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 (goodjobsfirst.org.) 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


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