Sunday, April 01, 2007

Return to Never Was

The movie "Inherit the Wind" was on this week. I didn't watch it, but saw bit of it flipping channels idly. I entered when William Jennings Bryan entered the town in a triumphant parade, surrounded by white ladies singing over and over again "Gimme that Ol' Time Religion," ironically a song I associate with the African American church. The tone being set was clear: religious yahoos and know-nothings were ready to champion ignorance over science, biblical inerrancy over Darwinian observation, resolute certainty over intellectual ambiguity.

And I realized it wasn't just a bunch of crap, but that it had influenced the way we think.

Americans draw far too much of their history from movies. We are convinced that all of Texas looks like the Southern California desert where John Wayne shot his movies. Parts of the Trans-Pecos region of Texas are in the high Chihuahan desert which stretches from Mexico into New Mexico and Texas, but just as much of Texas is Louisiana pine forest. Then there's the beautiful hill country in Central Texas, the Staked Plains of the Panhandle, the great flat reaches of West Texas, and the Gulf Coastal region from Beaumont to Brownsville. If you've ever seen a Horton Foote movie ("Tender Mercies;" "Places in the Heart") you've seen the plains around Dallas/Fort Worth. San Antonio sits on a flat river bottom, while Austin, just a hundred miles north, sits on a river just against the Hill Country to the west, and the land rises up from it toward the Capitol to the north, and up again toward the south. There is no "typical" Texas, nor a "typical" Texan, and precious little of it looks anything like the movies. But when I was a child and travelled outside Texas on vacations, people I met were convinced of two things: that I had an oil derrick (they didn't even know to call it that) in my backyard, and that I rode a horse to school. Well, all the oil derricks were in Longview (they still are, but as relics, now), and while I owned a horse, I rode my bike to school. But people I met had seen movies, so they knew better.

I, too, grew up thinking "Inherit the Wind" was some kind of history, somehow true to reality. But the characters in the movie don't even carry the names of the famous protagonists William Jennings Bryan and Charles Darrow. The movie is a fictionalized account not of the "Scopes Monkey Trial" but of the dangers of McCarthyism. Which is fine, as far as it goes; but it is a gross distortion of American history and, sadly, movies are where most Americans learn their history. So while Lawrence and Lee meant to write a cautionary tale about religious belief, religious tolerance, and the dangers of anti-intellectualism, what was recieved was a picture of America "as it used to be." And many people ever since, especially since the "cultural revolution" of the late '60's (which, to be fair, Lawrence and Lee couldn't possibly have foreseen), have been consciously or unconciously using that film as a touchstone for fundamentalism and religious opposition to science.

Consider just the scene I stumbled on; the triumphant entry of the "religious" hero. It's practically an echo (if not a mockery), of the Triumphal Entry Christians will be celebrating today (Palm Sunday; and no, I don't mean the echo is intentional). Matthew Harrison Brady (William Jennings Bryan) arrives in town in an open car, surrounded by people carrying not palm leaves but placards, singing loudly and fiercely in support of their "old time religion" and just as vociferously in opposition to science. It is, in many ways, a perfect parallel to the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem for the last time, except this time, we sympathize with the Romans. But is that what really happened? Is that really how the people of Tennessee felt?

In reality, the people of Dayton were generally very kind and cordial to Darrow, who attested to this fact during the trial as follows:

"I don't know as I was ever in a community in my life where my religious ideas differed as widely from the great mass as I have found them since I have been in Tennessee. Yet I came here a perfect stranger and I can say what I have said before that I have not found upon any body's part — any citizen here in this town or outside the slightest discourtesy. I have been treated better, kindlier and more hospitably than I fancied would have been the case in the north." (trial transcript, pp. 225–226)
I don't normally quote from Wikipedia, but I'm using this to raise an issue, not to condemn this play. The article provides a useful list that gets me to my point rather more rapidly than I could do. I quote only the ones relevant to my thesis (and I do have one!):

(M) refers to the 1960 film and (P) to the published play script. (M/P) means the point appears in both versions.

(M/P) Brady, in answer to Drummond's question about the Origin of Species, says he has no interest in "the pagan hypotheses of that book". In reality, Bryan was familiar with Darwin's writings and quoted them extensively during the trial.

(M/P) Brady was opposed to Darwinism only on religious grounds. Moreover, while Bryan was a fundamentalist in his theological views, his political and economic views were quite progressive. He opposed eugenics, and rejected the way in which Social Darwinism and its doctrine of "only the strong survive" had been invoked to justify the cutthroat tactics of many a Gilded Age robber baron (industrialist).

