Harvard Square Commentary


A political, social, literary journal,


Ernest Cassara, Editor, with Contributing Editors

 John R. Turner & Larry Hamby



19 & 26 December 2005


This is an archive issue of the Harvard Square Commentary for

19 & 26 December 2005. To access the current issue:




Editor’s note: This is a double issue of the HSC, thus longer than usual. In addition to our usual features, we include the striking Nobel Laureate Address of Harold Pinter, a link to the equally striking address by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. at the Sierra Club Summit, and Bishop Spong’s evaluation of Pat Robertson. So, we suggest you bookmark this issue and return to its riches in the next two weeks!



In this issue

From Liberty Street: “Apathy.” By John R. Turner

The Harvard Square Observer: “The President Obfuscates” / Potpourri

“Tyrannosaurus Americanus.” By Sherwood Ross

The Fifth Humor: “Christmas.” By Larry Hamby

“Art, Truth and Politics.” The Nobel Lecture by Harold Pinter

Bishop Spong on Pat Robertson

The Speech by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. at the Sierra Club Summit

Letters to the Editor

Websites of Our Contributors



From Liberty Street


By John R. Turner




A couple days ago, in the lobby of a fairly expensive apartment building on Connecticut Avenue in Washington, I heard two men, each probably in his seventies, discussing the new Medicare drug program. Each said, with perfect confidence, that the bill had not been passed to benefit recipients but rather to provide riches for insurance and drug companies. Their commentary suggested that this was understood by everyone in the country, with the possible exception of a few dimwits who live far from the nation’s capital.

It wasn’t a startling judgment. Anyone who looks at the bill’s provisions is likely to come to the same conclusion. But what was surprising, for me, was the assumption that this is how government works in America and that nobody can do anything about it. These two gentlemen, at least, appeared to have a near-religious faith in the ineradicable corruption of the American government. I’m sure they are not alone.

I wonder why that’s the case. And I wonder even more what it means.


One conclusion is inescapable. If you believe that government can never be anything other than a tool for privileged groups, you also have to believe that democracy is a farce. When President Bush and other government functionaries speak of “our” duty to spread democracy to all the people of the world, it can be seen only as pure hypocrisy. How might it be that we could spread something that we can’t attain here at home?


Think about it. If everybody knows that bills passed by the Congress and supported by the president are designed not to benefit the country but rather to use public funds and public power to enrich a few well-placed people, then why does everybody give us the Congress and president we have?


Wouldn’t logic call for dismissing everyone who had any role in promoting a bill like the Medicare drug provision?


Logic would. But logic is not the only force that works to construct an effective governmental system. It takes energy and intelligence, also, and these are qualities we don’t believe our fellow citizens possess. And so the argument runs that since few will do anything to right the system, there’s no sense in putting out energy to do anything about it. And this becomes perfect formula for pathological apathy.


Obviously, many are not apathetic. There are thousands of advocacy groups and many of them are possessed of the logic, energy, and intelligence which could make for good government.


Yet, the majority of us don’t think they are enough and since they aren’t we don't see much sense in worrying our own minds about the nature of healthy government. If you went out on any street in America and asked pedestrians whether we have healthy government, a large majority would say we don’t. But if you then followed up to ask what your interviewee was doing about it, you’d get either a blank stare or the angry rejoinder that there’s nothing to be done because most people won’t pay enough attention to government to make it work better.


This is the vicious cycle of political apathy we’ve got ourselves into in America, and this is the reason we have George Bush as president and a Congress that will pass blatantly unprincipled acts which waste vast amounts of our tax revenues. People excuse themselves by saying they are too busy to pay attention to public affairs. Yet, if you listen to them, in the streets, and grocery stores, and in public conveyances, they seem to have ample time for triviality. This is the major symptom of apathy: obsession with things that matter very little to the exclusion of things that matter a great deal.


I wish I knew what could invigorate public debate in this country. I would like to persuade people to talk as much about what their government is doing as they do about the weather or about what superfluous snack they are going to take to their next holiday gathering. A big part of the problem is that when people get out of the habit of doing a thing they find it very hard to take it up again. Fail to do your pushups for two weeks and you’ll dread the thought of ever doing them again. Fail to pay attention to your government for a month and the vocabulary required to discuss public events will simply drift out of your mind. Go a whole lifetime without thinking about what you expect from government and your political intelligence will be paralyzed.

We can pray for a revolution in intellectual integrity in
America but that may be putting a bigger burden on God than he ever intended to take up.




The Harvard Square Observer


The President Obfuscates


It is difficult to keep up with the latest excuses for our invasion of Iraq. Let’s see, it seems like a long time ago, but, were we not told that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and that he could deliver them — we were not told by what means! — against us? Tony Blair used the same excuse for the UK joining the US in a preemptive war. Otherwise known as a war of choice.


The latest excuse is that we are “fighting terrorists in Iraq so we don’t have to fight them here.” Well, that sounds impressive. I’ve heard the president say it, and, it must have been included in the daily sheet of Republican “talking points.” Heard Scott McClellan, the president’s spokesman, use the same terminology at a daily briefing of the press. The problem, of course, is that our presence in Iraq is creating more terrorists just dying to get even with us.


Actually, folks hearing this conflating by our leaders of the resisters in Iraq with terrorists, it is natural that they should believe it. Just as Vice President Cheney claiming time after time that Saddam Hussein had a connection with the horrendous events of 9/11/2001 convinced many Americans that it was true. Cheney’s was a bald faced lie, of course. If you hear the confusion often enough, you begin to use the same terminology. I noticed an anchor on the New England Cable News Network speaking of the Iraq war as the war on terror. When I called this to the attention of the management, they agreed that this should not be done and assured me that they would call it to the attention of their various anchors.


