Monday, September 8, 2014

Inherit The Wind Bag

Over the weekend I had time to think more about Chris Mooney's article I wrote about last week, making the logical disconnect of measuring the level of scientific activity of a geographic location by the number of patents issued there and drawing an entirely unfounded conclusion by comparing that to the also problematic measure of "religiosity" was presented.   Almost unnoticed was that even before the text began this picture was presented.

with the caption:

Evangelist T.T. Martin's books against the theory of evolution are sold in Dayton, Tennessee, scene of the 1925 Scopes trial*.

Which is certainly more indicative of the issue evoking many cultural symbols and making appeals to bias than it says anything about the claims of the study Mooney cites and draws his own conclusions from.   Since both of those went out on any number of overlong limbs to make some entirely far fetched claims, I will go out on a far shorter one and say that the intentional dishonesty of that appeal to prejudices derived from fiction such as Inherit the Wind needs to be taken into account in judging what is claimed and how it is claimed.

Since Mooney did a U-turn with this article, contradicting what he had been saying for years on his blogs and in his book, Unscientific America, that religion and science are not inevitably at odds, its clear he is falling into habits of thought he had once rejected.

The equation of religion with the kind of fundamentalism that is symbolized by the winning side of the Scopes trial is one of the more common historical superstitions at large in the college educated public.  Most Christians and other religious people, are not literalist fundamentalists.   Not even some of the main figures in the real trial were as they are commonly assumed to have been.  Both the character of the participants in that real life event and the event, itself, is little like the fictionalization of it that most of us rely on, mostly through Inherit the Wind but also in dozens of broadcast and scribbled pieces, most of which seem to depend on that instead of the historical record.

William Jennings Bryan, far from the ignorant, reactionary bigot he is depicted as being in the play had likely read more of the literature of Darwin and Darwinism than Clarence Darrow.  He had certainly thought about it more deeply than than H. L. Mencken, who is the origin of much of what people believe they know about the event.  Reading both of them, generally, will show that Bryan was far more aware of world events and had a far better record of seeing where things were going.  He called the subsequent history right.

For some reason Mencken is thought of as being, in some way, progressive, when he reads like a cynical reactionary apologist for inequality and the status quo.   You might want to consider how the guy was used by Forbes magazine to support the world view it expresses.

I am no apologist for the existing order of things. Like [Thomas] Huxley, I believe that the management of the universe is by no means perfect, but such as it is, we must accept it. If you point out that human progress, as I have defined it, involves the practical enslavement of two-thirds of the human race, my answer is that I can’t help it. If you point out that a slave always runs the risk of being oppressed by a particularly cruel master, I answer that a master always runs the risk of having his brains knocked out by a particularly enterprising slave. If you point out that, by my scheme of progress, it is only the upper stratum that actually progresses, I answer that only the upper stratum is capable of progressing unaided.

The mob is inert and moves ahead only when it is dragged or driven. It clings to its delusions with a pertinacity that is appalling. A geological epoch is required to rid it of a single error, and it is so helpless and cowardly that every fresh boon it receives, every lift upon its slow journey upward, must come to it as a free gift from its betters–as a gift not only free, but also forced. Great men have fought and died for the truth for a thousand years, and yet the average low-caste white man of today, throughout Christendom, still believes that Friday is an unlucky day, still believes that ghosts walk the earth, and still holds to an immovable faith in signs, portents, resurrections, redemptions, miracles, prophecies, hells, gehennas and politicalanaceas.

In the complete letter of Mencken from which that was taken you can see what I mean about him being the farthest thing in the world from a real liberal.  You can also see in his catalog of attributes of the large majority of humanity, certainly of "low-caste white men.... throughout Christendom" a shortened Index of Prohibited Ideas such as CSI(COP) or any of the materialist-atheist "skeptics" groups would issue.   Mencken writing to Robert Rives La Monte was bringing up that list, not to refute La Monte's socialism - his case against that is a rehash of social Darwinist bilge** - but to associate it with what the elite would consider déclassé and disreputable.  In short, to give it cooties.  Which is the real substance of using fictionalized accounts of the Scopes trial in the way it was used at Mother Jones magazine and Chris Mooney.  And, in the case of Mother Jones, it is quite ironically promoting both people and ideas that lead away from the general stands that magazine takes.   There is nothing in materialism to support a demand for equal rights, nothing, whatsoever.

