camel and needle

I have a small subscription list of friends and acquaintances to whom I’ve been emailing poetrydaily for maybe ten years. I mix it up: some poems are mine and some are those I come across which strike me in ways that compel me to share them. They range from classic works to modern pieces in various modes and styles. This morning I posted this:

All the time I pray to Buddha
I keep on
killing mosquitoes

This is a haiku by Japanese poet Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828) translated by American poet RobertHaas. It struck me that these three lines correspond to something I recalled from the NewTestament, from the Gospel of Matthew to be exact. Matthew has Jesus making this remark:

“…the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” —Matthew 7:13-14

Googling a bit I found that most Christian interpreters consider this an insight relating to salvation in a traditional Christian sense, but scriptural interpreters have been known to have axes to grind and have surely spun verses to grind them well. As a result many words have been put into the mouths of religious figures that they probably never dreamed of thinking, much less saying. But I think both of these verses speak to the same authentic truth, namely that being a genuinely good and honorable person in this world is not an easy thing.

The forces operating against goodness have always been fierce and mighty, this is nothing new. Pushback is not an idea that suddenly popped up in 21st century news cycles. In fact, centuries of religious teachings might be thought of as moral pushback systems and the figures at their center, each in their own way, sometimes cramped by prejudices of their own cultures, have struggled and taught against greed, ignorance, fear, xenophobia, misogyny, religious intolerance, hate, you name it, by appealing to us to consider truth.

So in Issa’s haiku we have a Buddhist whose tradition teaches ahimsa (no harm) murdering mosquitoes. It’s hard not to harm in the middle of a biting swarm. Few could do it. Squeezing through the good gate is as hard as getting a camel through the eye of a needle. In the past these ideas meant something. They meant so much that religious traditions grew around the teachings of especially insightful and compassionate humans who bucked human nature. But today we follow different drummers who speak in the tongues of men without an ounce of compassion and sound like clanging cymbals in irrational tweets at 3 a.m. —men and women who throw themselves into the worst swamps of human nature without shame then twist and torture the meaning of words, of ideas, of truths into grotesque caricatures of the good.

In the United States we’ve come to a place where we’ve elevated such men and women to power to an extent we’ve never done before. Men and women who treat truths as if they were lies and speak lies with the moral ease of Russian oligarchs using their people as door mats at the thresholds of their mansions. We have a president who’s in the process of creating such moral confusion through tweets and counter tweets, through wild charges and immediate contradictions, through the use of calculated, serial sprays of doubletalk from the mouths of press secretaries and surrogates that he is accomplishing what the Soviet Union could not do in its 70 years of existence, which is to bury us.

An immediate example of what we’re doing to ourselves is wrapped in the person of Paul Ryan, Speaker of the House of Representatives —an ironic title if there ever was one. A speaker who’s been pushing a bill that, according to the Congressional Budget Office, will do exactly what he claims it will not do. It will strip 24 million Americans of their health insurance. It will cost especially older people more. It will treat the poor as pathetic chumps. And it will do this in the name of Ryan’s ideology. It will do this in the name of Ryan’s primary constituency: the rich. And, as if to rub salt into wounds, it will do this to the sights and sounds of Ryan’s obvious glee in having pulled off something Republicans have been salivating over for decades: not so much to kill so-called entitlements for the poor and middleclass but to transfer them to the wealthy by means of the tax breaks for elites that will finance the Republican health “care” bill.

To make things even more insulting, Ryan doesn’t even seem to know what the basic idea of insurance is yet there he is stating the obvious as if it were some dark, secret evil. He says the “fatal conceit” in Obama-care is that it has the healthy paying for the care of the sick.

Ryan on Obama’s ACA: “… young and healthy people are going to go into the market and pay for the older, sicker people.’ So the young healthy person is going to be made to buy health care, and they’re going to pay for the person, you know, who gets breast cancer in her 40s. Or who gets heart disease in his 50s.”

You want to say, What! were you born yesterday? The insurance industry is built upon exactly that. Every form of insurance since the idea was first conceived is a statistical system built upon odds. Every insurance system counts on making its profits from those who pay premiums but never collect.

