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Tony Grist

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Inherit The Wind [Feb. 25th, 2007|11:30 am]
Tony Grist
Inherit The Wind is a 50s play and movie that plays with  the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925 as a way of critiquing the McCarthy era. Now it looks like a prophecy of the rise of the Religious Right.

American history has this pattern that keeps repeating- like wallpaper.  The far Right reaches for power, stretches too far, falls on its face. 

Fascism is just too hateful and stupid to maintain itself in power. That's what history and Inherit The Wind teach. Let's hope  they're right.

So far so good, but then the doubts begin. 

The real trial  was a publicity stunt,  contrived by the city fathers to put Dayton Ohio on the map. Two celebrities-  famed public speaker, William Jennings Bryan and liberal trial lawyer, Clarence Darrow- were drafted in to debate Darwinism and Revealed Religion.  The defendant,  Scopes, volunteered to be prosecuted for teaching Evolution in the public schools and was never in any real danger of going to jail.  The play/movie jacks this up into a slugfest between progress and reaction. It presents Darrow as a wise old Obi Wan Kenobi and Bryan as an ignorant blowhard and booby.  It livens things up with preachers delivering their daughters over to damnation and citizens parading the streets with burning effigies- none of which happened. The real contest was fought out in a carnival atmosphere of great goodwill, with  Darrow the atheist recording afterwards that the citizens of fundamentalist Dayton had treated him with nothing but courtesy. These were gentler times in America.

William Jennings Bryan was a champion of the working man and an enemy of plutocracy and imperialism who took two runs at the Presidency. He was  cultured, educated, thoughtful- and on the side of right and reason more often than not.   The fictionalised Bryan proudly boasts of never having read Darwin; the real Bryan had read him and hated him for reasons which, however wrong-headed, do his heart  credit.  Briefly, he believed that Darwin led to Nietzsche which led to Nihilism which led to the Great War. He was a religious fundamentalist, but his fundamentalism was nuanced and not unintelligent. 

Inherit the Wind is a warning about the dangers of American fascism. Fine. But it plays fast and loose with the truth.  (Fellow lefties, we can do better than this!)  And the way it trashes the memory of a great (and good) American is shameful.  The more I think about this the more it makes me angry.

[User Picture]From: methodius
2007-02-25 01:13 pm (UTC)
Fascinating -- a lot of that stuff I never knew -- most things I've read about the Scopes monkey trial have treated it as something quite serious, and significant

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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2007-02-25 01:28 pm (UTC)
Well, I won't say I've researched it deeply, but I've watched the movie and read up about the trial and Bryan and Darrow on Wikipedia.
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[User Picture]From: solar_diablo
2007-02-25 02:34 pm (UTC)
But it plays fast and loose with the truth. (Fellow lefties, we can do better than this!)

Nah, they really can't. One place the right and left have always been in lockstep solidarity is in unnuanced manipulation of the truth for the sake of political gain. The American political landscape is so depressing I'm ready to go duck hunting with the Vice President.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2007-02-25 04:40 pm (UTC)
The sad correlative is that we don't actually believe our argument is good enough to win without the odds unfairly stacked in its favour.

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From: (Anonymous)
2007-02-25 04:47 pm (UTC)
Excuse some off-topic hungover gushing, but I do so admire the clarity of your prose and your arguments, as well as your crackling wit. All evidenced in this post, which is what brings me to say this. I'm glad this big electronic thing has brought us together.
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[User Picture]From: cataptromancer
2007-02-25 04:51 pm (UTC)
Er, that's from me, who apparently is still disoriented enough to be making accidentally anonymous comments.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2007-02-25 08:11 pm (UTC)
Hey, I do that sometimes too.

Otherwise- Oh golly gosh! as my old housemaster would have said. You're making me blush.

Many thanks, cher confrere.
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[User Picture]From: kaysho
2007-03-13 09:19 pm (UTC)
Dayton, Ohio actually didn't have any trouble being on the map in 1925, since it was the home of the Wright Brothers. The "Monkey Trial" was held to promote Dayton, Tennessee, which obviously still needs it. :)

But yes, Inherit the Wind did turn what had been a somewhat light-hearted publicity stunt into something far more sinister and serious than it actually had been, and is more a reflection of the mood of the 1950s than of the 1920s.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2007-03-13 10:08 pm (UTC)
Ach! Too many Daytons already. Thanks for pointing out the geographical error.
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