Nightmare on Main Street

October 23, 2010

This year more than in previous ones the thought of Halloween ushering–in election day is a perfect macabre scheduling coincidence. I’ve felt the hair prickling at the back of my neck for weeks. We’ve had witch references (Christine O’Donnell: “I’m not a witch, I’m you —uh, unless you’re a witch”); candidates who spend leisure moments wearing Nazi uniforms (Rich Lott, R-Ohio); average Americans dressed as teabags poised to throw themselves into vats of hot water for the sake of their frustration and anger; right angles costumed as straight lines (Sharron Angle, R-Nevada: “. . .the nation is arming. … If we don’t win at the ballot box, what will be the next step?”  What, indeed?); ex-money-grubbing,  job-quitting, me-first governors done-up as mama grizzlies; the ever-tanned David Boehner pretending to be Barack Obama in skin-tone only; plutocrats masquerading as small-d democrats; and closet fascists clothed as patriots inventing an alternate reality to stoke a middle-class massacre.  It’s a very scary scene this Halloween —makes The Night of the Living Dead seem like The Sound of Music.

How scary is it?  It’s so scary that Sara Robinson’s predictions for America sound more frightening than those of Biblical-John’s weird book, Revelation —not all apocalypses are far-fetched.  Robinson, in an article at (the third of three dealing with the subject) recalls her prediction in an earlier article that, “… according to the best scholarship on how fascist regimes emerge — America was on a path that was running much too close to the fail-safe point beyond which no previous democracy has ever been able to turn back from a full-on fascist state.” Such predictions will be called baloney by those who couldn’t believe that eight years of conservative government could possibly see the US go from the lone global superpower to one shattered by its own vengeful, myopic complacency and suppressed internal factionalism. What’s so scary this Halloween is that we all look like monsters to each other.

In her current article Robinson quotes author Robert Paxton’s Anatomy of Fascism in which he defines fascism as a “. . .a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.”  The spooky familiarity of that reminds me of the jolt I felt in the awful moment I realized torture was now OK in the USA. Those worried about the excesses of liberal government might want to refocus their attention while trembling in their shoes for what might be.  With main-stream-Republican-supported Sharron Angle suggesting “2nd amendment remedies” (translation: violent overthrow) in face of possible tea-party losses in the upcoming election, we’re talking something more serious than war reenactments and  rag tag parades splashed with fake blood, especially when Angle finds “… the inability of sporting goods stores to keep ammunition in stock a little disconcerting and concerning.”  There’s apparently a lot of ammo being purchased in the Fatherland; much more than is needed to harvest deer.

Personally, I’m feeling like Main Street USA is turning into Elm Street and that Glenn Beck (dressed as Freddie Kruger with rapier fingers of sharpened chalk clutching a blackboard eraser) is chasing us through middle America at the head of a posse lead by Sarah Palin, Rand Paul, and Sean Hannity backed by a host of gibberish-spouting main-stream media anchors followed by a 3-million-strong mob of Fox News aficionados and related zombies. Despite its claims of equality, openness and happiness our whole system is becoming more trick than treat; way more scary than your average jack-o-lantern, not to mention a land of abundance mostly for those who own the reapers at money-harvest time.

Not frightened yet? 

Paxton’s stages of fascism: 1. A mature industrial state facing crisis breeds a movement based on nationalist renewal which rejects reason and glorifies raw emotion and promises to restore lost national pride.  It co-opts the nation’s traditional myths for its own purposes and insists the country purge the toxic influence of outsiders and intellectuals who they blame for their misery.


2. The movement turns into a real political party and seizes a seat at the table.  Its success depends upon a weakened liberal state causing disorder, decline, or humiliation and political deadlock because the Right refuses to accept the Left as a governing partner.  

Boo and, uh, No!

3. In the face of deadlock the corporate elite allies with rural nationalists.  In our case, Robinson notes, we have the alliance of the Koch Bothers, the oil companies, Americans for Prosperity, and the Tea Party. An unholy mob if ever there was one.

Boo! And, we’re toast.

Paxton says that most fascist movements never make it past this stage because of the ineptitude of its leaders so I don’t know if I should be hoping for the victories of obvious flubs like Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell and the continued ascension of knowledge-and-truth-challenged, (but good-looking) Sarah Palin, or not.  But one virtue of nightmares, scary movies and Halloween is that they’re all, eventually, over.