President Bush has said on a number of occasions lately that he will not accept anything but “complete victory” in Iraq. Sounds good, if you are a rah-rah gung ho pugnacious type. But, to be practical about it, how will one define “complete victory” in Iraq? When Howard Dean, head of the national Democratic Party, said we could not win in Iraq, the usual loudmouthed suspects among the Republicans called him unpatriotic. Thus proving once again the truth of Dr. Johnson’s statement that “patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels”! Dean later moderated his stance — unfortunately. What Dr. Dean has yet to learn is that one cannot be honest in national politics in the US today. His disadvantage on the national scene is that he is from plain-speaking Vermont!


You will recall that Senator George Aiken, also the state of Vermont, during the Vietnam war, said that the US should just declare victory and leave. This, I predict will be what Mr. Bush does. One caveat, however. The war gung ho imperialistic crowd among us will want to hold onto the various military bases we have built in Iraq and in Afghanistan. After all, we have ringed the globe with them.


The president has also said that intelligence was “defective,” thus his decision to go to war was — what? Defective? Oh, no, he would do the same if he had to do it over again, he says. So, it really does not matter whether the intelligence was “defective.” Everyone in the world knows, of course, that he and the neocons were determined to invade Iraq and were seeking an excuse. I might add that I resided for a score of years not very far from the huge CIA complex in Langley, Virginia. I’ve often wondered how they spend their time, if their product is so defective. I’d like to believe that they do not spend the entire day in coffee breaks!


Of late, my mind has dredged up the figure of Robert A. Taft. (Not the present Robert Taft, governor of Ohio, but his grandfather.) In the 1940s, in the days of my idealism, I was opposed to Senator Taft’s isolationism, hoping that the United Nations would bring human beings from around the world together. I was not happy with Taft’s anti-labor views, but, his desire to keep the U.S. on this side of the Atlantic, had he prevailed, may have stemmed the desire of American politicos to dominate the world. Unfortunately, the US was sucked into the First World War by British propaganda, when it was none of our business, and, the inevitable result was that we were party to the Versailles Treaty that was one of the major causes of the Second World War. Since then, although we had noble goals in helping to rebuild our opponents in Europe and the Far East, we have fallen into the imperial trap.


I’ve been reading Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror, by “Anonymous,” since revealed to be an ex-CIA man, Michael Scheuer. A very sobering account it is of how the US is screwing up in the Middle East. Scheuer demonstrates great understanding of Islam and the ideals of its followers, something that the U.S. neocons lack. His analysis of the motivation of Osama bin Laden and the goals of al Qaeda you will not find in the news media. Profound.


Seems to me that President Bush said some time or other that democracies do not attack other countries. Well, what does that make us?




New bumper sticker advertized: “Be nice to America or we’ll bring democracy to your country”

Ye Olde Editor would like to wish you “Happy Holidays!” Oops! Strike that. Just in case Jerry Falwell gets to read this, I should say “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!”


But, what about my Jewish friends? Hanukkah, after all, is not covered by my second greeting, whereas it is by the first. And, then there is Kwanza. And, beyond my Western-world-oriented ken, there may be others that should be recognized. Ah, well. That being the case, whether Jerry and his sidekick Pat like it or not, I’ll again wish for you “Happy Holidays!”




Tyrannosaurus Americanus



By Sherwood Ross



Americans like to think of their country as a democracy, not a tyranny, when in fact it has become a tyrant republic. Just because Americans vote in elections and enjoy freedom of speech, press, and worship, does not mean the Bush Administration is not trampling the liberties of other nations, which is what tyrannies do.


America’s current vast expansion of military power under President Bush is not only stunning but likely unrecognized by many Americans for what it is — the ascendance of the “military-industrial complex” President Eisenhower warned us about. Some examples:


# The US has increased its military budget under President Bush from $343 billion to $420billion. The $442 billion Bush seeks for fiscal 2006 is about as much as all the rest of the world’s military spending combined.


# The Pentagon is operating 700 military bases in 130 countries from Turkey to Japan. It is spreading its power in a bid for strategic influence in every quarter of the globe.


# President Bush is waging a dishonest war of aggression against Iraq that has killed 100,000 civilians. Its people are suffering and so are America’s people, as 15,000 U.S. troops have been killed and wounded.


# The US military is illegally holding thousands of prisoners of war indefinitely, a tactic Hitler used at Dachau. What’s more, Mr. Bush, who calls himself a Christian, says he will veto any bill to outlaw torture. He’s for it.


# The US is the world leader in weapons sales, with close to $15-billion annually, almost as much as the rest of the world combined.


# The US is investing an astounding $1.5 trillion in research to create 80 new terrifying weapons systems — while it quibbles over the $600 million dues it pays to the UN to advance world peace.


# The CIA, ignominious for its past overthrow of governments in Guatamala, Iran, and Chile, and for teaching torture techniques, operates prisons where captives have no rights and also turns captives over to nations like Egypt that routinely torture.


# The US, which has spent $6 trillion on nuclear arms, still has 5,000 operational nuclear warheads, with a fleet of 200 nuclear bombers and 500 intercontinental ballistic missiles and 15 Ohio-class submarines to deliver them.


Do you think this government, trampling the globe like Tyrannosaurus Americanus, is what America’s Founders had in mind?


Sherwood Ross is Founder, League for Nonviolent Solutions, Miami Beach, Florida, U. S. A. You may write him at Sross1@atlanticbb.net




The Fifth Humor



By Larry Hamby





This seems to be a year when we need to be politically correct at Christmas/Chanukah/ Kwanzaa/solstice/whatever/time. Which makes for some good spoofing, so . . . here’s a possible solution to the greetings problem: merging Christmas and Chanukah.


Continuing the current trend of large scale mergers and acquisitions back towards turn-of-the-century monopolies, it was announced today at a press conference that Christmas and Chanukah will merge.


