Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Return to the Irony of American History

This story on NPR was simply so good, it deserves special mention.

Maybe because, when it started in on a new production of "Inherit the Wind," I expected the same old distortions about the Scopes Monkey Trial. But suddenly the story turned on the fact that the playwrights were addressing McCarthyism, not the teaching of evolution. And then Brian Dennehy, who plays the William Jennings Bryan character in the play, noted that Bryan was concerned with Social Darwinism, with the forced sterilization cases in America at the time of the original trial, and other matters that would appall many of us today.

And I thought of the irony of American history, again. Not the way Niebuhr meant it, but the way it often works out. The writers of "Inherit the Wind," as the NPR report notes, probably never imagined teaching Darwin's theory would be controversial (it actually wasn't that controversial in the days of the original trial. That was a manufactured controversy.). But their image of William Jennings Bryan as a benighted and ultimately wrong-headed figure has become accepted as the historical report on the man. The irony? The man who could write these words is still generally regarded as a beacon of reason and wisdom:

The attack is not upon the procedure but upon the substantive law. It seems to be contended that in no circumstances could such an order be justified. It certainly is contended that the order cannot be justified upon the existing grounds. The judgment finds the facts that have been recited and that Carrie Buck "is the probable potential parent of socially inadequate offspring, likewise afflicted, that she may be sexually sterilized without detriment to her general health and that her welfare and that of society will be promoted by her sterilization," and thereupon makes the order. In view of the general declarations of the legislature and the specific findings of the Court, obviously we cannot say as matter of law that the grounds do not exist, and if they exist they justify the result. We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be such by those concerned, in order to prevent our being swamped with incompetence. It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes. Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.
That's one of the sterilization cases Bryan would have been concerned about. That's Oliver Wendell Holmes, in 1927. That's the enlightened view of Social Darwinism at work. Holmes is considered a leading light of his age, while Bryan is regarded, after the success of the play, as a japing fool with a medieval worldview. Read those words again, and consider who has the "medieval" view of the world.

What, by the way, is the story on Carrie Buck?

Current scholarship shows that Carrie Buck's sterilization relied on a false diagnosis premised on the now discredited science of eugenics. It is likely that Carrie's mother, Emma Buck, was committed to a state institution because she was considered sexually promiscuous, that the same diagnosis was made about Carrie when she became an unwed mother at the age of 17 due to being raped, and that her daughter Vivian was diagnosed as “not quite normal” at the age of six months largely in support of the legal effort to sterilize Carrie.
Which doesn't mean Bryan was right in the Scopes Monkey Trial. But, as Dennehy says, his position was complex. And we do ourselves, and him, and even Darrow, a disservice, to simplify the debate for our own purposes.

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