Our only hope is that election campaign 2010 is like one of those. If not we may have to hunker down or dress up like WWII reenactor Rich Lott in order to feel at home.  It’s a horrifying possibility.

 Anyway, happy Halloween!

by Jim Culleny, 10/23/10


by Jim Culleny

As the website The Big View explains, “In Chinese philosophy, the rhythm of life, which pulsates through the universe, is the action of the complementary principles Yin/Yang.”

A diagram, which is familiar to many of us, represents Yin/Yang as two dolphin-like forms of black and white captured in a circle enfolded in an embrace that suggests cyclical motion.  In this icon a black dot of Yin floats in the white body of Yang and visa versa. As The Big View puts it, “The dots inside the white and black halves indicate that within each is the seed of the other.” Yin cannot exist without Yang nor Yang without Yin. In fact lightness and darkness define each other. This is a basis of perception.  It’s the way things work.

Although things are not so wonderful these days maybe we’re just in a Yin moment. After all Fall’s here, the days are getting shorter and darker, it’s getting cold, the global situation has veered precipitously downward, and our politics are again careening conservatively to the right. These, among other things, are signs of the principle of Yin in the alternating cycle of Yin/Yang.  Here’s a list of some characteristics typical of Yin: dark, night, cold, autumn, winter, right, down, contraction, decreasing, conservative —you see what I’m driving at.

The principle of Yin/Yang is so minutely woven into the tapestry of life that Northfield, Massachusetts poet Art Stein recognized it one day while doing his laundry:


the dryer
my white

Art knows art. I think he’d agree that regardless of the fact that all philosophies dealing with the grand scheme of things are subject to, uh, …question, Yin is as good a metaphor for the present moment as any.  But, if circumstances actually are cyclical the concept Yin/Yang offers hope at least.  It’s way more hope-filled than that classic American one-way ticket expression: going to hell in a hand-basket.  There’s not much hope in that at all.

But hope calls for right perception and right action. There’ll be little chance of hope if we don’t first perceive the Yinness of our situation, and even less chance when perception is immediately followed by sitting on our hands and saying “no” while collecting checks from lobbyists in the manner of the US Congress. Presented in Art Stein’s terms, the trick of life and politics might be: 1. be able to separate the Yin dolphins from the Yang, and having done so: 2., immediately slam the quick-dry button to accelerate the cycle back to warmth and light with a dryer 98% full of Yang.

Ah, Yang! Some of the characteristics of the Yang principle are: day, light, sunshine, summer, spring, up, left,  intellect, active, dynamic, expansion, increasing, innovation, reformation, and so on.  What  true patriot would not want to live in a Yang-principled nation —a nation where progress does not simply mean building another gizmo, but building gizmos wisely, with a planetary vision, with a look to the future well-being of all earth’s creatures, where wealth does not equal money but is counted in terms of fulfilled lives, where the “system” in “ecosystem” is recognized as the ultimate bottom line worthy of primary attention, and where one other essential thing is held in highest regard, namely, moral imagination.

There’s a very good, recently published book by Robert Wright.  It’s called The Evolution of God.  His well documented argument (loads of citations from Jewish, Christian, and Islamic scriptures) is that the evolution of god(s) from animism through polytheism to monotheism is inseparable from the evolution of human inclusiveness, an inclusiveness which requires moral imagination.  As I understand Wright, moral imagination is the ability to disregard for a moment our own interests and explore what the other guy might be perceiving, and to do so dispassionately. It’s a love your enemy (if-only-for-your-own-good) kind of thing.

Where Wright’s book winds up is right where we are today, in a global situation of high stress, economic doldrums, violence and pessimism (a Yin moment that is religiously piqued) which, he suggests can only be resolved by the application of our moral imaginations: the ability to examine where we all are regardless of our own immediate self-interests, and acknowledge (though not necessarily concur with) the perceptions of our opponents with the intention of developing resolutions that are win-win.

To those who immediately point out that you can never satisfy a religious zealot or political ideologue, Wright and I couldn’t agree more.  But, he points out, not all religious practitioners or politicians are zealots.  In fact, Wright says, (for the moment at least) the non-zealots and non-ideologues of all religions (normal people) still outnumber the nuts, and these are the people we have to learn to do business with. These are the ones we have to negotiate and reason with to find a path through a gamut of terrorists and ideologues, to cycle from Yin to Yang by means of our moral imaginations —short of this, on a globe as small as ours, with our technological kill-ability, lies chaos and a very pronounced Yin cycle.