An industry source said that the deal had been in the works for about 1300 years, ever since the rise of the Muslim Empire. While details were not available at press time, it is believed that the overhead cost of having twelve days of Christmas and eight days of Chanukah was becoming prohibitive for both sides. By combining forces, we’re told, the world will be able to enjoy consistently high quality service during the Fifteen Days of Christmukah, as the new holiday is
being called. Massive layoffs are expected, with lords a-leaping and maids a-milking being the hardest hit.


As part of the conditions of the agreement, the letters on the dreydl, currently in Hebrew, will be replaced by Latin, thus becoming unintelligible to a wider audience. Also, instead of translating to “A great miracle happened there,” the message on the dreydl will be the more generic “Miraculous s--- happens.”


In exchange, it is believed that Jews will be allowed to use Santa Claus and his vast merchandising resources for buying and delivering their gifts. In fact, one of the sticking points holding up the agreement for at least three hundred years was the question of whether Jewish children could leave milk and cookies for Santa even after having eaten meat for dinner. A breakthrough came last year, when Oreos were finally declared to be Kosher. All sides appeared
happy about this development except for Santa’s dentist.


A spokesman for Christmas, Inc., declined to say whether a takeover of Kwanza might not be in the works as well. He merely pointed out that were it not for the independent existence of Kwanza, the merger between Christmas and Chanukah might indeed be seen as an unfair cornering of the holiday market. Fortunately for all concerned, he said, Kwanza will help to maintain the competitive balance.


He then closed the press conference by leading all present in a rousing rendition of “Oy, Come All Ye Faithful.”



In keeping with the ongoing emphasis on security, we find that security forces have done it again!




Nazareth Carpenter Being Held On Charges Involving Underage Mother


Bethlehem, Judea — Authorities were today alerted by a concerned citizen who noticed a family living in a barn. Upon arrival, Family Protective Service personnel, accompanied by police, took into protective care an infant child named Jesus, who had been wrapped in strips of cloth and placed in a feeding trough by his 14-year old mother, Mary of Nazareth.


During the confrontation, a man identified as Joseph, also of Nazareth, attempted to stop the social workers. Joseph, aided by several local shepherds and some unidentified foreigners, tried to forestall efforts to take the child, but were restrained by the police.


Also being held for questioning are three foreigners who allege to be wise men from an eastern country. The INS and Homeland Security officials are seeking information about these who may be in the country illegally. A source with the INS states that they had no passports, but were in possession of gold and other possibly illegal substances. They resisted arrest saying that they had been warned by God to avoid officials in Jerusalem and to return quickly to their own country. The chemical substances in their possession will be tested.


The owner of the barn is also being held for questioning. The manager of the Bethlehem Inn faces possible revocation of his license for violating health and safety regulations by allowing people to stay in the stable. Civil authorities are also investigating the zoning violations involved in maintaining livestock in a commercially-zoned district.


The location of the minor child will not be released, and the prospect for a quick resolution to this case is doubtful. Asked about when Jesus would be returned to his mother, a Child Protective
Service spokesperson said, “The father is middle-aged and the mother definitely underage. We are checking with officials in
Nazareth to determine what their legal relationship is.”


Joseph has admitted taking Mary from her home in Nazareth because of a census requirement. However, because she was obviously pregnant when they left, investigators are looking into other reasons for their departure. Joseph is being held without bond on charges of molestation, kidnapping, child endangerment, and statutory rape.


Mary was taken to the Bethlehem General Hospital where she is being examined by doctors. Charges may also be filed against her for endangerment. She will also undergo psychiatric evaluation because of her claim that she is a virgin and that the child is from God.


The director of the psychiatric wing said, “I don’t profess to have the right to tell people what to believe, but when their beliefs adversely affect the safety and well-being of others — in this case her child — we must consider her a danger to others. The unidentified drugs at the scene didn’t help her case, but I’m confident that with the proper therapy regimen we can get her back on her feet.”


A spokesperson for the governor’s office said, “Who knows what was going through their heads? But regardless, their treatment of the child was inexcusable, and the involvement of these others frightening. There is much we don’t know about this case, but for the sake of the child and the public, you can be assured that we will pursue this matter to the end.”


Now, even Santa Claus has problems:


One particular Christmas season a long time ago, Santa was getting ready for his annual trip — but there were problems everywhere.


Four of his elves got sick, and the trainee elves did not produce the toys as fast as the regular ones, so Santa was beginning to feel the pressure of being behind schedule.


Then Mrs. Claus told Santa that her mom was coming to visit. This stressed Santa even more.


When he went to harness the reindeer, he found that three of them were about to give birth and two had jumped the fence and were out, heaven knows where. More stress.


Then when he began to load the sleigh one of the boards cracked and the toy bag fell to the ground and scattered the toys.


So, frustrated, Santa went into the house for a cup of coffee and a shot of whiskey. When he went to the cupboard, he discovered that the elves had hid the liquor and there was nothing to drink. In his frustration, he accidentally dropped the coffee pot and it broke into hundreds of little pieces all over the kitchen floor.


He went to get the broom and found that mice had eaten the straw it was made from.


Just then the doorbell rang and Santa cussed on his way to the door. He opened the door and there was a little angel with a great big Christmas tree.


The angel said, very cheerfully, “Merry Christmas Santa. Isn’t it just a lovely day? I have a beautiful tree for you. Isn’t it just a lovely tree? Where would you like me to put it?”


Thus began the tradition of the little angel on top of the Christmas tree.


But, there's good news for all you feminists out there:




According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, while both male and female reindeer grow antlers in the summer each year, male reindeer drop their antlers at the beginning of winter, usually late November to mid-December. Female reindeer retain their antlers till after they give birth in the spring.


Therefore, according to EVERY historical rendition depicting Santa’s reindeer, EVERY single one of them, from Rudolph to Blitzen, had to be a girl.


We should’ve known . . . ONLY women would be able to drag a fat-ass man in a red velvet suit all around the world in one night and not get lost.






Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of essays by editors and contributors to the Harvard Square Commentary, whose extended length we feature on a separate series of pages.


Any Man who Hates Dogs and Children Can’t Be All Bad. The Career of W. C. Fields, by Larry Hamby


To access it, click on:





Art, Truth and Politics


The Nobel Lecture by Harold Pinter


Harold Pinter was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature on 10 December 2005. Unable to attend the ceremony in Stockholm because of ill health, he delivered his address by video. The playwright and poet’s monetary prize was £720,000.


In 1958 I wrote the following:

     'There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false.'

     I believe that these assertions still make sense and do still apply to the exploration of reality through art. So as a writer I stand by them but as a citizen I cannot. As a citizen I must ask: What is true? What is false?

    Truth in drama is forever elusive. You never quite find it but the search for it is compulsive. The search is clearly what drives the endeavour. The search is your task. More often than not you stumble upon the truth in the dark, colliding with it or just glimpsing an image or a shape which seems to correspond to the truth, often without realising that you have done so. But the real truth is that there never is any such thing as one truth to be found in dramatic art. There are many. These truths challenge each other, recoil from each other, reflect each other, ignore each other, tease each other, are blind to each other. Sometimes you feel you have the truth of a moment in your hand, then it slips through your fingers and is lost.

    I have often been asked how my plays come about. I cannot say. Nor can I ever sum up my plays, except to say that this is what happened. That is what they said. That is what they did.

    Most of the plays are engendered by a line, a word or an image. The given word is often shortly followed by the image. I shall give two examples of two lines which came right out of the blue into my head, followed by an image, followed by me.

    The plays are The Homecoming and Old Times. The first line of The Homecoming is 'What have you done with the scissors?' The first line of Old Times is 'Dark.'

    In each case I had no further information.

    In the first case someone was obviously looking for a pair of scissors and was demanding their whereabouts of someone else he suspected had probably stolen them. But I somehow knew that the person addressed didn’t give a damn about the scissors or about the questioner either, for that matter.

    'Dark' I took to be a description of someone's hair, the hair of a woman, and was the answer to a question. In each case I found myself compelled to pursue the matter. This happened visually, a very slow fade, through shadow into light.

    I always start a play by calling the characters A, B and C.

    In the play that became The Homecoming I saw a man enter a stark room and ask his question of a younger man sitting on an ugly sofa reading a racing paper. I somehow suspected that A was a father and that B was his son, but I had no proof. This was however confirmed a short time later when B (later to become Lenny) says to A (later to become Max), 'Dad, do you mind if I change the subject? I want to ask you something. The dinner we had before, what was the name of it? What do you call it? Why don't you buy a dog? You're a dog cook. Honest. You think you're cooking for a lot of dogs.' So since B calls A 'Dad' it seemed to me reasonable to assume that they were father and son. A was also clearly the cook and his cooking did not seem to be held in high regard. Did this mean that there was no mother? I didn't know. But, as I told myself at the time, our beginnings never know our ends.

    'Dark.' A large window. Evening sky. A man, A (later to become Deeley), and a woman, B (later to become Kate), sitting with drinks. 'Fat or thin?' the man asks. Who are they talking about? But I then see, standing at the window, a woman, C (later to become Anna), in another condition of light, her back to them, her hair dark.

    It's a strange moment, the moment of creating characters who up to that moment have had no existence. What follows is fitful, uncertain, even hallucinatory, although sometimes it can be an unstoppable avalanche. The author's position is an odd one. In a sense he is not welcomed by the characters. The characters resist him, they are not easy to live with, they are impossible to define. You certainly can't dictate to them. To a certain extent you play a never-ending game with them, cat and mouse, blind man's buff, hide and seek. But finally you find that you have people of flesh and blood on your hands, people with will and an individual sensibility of their own, made out of component parts you are unable to change, manipulate or distort.

    So language in art remains a highly ambiguous transaction, a quicksand, a trampoline, a frozen pool which might give way under you, the author, at any time.

    But as I have said, the search for the truth can never stop. It cannot be adjourned, it cannot be postponed. It has to be faced, right there, on the spot.

    Political theatre presents an entirely different set of problems. Sermonising has to be avoided at all cost. Objectivity is essential. The characters must be allowed to breathe their own air. The author cannot confine and constrict them to satisfy his own taste or disposition or prejudice. He must be prepared to approach them from a variety of angles, from a full and uninhibited range of perspectives, take them by surprise, perhaps, occasionally, but nevertheless give them the freedom to go which way they will. This does not always work. And political satire, of course, adheres to none of these precepts, in fact does precisely the opposite, which is its proper function.

    In my play The Birthday Party I think I allow a whole range of options to operate in a dense forest of possibility before finally focussing on an act of subjugation.

    Mountain Language pretends to no such range of operation. It remains brutal, short and ugly. But the soldiers in the play do get some fun out of it. One sometimes forgets that torturers become easily bored. They need a bit of a laugh to keep their spirits up. This has been confirmed of course by the events at Abu Ghraib in Baghdad. Mountain Language lasts only 20 minutes, but it could go on for hour after hour, on and on and on, the same pattern repeated over and over again, on and on, hour after hour.

    Ashes to Ashes, on the other hand, seems to me to be taking place under water. A drowning woman, her hand reaching up through the waves, dropping down out of sight, reaching for others, but finding nobody there, either above or under the water, finding only shadows, reflections, floating; the woman a lost figure in a drowning landscape, a woman unable to escape the doom that seemed to belong only to others.

    But as they died, she must die too.

    Political language, as used by politicians, does not venture into any of this territory since the majority of politicians, on the evidence available to us, are interested not in truth but in power and in the maintenance of that power. To maintain that power it is essential that people remain in ignorance, that they live in ignorance of the truth, even the truth of their own lives. What surrounds us therefore is a vast tapestry of lies, upon which we feed.

