Scopes 80th Anniversary Leads to Reanalysis
Alex Johnson, reporter for MSNBC News, has written a piece trying to set the record straight about the Scopes Trial of 1925. Often portrayed as a battle of science vs religion and a group of hillbilly hicks against enlightened intellectuals (the “Inherit the Wind” stereotype), the historical trial was much different, he demonstrates. William Jennings Bryan has “really gotten a bad rap,” for instance, because he performed well under cross-examination by Darrow and stayed on the offensive. He kept his head throughout the trial and afterwards as he continued to work on his final arguments. His death was not due to stress over evolution but rather to diabetes. History should remember Bryan as a defender of women’s suffrage, direct election of senators and many other good things.
The image of the Scopes trial many have comes more from the biased rhetoric of H. L. Mencken and Hollywood than from history:
If you read only Mencken’s account, dripping with big-city Northern snobbery, or remember Fredric March’s semi-hysterical performance as the fictionalized Bryan in “Inherit the Wind,” you could be forgiven for believing Darrow demolished Bryan and, with him, the biblical account of creation. But the trial transcript and more objective contemporary coverage tell a different tale. (Emphasis added in all quotes.)
Johnson referred to the new book by John Perry and Marvin Olasky, Monkey Business: The True Story of the Scopes Trial, and also a book by Jeffrey P. Moran (U of Kansas), The Scopes Trial: A Brief History with Documents (2002). He indicates that “Historians know better” than to accept the caricature perpetuated in the media about the trial. “The most important thing to understand about the Scopes trial, Johnson writes, “was that it was a publicity stunt. There were no fundamentalist preachers trolling the hallways of Dayton’s schools hunting for teachers who were violating Tennessee’s prohibition on teaching evolution.” This image of “yahoos in overalls who didn’t like book-learnin’” has caused trouble for those trying to understand the anti-evolution movement, Johnson says, quoting Moran: “What’s happened in the last 40 years is creationism has become quite suburban, even quite well-educated and not purely a Southern phenomenon.”
Go to this article and give it a good vote. It was refreshing to see, for a change, a reporter helping dismantle the myths about the Scopes Trial rather than perpetuating them. Johnson’s treatment actually made the northern liberals look bad and Bryan look good. He showed how the perception of the Scopes Trial was due more to propaganda and the media circus surrounding it than to the actual record of what happened. He pointed out that historians give a much more favorable impression of Bryan than is commonly assumed. For those of us raised in public school with mandatory viewings of Inherit the Wind, it’s about time. See The Monkey Trial site for a comparison of portrayals in the movie with the historical record. Inherit the Wind deserves to be thrown into the bin along with Birth of a Nation as an egregious example of twisting history. (Surprisingly, the play and movie was written to satirize the McCarthy era, not the actual Scopes trial, according to Johnson.)
One unfortunate part of Bryan’s testimony during cross-examination by Darrow is that he waffled on whether Genesis should be treated allegorically, and compromised on the idea of long ages. This made it seem that Christians were prepared to capitulate before the evolutionists over assumed evidence for long ages and transitional forms – evidence that was later shown to be flawed or even fraudulent. Overall, though, he gave it his best shot and was prepared to put Darrow on the hot seat before the defense decided to plead guilty, thus undermining his chance to similarly grill Darrow. The fact that this was the “first trial to be covered with the full arsenal of modern media – broadcast live on the radio, filmed for newsreels in the theaters, chronicled by hundreds of newspapers that printed the daily transcript,” made it a setup for any spin desired. As such, the Scopes Trial provides a fountainhead of case studies on propaganda, logical fallacies and smokescreen tactics (see the Baloney Detector for examples).
Teachers: teach Scopes! Show your students the differences between the movie portrayal and the facts. They will learn some valuable skills in how to interpret the media. Many facts about the Scopes Trial should be resurrected to embarrass the Darwin Party. Did you know, for instance, that the textbook Darrow was defending taught racism? Did you know that Piltdown Man and Nebraska Man, both hoaxes, were going to be used as proof of evolution? Did you know that John Scopes, a football coach and substitute teacher, could not even remember if he had taught evolution in the classroom at all? Did you know he agreed to help the ACLU test the Butler Act by agreeing to lie that he had taught evolution?
The whole event was a media circus from the get-go. Poor Judge Raulston tried his best to keep the trial on the issue of whether Scopes had violated the statute or not, and so did Bryan, but they were no match for the spin doctors around the world who took what they wanted and ran with it. Political cartoonists had a field day with this southern American phenomenon. History should be kinder to the southerners than to the elitist reporters and scientists who printed unspeakable diatribes against Bryan and his supporters, such as: “he is still engaged in battling earnestly for organized ignorance, superstition, and tyranny… He has illuminated vividly for the rest of us the essentially bigoted position of himself and his followers, and the degree of religious intolerance which they will undoubtedly enforce upon the country if they ever get the chance.” Have they no shame?
Bryan only agreed to the cross-examination because he was promised he would have his chance to grill Darrow in return, but Darrow’s strategy was to hit and run, thus scoring points with the world media. This strategy has served them well ever since (see 07/11/2005 and 06/13/2005 entries for recent examples). Darwinists who have used Scopes for 80 years to push their myth should be put on the witness stand. It’s about time.