Check out Wright’s book for an eye-opening, sober analysis of where we were, where we are, and how we got from there to here. But be willing to suspend your disbelief for at least 20 well-written and easy-to-read chapters.  It would be very Yang of you.

Sweat Pipe Draw Water

October 8, 2010

by Jim Culleny

The globe’s so rife with religious doctrine mixed with political rant it’s hard to tell a sinner from a saint. On any street corner in the world mullahs and priests pass in the robes of their pride alternately incensing, murmuring and sanctimoniously declaring while statesmen pose and promise, yet wars bloody us and justice takes a back seat to bucks in the cathedral of the world.

In the USA we have our own brands of fervor so diverse you wonder how they can all claim the same origin.  They insist we’re a Christian nation. Still, there are other modes of thought here in the USA; ways of thinking that originate in the same longing possessed by people of the book.  Ways that don’t require sheer smugness in their thinkers. There’s science, of course, but there are also others which cover some of the same ground as that proclaimed in mega-churches —simpler ways.

For instance, have you ever sweated pipe?  Sweating pipe is an enlightening experience which, if done well, will lead to nirvana.  It has yet to lead me to nirvana, but that’s what sensei Tony once claimed, and I have no reason to doubt him. 

I met sensei Tony in New Jersey many years ago on a construction site in Hackensack. He was a big affable man with a heart of gold and immense knowledge in the practice of plumbing –an unappreciated meditative technique that teaches patience and humility.  Tony was a true adept who taught, “With a little heat, flux, solder, and an imperturbable will you can join essential elements of mind together in the simplest way. 

Sweating a gate valve to a 3/4″ line is equivalent to 30 minutes in the lotus position or ten Hail Mary’s following confession —and at least as fundamental.  If soldering pipe is not done with right action Tony taught, the water will not get to the tap, and if the water can’t get to the tap we’ve got a problem.  As everyone knows, without an effective water supply there can be no body, and if there is no body there’s no mind (by all that’s simultaneously scientific and holy).  What’s more, I hope we can agree that you can’t meditate or do much of anything without a mind associated with a body. In fact, without mind my arm is not much smarter than a leg of lamb. And without my body my mind is pretty much irrelevant in space-time.

This truth was one I’d never grasped before and found hard to believe. I often argued about it with sensei.

“Sensei,” I’d say, “I always thought mind and body were distinct constituencies of a whole, but that mind directed the actions of body. I thought that mind, although mysteriously associated with body, actually transcended the physical realm and that it directed physical action without being coexistent with it.” 

“Why? Why would you think that? Have you ever experienced mind without body,” he asked?

“Uh… well no, but I’ve been told this by adults since I was very young,” I said.  “The priests and nuns taught this until my ears bled. Many philosophies suggest it too.  And aren’t most great religions based upon the idea of the duality of body and mind?  Can all these people be wrong?” 

“Let’s find out,” Tony said.  ”Hand me that 1/2″ tee, the flux, and that roll of solder there.  And fire up the torch.”

It was this that I was thinking about this past weekend in my basement, smashing my head on heating ducts, dusting cobwebs off joists with my hair, and cursing freshly sweated solder joints that chronically sprung leaks as soon as I turned the water back on –and, finally, cursing the universe that made this all so. 

If sensei Tony had seen me on Saturday afternoon after my 5oth trip to Home Depot for supplies, he would have said, “Breathe, Grasshopper, breathe.  Don’t be distracted by cobwebs.  Focus the flame on the fitting.  Remember solder flows to heat.  Soon, soon all connections will be perfectly realized.  Enlightenment lies just beyond the next 90 degree el. Attend, attend.”

Attending, I’ve found out, is a far more positive approach to the day than getting bogged down imagining heaven.  If I’m looking that far ahead for bliss I’m probably missing whatever portion of it exists here and now. And if I’m tailoring my actions for eternal reward how pure can my motives be?  In that case isn’t loving my neighbor (or god, for that matter) just camouflaged narcissism?

I think sensei Tony had it right, focus: clean, flux, and heat  —but most important, be religiously awake to the moment, it’s the only way you’ll ever know what’s really going on or what god wants.

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

October 7, 2010

by Jim Culleny

What should we make of the US military’s policy of Don’t ask -Don’t tell?  Don’t ask-Don’t tell is a recipe for deceit if not delusion.  It’s a politically convenient way to deal with the facts of the constitution, homosexuality, and the personnel needs of the military in the face of the beliefs of bigots.