     As every single person here knows, the justification for the invasion of Iraq was that Saddam Hussein possessed a highly dangerous body of weapons of mass destruction, some of which could be fired in 45 minutes, bringing about appalling devastation. We were assured that was true. It was not true. We were told that Iraq had a relationship with Al Quaeda and shared responsibility for the atrocity in New York of September 11th 2001. We were assured that this was true. It was not true. We were told that Iraq threatened the security of the world. We were assured it was true. It was not true.

    The truth is something entirely different. The truth is to do with how the United States understands its role in the world and how it chooses to embody it.

    But before I come back to the present I would like to look at the recent past, by which I mean United States foreign policy since the end of the Second World War. I believe it is obligatory upon us to subject this period to at least some kind of even limited scrutiny, which is all that time will allow here.

    Everyone knows what happened in the Soviet Union and throughout Eastern Europe during the post-war period: the systematic brutality, the widespread atrocities, the ruthless suppression of independent thought. All this has been fully documented and verified.

    But my contention here is that the US crimes in the same period have only been superficially recorded, let alone documented, let alone acknowledged, let alone recognised as crimes at all. I believe this must be addressed and that the truth has considerable bearing on where the world stands now. Although constrained, to a certain extent, by the existence of the Soviet Union, the United States' actions throughout the world made it clear that it had concluded it had carte blanche to do what it liked.

    Direct invasion of a sovereign state has never in fact been America's favoured method. In the main, it has preferred what it has described as 'low intensity conflict'. Low intensity conflict means that thousands of people die but slower than if you dropped a bomb on them in one fell swoop. It means that you infect the heart of the country, that you establish a malignant growth and watch the gangrene bloom. When the populace has been subdued - or beaten to death - the same thing - and your own friends, the military and the great corporations, sit comfortably in power, you go before the camera and say that democracy has prevailed. This was a commonplace in US foreign policy in the years to which I refer.

    The tragedy of Nicaragua was a highly significant case. I choose to offer it here as a potent example of America's view of its role in the world, both then and now.

    I was present at a meeting at the US embassy in London in the late 1980s.

    The United States Congress was about to decide whether to give more money to the Contras in their campaign against the state of Nicaragua. I was a member of a delegation speaking on behalf of Nicaragua but the most important member of this delegation was a Father John Metcalf. The leader of the US body was Raymond Seitz (then number two to the ambassador, later ambassador himself). Father Metcalf said: 'Sir, I am in charge of a parish in the north of Nicaragua. My parishioners built a school, a health centre, a cultural centre. We have lived in peace. A few months ago a Contra force attacked the parish. They destroyed everything: the school, the health centre, the cultural centre. They raped nurses and teachers, slaughtered doctors, in the most brutal manner. They behaved like savages. Please demand that the US government withdraw its support from this shocking terrorist activity.'

    Raymond Seitz had a very good reputation as a rational, responsible and highly sophisticated man. He was greatly respected in diplomatic circles. He listened, paused and then spoke with some gravity. 'Father,' he said, 'let me tell you something. In war, innocent people always suffer.' There was a frozen silence. We stared at him. He did not flinch.

    Innocent people, indeed, always suffer.

    Finally somebody said: 'But in this case "innocent people" were the victims of a gruesome atrocity subsidised by your government, one among many. If Congress allows the Contras more money further atrocities of this kind will take place. Is this not the case? Is your government not therefore guilty of supporting acts of murder and destruction upon the citizens of a sovereign state?'

    Seitz was imperturbable. 'I don't agree that the facts as presented support your assertions,' he said.

    As we were leaving the Embassy a US aide told me that he enjoyed my plays. I did not reply.

    I should remind you that at the time President Reagan made the following statement: 'The Contras are the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers.'

    The United States supported the brutal Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua for over 40 years. The Nicaraguan people, led by the Sandinistas, overthrew this regime in 1979, a breathtaking popular revolution.

    The Sandinistas weren't perfect. They possessed their fair share of arrogance and their political philosophy contained a number of contradictory elements. But they were intelligent, rational and civilised. They set out to establish a stable, decent, pluralistic society. The death penalty was abolished. Hundreds of thousands of poverty-stricken peasants were brought back from the dead. Over 100,000 families were given title to land. Two thousand schools were built. A quite remarkable literacy campaign reduced illiteracy in the country to less than one seventh. Free education was established and a free health service. Infant mortality was reduced by a third. Polio was eradicated.

    The United States denounced these achievements as Marxist/Leninist subversion. In the view of the US government, a dangerous example was being set. If Nicaragua was allowed to establish basic norms of social and economic justice, if it was allowed to raise the standards of health care and education and achieve social unity and national self respect, neighbouring countries would ask the same questions and do the same things. There was of course at the time fierce resistance to the status quo in El Salvador.

    I spoke earlier about 'a tapestry of lies' which surrounds us. President Reagan commonly described Nicaragua as a 'totalitarian dungeon'. This was taken generally by the media, and certainly by the British government, as accurate and fair comment. But there was in fact no record of death squads under the Sandinista government. There was no record of torture. There was no record of systematic or official military brutality. No priests were ever murdered in Nicaragua. There were in fact three priests in the government, two Jesuits and a Maryknoll missionary. The totalitarian dungeons were actually next door, in El Salvador and Guatemala. The United States had brought down the democratically elected government of Guatemala in 1954 and it is estimated that over 200,000 people had been victims of successive military dictatorships.

    Six of the most distinguished Jesuits in the world were viciously murdered at the Central American University in San Salvador in 1989 by a battalion of the Alcatl regiment trained at Fort Benning, Georgia, USA. That extremely brave man Archbishop Romero was assassinated while saying mass. It is estimated that 75,000 people died. Why were they killed? They were killed because they believed a better life was possible and should be achieved. That belief immediately qualified them as communists. They died because they dared to question the status quo, the endless plateau of poverty, disease, degradation and oppression, which had been their birthright.

