Harvard Square Commentary


A political, social, literary journal,


Ernest Cassara, Editor, with Contributing Editors

 John R. Turner & Larry Hamby


2 January 2006


Editor’s Note: This is the archive edition, which includes the main

features of the 2 January 2006 issue of the HSC. For the

current issue, click on:


In this issue


From Liberty Street: “Time and Its Uses.” By John R. Turner

The Harvard Square Observer: “Civics 101” / Potpourri

Essay: “Any Man who Hates Dogs and Children Can’t Be All Bad. The Career of W. C. Fields.” By Larry Hamby

“Our History of Violence.” By James K. A. Smith

“The Wit and Wisdom of Tom DeLay

Jesus on Prayer at Football Games, Graduations, etc.

Letters to the Editor

Invictus.” By William Ernest Henley

Wisdom from Polonius

Websites of Our Contributors




From Liberty Street



By John R. Turner



Time and Its Uses


Now that we have entered a new year, it seems I should write something moderately philosophical about time and its uses. The average life now extends over eighty years and that adds up to 29, 220 days, which are a kind of bank account from which, like all bank accounts, we can spend either foolishly or wisely.


It’s a common understanding that most people don’t spend their days well. But it’s not a common undertaking to try to figure out why they don’t.


One of my own convictions about our society is that most people are fixated on secondary things, so much so that they exclude nearly completely primary things. Over a long career in higher education I found that to be almost always the case. My colleagues spent far more time worrying about grades, and credits, than they did asking themselves what was happening in the minds of their students and whether whatever that was could be seen as an enhancement of education. The reason mostly was intellectual laziness. Grades and credits are easy. Education is difficult. It requires what Matthew Arnold used to call “fundamental brainwork.” And that seems to be something we are always going to get around to tomorrow.


A second reason people squander their days is a passion for appearing busy. Somehow it has come to be that busy people are thought to be important people. Leisure, which was once the mark of aristocratic attainment, is now viewed as shameful. I have many friends with whom I have never had an adequate conversation because they are too busy to have one. We will begin and within ten minutes out will come their pocket calendars to remind them that they’ve got to get to the cleaners, or the drugstore, or to the post office and so they set off saying that we’ll finish this later, which we never do.


Many people are convinced that they should get the little, practical stuff out of the way first so that, then, they can turn to more important endeavors. But the problem with the little, practical stuff is that it’s endless. It’s designed to be endless. Nobody is going to make much money from your getting up first thing and reading Plato. But if first, you’ve got to get the laundry done, that requires detergent, and somebody does make money off it. If you’ll watch your TV attentively you’ll see that the totality of little, practical stuff that is supposed to be done every day far exceeds the time the day offers. And so, if you become a practical person you ensure that you’ll seldom have a significant experience.


Propriety is another ravenous thief of time. It is continually telling us that we must do things we don’t want to do and that would make no sense at all if they weren’t proper. Cocktail party chitchat falls into this category. People congregate, they chatter, and then they go home feeling that the whole business was a waste of time. And yet, most people are more ready to accept an invitation to a party than they are to accede to a friend’s request that they get together over a cup of coffee. It seems less proper to refuse a bid to a gathering than to tell a friend you’re too busy to have coffee with him.


All these evasions of the primary speak to the truth that it’s rare for people to ask themselves how their bank account of days should actually be used. What are these days for, anyway? It’s a frightening question and one that we often shove aside in pursuit of the trivial. What percentage of people, as they crawl into their beds at night, ask themselves if the day has been well spent, and, if they think it has, on what?


The difference between an account of days and an account of dollars is that the former declines regularly through a force beyond our control. We can’t horde up days like we do dollars. They go away at a steady pace regardless of how much we would like to hold onto them. All we can do is decide what they’re going to be spent on. The most grievous mistake a person can make is to let somebody else make that decision for him. We hear lots of blather in this country about our being a land of freedom. But unless we become a people who decide for themselves, on the basis of genuine personal inquiry, how we dispose of our days, talk of freedom is pretty much a travesty.


What I hope for 2006 is that we’ll all spend our days more sensibly than in 2005. Our days, after all, are all we have.




The Harvard Square Observer



Civics 101



I don’t know if you live in a city favored with the journalistic efforts of a Metro newspaper. Boston is favored with one, as are Philadelphia and New York. Indeed, Metro newspapers are published across the world. If you access Metropoint.com, you will see the countries listed: Portugal, Chile, Canada, China, Denmark, Finland, France, Czech Republic, Greece, Russia, Hungary, Italy, Korea, Poland, Spain, Sweden, Holland. (Don’t know when folks are going to learn that this last is really The Netherlands, Holland being one of the provinces of the marvelous country.)


