Saturday, October 21, 2017

Hate Mail - Wind Is All It Is

Oh, geesh, not that stupid movie again.  It is one of the most pious and stupid of ideas of college educated atheists that the movie and play Inherit the Wind is an historically accurate or nearly accurate account of the Scopes trial of 1925.  It is not, it gets most of the basic facts of the background of the trial wrong.  The trial wasn't a product of fundamentalist persecution of science, it was a publicity stunt by the Chamber of Commerce to drum up business in the town of Dayton, Tennessee to take advantage of the relatively new American Civil Liberties Union's stunt to get someone to break the law against teaching evolution in public schools passed by fundamentalists in the Tennessee legislature.

No rocks were ever thrown at John T. Scopes, the local math and science teacher.  He had volunteered to be the one charges were brought against, he coached his "accusers" in what to accuse him of as his part in the charade - as I recall some of the students later said he'd not taught him the things he was supposedly accused of teaching them.   As the Biology text Scopes was accused of teaching evolution from,  A Civic Biology, taught, in addition to what passed as evolutionary theory of the time, a rather primitive Darwinism,  on the basis of that, scientific racism and eugenics.  Personally, Scopes benefitted from his part in the publicity stunt, the notoriety and support he got allowed him to go to the University of Chicago to gain a degree in geology and get well paid work as a oil and gas geologist.   He was later baptized into the Catholic Church - which was one of the strongest opponents of eugenics and scientific racism but which had no position against the theory of evolution.

Scopes didn't have a romance with the daughter of a fundamentalist preacher, he never had rocks thrown at him, he didn't spend a minute, nevermind an hour in jail, his life and safety and liberty were never in jeopardy.  He often went swimming with people involved with the prosecution during the hot afternoons of the circus that, as the Chamber of Commerce hoped for, developed around the trial. He wasn't even in danger of having to pay the fine for having supposedly broken the law, William Jennings Bryan (no doubt knowing the young man was playing a role in a farce) offered to pay the fine.  The matter of the fine not being set led to the case being thrown out by the Tennessee Supreme Court, though they upheld the constitutionality of the Butler Act, which was the law being tested.  I'm not a lawyer but I believe that kept the case from becoming the U.S. Supreme Court test case that, no doubt, the ACLU had wanted.

As I've noted before, the fact is that the real William Jennings Bryan that Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee (yeah, that was the name of one of the playwrights) fictionalized into Matthew Harrison Brady showed considerably more insight into the real nature of Darwinism as both the U.S. Supreme Court and the Nazis would soon make obvious than Clarence Darrow, fictionalized into Henry Drummond.   Bryan's summation wasn't a fundamentalist rant, it was a well reasoned, well informed and far fuller consideration of what Darwinism had already produced by way of the negation of morality in the sixty six years since the publication of On the Origin of Species.  His predictions of catastrophic consequences coming from Darwinian biological determinism was already happening in the rise of fascism and Nazism, in that he showed considerably more foresight than Darrow or such figures as Oliver Wendell Holmes.

The play as history is sheer, show biz, button pushing Broadway, Hollywood fiction of an especially cheesy variety.  The legal patter is absurd, the interplay of the two "lawyers" especially so.   The cartoon presentations of all of the stand-ins for the real life figures are a product of rote bias and an attempt to arouse cheap emotions on that basis.  The real testimony of Bryan at the trial proved, among other things, that he was probably more familiar with the theory of Darwin and the intellectual results of it than Darrow or the other defense lawyers.  It also proved he was hardly a fundamentalist.  Darrow knew that in his summation Bryan could have used his own words defending Leopold and Loeb, especially his enormously long plea against them being given the death penalty.*  In that he not only made the argument that the murder had been motivated by Richard Loeb reading detective novels, but that it was also due to Leopold's reading Friedrich Nietzsche's philosophy, which was one long response to the moral consequences of Darwinism.  Darrow had made that argument less than a year before the Scopes trial and, no doubt,  he knew William Jennings Bryan knew about it.  That point is something that Darrow certainly knew could be raised in Bryan's summation so he strategically prevented Bryan giving it.  That part of Bryan's unpresented summation, as published, was quite well argued.  At the link it gives Darrow's brief response to Bryan's summation which shows he knew that Bryan had him on those points.  Darrow's response, dismissing Bryan's argument as "a Lawyer's argumentative statement" while talking about the many people who read Nietzsche without murdering people was what was lawyerly.  You can't dismiss the effectiveness of a motive you argued produced an effect in one case by citing the times it didn't have the effect you argued for.  I have to say that though I certainly agreed with Darrow on the death penalty** and even on the unconstitutionality of the Butler Act and I wouldn't make many of the arguments Bryan made - though some of his points were the best made in the case - but I think the record of the trial leaves me thinking Bryan was the more informed, the wiser and the more honest of the two.  That the two playwrights, no doubt, had read Bryan's unpresented summation, especially in light of the history of the next twenty years, reveals that their motives were far from honest.

The stupidity of people who believe that Inherit the Wind has anything to do with anything that happened is all too common, it's no less true of those with even the highest of academic credentials than it is to the most ignorant of movie and TV miseducated functional illiterates who never read anything about the Scopes Trial, nevermind actually looked at the actual records of it.  In that both William Jennings Bryan would certainly agree with his somewhat friend Clarence Darrow - at least the Darrow who argued that his murderous clients were the victims of their biological inheritance and the crime novels and Nietzschean philosophy that were really what made them murder - what informs people has an effect on what they think and what they do.  In the case of history, getting that from plays and movies is more likely to give you a Trumpian view of the past than anything real or likely to produce good results.