    The United States finally brought down the Sandinista government. It took some years and considerable resistance but relentless economic persecution and 30,000 dead finally undermined the spirit of the Nicaraguan people. They were exhausted and poverty stricken once again. The casinos moved back into the country. Free health and free education were over. Big business returned with a vengeance. 'Democracy' had prevailed.

    But this 'policy' was by no means restricted to Central America. It was conducted throughout the world. It was never-ending. And it is as if it never happened.

  The United States supported and in many cases engendered every right wing military dictatorship in the world after the end of the Second World War. I refer to Indonesia, Greece, Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay, Haiti, Turkey, the Philippines, Guatemala, El Salvador, and, of course, Chile. The horror the United States inflicted upon Chile in 1973 can never be purged and can never be forgiven.

    Hundreds of thousands of deaths took place throughout these countries. Did they take place? And are they in all cases attributable to US foreign policy? The answer is yes they did take place and they are attributable to American foreign policy. But you wouldn't know it.

    It never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening it wasn't happening. It didn't matter. It was of no interest. The crimes of the United States have been systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless, but very few people have actually talked about them. You have to hand it to America. It has exercised a quite clinical manipulation of power worldwide while masquerading as a force for universal good. It's a brilliant, even witty, highly successful act of hypnosis.

    I put to you that the United States is without doubt the greatest show on the road. Brutal, indifferent, scornful and ruthless it may be but it is also very clever. As a salesman it is out on its own and its most saleable commodity is self love. It's a winner. Listen to all American presidents on television say the words, 'the American people', as in the sentence, 'I say to the American people it is time to pray and to defend the rights of the American people and I ask the American people to trust their president in the action he is about to take on behalf of the American people.'

    It's a scintillating stratagem. Language is actually employed to keep thought at bay. The words 'the American people' provide a truly voluptuous cushion of reassurance. You don't need to think. Just lie back on the cushion. The cushion may be suffocating your intelligence and your critical faculties but it's very comfortable. This does not apply of course to the 40 million people living below the poverty line and the 2 million men and women imprisoned in the vast gulag of prisons, which extends across the US.

    The United States no longer bothers about low intensity conflict. It no longer sees any point in being reticent or even devious. It puts its cards on the table without fear or favour. It quite simply doesn't give a damn about the United Nations, international law or critical dissent, which it regards as impotent and irrelevant. It also has its own bleating little lamb tagging behind it on a lead, the pathetic and supine Great Britain.

    What has happened to our moral sensibility? Did we ever have any? What do these words mean? Do they refer to a term very rarely employed these days - conscience? A conscience to do not only with our own acts but to do with our shared responsibility in the acts of others? Is all this dead? Look at Guantanamo Bay. Hundreds of people detained without charge for over three years, with no legal representation or due process, technically detained forever. This totally illegitimate structure is maintained in defiance of the Geneva Convention. It is not only tolerated but hardly thought about by what's called the 'international community'. This criminal outrage is being committed by a country, which declares itself to be 'the leader of the free world'. Do we think about the inhabitants of Guantanamo Bay? What does the media say about them? They pop up occasionally - a small item on page six. They have been consigned to a no man's land from which indeed they may never return. At present many are on hunger strike, being force-fed, including British residents. No niceties in these force-feeding procedures. No sedative or anaesthetic. Just a tube stuck up your nose and into your throat. You vomit blood. This is torture. What has the British Foreign Secretary said about this? Nothing. What has the British Prime Minister said about this? Nothing. Why not? Because the United States has said: to criticise our conduct in Guantanamo Bay constitutes an unfriendly act. You're either with us or against us. So Blair shuts up.

    The invasion of Iraq was a bandit act, an act of blatant state terrorism, demonstrating absolute contempt for the concept of international law. The invasion was an arbitrary military action inspired by a series of lies upon lies and gross manipulation of the media and therefore of the public; an act intended to consolidate American military and economic control of the Middle East masquerading - as a last resort - all other justifications having failed to justify themselves - as liberation. A formidable assertion of military force responsible for the death and mutilation of thousands and thousands of innocent people.

    We have brought torture, cluster bombs, depleted uranium, innumerable acts of random murder, misery, degradation and death to the Iraqi people and call it 'bringing freedom and democracy to the Middle East'.

    How many people do you have to kill before you qualify to be described as a mass murderer and a war criminal? One hundred thousand? More than enough, I would have thought. Therefore it is just that Bush and Blair be arraigned before the International Criminal Court of Justice. But Bush has been clever. He has not ratified the International Criminal Court of Justice. Therefore if any American soldier or for that matter politician finds himself in the dock Bush has warned that he will send in the marines. But Tony Blair has ratified the Court and is therefore available for prosecution. We can let the Court have his address if they're interested. It is Number 10, Downing Street, London.

    Death in this context is irrelevant. Both Bush and Blair place death well away on the back burner. At least 100,000 Iraqis were killed by American bombs and missiles before the Iraq insurgency began. These people are of no moment. Their deaths don't exist. They are blank. They are not even recorded as being dead. 'We don't do body counts,' said the American general Tommy Franks.

    Early in the invasion there was a photograph published on the front page of British newspapers of Tony Blair kissing the cheek of a little Iraqi boy. 'A grateful child,' said the caption. A few days later there was a story and photograph, on an inside page, of another four-year-old boy with no arms. His family had been blown up by a missile. He was the only survivor. 'When do I get my arms back?' he asked. The story was dropped. Well, Tony Blair wasn't holding him in his arms, nor the body of any other mutilated child, nor the body of any bloody corpse. Blood is dirty. It dirties your shirt and tie when you're making a sincere speech on television.

    The 2,000 American dead are an embarrassment. They are transported to their graves in the dark. Funerals are unobtrusive, out of harm's way. The mutilated rot in their beds, some for the rest of their lives. So the dead and the mutilated both rot, in different kinds of graves.

