself being hit with waves of grief only punctuated by numbness. How fragile life is. I worked in hospice care for 20 years, but if there are some lessons I have learned it is that the death of a loved one always feels unexpected. It is always unwelcome. It always feels as if every bit of joy has been robbed of you.

One of the ways I cope is through writing. It is one balm for the pain. But it doesn’t cover all of it. Not by a long shot. The wound is still there. And one wound leads to another, and another. I realized after our cat Memur died this past winter that I had a lot of unmet grief hiding under my skin. Grief over the deaths of family members like my father, my aunt, my sister-in-law. Grief from the deaths of former loves and longtime friends. His death made me face some of that grief, but I shrunk from much of it and was able to quickly bury it again with the business of life. Pippa made that a whole lot easier.

She grieved too, after Memur died. They were inseparable. Affectionate, comforting and playful with each other. When he died, Pippa climbed unto the bed where his body was and laid down next to it with her head against his head. She stayed like that for hours not moving. For weeks later she followed my partner and I around endlessly, never wanting to be alone. And when she sat on the couch next to us she would press her head firmly into the cushion in a clear display of sorrow.

Regardless of what any tone deaf essentialist might opine, grief is not something unique to human beings. I have observed it many times throughout my life, and in many different species. In hospice care I often observed patient’s animal companions howling in despair after they died, or refusing to leave the bedside, and then laying somber and refusing to eat. This is not an attempt to anthropomorphize, but to think grief is ours and ours alone strikes me as the height of hubris and demonstrates a fundamental lack of curiosity and imagination. Indeed, their very non-humanness can help us gain more empathy for each other and for ourselves.

As many of you know, my mother has dementia. And the only way I can describe that disease is as a reckless and sadistic thief. It robs a person of their memories, their connection to this life and, often, aspects of their personality. My mother isn’t the same person I knew. She is there, and I love that which remains. Her smile, kindness, grace and gratitude are all intact. But the disease robbed so much from her, and from us, her family. And anyone who meets her now will never know the woman I knew. The person who raised me. And that angers me. It angers me that many will only see the disease and not the human being who had a rich, long life before that disease ruthlessly stole it from her. The human being that is still there.  


There is a unique, biting kind of pain when you hear your mother ask you over and over if you are her son. To ask where her mother is, even though she has been dead for over 20 years. To see her face sink in sadness to hear that her mother had died. My sister and I decided not to tell her that dreadful truth ever again. And there is the guilt from getting cross with her for not remembering or asking the same questions over and over. All of this feels like someone punching you in the chest, again and again and again.

So I found solace these past few years in the company of my cats. Those curious beings who are free from prejudices or judgements. The ones who don’t care about the conventions or confinements of human culture, or expectations, or “appropriate” conduct and communication. Who look to you as a companion without conditions except to feed and clean up after them, and provide them with some affection and a warm place to sleep. Whose fur gives our bare human skin a gentle caress that no human could match. They comforted me often when my heart was sore.

Of course, I have had immeasurable love and support from my partner, my family, and so many dear friends throughout the years, but it is hard to explain the importance of a non-human companion to anyone who hasn’t experienced that kind of relationship. Harder still to describe the intense grief one feels at their death. Some may say, “I’m sorry, but maybe you should just get another cat.” Could anyone imagine the same being said about a human being? Has our culture become so divorced from our place in the family of beings on this earth that we would think that any life is replaceable? I do hope to share my life with more of these beings, but they will inhabit their own space, not that of those who are gone.

Right now I am wrapping myself in the warmth of the memories I created with these wonderful beings that graced our human lives. Between the many tears and feelings of despair there is a glimmer of joy. And I have begun to realize that is where joy is really found. We don’t invent it or create it. It doesn’t produce itself by positive thinking or by surrounding ourselves with successful people or by attaining material riches. It is a mysterious and sacred gift to all of us that is never deserved, but always offered. And it is temporary. It comes and then it goes. Like the warm embrace of my mother, who sometimes forgets she is my mother. In the end, it is the embrace that matters most.

Kenn Orphan July 2021

*Title painting is His First Grief by Charles Spencelayh, 1910

As an independent writer and artist Kenn Orphan depends on donations and commissions. If you would like to support his work and this blog you can do so via PayPal. Simply click here:  DONATE

And thank you for your support and appreciation!