After the CBO’s report was issued Ryan of course claimed it said exactly what it did not say. But, though Paul Ryan may be a fool, he’s no dope. He knows exactly what he’s doing and so is a pathetic example of how narrow they way is that leads to life (and truth), and of how Paul may sit contentedly at mass in his Sunday suit praying to his God while grinning and swatting, killing poor mosquitoes.


Jim Culleny

bernie-health-insuranceSeveral weeks ago a tragedy occurred in a small town in western Massachusetts that should resonate with us all. A 63 year-old veteran took his own life in a public way. For some time Daniel Dowd had for weeks been seeking treatment at a detox center in Franklin County and was not accepted. He finally lost hope and gave up in a way which may focus attention upon our health care insurance system and how it drives some to despair. He shot himself in that center.

According to reports Dowd’s core complaint focused on the center’s apparent inability or, in his mind, unwillingness to take him into its detoxification program. The reasons for this may be various but one is certainly the current state and influence of the nation’s health insurance industry, an industry that is mistakenly but intentionally referred to as a Health “Care” Industry by those who support it. But health insurance is not health care.

Many, of course, object to this characterization and the suggestion that our nation’s insurance “system” (systems are usually systematic, not erratic) may have had a central part in the death of Dan Dowd. Some blame the detox center itself or those employed there, but whether there were mistakes made by the center or not I think a valid argument can be made that the largest factor by far are the effects of our health insurance laws. The detox center itself is hamstrung by the limiting factors of the laws it works within.

As a matter of fact, the statistical content of one article suggests the significant role the insurance system played here. Of its 1393 words of reportage explaining the basic questions posed by the incident 48% had to do with insurance.

For instance, we learn that centers such as the one in Greenfield may not be supported by state funds or Medicaid but rely instead on private funding which may be unreliable and unpredictable at best. With a universal, single payer health care system this would not be at issue.

Much of what the event of Dan Dowd’s death reveals speaks to the hodge-podge nature of the insurance system that exists now: one riddled with inherent obstacles to good reliable care because it is set up to reap profit not good health outcomes. In this specific case one person close to the center observed “We try to contract with every insurance provider out there, Some of them just won’t pay for detox services.”While another stated that “having zero insurance is better than having the wrong insurance … once you have (insufficient) insurance, you can’t pretend to have zero insurance. That’s fraud.”

Profit, not care, is at the center of our system. In it care is reliably doled out only to those who are insured and insured well: those with sufficient resources to pay and increase the bottom lines of middle-men: our insurance corporations —the industry that stands between men like Dan Dowd and his doctors or other care-givers.

As is made clear by Dowd’s case most of the Recovery Center’s patients arrange admission by telephone, so when they need care insurance issues have been resolved. But life is often not as orderly as that spelled out in insurance system protocols. If someone needs help during a detox center’s off hours, a center erratically funded, one not universally backed by the society it operates within that person may be temporarily admitted and treated but summarily ditched and shunted to somewhere that will take his insurance and continue care. And if there is no such place what then? Tough luck, this is the land of profiteers not care.  

Again, these problems would be gone with single payer.

Finally, there are the contradictory demands and circumstances our present system places upon hospitals, the ERs of which are obligated to provide care with or without insurance, often losing thousands of dollars in uncompensated care (and driving up health insurance costs for others).

But at the center of this tragedy is a simple truth —an almost simplistic one— that cannot seem to make its way into the hearts of minds of those in government who are supposed to represent the people but who, as cases like Dan Dowd’s show, represent instead the insurance industry. This simple truth was eloquently and simply stated by Sheriff Christopher Donelan, another (detox) task force co-founder.  Donelan said he hopes to work with the task force to push state officials in Boston to consider changing rules. “Let’s focus on the crisis first and the insurance second,” he said.

This, certainly, is exactly right. But immediately following that particular goal should be a national non-ideological, non-insurance industry driven commitment to create a health care system in line with the established and successful systems of most developed countries.

In this light, what the ACA tried to do was to insure as many Americans as possible despite the political morass created by (largely) Republican obeisance to the insurance industry. It put in place what it could against the political obstacles it faced, and went a long way in doing that successfully. Whatever its flaws, they are significantly the effects of barriers put up by lobbyists of insurance corporations made effective by Republican (and insurance industry cowed Democrat) intentions to make the ACA as flawed as possible. The resulting insurance cob-job we’re stuck with, this profit-driven system, is about life and death for millions and fortunes for others and, arguably, has more to do with Dan Dowd’s frustration and loss of hope than the consequent actions of the detox center.