    Here is an extract from a poem by Pablo Neruda, 'I'm Explaining a Few Things':

And one morning all that was burning,
one morning the bonfires
leapt out of the earth
devouring human beings
and from then on fire,
gunpowder from then on,
and from then on blood.
Bandits with planes and Moors,
bandits with finger-rings and duchesses,
bandits with black friars spattering blessings
came through the sky to kill children
and the blood of children ran through the streets
without fuss, like children's blood.

Jackals that the jackals would despise
stones that the dry thistle would bite on and spit out,
vipers that the vipers would abominate.

Face to face with you I have seen the blood
Spain tower like a tide
to drown you in one wave
of pride and knives.

see my dead house,
look at broken
from every house burning metal flows
instead of flowers
from every socket of
Spain emerges
and from every dead child a rifle with eyes
and from every crime bullets are born
which will one day find
the bull's eye of your hearts.

And you will ask: why doesn't his poetry
speak of dreams and leaves
and the great volcanoes of his native land.

Come and see the blood in the streets.
Come and see
the blood in the streets.
Come and see the blood
in the streets! *

    Let me make it quite clear that in quoting from Neruda's poem I am in no way comparing Republican Spain to Saddam Hussein's Iraq. I quote Neruda because nowhere in contemporary poetry have I read such a powerful visceral description of the bombing of civilians.

    I have said earlier that the United States is now totally frank about putting its cards on the table. That is the case. Its official declared policy is now defined as 'full spectrum dominance'. That is not my term, it is theirs. 'Full spectrum dominance' means control of land, sea, air and space and all attendant resources.

    The United States now occupies 702 military installations throughout the world in 132 countries, with the honourable exception of Sweden, of course. We don't quite know how they got there but they are there all right.

    The United States possesses 8,000 active and operational nuclear warheads. Two thousand are on hair trigger alert, ready to be launched with 15 minutes warning. It is developing new systems of nuclear force, known as bunker busters. The British, ever cooperative, are intending to replace their own nuclear missile, Trident. Who, I wonder, are they aiming at? Osama bin Laden? You? Me? Joe Dokes? China? Paris? Who knows? What we do know is that this infantile insanity - the possession and threatened use of nuclear weapons - is at the heart of present American political philosophy. We must remind ourselves that the United States is on a permanent military footing and shows no sign of relaxing it.

    Many thousands, if not millions, of people in the United States itself are demonstrably sickened, shamed and angered by their government's actions, but as things stand they are not a coherent political force - yet. But the anxiety, uncertainty and fear which we can see growing daily in the United States is unlikely to diminish.

    I know that President Bush has many extremely competent speech writers but I would like to volunteer for the job myself. I propose the following short address which he can make on television to the nation. I see him grave, hair carefully combed, serious, winning, sincere, often beguiling, sometimes employing a wry smile, curiously attractive, a man's man.

    'God is good. God is great. God is good. My God is good. Bin Laden's God is bad. His is a bad God. Saddam's God was bad, except he didn't have one. He was a barbarian. We are not barbarians. We don't chop people's heads off. We believe in freedom. So does God. I am not a barbarian. I am the democratically elected leader of a freedom-loving democracy. We are a compassionate society. We give compassionate electrocution and compassionate lethal injection. We are a great nation. I am not a dictator. He is. I am not a barbarian. He is. And he is. They all are. I possess moral authority. You see this fist? This is my moral authority. And don't you forget it.'

    A writer's life is a highly vulnerable, almost naked activity. We don't have to weep about that. The writer makes his choice and is stuck with it. But it is true to say that you are open to all the winds, some of them icy indeed. You are out on your own, out on a limb. You find no shelter, no protection - unless you lie - in which case of course you have constructed your own protection and, it could be argued, become a politician.

    I have referred to death quite a few times this evening. I shall now quote a poem of my own called 'Death'.

Where was the dead body found?
Who found the dead body?
Was the dead body dead when found?
How was the dead body found?

Who was the dead body?

Who was the father or daughter or brother
Or uncle or sister or mother or son
Of the dead and abandoned body?

Was the body dead when abandoned?
Was the body abandoned?
By whom had it been abandoned?

Was the dead body naked or dressed for a journey?

What made you declare the dead body dead?
Did you declare the dead body dead?
How well did you know the dead body?
How did you know the dead body was dead?

Did you wash the dead body
Did you close both its eyes
Did you bury the body
Did you leave it abandoned

Did you kiss the dead body

    When we look into a mirror we think the image that confronts us is accurate. But move a millimetre and the image changes. We are actually looking at a never-ending range of reflections. But sometimes a writer has to smash the mirror - for it is on the other side of that mirror that the truth stares at us.

    I believe that despite the enormous odds which exist, unflinching, unswerving, fierce intellectual determination, as citizens, to define the real truth of our lives and our societies is a crucial obligation which devolves upon us all. It is in fact mandatory.

    If such a determination is not embodied in our political vision we have no hope of restoring what is so nearly lost to us - the dignity of man.


*Extract from "I'm Explaining a Few Things" translated by Nathaniel Tarn, from Pablo Neruda: Selected Poems, published by Jonathan Cape, London 1970. Used by permission of The Random House Group Limited.


(Text from The Guardian, London, 7 December 2005)


Bishop Spong on Pat Robertson


Christina, a television producer at Fox News wrote to Bishop John Shelby Spong:


“How do you respond to the Rev. Pat Robertson when he warns the citizens of Dover, Pennsylvania, that God might strike them with a disaster since they voted out the School Board members who favored ‘Intelligent Design?’”

