Monday, July 26, 2010

New film attacks Darwin, evolution and Mencken.

The Religious Right is about to unleash a new drama, based loosely on the Scopes Trial. The purpose I suspect is to make Darwin and evolution look bad by weaving in a fictional story about eugenics and forced sterilization. Let us first cover the Scopes Trial.

Tennessee had passed an anti-evolution. The ACLU wanted to test the law and John T. Scopes, a teacher in Dayton, volunteered for the case. One of the great puffing baboons of that era, Williams Jennings Bryan, a man who was a socialist and a fundamentalist, rode into town like a tinhorn messiah to save the law. Clarence Darrow, a political ally of Bryan’s, but an opponent of his fundamentalism, defended Scopes.

The great libertarian writer, H.L. Mencken, came to Dayton to cover the story for the newspaper column that he wrote. A fantastic film was made of the story, Inherit the Wind, which also weaved in fictional characters but often used verbatim transcripts from the trial as script. The film, however, was clearly a dramatization of the story and not meant as history. Few people with a lick of sense take their history from such dramas. However, fundamentalists have hated the film since it first showed up on the movie screens their preachers forbade them to see. And it appears they are now getting even.

A new fictionalized account of the trial has been made. This version is written by Fred Foote, who also financed the film through a family-run foundation “which supports Christian-based artistic and educational endeavors. “

Foote says he wrote about “how the media gave the whole world the wrong story about the Scopes trial.” One paper says that Fundy Fred’s version of the story, Alleged, shows the “trial was actually a tool of the progressive elite of the time, to promote Darwinism for its own darker purpose.” The creationist web site answersingenesis says the film “reveals how the major media delivered a distorted view of the trial in an attempt to attack biblical Christianity.” Foote, shall we say, is a very right-wing character. He gave $2000 to the theocratically inclined Rick Santorum campaign. He also gave money to Keith Butler, a fundamentalist minister seeking the Republican nomination for Senator in Michigan, as well as to Rep. Dick Chrysler, one of the co-sponsors of the anti-gay “Defense of Marriage Act.”

Foote needs a villain, so he attacks the libertarian Mencken. “Mencken was the greatest reporter of the time, who almost singlehandedly shaped this story for public consumption. If he didn’t invent spin, he was an early master of the art. That became the core of my story: the kid who comes under his sway and how far he’ll go on that path if it conflicts with his own views of what’s right and wrong.”

Trailers for this film indicate that it is about dishonest bias in the media, with Mencken as the prime culprit. The fictional Charles Anderson comes under the evil influence of Mencken. As the film’s website portrays it, this is about how Anderson “is torn between his love for the more principled Rose, his fiancée, and the escalating moral compromises that he is asked to make as the eager protégé of H.L. Mencken.”

In addition to Rose and Charles, the script invents Abigail, the half-black, half-sister of Rose who is to be sterilized by the eugenicists who are the result of Darwinism, which the nasty, biased, dishonest Mencken supports. However, this could not have taken place in reality, at least not in Tennessee where Dayton is located. Many states had laws allowing forced sterilization, but Tennessee had no such law and no compulsory sterilizations were performed there.

Foote likes to talk about “truth” and getting at the facts, but he write a screenplay that intentionally distorts history. Foote says he decided “the best way to tell the real story is do another movie.” But, apparently the “real story” requires him to make false claims about Mencken in order to promote his own anti-Darwinian agenda.

Consider poor Mencken: he was a columnist and to say he was biased is like saying Billy Graham is theological. Mencken’s job was to write biased, one-sided takes on the issues of the day from his own libertarian viewpoint. He was not a historian. He was a columnist expressing personal opinions—opinions worth reading for the sheer amusement value alone. Of course he was biased, he was supposed to be.

From what Foote and his website say, the film portrays Mencken as pushing the fictional Anderson into making ethical compromises for the sake of Mencken’s progressive agenda. In reality there was no Anderson and Mencken did no such thing. But Mencken’s columns wounded fundamentalists and they have never forgiven him.

But Mencken was no eugenicist. His American Mercury magazine published one of the first major blasts on eugenics in an article by Raymond Pearl, entitled “The Biology of Superiority.” Conservative Jonah Goldberg notes that Clarence Darrow, the great defender in the Scopes trial, wrote “his anti-eugenics piece for HL Mencken’s American Mercury, hardly a journal that spoke authoritatively for elite progressive opinion…” The two major Darwinists in Foote’s film were both anti-eugenics with Mencken publishing articles attacking eugenics.