(M/P) In answer to a question from Drummond, Brady declares that the original sin of Adam and Eve was their discovery of sexual intercourse. In reality, the confrontation between Bryan and Darrow never mentioned sex, and all forms of Christianity fully condone marital intercourse.

(M/P) When the verdict is announced, Brady protests, loudly and angrily, that the fine is too lenient. In reality, Scopes was fined the minimum the law required, and Bryan offered to pay the fine.

(M/P) Drummond is portrayed as involved in the trial out of a desire to prevent Cates from being jailed by bigots. In reality Scopes was never in danger of being jailed. In his autobiography and in a letter to H.L. Mencken, Darrow later acknowledged that he took part in the trial simply to attack Bryan and the fundamentalists.

(P) Hornbeck is depicted as an atheist. H. L. Mencken was in fact an agnostic whose writings attacked only certain aspects of Christianity, such as infant damnation, Biblical literalism, predestination, and hostility to Darwin. But he had no real quarrel with the Protestant mainstream of his day, and admired Catholic ritual. Mencken was no progressive paragon and did not trust democracy based on universal suffrage. His German sympathies were so strong that he opposed American participation in both world wars, and dismissed criticism of Hitler in the 1930s.
Nothing wrong with this, you understand; and the authors of the play even insisted their play was not history and did not pretend to be journalism. So why am I bringing this up?

Well, my interest in the play and movie began, not last night, but with Huston Smith's Why Religion Matters (New York: HarperSanFrancisco 2001). Smith is even more caustic toward the play than I think is necessary, but he provides us with several points of critique worth considering. As the Wikipedia article points out:

Despite the authors' warnings, nowadays the play is typically seen as a largely true account of the Scopes Trial and thus is taken as a documentary-drama. In reality, the Encyclopædia Britannica had no entry for the Scopes trial until 1957; the entry mentioned the successful Broadway run of Inherit the Wind, giving the impression that the play was historically accurate. American high school and college texts did not mention the Scopes trial until the 1960s, usually as an example of the conflict between science and evangelical Christianity, and often in sections discussing the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan. In recent decades, school texts and encyclopedia entries have continued to take the play and film as historically accurate, claiming, for example, that during the trial, Darrow made Bryan look like a fool.

Inherit the Wind portrays the Cates/Scopes character as unfairly persecuted. In reality, although the ACLU was looking for a test case with a teacher as defendant, it was a group of Dayton businessmen who persuaded Scopes to be a defendant, hoping that the publicity surrounding the trial would help put the town back on the map and revive its ailing economy. Scopes was never in the slightest danger of being jailed.
Smith gives us a bit more useful detail on these points, contrasting history with the movie's portrayal:

In the hope of reversing three decaeds of declining population, Dayton's town fathers saw in the ACLU's search for a biology teacher to test the legality of the Tennessee law a golden opportunity to put Dayton back on the map. That its high school biology teacher was ill and incapacitated posed no problem; the football coach and general science teacher, John Scopes (who had been drafted to complete the biology course) would do. In the actual trial, Scopes testified that as substitute teacher in the second half of the course he had learned more biology from his students than they had learned from him, for at least they had had six weeks of instruction from someone who knew something about the subject.

The town fathers' strategy exceeded their wildest hopes. Over two hundred reporters alone poured into Dayton, and the trial turned out to be one of the first in America to recieve international coverage. (Smith 106)
As for Bryan, it's not quite right to consider him a fundamentalist, at least not in the modern meaning of that term. He testified during the trial that he read the Creation story in Genesis allegorically, not literally. His animosity toward Darwinism was based on his experience with 'Social Darwinism', which isn't Darwin's theory at all. As Smith notes:

Bryan was first and foremost a passionate humanitarian. He was an irrepressible evangelist for social reform, and social Darwinism (which would soon be discredited) was then in its heyday. Bryan had seen the survival-of-the-fittest theory used to defend the robber barons in America, and in Germany to justify the brutal militarism that led to World War I. This had led him to the belief that 'the Darwinian theory represents man as reaching his present perfection by the operation of the law of hate, the merciless law by which the strong crowd out and kill off the weak." (Smith, 107)
A theory that would suit the Bush Administration, for one, right down to the ground.

So Bryan was no Pat Robertson; and even H.L. Mencken was not the "H.L. Mencken" most of us think we know. History is often like that. We go with what we are told, not what we could learn from the original sources. Part of the problem there, of course, is that you end up with foolishness like Sam Harris writes. That is, you end up with some people end up believing the foolishness is history.

The fights over "intelligent design" owe more to taking "Inherit the Wind" as history, than they do to history itself. The clear perception of those who promote intelligent design and those who report on it is that the Scopes trial was about religion v. science. As Smith points out: "The reporters who covered the [Scopes] trial saw things differently. They took the confrontation to be the opening skirmish in a battle between religious fundamentalism and religious modernists that would continue." (Smith, 107) The irony is, it's become a battle between science and "know-nothings." But the "willful ignorance" Matthew Chapman finds in Dover, Pennsylvania is grounded as much in re-creating "Inherit the Wind" as it is in reality. And it is that rather tortured reality, practically a torus for most Americans (a three-dimensional object with only one surface. Mmmmm...donuts!) which has become not just the false image of religious belief, but the true belief of at least some Americans. At some point, this whole thing becomes a Mobius strip., and we find ourselves striking out in one direction and, while always going forward, eventually return to precisely where we started, the whole event conducted on one continous, flat, twisted surface. Watch the donut, not the hole.

Karen Armstrong blames much of what has happened in American religion on the Scopes Monkey Trial:

“Before the Scopes ‘monkey’ trial—when the secular press ridiculed the fundamentalists and said they had no place in the modern agenda—fundamentalist Christians had been literal in their interpretation of scripture but creation science was the preserve of a few eccentrics. After the Scopes trial, they became militantly literal and creation science became the flagship of their movement. Before the Scopes trial, fundamentalists had often been on the left of the political spectrum and had been willing to work alongside socialists and liberal Christians in the new slums of the industrializing North American cities. After the Scopes trial, they swung to the far right, where they remained. They felt humiliated by the media attack. It was very nasty. There was a sense of loss of prestige, and, above all, a sense of fear.”
I think she is much closer to the mark than Harris or Dawkins. It isn't that "creation science" has ever been a fundamental tenet of American Christian fundamentalism. It is more that the entire topic, taken in the social context of "Inherit the Wind," has been seen as a rallying point for control of public authority. The challenge in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District was not really to science, it was to control of the classroom. It was a case (as is always the case in these matters) who who would have the power to decide what truth will be accepted and acceptable. In the Kitzwiller case, for example, the defense was provided pro bono by the Thomas More Law Center, a contradiction, as Chapman notes, because:

its stated mission is "Defending the Religious Freedom of Christians," "Restoring Time-honored Family Values," and "Protecting the Sanctity of Life," which, as a biblical literalist myself, I take to mean defending such freedoms as the biblically mandated right to capture women in battle, shave their heads, lock them up for a month, rape them into matrimony (Deuteronomy 21:10), and then deny them the right to an abortion afterward.
Leaving aside the snark about abortion (one controversy at a time, please!), note the language about "Restoring Time-Honored Family Values." Sound like the position of some people in a movie, does it? I don't think that is quite an accident.

Nor, of course, is there a direct line from Lawrence and Lee's play to the Thomas More Law Center. But the images we have of our world are drawn from sources that often have nothing whatsoever to do with reality, and yet we weave those bits and pieces into a nest which we are quite sure is both safe, and sound. Consider this comment from a thread at Street Prophets:

But the danger - just watch the movie "Inherit the Wind" - some things never change - is that it seeks to institutionalize ignorance AND uses the self-aggrandizing theatricality of the revival preacher.
It's true some things never change (or even go away), and in that sense indeed human history is a Mobius strip, with only one surface although we think all three dimensional objects must have at least two. Thanks to "Elmer Gantry" and "Marjoe" and the real-life antics of people like Jim and Tammy Bakker, the prevailing opinion of "revivalist preachers" is that they are full of "self-aggrandizing theatricality." Certainly some are, while some are sincere believers in the theology and religion in which they have been raised. Easy to demonize such people; far harder to be patient and understand them. As I have been at pains to point out, this lesson from the movie has nothing to do with the reality of the Scopes Monkey Trial, or even American history before World War II, and everything to do with the culture that grew up after that war, and even more so the culture that we have created since 1960. "A Man Called Peter" portrayed a Christian evangelist as a sold, middle-class white suburbanite urging us all to good deeds and quiet good thoughts. Is it any accident that the "evangelical" preacher who found fame and fortune in front of a TV camera is a product of the post-"Inherit the Wind" environment, by using new technology to hearken us all back to a past that never was? It wasn't the people of Dayton, Tennessee in 1925 who looked longingly back to a past they needed desperately to recreate, or who sought to "institutionalize ignorance." It is fairer to say it was the people of Dover, Pennsylvania in 2005 who were doing that.

