Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Michael Gerson asks one "what if" about William Jennings Bryan and the Scopes trial, what if Bryan had opposed eugenics and social Darwinism and not evolution? But it's not that difficult to establish he WAS opposed to that stuff.

http://michaelnewnham.com/linkathon-184/

One of the articles linked to in this week's Linkathon at Phoenix Preacher is the following piece at The Atlantic called "The Last Temptation" which is about evangelicals and support for Trump.

Michael Gerson's article leads with a subheader that says that evangelicalism was once culturally confident but has become an anxious minority.  It might depend on how minority gets defined since in colloquial popular terms of discourse people tend to think of minorities as anything but evangelical and that white evangelicals may be marginal in terms of professed beliefs but represent a kind of vestigial cultural old guard that won't relinquish its faltering grip on mainstream power.

Or at least in most other contexts in which journalists describe what's colloquially understood to be the religious right that's how they've written about the demographic.  But then I can recall easily pieces at Mere Orthodoxy or by Alan Jacobs on the question of where today's Christian (i.e. evangelical) intellectuals are or have been as though these never existed (and maybe, arguably, they don't because as Alastair Roberts put it the Christian intellectuals of yore were largely in the mainline and not in what evangelicals themselves would consider an evangelical milieu).  So there's this passage from Gerson that stood out.


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What if Bryan and others of his generation had chosen to object to eugenics rather than evolution, to social Darwinism rather than Darwinism? The textbook at issue in the Scopes case, after all, was titled A Civic Biology, and it urged sterilization for the mentally impaired. “Epilepsy, and feeble-mindedness,” the text read, “are handicaps which it is not only unfair but criminal to hand down to posterity.” What if this had been the focus of Bryan’s objection? Mencken doubtless would still have mocked. But the moral and theological priorities of evangelical Christianity would have turned out differently. And evangelical fears would have been eventually justified by America’s shameful history of eugenics, and by the more rigorous application of the practice abroad. Instead, Bryan chose evolution—and in the end, the cause of human dignity was not served by the obscuring of human origins.
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Irony alert. Bryan didn't necessarily use the technical term eugenics but he was objecting to it. He didn't end up delivering the closing statement he'd prepared because of how the trial played out.  But the "what if" in the Gerson piece about why Bryan didn't mention eugenics as evil was something Malcolm Harris mentioned back in 2016.
 
Malcolm Harris' article mentioned that Bryan did find eugenics morally objectionable.



The 1926 case Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes is a favorite liberal American story. On one side, a substitute accused of teaching evolution, the famed progressive attorney Clarence Darrow, and science itself. On the other, the state of Tennessee, creationism, and the populist demagogue William Jennings Bryan, who by the end of the trial was only days from death. Scopes lost the battle, but reason and progress won the war and the film adaptation. The Scopes Monkey Trial, as it was called, is a progressive touchstone, and in the minds of many it continues to describe the difference between the two mainstream American political ideologies.


When one revisits the primary material, however, the mainstream liberal narrative is far too simple. Jennings Bryan railed against evolution, true, but not just evolution as we understand the theory today. His never-delivered closing statement indicted the “dogma of darkness and death” as a danger to the country’s moral fabric. It sounds far out, but at the time evolution came with a social agenda that its proponents taught as fact. Jennings Bryan didn’t use its name; today, we call it eugenics.



When one revisits the primary material, however, the mainstream liberal narrative is far too simple. Jennings Bryan railed against evolution, true, but not just evolution as we understand the theory today. His never-delivered closing statement indicted the “dogma of darkness and death” as a danger to the country’s moral fabric. It sounds far out, but at the time evolution came with a social agenda that its proponents taught as fact. Jennings Bryan didn’t use its name; today, we call it eugenics.


Scopes was charged for teaching from a textbook called A Civic Biology: Presented in Problems, published in 1914. The book taught Darwin’s doctrine as fact, but it didn’t leave his conclusions there. The author, George William Hunter, not only asserted the biological difference of races, he insisted on the vital importance of what he called “the science of being well born”—eugenics. Like most progressives of the time, Hunter believed in “the improvement of man” via scientific methods. That meant promoting personal hygiene, proper diet, and reproductive control. A Civic Biology also has suggestions for what to do with “bad-gened” people, in a section called “The Remedy.” “If such people were lower animals,” the books says, “we would probably kill them off to prevent them from spreading. Humanity would not allow this, but we do have the remedy of separating the sexes in asylums or other places and in various ways preventing intermarriage and the possibilities of perpetuating such a low and degenerate race. Remedies of this sort have been tried successfully in Europe.”

The textbook was wrong, both about degenerate genes and humanity’s near-term tolerance for genocide. Read between the twin specters of human engineering, The Holocaust and the American slave-breeding industry—the abolition of which was younger than Jennings Bryan—the warning in his closing argument seems not only warranted, but prophetic:
Science is a magnificent material force, but it is not a teacher of morals. It can perfect machinery, but it adds no moral restraints to protect society from the misuse of the machine. It can also build gigantic intellectual ships, but it constructs no moral rudders for the control of storm-tossed human vessels. It not only fails to supply the spiritual element needed, but some of its unproven hypotheses rob the slip of its compass and thus endanger its cargo.
“Some of its unproven hypotheses rob the slip of its compass and thus endanger its cargo” is a near-perfect criticism of evolutionary theory and the era’s progressive thought as a whole. And if today’s liberals were to revisit their ideological foundations with some attention, they might not like what they see.

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That Bryan didn't give the closing statement doesn't suggest to me that we can write today as if Bryan somehow failed to get his point across or ask a "what if" supposing that he hadn't formulated an objection to social Darwinism or eugenics.  Looking back a century it might be worth asking why Americans and British think of Germany as the "bad guys" in World War I because in their quest for colonial expansion to catch up with Britain and France they had the bad manners of invading a nation populated primarily by white people instead of invading a nation populated primarily like non-whites like all the other white colonialist empires tended to do.  Seen in that light the Germans were not necessarily more barbaric than the English or the French or the Belgians even if they didn't prove any less barbaric. 
 
One of the more interesting and satisfying twists in last year's Wonder Woman was that Diana sets out to defeat Ludendorff certain that he is the embodiment of Aries, the god of war, only to discover by movie's end that the god of war wasn't in German where all the overt aggression seemed to be coming from, but from within the British aristocracy.  Part of the twist's effectiveness (I liked the movie, at any rate) is that Diana travels under the impression that the master of war and barbarity is in Germany when he turns out to have concealed himself within the English gentry.  Steve Trevor says near the end of the film that humanity might not even need the god of war to be inspired to kill each other over things.
 
If we're going to play hypothetical "what if" games at this point, what if Bryan had managed to take a public stance against the war in which his resignation in the wake of the Lusitania incident kept the United States from entering World War I?  That's kind of a useless "what if" but that gets at what happens with this "what if" scenarios in which we in the present try to imagine what should have happened differently.
 
 

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