Melissa Hendricks wrote of Pearl’s article and Mencken in Johns Hopkins Magazine:
So when Pearl decided to expound the fallacies in eugenics, he turned to the Mercury. In 1924, he sent a letter to Mencken, proposing the critique. "It has seemed to me for a long time that there is a dreadful lot of bilge talked by the self-constituted leaders of the eugenics movement," he wrote. Mencken accepted the proposal, but first he would publish his own essay, "On Eugenics." In typical Mencken style, he uncloaked those who claimed to have inherited their superiority, informing his readers: "Beethoven was the grandson of a cook and the son of a drunkard, and Lincoln's forebears for many generations were nobodies.

Mencken was actually one of the first to ridicule the eugenics movement. He did so years before the Scopes Trial. His 1918 work Damn! A Book of Calumny ridiculed eugenicists for believing “that a physically healthy man is the best fitted to survive. This is true of rats and pediculae, but not of the higher animals… In these higher animals one looks for more subtle qualities chiefly of the spirit.” Edwin Black, who authored a major history of the eugenics movement, War Against the Weak, says that one major eugenicist, Harry Laughlin, was the subject of “a forty-seven-page lampoon written under the pseudonym Ezekiel Cheever, who in reality was either the irreverent Baltimore Sun commentator H.L. Mencken or one of his associates.”

The textbook used on evolution in the Tennessee schools did promote eugenics, but apparently Bryan didn’t find that disturbing. He never once pointed out the section on eugenics and never attacked it—just the teaching of evolution and how evolution leads to moral decay. The creationist Discovery Institute published a piece by conservative Benjamin Wiker, saying that that the text used in Tennessee was “offensively racist and blatantly eugenic” How offensive and blatant they were to Bryan we don’t know, but we know he either didn’t notice the remarks or, if he did, didn’t find them offensive.

This is not to say that people associated with the trial did not express sentiments akin to eugenics. But it wasn’t Scopes who did so, or Mencken or Darwin either. The guilty party was Bryan’s wife, Mary. Bryan’s biographer, Michael Kazin wrote that Mary called the “mountain people” who flocked to her husband “pathetic” and ridiculed how they dressed. Kazin writes: “The wife of America’s leading foe of Darwinism thought so little of the crowd, most of whom admired her husband, that she scribbled a phrase any eugenicist could applaud.” Mary Bryan wrote that ‘this mass of people… have no real part in American life” but “marry and intermarry until the stock is very much weakened.”

Bryan himself expressed sentiments not far from eugenics as well. He wrote that he was proud to be a “member of the greatest of all the races, the Caucasian race.” He called whites the “advanced race” and supported segregation and denying blacks the right to vote in areas where they lived in large numbers.

Certainly the idea that the Scopes Trial was a battle between Progressive elites with some dark agenda (eugenics) and good Christians is wrong. Bryan, not Mencken, was the progressive. Mencken, as noted “first rose to prominence as a Progressive Era dissenter.” Another writer says, “Mencken was a libertarian to the core. Nothing could be more absurd than the claim that he somehow resembled the ‘progressive’ liberals of today.”

While Mencken was an opponent of the progressive movement, the same can’t be said for Bryan, who was often the most prominent spokesman for the progressive agenda. Bryan and Darrow, another progressive, were old friends and allies who shared common political goals. They differed on the criminalization of teaching evolution. It is true that many of these progressives were racists and supported eugenics, but Bryan, not Mencken, was associated with progressivism.

Foote says his film is not a rebuttal to the classic 1960 film Inherit the Wind, with Spencer Tracy, Fredric March and Gene Kelly. That film was a fictionalized account of the Scopes Trial and not history. It invented dialogue, plot lines and created additional drama that actually didn’t exist —such as the relationship between Scopes and the daughter of a creationist minister. If Inherit the Wind could fictionalize, then why can’t Foote?

Obviously he can do it, but the question is whether he is being ethical. I think he isn’t. The major difference between the films is that Kramer’s was openly fictionalized while Foote pretends his is the “real story.” You won’t see a character named Clarence Darrow in the Kramer film. Neither will you see characters named Mencken, Bryan, or Scopes.

Foote’s fictionalized version, however, pretends to be the “real story,” not a dramatization based on a true story. Kramer’s 1960 film had the integrity to make its fictional elements clear, by given the characters fictional names. But the Foote screenplay is about Mencken, Darrow and Bryan.

The extent of hypocrisy in the Christian producers of Alleged can be seen in their using the film’s website to encourage readers to compare Kramer’s fictionalized account “with the facts of the actual Scopes trial.” But why? Kramer didn’t claim to give the “real story.” Where does the film site send people for the “truth” about the Scopes trial? Try a site called And the registration contact for that site just happens to be Frederick C. Foote—the same Fred Foote who wrote this screenplay.

Mencken wrote his scathing accounts of the fundamentalist mind set and now some adherents of the faith he ridiculed are finally getting even through a time-honored method of Christian apologetics: faking history.

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