Jim Culleny

Post-Truth Nation

December 20, 2016


This is the fundamental danger of Donald Trump: he’s set himself on a path of normalizing chaos. Trump’s success is a tale of façade. Everything we know of him is superficial —as lies in fact are superficial. Falsehood’s erected like a stage set backed and supported by temporary bracing. It’s meant to look true for cameras, not to house veracity (and DT does love cameras). Facts however are fundamental. Truth is fundamental, and being unsure of what the facts are does not make them less factual. Not knowing what the facts are is actually a definition of ignorance.

But let’s be clear, DT is not the first political liar. Lies are systemic in politics, how else could you come to represent a population as varied, erratic and self-interested as humans? There’s never a perfect consensus in policy solutions or even the reality of existing conditions. Ideas and opinions form a gamut. They run up and down scales like broken chords —like discordant arpeggios. They exist in all categories of human philosophy and politics. So, politicians have for centuries crafted careful lies as an expedient means to ends: as tools on paths to power to maintain temporary accord and avoid chaos. Hardly anyone likes or benefits from chaos. Constitutions are written and ratified to avoid chaos. Constitutional law (flawed as it may be) exists to avoid chaos, but law must be founded in fact. The normalization of mendacity and ignorance is a first step on the stampede to chaos.

But, regarding lies, the difference between where we were before the DT campaign and where we are now is that DT has taken us a long way toward normalizing factlessness and fabrication. Before, there was a general sense that lies were unacceptable and that if caught in a lie some consequence ensued. But DT has proven that lying or fabricating to the brink of The Big Lie (and perhaps beyond) are acceptable tactics and might even be admirable, not only in politics but in one’s personal life as well. He’s convinced a justifiably angry constituency that his lies are not lies and has publicly encouraged his supporters to spread them.

In a recent article political theorist Jacob Levy wrote“…often a leader with authoritarian tendencies will lie in order to make others repeat his lie both as a way to demonstrate and strengthen power over them. Is there anyone who doubts DT is an authoritarian? DT is a full page ad for authoritarianism. And does DT revel in displaying his power —naysayers please raise hands  …not many honest takers?   

Levy continues, “Saying something obviously untrue, and making your subordinates repeat it with a straight face in their own voice, is a particularly startling display of power over them. It’s something that was endemic to totalitarianism.”

In fact the danger of DT is how he’s laid the groundwork for disorientation and, eventually, chaos. As philosopher Hannah Arendt commented (referring to the events of the Second World War), “The result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lie will now be accepted as truth, and truth be defamed as a lie, but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world is being destroyed.”

And this is where I part ways with those who want to gloss over the character of the man who will (incredibly) be president, who would avert ears to the content of a campaign full of pretty much nothing but BS, nonsense, blatant lies and calls to arms —at times almost literally. I part ways with them on the basis of DT’s demonstrated character —by what’s come from DT’s own mouth and from his deeds: from the evidence of those he’s stiffed as standard business practice, to those he’s sued into submission because he could, to those he’s groped and mocked, etc. A man’s character is not transformed by the outcome of an election.

There was a “Madman Theory” applied to Richard Nixon during the Vietnam war which suggested that if the president “…appeared to be crazy enough to use nuclear weapons … North Vietnam and the Soviet Union might back down.”Dana Milbank,Washington Post. Well, we’ve seen how that worked out; nearly 59,000 American dead, not to mention countless Vietnamese.

Milbank continues, “But in Trump’s application of the Madman Theory there seems to be less theory than madman. There may be advantages to keeping foes and opponents off guard, but Trump is baffling friends and allies, too. In foreign affairs, unpredictability spooks allies and spreads instability. And unpredictable policy at home has long been seen as toxic for business.” —and, I’d add, national sanity.

For those expecting a different DT than we’ve seen in his campaign and throughout his life, you’ve jumped aboard the chaos wagon. What we’ve seen is who we’ve got, and we can realistically expect that a man who’s gained power by strangling truth to legitimize lies, will not shrink from using lies and tweeted distractions to disorient the nation to the point of intellectual confusion and moral chaos while president. It would not be against his thoughtless nature to initiate mayhem with a nuclear tweet in a moment of pique.