The Boston Metro is placed in newspaper boxes at the various subway stops, near some bus stops, etc., so, because it is free — supported by extensive advertising — it is widely read. Then many are tossed, often onto the floor of the subway car in which I am riding.


Whenever possible, I get one. It gives a quick review of stories that one finds at length in the rest of the media. I particularly look forward to scanning the letters to the editor. Same reason that I often tune in to the Washington Journal on C-SPAN each morning at 7:00 EST. Vox populi is what I desire to hear. What is the great American public thinking? Sometimes, one receives a rude awakening. For instance, I have been preserving the Boston Metro of 20 December 2005 so that I could share with you an excerpt from a letter to the editor. Actually, it is best that I quote the entire piece, so there is no chance of my distorting it. It reads:


I am amazed and shocked that Republican senators would turn traitor to side with the Democrats in opposing the extension of the Patriot Act. Liberals need to realize the war in Iraq is just one battle in the greater war against Islamo-fascism, and the president’s hands should not be tied in fighting for freedom. The Patriot Act gave the authorities the power to go after terrorists, terrorist supporters and subversives.

     The senators who opposed extension of the Patriot Act have won a battle for the terrorists. President Bush should just declare the Patriot Act a law and have the opposing senators arrested. Friday was a sad day for freedom.


Now, your reaction may be that I should have tossed the paper onto the floor of the subway car, along with the other rubbish. But, nay! This is a good example of the irrationality of a portion of the American public. Note that the gentleman — yes, a man, ladies! You would know better, I trust! apparently has never read the Constitution of the United States? How, exactly, would he define the duties of a president, or “freedom,” for that matter?


In fact, it would be interesting to know whether President Bush has read the founding document. It is said that he does not read the newspapers, but has the news filtered by a member of the staff. Yes, I use the word “filteredadvisedly. Anyone who has read quotations from the letters of Harriet Miers, White House Deputy Chief of Staff and ill-fated nominee for accession to the Supreme Court, quotations in which she exudes that the boss is the greatest, the most brilliant guy ever, etc., etc., can well imagine how much of the news critical of him and his positions gets through that filter.


But, back to the letter writer in the Boston Metro. I am curious as to whether civics courses are any longer taught in the public schools. (Perhaps some teachers will let me know. I promise to share their comments with our readers.) How could anyone speak of preserving freedom at the same time that he calls for the arrest of senators who will not do the president’s bidding? I know that references to the way Hitler came to power are worn thin at the elbows, but, still!


The illiteracy of the public on the founding documents of our country, not to mention the writings of the fellows who established the republic, is appalling. One hears perfect examples of this on call in programs, where ignorant citizens speak of the president as their “Commander in Chief.” Someone should inform them that he is no such thing. He is Commander in Chief of the armed forces, not of the rest of us. It would be useful for such folks to read the informative book, The Enlightenment in America, by one Ernest Cassara. In its pages, they will learn of the influence of the new world view as a consequence of the rise of modern science and how it permeated all areas of life, including government. The American Republic and the idea of freedom is just one of the consequences of the Enlightenment of the 18th century.






You may have read that Wilfred Romney is not running for reelection as governor of Massachusetts. Oh, yes, his name is Wilfred, of which, apparently, he is ashamed, preferring to be referred to as “Mitt.” (I could not understand how his very sensible late father George, Republican governor of Michigan, could have named a son “Mitt,” until I learned what his real name is.) Wilfred has been traveling across the country, railing against the Commonwealth, which chose him over Shannon O’Brien, a very sensible woman. Since he has accomplished so little as our governor, he must make jokes about our Commonwealth.


His latest obeisance to the right wing of the Republican party, which he hopes will support him in his run for the presidency, is to accept federal government money for a sex education program that promotes abstinence. At the risk of repeating myself, I’d like to know whether Wilfred, Bush, and the others who promote such foolishness, were ever teenagers. Had they been, they would know that 90% of the attention span of youngsters of that age is concerned with sex. And, they had better be taught how to avoid pregnancy, not to mention venereal diseases. The idea that kids are going to fight off the hormonal attacks their bodies are subject to 24 hours a day for the sake of Wilfred and his fellow illusionists is utterly laughable.



