Elitist Condescension Toward the Provinces
Journal, April 9, 2004 http://www.projo.com/opinion/contributors/content/projo_20040409_9ctzimm.24a964.html
By Jonathan Zimmerman
NEW YORK—HEY, CHECK OUT those
crazy right-wing Christians down in Dayton, Tenn.!
Last month’s news from Dayton was great fun, if
you’re the type of American on either coast who enjoys condescending to
religious conservatives in the Great Middle. It seems that the good burghers
of Dayton—actually, of the surrounding Rhea County—tried to prohibit
By a unanimous vote, eight local commissioners approved a
measure barring gays from Rhea County and making violators subject to
prosecution for “crimes against nature.” National media outlets pounced on
the story, because Dayton also hosted America’s most famous single act of
judicial theater: the Scopes Trial of 1925.
Indeed, reporters took pains to note, the Rhea County
commissioners approved their anti-gay motion in the same courtroom where John
T. Scopes was convicted for teaching evolution. That’s right, folks: the
same courtroom! The only difference lay in the final outcome. Like the Scopes
Trial itself, the anti-gay measure made Dayton a target for national ridicule.
Amid a firestorm of adverse publicity, then, the county commissioners voted to
rescind their motion just two days after they passed it.
But the larger point was clear. Down there in Dayton, you
see, some things never change. Ignorant yokels are still trying to force their
religious dogmas down the throats of innocent minorities. And right-thinking
Northern liberals—especially in the news media—are still the last line of
Alas, this storyline reflects an enormous distortion of
the Scopes Trial itself. The most vocal critics of evolution instruction in
1925 were themselves liberals, not conservatives. Rather than connecting the
present to the past, then, the recent anti-gay brouhaha shows us how much they
Recall that William Jennings Bryan, who prosecuted Scopes
at Dayton, also favored the minimum wage for workers, higher taxes on the
rich, state aid to farmers, and municipal ownership of utilities. Even more,
he was a devout pacifist who denounced America’s involvement in World War I.
Why would a progressive anti-war activist oppose the
teaching of evolution? Simply put, Bryan believed that the spirit of God
undergirded his campaigns for peace and social justice. By eroding
Americans’ religious faith, Bryan feared, the theory of evolution would also
weaken the political reforms that he championed.
But there was more. To Bryan, the ideas of Charles Darwin
promoted “survival of the fittest”—the very doctrine that corporate
kingpins invoked to protect their ill-begotten riches.
“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,” Bryan thundered.
If a child learns evolution in school, then, “he will
yield more easily to the temptation to do injustice to his neighbor.”
However incongruous to us, these positions made perfect sense to William
Jennings Bryan. Indeed, Bryan admonished a cartoonist who had depicted him as
a hunter shifting his target from a Republican elephant to a Darwinian monkey.
“You should represent me as using a double-barreled
shotgun fixing one barrel at the elephant as he tries to enter the
treasury,” Bryan urged, “and another at Darwinism—the monkey—as he
tries to enter the school room.”
But the cartoonist captured the tone of national media
coverage, which distorted Bryan’s campaign into a narrow-minded attack of
religious zealotry upon scientific reason. To H.L. Mencken, the best-known
scribe at Dayton, Bryan epitomized rural American ignorance and intolerance.
“He was, in fact, a charlatan, a mountebank, a zany
without sense or dignity,” Mencken wrote of Bryan, who died a few days after
the Scopes verdict.
“He seemed only a poor clod like those around him,
deluded by a childish theology, full of an almost pathological hatred of all
Over the next few decades, most foes of evolution
instruction would retreat from the political arena. They would return in the
1970s as the so-called “Christian Right,” which abandoned nearly all of
the progressive social causes that Bryan had championed. These voters would
become a linchpin of the modern Republican Party, powering Ronald Reagan’s
watershed victory in 1980.
Rather than attacking the GOP elephant, in short, they
rode it all the way to the White House.
But they’re not cartoons; they’re people. And they
have changed over time. By linking the present-day citizens of Dayton to the
prosecutors of John T. Scopes, we do an injustice to both of them. And we
continue our inglorious tradition of elite condescension, which can only serve
to widen America’s gaping cultural rifts.
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