Making a Home

September 30, 2013

tabula rasaWhat I think over and over
eventually I do

I’ve been training body all along
to dance the cantos of my thoughts,
how can it not do what it learns?

Innocence seeps away
through the interstices of neglect—

if I have not built a room
to house a pure idea
it will move on to a better man
and leave my vacant skull to host
what loathes a vacuum

Seems at least probable, no? —doing founded upon on thinking.

I wrote that poem this morning after reading some news. It doesn’t matter what news, all the news is loaded with what the poem tells me about us and the kind of national and world home we’re making.

Do you recall a philosophical concept called “tabula rasa”, or, in English, “blank slate” —or blank blackboard if you went to school in the old days? The idea is that we’re born with minds free of the text that will be written there; minds pure as the driven snow which will then be nurtured one way or the other. Whether we turn out good or bad, wise or stupid, loving or hateful depends upon what’s scrawled on our slates —what’s put there by others and what we eventually put there ourselves. In the end our once pristine mental snow-scapes will look (if we’re lucky and astute) almost as brilliant as the icy crags of Everest or as splotched and grey as the plow banks along the January curbs of Manhattan.

The nature/nurture argument has persisted for years in educational circles: whether the mind is a tabula rasa at birth or comes equipped with certain information— but whichever side you fall on it’s fairly obvious that what we think is linked to what we do. As one poet has winked and said,

If my brain does not tell my arm what to do
nothing much will happen

—without a brain my arm is not much smarter
than a leg of lamb

If we can agree on this (that mind and meat are quite different substances, but interconnected) we can see why political factions do everything in their power to control information. The Dhammapada, a Buddhist scripture, says, “All that we are arises with our thoughts,” which is why we have powerful interests determined to transform public education to private while simultaneously buying up and consolidating  media news sources. Their goal is that what these interests think will become what their news divisions and educational institutions think and, eventually, what you and I and every kid on the block thinks. You might call such schools and TV stations corporate madrasas, no different in intent than the Muslim schools we’ve heard so much about: to indoctrinate minds to certain modes of thought. Prime examples of this are (most famously) Fox News, religious groups who want to transform public science education into curriculums of their particular dogma, and groups like the American Legislative Council (ALEC) a corporate lobbying organization which actually writes laws and invents facts for congressional reps that favor the interests of big business.

Every political regime has its propagandists, this is an old truth. Monarchs and tyrants have traditionally ruled by the false and the fist.  But in the past, in this nation at least, it had been traditional to guard our news sources against absorption by self-interested forces —government or private. Whether or not it was strictly adhered to, journalists had a code that insisted on maintaining a personal vigilance against  influence by interested entities.  But that’s gone now.  What we have today are annual entertainment orgies like the White House correspondence dinner where media types cozy up with politicians, dining and cracking wise with them as if they were not inherent adversaries —because now they really are not.  They’re propaganda partners.  To a large extent what we have now are not journalists, but “so-called journalists” —obsequious garment-touchers of power —factotums employed and controlled by media corporations.

Which leads us to where we are now regarding the misinformation assault of the ACA (Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare). There are many myths being generated by forces that have no regard for the well-being of individual Americans unless they have money. Politicians (of the right, especially —but certainly not exclusively) make false claims, invent realities and even contradict themselves without shame or fear of being exposed even when just about everything any big-cabeza has said is on tape somewhere. Our news sources are so beholden to financial interests the truth becomes whatever is reported and repeated enough, again and again, over and over, without pause in 24 hour déjà vu loops.

It’s crazy some say, but it’s our crazy.
No, I say, it’s just crazy.

It’s this kind of crazy that has infected the thought of a small, but passionate segment of our population. A faction that has control of at least one limb of one branch of our government: the House of Representatives who are acting out exactly what they’re thinking — they are being their thoughts, just as the Dhammapada predicts. They are being passionate legs of lamb performing destructive acts determined by destructive thoughts that have bounced back and forth in well-constructed political echo-chambers. It takes real work and diligence to counter the deluge of this myth stream, but the importance of doing so is huge.

So, if you think something’s gone haywire in the USA, say so. If you think, “United we stand, divided we fall,” join with others in associations that work toward the ends of economic fairness and compassion rather than the ruthless, Ted Cruzish,  cash-based kind of governance so fiercely practiced in the 21st century. Trust no power without verification and be especially wary of TV talking heads.

First: right thought, then right action. Don’t be a misinformed leg of lamb, be a smart one. Make a room in your skull for true thoughts. Keeping vigilant will make us a good home.

by Jim Culleny
for the West County Independent


Did bin Laden Win After All?

September 14, 2013


I had a dream the other night that was over the top with gang brutality. It was disturbing; not because of the brutality per se, but because of the composition of the gangs. These were not the famous Crips and Bloods that are now clichés in media lore. My nightmare gangs were too familiar and commonplace. They were made up of authority figures I was taught as a child to trust. But we’ve become a coarser society since we gave our collective assent to state-sanctioned torture as an information-gathering tool. Truth is, we ultimately brutalize ourselves when we brutalize others. It’s one of the unintended consequences of our post-9/11 security phobia. In short, my nightmare gangs were made up of police.