A simple definition of bigot is, “. . . a person who is utterly intolerant of any differing creed, belief, or opinion.”  Webster’s says “bigot” is derived from the Middle English: bī God (by God), which, given a major justification for gay-hate, is exactly the right reference.

Whatever Middle English bigots did, today’s bigots turn to particular religious scriptures and condemn certain people who were earlier condemned in the codes of ancient tribes which (by the very same codes and later scriptures) stoned adulterers in town squares and slaughtered Amalekites down to every  “… woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep . . .”  If, despite those scriptures, we now hold it immoral to slaughter innocent women and infants why are so many of us still ardent in the condemnation of homosexuals —or insistent upon compelling gays and lesbians to lie about their sexual identity if they want to serve and protect their country?  Why do today’s scriptural literalists no longer stone adulterers in town squares?  It might be because we’ve grown —because we and our god have evolved —although we still have a long way to go.  In our time anti-gay scriptural literalists just torment families grieving for lost sons and daughters by holding hate vigils at military funerals.

Considering history we can be thankful we’ve had an evolving god otherwise we might still be stoning adulterers in town squares.  In some fundamentalist cultures they still do. As Robert Wright said in his Book, The Evolution of God, “The consistent moral story of the Abrahamic religions is that any given book of scriptures can be put to a wide variety of uses.” Meaning, if you have a loving disposition you’ll base your life on love-filled scriptures.  If you have a hateful heart you’ll find back-up for that in scriptures too. Your disposition will determine your choice of sources.  As Wright suggests, the Bible is a smörgasbord of moral guidance.

So the military, based upon the attitude of some Americans who claim authority for their ignorance in religion, has been coping with the age-old co-existence of heterosexuality and homosexuality by running a recruitment policy based upon a lie of omission: I won’t ask, and you won’t tell.  In practice, our service men and women are ordered to pretend homosexuality doesn’t exist or that there are no gays or lesbians among them based upon the premises of religions which claim to be expounding the truth.  Paradoxical, isn’t it?

The policy of Don’t ask-Don’t tell issues from the same head-space that insists that gays and lesbians not love, or at least not display their love. It derives from smug ignorance demanding even more widespread smug ignorance.  It derives from bigotry.

To use the jargon of some, the Prince of Lies must love this policy.  This sort of thinking is right up his alley. It debases the honor of services who aspire to be composed of men and woman of honor. It undermines the honor that military cohesiveness is supposedly built upon. It elevates bigotry to a position of official acceptance.

The spitefulness of gay and lesbian haters so infects our society that not only is it officially embraced by the military, but is the cause of the emotional torment of some of our young people who, in realizing they are gay in a society of bigots, turn to suicide to end their torment.

As noted by at least one enlightened pastor, Rev. Patrick S. Cheng, “I have been simultaneously horrified, saddened, and enraged at the spate of suicides in the last month by teenagers and young adults who were bullied for being, or being perceived to be, gay. Billy Lucas, 15, hung himself on September 9 from the rafters of a barn. Seth Walsh, 13, hung himself on September 19 from a tree in his backyard. Tyler Clementi, 18, jumped off the George Washington bridge on September 22. Asher Brown, 13, shot himself in the head on September 23.”

Reverend Cheng is one indication that Robert Wright’s argument for the evolution of god may not be off the mark. It suggests that religious history itself may give us hope. Our military and some political leaders may insist upon hate-based lies, but if god can evolve from a vengeful, xenophobic, warlike tribal deity to one of universal love and compassion maybe the temporarily convenient but implicit lie of Don’t ask-Don’t tell will not last much longer.


Since the most exceptional nation on earth (we insist) seems about to turn the ship of state over to the crew that steered us into an iceberg, we ought to think about what we should expect if the mid-term election gives Republicans control again. That done, whether we ever insist we’re exceptional again is a long shot.

Incredibly, in spite of the fact that they offer no ideas for keeping us afloat other than those that drove us into the iceberg in the first place, many of us think we should return control to the Republican Party’s exceptional wrecking party.  Maybe this is due to the hypnotic effect of Mitch McConnell uttering “no” into microphones every time our president or any Democrat comes up with anything that might make the average person’s life a little better.