I’d like nothing more than for this to turn out an entirely discredited fear, but there’s too much evidence on the ground (and growing) to dispel it. It’s in the wind, it’s taken root.

by Jim Culleny

Thunder on the Mountain

November 19, 2016

thunder-mountainThe Wall Street Journal is being “cautiously optimistic” here about the installation of a Leninist in the White House —but while hope may spring eternal so does reality.

“I’m a Leninist,” Bannon told a profiler for the Daily Beast, “Lenin wanted to destroy the state, that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down and destroy all of today’s establishment.”

“Brietbart publishes offensive items, but we doubt the site will inform the State of the Union Address.”

“Brietbart will need to persuade the public…”

Those last two statements are particularly startling given the first one. Is the idea that Trump will have to persuade the public that Bannon is not a Leninist in the sense Bannon himself described Lenin? And will that persuasion have the color of the persuasion that characterized Trump’s campaign rhetoric, filled with falsehood and implicit violence, but muted, coded?

The WSJ in wrapping up says (as if to blithely gloss over 60 years or so of Soviet rule) that it didn’t work out well for Lenin. Well, Jesus! it didn’t work out well for the Russian people either, even the ones who initially followed him thinking they’d finally had a leader they could trust.

As Nobel winner Dylan has written, “The writing’s on the wall, come read it, come see what it say.” —Thunder on the Mountain


Jim Culleny

On Growing Up

November 17, 2016


There’s been a lot of talk lately of losers being whiners and that the left should just “grow up”, but when “growing up” means buying into the leadership of a man who has, in so many ways, run against the grain of common decency, against minorities and women throughout his business career and life, continuing through his campaign and now up to this moment by choosing as his chief strategist Steve Bannon who from the bottom of his apparently rage-filled heart has said things like:

“In fact, the women that would lead this country … would not be a bunch of dykes that came from the Seven Sisters schools up in New England.”

Or who has sanctioned headlines at his Breitbart News such as:








Or who ran a headline calling Bill Kristol a “renegade Jew.”

Or who’s ex-wife has testified, “…the biggest problem he (Bannon) had with Archer (school) is the number of Jews that attend. He said that he doesn’t like Jews and that he doesn’t like the way they raise their kids to be ‘whiny brats’ and that he didn’t want the girls going to school with Jews.”

Or who is praised by the Klu Klux Klan as being an “excellent” choice as strategist (I wonder, what would Bannon’s racial strategy be if he’s thought well of by the KKK?)

Or who ran a Breitbart article that “depicts an invasion of France and the white Western world by a fleet of starving, dark-skinned refugees, characterized as horrific and uncivilized ‘monsters.’”

Breitbart news has, of course, been characterized as being racist, white ethno-nationalist, misogynist, xenophobic, and anti-Semitic.

If “growing up” is another way of saying, “Accept the leadership of Trump, Bannon and the entire Republican leadership,” I’m not in. In fact, I believe that accepting that leadership is itself a sign of arrested development, not to mention closeted bigotry. I believe that accepting that leadership is the first step on the path to the terminal decline of what was the idea of “America”.

Jim Culleny


This is a problem: the ease religion takes in reducing hard questions to simple answers (just like politics).

It’s said that god made the world and we see that this world is spectacularly complex and nuanced, we see that it changes without cessation from moment to moment yet scriptures, held up as the “word of god”, are said to be immutable. But the universe itself may fairly be considered the word of god, a word that predates anything coming from the pen or mouth of Man.

We invented religion, so it reflects our small thoughts and minds. “God” (for want of a better identifier) is just too big to be reduced to scripture and dogma. Religion in the hearts of the good will be good, in the hearts of the evil it’ll be evil.


Religion and scripture: gospels and surahs,

Qurans, Hadiths, Bibles and Torahs
may be tools like any other,
used to injure or uplift
—in this they are not sacred,
but are as practical as plowshares, 
swords and word tricks
(as of the earth as fauna and flora)


Prescient statement?:

“When the problems get bad enough, as they might do with another serious terror attack, or another financial melt-down, some one person will come forward and say, Give me total power and I will solve this problem. That is how the Roman Republic fell. Augustus did not become emperor because he arrested the Roman Senate, he became emperor because he promised to solve problems that only he could solve… that is what you should worry about at night.” —Supreme Court Justice David Souter.