Thursday, July 18, 2019

Monkey trial

.... Almost all of the “conventional wisdom” concerning the Scopes trial is false. Contrary to the impression created by Inherit the Wind and other popular accounts (including the sensational reportage of H.L. Mencken of The Baltimore Sun, one of the leading journalists of his day), the trial was not a fundamentalist inquisition, but an ill-conceived publicity stunt by Dayton businessmen who were trying to attract tourists to the small town—to put Dayton on the map. To generate a test case challenging the statute, the American Civil Liberties Union had offered to defend any teacher charged with violating the Butler Act, gratis. Dayton businessmen recruited Scopes to agree to serve as the defendant, even though he was unsure he had actually taught evolution. Nonetheless, Scopes volunteered to be charged. The trial—for a misdemeanor offense—was staged. Celebrity lawyers were solicited to participate for the sole purpose of increasing public interest in the case. The Baltimore Sun paid part of the defense’s expenses because it knew that the spectacle would sell newspapers, and it did. A lot of them.

If the goal was to generate interest in Dayton, it worked. For eight days, the town was the focus of worldwide attention. During the trial, the population of Dayton swelled from about 1800 to about 5000, with a raucous carnival atmosphere. Yet the trial was cut-and-dried; the jury deliberated only nine minutes before rendering a guilty verdict. Scopes was fined $100. The Tennessee Supreme Court promptly reversed the conviction on a technicality, and the state chose not to retry the case. Tennessee eventually repealed the Butler Act.

The eight-day show trial was a media circus, but little else. It resolved no factual disputes, established no new law, and settled no constitutional issues. It was a purely manufactured controversy—a radio-era precursor to reality TV and cable news. Bizarrely, Bryan died in his sleep (at age 65) five days after the trial ended. Instead of putting Dayton on the map in a positive way, the case left the town in undeserved ignominy.

Many plot features of Inherit the Wind—which was conceived during the Cold War as an anti-McCarthyism allegory—were entirely fabricated. Scopes (Bertram Cates) was not arrested in class and was never jailed; there was no unhinged fundamentalist preacher (Rev. Jeremiah Brown) exhorting the town; the trial was not accompanied by lynch mobs; Scopes/Cates was never burned in effigy and had no conflicted fiancée; and Bryan (Matthew Harrison Brady) was not a deranged buffoon or hysterical fanatic. Whatever one thinks about Bryan’s political or economic views, scholars regard him as one of the most important figures of the Progressive Era, and even as one of the most influential American politicians who never served as president. His portrayal in Inherit the Wind (by Fredric March) as an incompetent windbag is a disgraceful farce. .... (more)

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