The pious line, pious in an especially cheap, Broadway-Hollywood way,  put into Drummond's mouth about it being more sacred for children to recite the multiplication table than to say amen and hosannah  is especially stupid, considering that there is nothing preventing any child from doing both or religion preventing people from being good at math.  The other day, I happened to hear a video of a lecture by one of today's most popular Christian apologists, the Oxford mathematician John Lennox, given at Cambridge, in which he said something about the best mathematics student Cambridge had ever had,  Issac Newton, who was not only a Christian but who was a very deep scholar of the scriptures.  Among the great mathematicians alive when that silly play was written was the Christian, Kurt Godel, of whom Einstein had said that the greatest benefit of being at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study was that he got to walk home with him every afternoon.  That line and the idiotic atheist conceit it represents is one of the stupidest bigotries common to so many ignorant college degree holders today.  While I would never make a comparison between a selective private school and public schools open to all, the fact is that Catholic school students, as a group, are hardly harmed in their knowledge of mathematics by the religion also taught to them.  It's my experience of atheists that their atheism seems to be more likely positively  associated with such idiotic ideas.   There was a time I'd be surprised to have come to that conclusion, but that was before I read the unedited, unfiltered thinking of lots of atheists online.  I think the general trend of atheism is anti-intellectual.

*  I was a bit shocked to find that a significant part of the court record in Leopold and Loeb is missing because Darrow borrowed it from the court clerk and never returned it.  As it would seem to contain some rather important information, you have to wonder what Darrow's motives in disappearing it might have been.   I have come to think that Darrow was not above grooming his own PR to turn himself into more of an unmitigated hero than reality would have produced.  The dramatic, cinematic Clarence Darrow (as played by people like Henry Fonda) is no more real than the "history" in the fiction of Inherit the Wind.  Show biz is pretty well fatal to accurate history.  It's generally sound and fury signifying nothing.

**  It is more than interesting that many a Darwinist considered capital punishment to be somewhat eugenically beneficial, including Charles and Leonard Darwin and Heinrich Fick (mentioned here the other day), to my knowledge.


  1. I do love how people supposedly devoted to "truth" always point to that fiction (the play was never meant to be a documentary) as history.

    Easier than thinking, I suppose.

  2. IIRC, the playwrights were trying to address McCarthyism, a hot topic at the time. They weren't interested in religious fundamentalism, which wasn't even an issue when the play premiered.

    1. I read somewhere one or the other claimed it was a protest against censorship and for free thought, or some such thing.

      My experience of what an audience gets out of a play that is supposed to be an argument for something else leads me to think that writing one for that purpose is probably about as inefficient a way to get that message across as possible. Unless it's the actual plotline of the play, that's what the audience is going to go away believing in, if anything.

      I do find it interesting that when he found out the book "Obsession" was being written, Nathan Leopold said he was opposed to a fictionalized account of his life and crime being written. I don't think he opposed any factual reporting of it.

      My take on the play is that it was an expression of a. regional chauvinism by two guys writing a play for a New York audience, b. an expression of fashionable hostility toward religion among the smart set, c. in that fashion to oppose religion against the new religion pop culture turned science into. I would like to go read the opening reviews of it someday to see what the critics got out of it by way of messaging. It's obvious that's what the Eschaton level idiots get out of it, now.

  3. I think the play is a failure on all counts. The message is a muddle, the characters caricatures. Yet still it is taken as history.

    And John Wayne won WWII single-handedly. Well, that's what the movies said....

  4. A couple of interesting bits about the play and the historic trial, from Huston Smith:

    "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)

    As for the play, interest in it is far more recent than not:

    "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."

    And, as Wikipedia points out (they have the citations, at least): "Lawrence explained in a 1996 interview that the drama's purpose was to criticize the then-current state of McCarthyism. The play was also intended to defend intellectual freedom. According to Lawrence, "we used the teaching of evolution as a parable, a metaphor for any kind of mind control [...] It's not about science versus religion. It's about the right to think."

    Which is not to say Lawrence has the last word on what his play is about (I agree with you about the parochialism of the story); but it certainly wasn't intended as history in any form. They did have a lot to say (as does Wiki) about the play not being history:

    "However, the playwrights state in a note at the opening of the play that it is not meant to be a historical account, and there are numerous instances where events were substantially altered or invented. For instance, the characters of the preacher and his daughter were fictional, the townspeople were not hostile towards those who had come to Dayton for the trial, and Bryan offered to pay Scopes' fine if he was convicted. Bryan did die shortly after the trial, but it happened five days later in his sleep. Political commentator Steve Benen said of the play's inaccuracies: "Scopes issued no plea for empathy, there was no fiancee and the real Scopes was never arrested. In fact, the popular film that was nominated for four Academy Awards and has helped shape the American understanding of the 'Scopes Monkey Trial' for decades is an inadequate reflection of history."

    What's that old adage about truth still getting its boots on while the lie is halfway 'round the world?

    1. And that was before movies.

      I strongly suspect there are probably a large number of college educated Americans who believe To Kill a Mocking Bird is, as the saying goes, "based on history". I couldn't believe it when people started complaining that Harper Lee had misrepresented Atticus in her first-second book.