Having spent a year as a Fulbright Professor History at the University of Munich, at the same time that my Better Half was doing research as a Fulbright scholar on the status of women faculty members in the universities in Berlin, I was delighted to read in the Boston Globe (12/29/05) of the revival of the Jewish communities in Germany, especially Berlin. Since I spent long weekends with my Better Half and our son in Berlin, I love the place almost as much as magnificent Munich. Since we are planning to spend time next spring with friends in the Frankfurt area, Siegen in Westphalia, and Berlin as well, I hope to witness some of this revival. The Globe story may be read here:





Crackers at Christmas! As usual, my Better Half and I spent Christmas day with one of our daughters, her husband, and our grandchildren. At the start of the New Year, perhaps we need a bit of cheer. Thus, I share some of the slips of paper that, along with our paper crowns, tumbled out when we pulled the bands of our crackers:


What clothing does a house wear?



What did the necktie say to the hat?

“You go on a head and I’ll just hang around.


“Doctor, I keep thinking I’m a bell.”

“Take these pills and if there’s no improvement in two days, give me a ring.”


Man: “Please call your dog off.”

Boy: “But, sir, I always call him Spike.”


How many feet are there in a field of 300 sheep, 2 cows, 7 horses, a farmer and 3 dogs?

Two (2) — all the rest have hooves or paws.


Customer: “Do you serve crabs here?”

Waiter: “Please sit down sir, we serve anyone.”






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:





Our History of Violence


By James K. A. Smith

David Cronenberg’s most recent film, A History of Violence, interrogates violence on a number of levels and includes various modes of disturbance — from sadomasochistic eroticism to violence against children, along with key scenes involving bodily fluids and injured flesh. Cronenberg is clearly out to de-aestheticize the violence that is a staple of Hollywood and, increasingly, our cultural practices. He is trying to wake us up to what we might call, loosely paraphrasing Hannah Arendt, the banality of violence.


But the final sequence of the film is highly ambiguous, spurring viewers to ask what Cronenberg is after (and here I’ll issue a spoiler alert). The closing scenes, set in the city of brotherly love, invite, even demand, theological reflection. They are launched by a Cain-and-Abel encounter between brothers Joey Cusak (Viggo Mortensen) and Richie Cusak (William Hurt), invoking the “first violence” of Genesis 4. As Richie peers up the barrel of Joey’s pistol, he pleads, “Jesus, Joey.” Joey responds with a bullet to Richie’s forehead. Looking over his brother’s body, he mutters under his breath, shaking his head: “Jesus, Richie.” We can’t be sure whether these invocations are blasphemies or prayers. The scene that follows, however, invites the latter interpretation.


We cut to Joey at the lake behind Richie’s mansion, peeling off his blood-stained clothes (casting off the “old man”) and washing himself in the baptismal waters of the lake. He then makes the long trip back from Philadelphia to his (now disrupted) ho-hum farmhouse in rural Indiana. Walking into his house, his family (who know his history of violence) is quietly eating at the table. In silence, the youngest daughter prepares a place for him, inviting him to join the meal. His son, Jack, who was enraged by his father’s history of violence, passes him the meatloaf as an extension of hospitality, and his wife, Edie, simply looks at him through tears . . . and the celluloid goes dark. The film seems to end with eucharistic hospitality, the history of violence forgiven as Joey is welcomed to the table.


But I think that such a reading is taking Cronenberg’s bait. In other words, I think that Cronenberg is playing with us here, inviting us to see redemption where there is none. The utter ambiguity of the final scenes — including remarkably illegible expressions on the face of Tom and Edie — invites a quite different reading, one that is much more cynical.


On this reading, Cronenberg is slyly inviting us to see our implication in violence, our own history of violence. (The portrayal of sex in the film compels us into being erotically charged by violence, which is exactly what Hollywood — and Fox News — lives off of.) Following John Milbank, who finds original and inescapable violence at the heart of pagan myths, this alternative interpretation of the movie reveals a decidedly un-Christian, and perhaps even “pagan,” reality: The first violence of Cain and Abel is a necessary violence, replayed over and over again, without end and without the possibility of escape from the cycle.

Joey’s washing in the lake is thus not a redemptive cleansing, but more a matter of “washing one's hands” — the wistful illusion of being done with violence, when in fact it is violence that nourishes all our practices and privileges. And his silent welcome to the table at home is not a matter of eucharistic hospitality and forgiveness, but rather the silent complacency that wants to act as if we weren’t implicated, as if the violence never happened, as if we can just get on with our lives and not talk about it. At the heart of this reading is a heightened sense of the banality of violence — that the pristine peace of every Mayberry is built upon a history of violence.


This second reading seems especially appropriate given recent revelations about the submerged violence that is quietly accepted as necessary for our national “security.” After all, isn’t the price of sitting at the table of American security and prosperity the quiet acceptance of Abu Ghraib? Who are we to be aghast at the Cusak family’s complicity when we live under the regime of an Attorney General who has defended the President’s right to authorize practices that clearly violate the Geneva Conventions? Aren’t all of our dinner tables complicit with a system under which dozens have “disappeared” by “extraordinary rendition” to countries where no one is watching?

These questions suggest that the real theological import of A History of Violence will only be found in refusing the easy, almost trite, identification of Christian symbols. In other words, we should read Cronenberg’s film not as a Christian tragedy, but as a pagan drama revealing how we are implicated in our own histories of violence.


References and for Further Reading:

For background on American participation in torture, see William Pfaff, “What We’ve Lost: George W. Bush and the Price of Torture,” Harper’s (November 2005).


James K. A. Smith is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His next book, Who's Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church, will appear next spring from Baker Academic.


Reprinted from Sightings (12/8/05) of the Martin Marty Center at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago




The Wit And Wisdom Of Tom Delay

These quotations have been checked and are accurate.


1) “So many minority youths had volunteered that there was literally no

room for patriotic folks like myself.” — Tom DeLay, explaining at the 1988 GOP
convention why he and vice presidential nominee Dan Quayle did not serve in the Vietnam War.


2) “Now tell me the truth, boys, is this kind of fun?” — Tom Delay, to three
young hurricane evacuees from
New Orleans at the Astrodome in Houston,

Sept. 9, 2005.


3) “I AM the federal government.” — Tom DeLay, to the owner of Ruth’s Chris
Steak House, on why he should have been allowed to smoke a cigar, despite
federal government regulations banning smoking,
May 14,2003.


4) “We’re no longer a superpower. We’re a super-duper power.” — Tom DeLay,
explaining why
America must topple Saddam Hussein in 2002 interview with Fox


5) “Nothing is more important in the face of a war than cutting taxes.” — Tom DeLay, March 12, 2003.


6) “Guns have little or nothing to do with juvenile violence. The causes of
youth violence are working parents who put their kids into daycare, the
teaching of evolution in the schools, and working mothers who take birth
control pills.” — Tom DeLay, on causes of the Columbine High School
massacre, 1999.


7) “A woman can take care of the family. It takes a man to provide
structure. To provide stability. Not that a woman can’t provide stability,
I’m not saying that. It does take a father, though.” — Tom DeLay, in a
radio interview,
Feb. 10, 2004.


8) “I don't believe there is a separation of church and state. I think the
Constitution is very clear. The only separation is that there will not be a government church.” — Tom DeLay.


9) “Emotional appeals about working families trying to get by on $4.25 an
hour [the minimum wage in 1996] are hard to resist. Fortunately, such families do not exist.” — Tom DeLay, during a debate in Congress on increasing the minimum wage,
April 23, 1996.


10) “I am not a federal employee. I am a constitutional officer. My job is
the Constitution of the
United States, I am not a government employee. I am in the Constitution.” — Tom DeLay, in a CNN interview, Dec. 19, 1995.


(Sent by a reader.)




Jesus on Prayer at Football Games, Graduations, etc.



“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. And in praying to not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” (The Gospel According to Matthew, 6:5-8)




Letters to the Editor


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







By William Ernest Henley



Out of the night that covers me,

   Black as the Pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

   For my unconquerable soul.


In the fell clutch of circumstance

   I have not winced nor cried aloud.

Under the bludgeonings of chance

My head is bloody, but unbowed.


Beyond this place of wrath and tears

   Looms but the horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years

   Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.


It matters not how strait the gate,

   How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate;

   I am the captain of my soul.







“Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom.”—Martin Luther King Jr.



“Democracy is not something you believe in or a place to hang your hat, but it’s something you do. You participate. If you stop doing it, democracy crumbles.”—Abbie Hoffman



“It is not enough to profess faith in the democratic process; we must do something about it.”—Ella Grasso



“Our country offers the most wonderful example of democratic government on a giant scale that the world has ever seen; and the peoples of the world are watching to see whether we succeed or fail.”—Theodore Roosevelt




Websites of Our Contributors



See the latest issue of The Chickasaw Plumb: Politics and the Arts Online, edited by John R. Guthrie, which features:


“THE CORPORAL AND THE CONGRESSMAN: A True Story of Death and Dishonor,” by John R. Guthrie


“HERB SILVERMEN CARRIES THE DAY at The Oxford Union Debate: This House Believes that American Religion Undermines American Values.”





For more commentaries by John R. Turner, visit the website:







Editor’s Note: This is the archive edition, which includes the main

features of the 2 January 2006 issue of the HSC. For the

current issue, click on: