Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Magic thinking and monkey business

The Chariton Herald-Patriot offered a little shelter from yesterday's storm and between bouts of shoveling I managed to read 1925 front pages from January's start to December's finish, looking for details about historic buildings --- but wandering off into other areas, too.

One thing you discover while reading through old newspapers is support for the theory that the more things change the more they remain the same.

It hadn't occurred to me that 1925 was the year of the Scopes "monkey trial" until increasingly detailed stories about that great battle for America's soul began to appear on The Patriot's front pages. These were not local stories --- there was no indication that The Patriot staff ever asked Lucas Countyans what they thought about the issues involved. But the syndicated coverage before and during the event published on front pages in Chariton was lengthy and fairly well balanced.

Here's one of the shorter (unbalanced) examples, published on June 18, 1925, as Christian fundamentalists moved around the country drumming up support before the trial began:

This Alludes to Theory That Man Came Up From a Lower Order
This Should Not Only Be Prohibited but the Propaganda Should be Stopped Altogether

Des Moines, June 17 --- If the teaching of evolution is accepted, man is a beast without morals, Rev. Henry Ostrom, evangelist of New York City, told members of the Kiwains club at their luncheon yesterday at the Hotel Fort Des Moines.

He branded the theory of evolution as dangerous and said the belief should not be tolerated by those who profess belief in the Bible.

"Many examples of the teaching are apparent today. A great many of the recent crimes committed may be traced to its influence. Loeb and Leopold are shining examples. They were highly educated and without morals.

"This teaching is one of the most dangerous points in modern education. Not only should the teaching of evolution be prohibited in schools, but further than that propoganda on the subject should be stopped. It tends to undermine the fundamentals of every institution of modern civilization."

(Nathan F. Leopold and and Richard A. Loeb were young Chciago men convicted of kidnapping and murdering 14-year-old Bobby Franks for no reason other than a desire to prove they could commit a perfect crime.)

The interesting thing about the Scopes trial, sometimes forgotten, is that it was a carefully staged event --- court theater. Tennessee had passed the Butler Act, prohibiting the teaching of evolution in public schools, during January of 1925. The American Civil Liberties Union (still the Great Satan among fundamentalists and Republicans) was anixous to challenge it. Civic and business leaders in Dayton, Tennessee, decided a trial that drew nation-wide attention would be good for the local economy and agreed to stage it. Teacher John T. Scopes (left) agreed to implicate himself in order to become the defendant. Fundamentalists, anxious to spread the anti-evolution gospel, joyfully signed on.

William Jennings Bryan, a Christian fundamentalist known by some as the great commoner and by others as the great windbag, was recruited as lead prosecutor. Clarence Darrow, an agnostic, led the Scopes' defense with substantial support from progressive Christians who saw no conflict between the concept of theistic creation and evolution as the tool kit. Fundamentalists insisted that the creation myths of Genesis should be taken literally.

The verdict --- Scopes was found guilty of violating the Tennessee statute, fined $100, then the conviction was overturned on a technicality --- was of far less significance than the rhetoric and symbolism, which still resonate now and then.

Even though Darrow had demonstrated during testimony that Bryan actually didn't know much about the Bible, "making a monkey" out of the great orator some said, Fundamentalists envisioned capitalizing on trial fever to continue their drive to embed anti-evolution language in state statutes and constitutions. Bryan was intended to be the flag-bearer, but expired a few days after the trial in his sleep in Dayton, leaving anti-evolutionists with a leadership crisis --- and momentum was lost.

None of this means either fundamentalists or the anti-intellectualism that they incorporate and represent has gone away. Heck, they've even managed to take over the Republican party. But the issues do change. Today, it's same-sex marriage. I'm wondering what the issue will be in 2113. It would be nice to have some assurance that there will be less magic thinking around in another 100 years, but none of us are going to be here to find out.

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