No! (your eyelids are getting heavy). No! (you’re feeling sleepy). No! (relax, drowse). No! (snooze). No! (sleep, sleep. . .).  —Ok, now listen America, when you wake and hear the magic word “socialist” any fabulous lie will become true. You’ll believe our president is an illegitimate foreign-born Muslim —his birth certificate will be invisible no matter how many times it pops up on a screen. You’ll believe the corporate class has only your best interests at heart, that belligerence is the most effective national attitude, that the unemployed really don’t want to work (even yourself), that the free market actually is free, that your health care insurance is best placed in the hands of corporations whose legal dictate is to make as much profit as possible in any way they can (like challenging benefits), and that faith-based government will enhance your liberty (do not think “theocracy”).

And No! seems to have worked.  After eight years of saying Yes! to anything that enhanced the well-being of those whose being was already pretty well; after eight years of the redistribution of wealth from the middle-class to the rich; eight years of moving from surplus to huge deficit; eight years of war, crumbling infrastructure and general decline; eight years of assault on democratic government; eight years of hugely irresponsible spending; after leaving a huge bag of dog shit on the White House porch for Obama to step in and clean up, followed by just two years of attempted Democratic triage we’re about to turn things back over to the shysters who burned us. Only hypnotism could explain it. 

So, given what looks inevitable, let’s return to our original thought and take stock of what the looming Republican victory in November could bring.

First (since they’ve been threatening it from the day it was instituted) Republicans will start hacking away at Social Security and turning its pieces over to the private sector —to deregulated corporations like the now defunct Enron (employee retirement funds kaput!), or one-time financial giant Lehman Brothers (now bankrupt).

Second, they’ll try to defund or repeal the new health-care legislation. We can expect a campaign to return our health over lock-stock-and-barrel to corporations whose concern for our coronary arteries will be entirely profit-driven (and you thought government death-panels were bad).

A defunding of the Recovery Act will be attempted too. After all, the Republican’s core constituency (the most wealthy) don’t need recovery; they’ve been doing quite well; no slump in the Lexus business. And what better way to povertize the middle class and make the poor poorer than to run us further into a hole by axing any program that might be a relief to the least among us –but what’s new? In fact, the Republican’s new Pledge to America is not new at all, it’s a return to exactly the policies that put us here.

And don’t forget science. Given conservative rhetoric there’s every reason to anticipate government efforts to discredit evolution (and science) in favor of policies favoring Adam and Eve. For example, Christine O’Donnell, Republican senate candidate (Delaware), on the Bill Maher Show a few years ago asked, “Why aren’t monkeys still evolving into humans?” Forget how this shows an abysmal ignorance of the theory of evolution; think only of what her unembarrassed display of scientific stupidity might mean for science-based national education. With “thinkers” like O’Donnell we’ll soon be the dunce of nations left in the dust of Chinese science.

What’s more, if electing Christine O’Donnell is any hint of the breadth of the latest Republican thought about government’s reach, sexual self-pleasuring might become illegal. O’Donnell came out squarely against it in an article in 1998. Even if there are not new laws governing this very private practice, what further invasive legislation might we expect from Bible-oriented national lawmakers, federally sanctioned stoning?

Which brings us to 5 Republican candidates (Rand Paul, Christine O’Donnell, Sharon Angle, Ken Buck, Joe Miller) who believe that even in cases of rape and incest a woman should be denied the right of sovereignty over her own body. A woman’s body is not hers, they implicitly argue, it belongs to the state. 

Finally, does anyone expect discrimination against gays to diminish under Republican dominance? No, we can expect attempts to further marginalize homosexuals as Republicans follow the dictates of iron-age religious scriptures over the constitution.

In general, with GOPers in power it’s not hard to envision even more government for the wealthy at the expense of the poor and middle classes.  As economist Robert Reich recently wrote, Republicans will push for a return to the social Darwinism of the 19th and early 20th century. What Republicans want to do is what Herbert Hoover (R) called for in the lead-up to the great depression: “Liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate the farmer, liquidate real estate. It will purge the rottenness out of the system. People will work harder, lead a more moral life.”

I can imagine Tea-Partiers uttering these same words. But in current Republican terms, Reich says, this comes out “shrink government, cut the federal deficit, reduce the national debt, and balance the budget. (But) we all know what happened after 1929, at least until president Roosevelt (D) reversed course.” FDR was loathed by conservatives but the programs he instituted helped us out of a depression. 

The next time you hear a Republican say “socialist”, you say, “Bullshit, I’m staying awake!” 

by Jim Culleny