Given, especially the regional aspect of this use of him, the irony of Mencken's position in the simulated knowledge of the trial, as opposed to the reality, is that Mencken had a lot more in common with the reactionary, Jim Crow establishment than he did with anything that can be considered progressive or liberal.  He is more libertarian in some ways but libertarianism is also an inherently conservative manner of thought that will inevitably enhance the power of the already powerful.  History has shown relatively few slaves caving in the heads of their oppressors or the holding of slaves would have never gained or retained its appeal to the rich and powerful. Ignoring the power that wealth and and a subsequent ability to call the shots in politics and, I would point out, academia and even science, on a theoretical basis of the equalization of violence will inevitably empower them.

I find the tacit, covert or explicit support of the wealthy is generally true of the heroes of materialism, especially those who aren't explicitly anti-capitalist.   There are few basic ideas that promote reactionary practices as certainly as materialism, the idea that people are just objects of a sort.  I would identify the "socialism" of materialists as just a competing school of thought leading to state-capitalism instead of a truly different place that affirms the rights and good of people and the world.   That miscalled "socialism" has, in practice, enhanced the power of the more ruthless, either among the already rich and powerful or among those who can game the chaos that results from the removal of moral restraints.

Materialism inevitably devolves into the opposite of liberalism.  It is a mistake for liberals to look at materialists for guidance in political choices and to inform attitudes.  Their founding holdings and assumptions are corrosive to the basis of liberalism just as holding those bases obliterates materialism.  A left that doesn't understand that will always lose out to materialism because it is far less difficult to accept and far more crudely gratifying in its over-simplicity and exemption from self-sacrifice.

*  I suppose it would be possible to compare how many patents were issued in Tennessee and other states in 1925, though I'd never do that without having a research grant to do so.  I found this index of patents issued but don't see any breakdown by state.   As I recall someone in the comments on Mooney's article noted that in the 19th century there would have certainly been a far stronger "correlation" between Christians and the issuance of patents than there is today, which would rather blow the contention apart.  If you went back to the beginning of modern science, the correspondence of published science and the Christian faith could have led to someone claiming scientific thought was a product of Christian faith, though they'd have been making unfounded assumptions about untested possibilities.

** To complicate matters, the textbook that Scopes used taught social Darwinism, eugenics and racism as biological fact.   The closest to criticism of that in the trail record would seem to be what was said by Bryant, not Darrow.   Though, it being a trial of the time and place it was held, it is unlikely a critique of that would have made its way into a jury trial.  The fact is that the book and science, itself, supported those prejudices as being scientifically reliable.  As such heroes of alleged liberalism as Thomas Huxley and H. L. Mencken did.

1 comment:

  1. One of the current interpretations of the Gospel message of Jesus of Nazareth is a radical egalitarianism, an "unbrokered kingdom," as Dom Crossan puts it, where the first are last and the last first.

    Which, of course, is a model for all being equal, because the first of all is servant of all. Follow that vision, an inequality and injustice vanish. It is certainly a more radical vision than the one of Mencken you quote above.

    And it may be another 200 years before it is even widely considered as "Christian." If it ever is. I've noticed that what is "new" now in popular discourse, like the trash talk of on-line atheists and of Harris and Dawkins, is a pretty watered down version of what Marx (and no doubt many others; I haven't studied the question closely) were saying in the mid-19th century.

    Even now the work of 19th century German Biblical scholars is starting to finally make its way into common discourse (I read an article the other day that mentioned Fr. Raymond Brown, a noted Catholic Biblical scholar; his work is completely in-line with what was being done in the 19th century, and yet he would still be, as conservative as he was, a radical thinker to most people outside of seminaries. But at least he's starting to surface, as it were.). But the going is very slow, and the public ground is still ceded to the fundamentalists, who were pretty much silent until the last few decades.

    So maybe in another 50 years some of the cutting edge work of the 19th century will finally be part of the common fund of knowledge, and we'll begin, 150 years after that, to catch up with the Jesus Seminar. And at some point, start to look at truly radical proposals for social order, like the "Unbrokered kingdom."

    But there's not a lot of daylight between that and the teachings of Francis of Assisi, so I'm not holding my breath.....