As Wikipedia notes, even H.L. Mencken wasn't the scourge of religion some would have him be today. We always read history through a lens of our own forging. The question is, what materials do we put into that lens? Consider this critique of Albert Mohler, President of Southern Theological Seminary in Lousville, Kentucky, for example:

Mohler's deity, in short, is the God of Double Standards: a God who enforces the norms and fears of a world before science, a God profoundly ignorant of or resistant to the arc of American history, which is the struggle to expand the scope of the word "men" in our founding declaration that "all men are created equal." This is a God who in earlier times was invoked to defend segregation and, before that, slavery.
But that's like reflexively comparing George W. Bush to Hitler: it's hyperbole meant to shock and demonize, not to enlighten and inform. Albert Mohler's views may truly be indefensible from intellectual scrutiny, but it's quite a stretch to impugn him as a supporter of slavery because of them. Just as it is, in the end, an error to condemn proponents of "Intelligent Design" as know-nothing yahoos who want to return us to an age of ignorance. In this Armstrong is more right than the generally accepted view of "Inherit the Wind:" the issue here is power, not information. It isn't what students will be told, but who will be allowed to tell it. And the irony is, the debate about that control is conducted in the false light of an invented history, one created by a movie. When people argue for "intelligent design" in the classrooms, or against it, they imagine they are arguing for, or against, a return to a standard or practice which we have abandoned, and the only argument is: should we have abandoned it, or should we return to it? Mohler's God, as presented by Harold Meyerson, existed side by side with the God of William Wilberforce, and one eventually crowded out the other in popular acceptance. But Mohler's God (in Meyerson's portrayal, anyway), still had to be countered with the God of Martin Luther King, Jr. Thus the struggle ever goes on; thus "The peace of God, it is no peace, but strife sown in the sod."

I realize I am making an argument which rests on "Monkey see, monkey do," but much of human behavior rests on the models our culture provides us. Much as "Inherit the Wind" can be viewed as a film presenting the idea that "...religion (equated with fundamentalism) is bigoted, closed-minded, and backward looking," it can also be viewed as a model of religious practice today. Oddly enough, it's a poor model of religious opinion in 1925, but the caricature it presented, in order to mock McCarthyism, has become the reality which Sam Harris can depict as the only true face of Christianity. Some modern supporters of "intelligent design" respond, in one way or another, to the images of women with placards marching in the street in defense of that "ol' time religion" and in opposition to "science," and they link arms across the ages to march again. It didn't happen that way, but it has now, and by re-creating what never was, we have tried to make it same as it ever was again. And the determined opposition (Dawkins and Dennett, as well as Harris; as others besides me have noted) clings to that straw figure as fervently as any true believer could. Thus do we create the enemies we would do battle with.

I began this with the idea that the problem here was with fundamentalists who have a very poor idea of their own history; who don't realize, for example, that they would consider William Jennings Bryan both a "liberal" and probably a heretic (read the link to the Mohler critique to see what a firestorm Mohler spawned with an otherwise innocuous remark). But I end it realizing the problem is with "us," and not with "them." This matter of perception cuts both ways: the presentation of those defending "that ol' time religion" becomes the model for culture wars today, even though it is a model without true historical precedent. It becomes more than a model, it becomes the framing device through which such objections are given form, are understood. But it also becomes the frame through which we, those of us who disagree, see the issues as well. Go back to that comment from Street Prophets. Look at the assumptions behind Matthew Chapman's report on "the other monkey trial." We accept the frame as well, and expect the discussion to fall into that form, the better that we can criticize it. But we don't just expect it to fit the form, we create the form and the opposition itself out of whole cloth. This is not a battle that has raged since the Enlightenment; this is the battle we have created, both of us, "us" and "them." We are just as much victims of our historical ignorance as they are; and (Matthew Chapman in English), we can't even easily blame it on American ahistoricism. We need "them" to be ignorant yahoos, the better to justify our conclusions about why we are right about this, and about everything else "they" disagree" with us on. But the more we do that, the more we link ourselves inextricably to "them." How can the truth set me free, if I insist the truth binds me to "their" ignorance?

I can't change how "they" think, and indeed, I'm not responsible for their thinking. I can only change how I think, and looking for the truth, as John's gospel tells us, I will both find it, and be set free. (Agent Mulder was right, the truth is out there! Never thought of that as a Christian message, did you?) But before I can change my thoughts, before I can go out there looking for the truth, I have to acknowledge that I am part of the problem. I have to realize that I have my "truth," too, and that it needs "their" truth in order to be a whole. But it isn't a whole, and it never will be; not so long as I fail to realize that my understanding of "them" is actually my understanding of "me," and of what I am sure is true; and probably isn't.

Aye, there's the rub.

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