The mounting frequency of reports of the use of excessive force by police that ran through my dream elicited a poem a while back. I wrote it soon after I’d read of yet another mistaken SWAT raid on a house that turned out to be at a wrong address. The innocent inhabitants were scared out of their wits, assaulted and brutalized in an event of overwhelming force. But we’ve become blasé about this sort of thing, submissive, or, as I said, coarsened.

SWAT raids have become a running thread through the news as more and more communities militarize their police forces. Human nature loves to fill a vacuum. The more space in your house, the more stuff you buy to fill it. The more powerful your car, the faster you’re tempted to push it. The more crowd-control equipment you spend money on, the more you have to justify its use. It’s like that.

Here’s the poem:

cops with army stuff
play more with army stuff,
find more reasons

with more reasons
sometimes kill in the process

tasers, small tanks, flack vests
big  muscle guns, jackboots
toughen up with army stuff

turn up the heat
see if gizmos work
go boom rattatat zap hurt

Taser use is a good example of what I’m talking about. Tasers are so efficient and multifaceted. They’re instruments of caution as well as torture.  It’s safer to tase than to talk, therefore what may once have been a long, drawn-out talk-down in a personal conflict event becomes a quick and easy takedown requiring less thought and more action. You have a taser; you use it. It’s not as lethal as a bullet and more cost effective than a time-consuming colloquy with a distressed, problematic citizen, but people have died from being tased.  So? Ho-hum. At least, that was my dream gang’s attitude.

Times have changed. I was raised in a small town in New Jersey where the police knew everyone and everyone knew the police. But this was before the creeping militarization of local police forces, before SWAT mania. I’m fortunate enough to live in a similar town now. I was raised to respect the courage required of police officers in the face of danger and the often-difficult task of emotional restraint it takes to remain professional and judicious in extreme, rapidly escalating situations. I still do. But my dream was not about that kind of policing. It was not about responsible law enforcement professionals who risk their lives in service to others and understand the limits the Constitution puts on their methods.

I spend a lot of time keeping up with the news and pretty much every day I read of police raids that are botched and brutal.  In an article written for the CATO Institute, writer Radley Balko notes,Americans have long maintained that a man’s home is his castle . . .unfortunately . . .over the last 25 years, America has seen a disturbing militarization of its civilian law enforcement, along with a dramatic and unsettling rise in the use of paramilitary police units (most commonly called Special Weapons and Tactics, or SWAT) for routine police work.”

“Special” once, maybe, but now less special more routine.  Just a quick Google turns up three of many similar citations:

—Police are often amped up for a SWAT-style raid, and suspects or innocent people behind the wrong door often believe that they are being attacked. (

—Federal court case launched after a SWAT team burst into the wrong house, shot the family dog, handcuffed the children and forced them to “sit next to the carcass of their dead and bloody pet for more than an hour.” (

—A small organic farm in Arlington, TX, was the target of a massive police action last week that included aerial surveillance, a SWAT raid and a 10-hour search (which found no violations). (Huffington Post 8/15/13).

What we’re talking about is not traditional police work and tactics. We’re talking about police forces becoming domestic armies, and the mindset of armies is not to protect citizens, but to destroy enemies. It’s a mindset that can result in ruthless acts of brutality as in the recent case of a woman in Tallahassee, FL who wound up after a police stop with injuries requiring reconstructive facial surgery. (The Tallahassee Democrat, 9/10/2013. Again, such incidents are reported with more and more frequency.

This trend to militarize community police forces is something many of us turn a blind eye to, but it has upset Col. Peter Marino, a former marine who served in Iraq helping to build the Iraqi army.  Marino, in impassioned remarks at a Concord, NH council meeting said (and being in the army-building business he should know), “What we’re doing here, and let’s not kid about it, is we’re building a domestic army . . .We’re building an Army over here and I can’t believe people aren’t seeing it, is everybody blind?”

Play Marino’s remarks over news footage of black-helmeted, flak-jacketed cadres of the local infantry in high-laced boots with “POLICE” written on their backs, pouring out of armored personnel carriers with heavy munitions surrounding demonstrators exercising their right to congregate, and my bad dream of domestic armies becomes more than a personal nightmare. Did Bin Laden win after all?

by Jim Culleny

What’s in your cranium?

September 8, 2013

stop frisk

Talking heads love shorthand and seed their observations with abbreviations to make themselves sound wiser than they are.

For instance, “You can’t yell fire in a burning theater” — shorthand for limits on speech for speech some faction wishes was not free. Or, “an accident waiting to happen,” signifying anything an opposing politician is involved in.  And “appearance of impropriety” to explain situations in which a crime committed by a bigwig has been inconveniently brought to light.

Then there’s “past is prologue,” which is so obvious it proves that clichés, no matter how annoying, sprout from a nut of truth. Past is prologue. Anything done now affects what happens in the next instant, and so on down the line, as in: an earthquake in the Pacific creates a tsunami, the effects of which, in turn, cause nuclear contamination to be profoundly writ in the DNA and consciousness of the planet (finally?). You might say Fukushima was an accident waiting to happen (see how easy it is to slip in a cliché?).

What’s true for earthquakes holds true as well for persons and the nations they comprise, the economic systems they corrupt, and the legal system that protects the big and punishes the small. Events occur, ripples expand, money talks and pretty soon everybody’s living in a radiant sewer.

It’s no secret that politicians go to Washington to become millionaires. By means of the laws they’ve concocted, they set themselves up for life peddling influence, then slide into lobbying jobs, glad-handing former colleagues on behalf of their particular private sector sugar daddies. The effects of the behavior of government actors can bring a nation to a virtual standstill, harming the lives of millions, turning a once vibrant nation into corrupt money pot for the few. It can morph from a country that functioned (at least in principle) according to humanitarian norms into a mean, torture-embracing thug with a me-first economy. Past is prologue.

In an article entitledSlave Capitalism,” writer Gabriel Winant reviews Walter Johnson‘s River of Dark Dreams: “In 1835,” Winant writes, “at the height of the Southern cotton boom, the master class of the Mississippi Delta region had an attack of its worst phobia: fear of slave rebellion.”

On the basis of overheard conversations Winant continues, “The masters sounded the alarm: patrols were instituted, investigators fanned out, the countryside came alive with tipsters. Evidence invariably consisted of seeing slaves . . .’skulking around’ . . .suspects gave up under torture (wouldn’t you?), confessing plans for securing arms, robbing banks, butchering masters. As the investigation wore on, the ruling class created an . . .executive committee, which generated, piece by piece, its own worst nightmare. Although ‘circumstantial’ is too kind a word for the evidence, and the investigators enjoyed no formal legal status, they nonetheless executed 23 suspects without controversy.”

Winant suggests that this bit of history ought to “jangle the nerves” because “it is, after all, an ‘if you see something, say something’ story,”  —a prologue, if you will, of our current national surveillance situation; a  tendency of mind to proceed on what’s been thought and done before. To slide into old patterns. To repeat mistakes.

“Its main elements — racialized intelligence gathering, torture, extralegal investigation, and execution — are those of the shadow wars of the modern American imperium,” Winant says.

This should ring a bell since we now have domestic policing assaults such as New York’s stop-and-frisk policy that (based on its own statistics) profiles and targets people of color. Some make excuses for NY Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s program, saying the police are not targeting racial groups, they’re going where the crime is. But if this were the case, the NYPD should also be stopping everyone in a suit anywhere near Wall Street and patting them down for undeserved bonuses, ill-gotten executive compensation, chemical crimes against humanity, bank fraud, graft and other low-life pains and gains.

In fact, attitudes about labor and poverty-crime are the forward reaching tendrils of a slave past, and the engine that continues to drive racism in the U.S. is the denial by pink-skinned people that it still exists. But the capitalism that enslaved and exploited humans is alive and well today. It’s established in the laws written and enacted by the agents of business we mistakenly call “our” representatives. If we would first see and acknowledge that slavery was an economic boon to capitalists when the nation was young, and that capitalists prosecuted a civil war to keep it, we might begin to recognize that this is the way capitalism works, which is to say without compunction.

One example of this is how a company such as Walmart exploits labor.  Its business plan calls for under payment of its workforce and refusal to provide benefits and policies — which circumvents labor laws to a point where workers have to resort to government programs such as food stamps and public assistance to stay minimally afloat. Walmart relies on taxpayer-funded programs to keep its prices low enough to attract low-income people to make fortunes for the Walton family ( It’s a low-price, low-pay perpetual motion machine made possible through the largess of a purchased government that soaks average Americans for the shortfall of private industry. Ingenious! and less blatant and draconian than simple slavery, but in the same vein, following the same impulse. Past is prologue.

I live in a different world than the one I grew up in, but who doesn’t? Nothing new there. But the thing is, it’s we who are now loading the bag the future will be holding. Again, that’s not news, but isn’t it amazing how we blithely destroy the future’s prospects with our thinking? How we deny the connection between now and then? How can we deny the effects of a past that poisons our present and a present that’s dragging us toward an un-pretty horizon, while we lug what should be bygone baggage: our racial animosities, our chronic reliance on violence to settle things, our increasingly merciless, globe-destroying economic system — all for the sake of the momentary bliss of ignorance and denial? We want change without changing the way we think, but isn’t this a stupid conceit?

A Buddhist scripture, The Dhammapada, gets to the nub of the problem: “All that we are arises with our thoughts,” it says,with our thoughts we make the world.”

Seems obvious to say the least.

What’s in your cranium?

by Jim Culleny
for the West County Independent