Bishop Spong wrote in reply:


Dear Christina,


Pat Robertson has said so many silly and ridiculous things that I wonder why anyone would pay much attention to him on any subject. He warned Orlando, Florida, that God would send a hurricane to destroy them when Orlando’s decision makers added “sexual orientation” to that city’s civil rights ordinance making it illegal for an employer to discriminate against a person because of race, ethnicity, gender, creed or “sexual orientation.” He suggested that Hollywood would be the victim of an earthquake because that is where Ellen Degeneres works. With Jerry Falwell he agreed that the 9/11 disaster was brought upon this nation as God’s judgment for harboring “feminists, abortionists, homosexuals and the American Civil Liberties Union.” He
suggested that the CIA should assassinate the duly elected President of
Venezuela, Hugo Chavez. He has said that the feminist movement is about those women who want to “leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft and become lesbians.” The tirade of absurdities goes on and on.


This country treasures the precious gift of free speech and Pat Robertson can obviously say any foolish and ignorant thing he wishes. When he pretends to speak in the name of God, however, I think his fellow believers have a right, indeed a necessity, to speak a word of judgment on his behavior since his words slander the Christian definition of God as Love given to us first by the author of the First Epistle of John and even more important, lived out by Jesus, who called us even to love our enemies.


I want to make only two points about this issue. First, I wonder who, other than Pat himself, designated Pat Robertson to be God’s spokesperson? How dare Pat assume that the God revealed in the Jesus I serve is filled with all of Pat’s peculiar prejudices. Why does he not understand that God is God and Pat Robertson is not? Why does he not see that when he tells the world with an unashamed certainty what God thinks and what God will do, he is only revealing what he thinks and what he would do if he had God’s power? Pat needs to understand
that he is acting out the very meaning of idolatry. He has confused
God with himself.


Second, some one needs to inform Pat Robertson that the idea of God sitting on a throne above the clouds manipulating the weather in order to punish sinners is so primitive and so naïve that it is staggering to the educated imagination. It is bad enough that his mind cannot embrace the thought of Charles Darwin from the 19th century, but Pat has yet to embrace the thought of Copernicus from the 16th century or Galileo from the 17th century. No educated person today believes that the earth is the center of the universe and that God lives above the sky, playing with low-pressure systems and planning revenge on those who are not believers in Intelligent
Design. Indeed why would anyone be drawn to the demonic deity who emerges in Pat’s thinking and teaching? It is surely not a God of Love who punishes
New Orleans’ poorest citizens with a hurricane that New Orleans’ wealthiest citizens could and did manage to escape at least with their lives, because they had cars. Did God kill the poor in New Orleans in order to send a message to New Orleans’s prostitutes and those who create its raucous nightlife? Is that a rational concept? Did God cause two tectonic plates to collide under the Indian Ocean because there were some 350,000 evil people, with fully one-third of them children, whom God desired to kill in a tsunami wave? Is that how God communicates divine displeasure? Is that a God worthy of worship? Were the 3000 who died in the World Trade Center on 9/11 or the 2100 members of our Armed Forces who have thus far died in Iraq during this war somehow worthy of this ultimate punishment either because of their own evil or because God sacrificed them to send a message to someone else? Those ideas are so ludicrous as to be laughable, except for the fact that for anyone to suggest such incredible things is still painfully hurtful to those who are
the victims of both natural and human disasters to say nothing of their surviving loved ones. I, as a Christian, am embarrassed by the public face that Pat Robertson puts on the religious tradition to which my life is dedicated.


I have known the Robertson family for a long time. His father was the Democratic Senator in my state of Virginia from 1946, when he was first appointed to succeed Senator Carter Glass who had died in office. He was re-elected by the people of Virginia in 1948, 1954, and 1960. In the Democratic Primary in 1966 he was defeated in a very close vote by my first cousin William Belser Spong, Jr., who went on to fill that seat in the United States Senate. Pat is a 1955 graduate of the Law School at Yale University and received a Master in Divinity degree from New York Theological Seminary in 1959. He cannot possibly be as dumb as he sounds in his wild and thoughtless utterances. If ignorance is not his excuse, then one has to wonder what motivates him. In academic theological circles he is treated as a buffoon. No one takes his thought seriously. It is a pity that some people do actually believe the things he says, but they are far fewer than he imagines. It is an even greater pity that the news media think that his continued utterances are worthy of any public attention at all.


— John Shelby Spong

(Sent by a reader.)



Robert F. Kennedy Jr. at the Sierra Club Summit


Another reader alerted us to the speech on the environment and politics by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. at the Sierra Summit, September 10, 2005. You can view it on the Sierra Club's website: http://www.sierraclub.org/pressroom/speeches/2005-09-10rfkjr.asp



Letters to the Editor



An open forum awaiting your message. Editor’s e-mail: ecassara@aol.com


Dear Editor:


Shortly after I read your good comments about Aaron Brown, the CNN commentator who was canned by the network, the mail brought me the Winter issue of The American Scholar, and found another reference to Brown by the editor, Robert Wilson. Wilson, recovering from a couple of
hip-replacement surgeries, lamented the television fare, but had some good things to say about Lou Dobbs and Aaron Brown. Here are his observations on Brown:

My second CNN hero . . . is another unnervingly self-satisfied fellow named Aaron Brown. In addition to his smugness, Brown has a nasally voice and a tendency to betray his feelings through raised eyebrows and other facial expressions, all qualities that make you wonder how this guy got his own television show. But Brown has something as unique on television as Dobbs's sincere passion — he has what can only be called a sensibility. Whatever his deficiencies of delivery, he writes and speaks with a literary flair, and his mind is drawn to subtleties and nuances, and not to the controlling insights of the day that everyone else has drawn from the morning papers. He is of course to good to be true, or least too good for cable news, and it almost goes without saying that he was fired not long ago . . . .

I have always liked Aaron Brown and never noticed his “deficiencies of delivery,” and trust he will reappear somewhere before too long.


Charles Stephen (your only
Nebraska subscriber)


This is an archive issue of the Harvard Square Commentary for

19 & 26 December 2005. To access the current issue: