A political, social, literary journal,
Ernest Cassara, Editor, with Contributing Editors
John R. Turner & Larry Hamby
Editor’s Note: This is the archive edition, which includes the main
features of the
current issue, click on:
In this issue
■ 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
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.
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
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
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
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
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 “filtered” advisedly. 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
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
You may have read that Wilfred Romney is not running for
reelection as governor of
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
Reprinted from Sightings (
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
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,
4) “We’re no longer a superpower. We’re a super-duper power.” —
5) “Nothing is more important in the face of a war than cutting
taxes.” — Tom DeLay,
6) “Guns have little or nothing to do with juvenile violence. The
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
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
8) “I don't believe there is a separation of church and state. I
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
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,
10) “I am not a federal employee. I am a constitutional officer.
My job is
the Constitution of the
(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: email@example.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
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
current issue, click on: