The way to deal with superstition is not to be polite to it, but to tackle it with all arms, and so rout it, cripple it, and make it forever infamous and ridiculous. – H.L. Mencken
We are, again, at a defining moment. Since our founding, America has faced crises that, depending upon the response, dramatically altered the course of our history. The republic wasn’t secured after the victory at Yorktown. It took the Constitutional Convention and the Second War for Independence—the War of 1812—to secure “blessings of liberty” for many, but not all. The next great crisis was settled at Appomattox Courthouse, which finished the unresolved business of the Constitution. Slavery was abolished and the Union preserved.
A subsequent crisis was addressed in July 1925 in Dayton, TN at the Rhea County courthouse. Science, knowledge, learning and reason went on trial. The trial dealt with our soul, defined who we are. Would we be backwoodsmen yahoos or open, educated, sophisticated leaders in a world still shaking free from shackles of ancient superstitions? Technically, Fundamentalism won in the Scopes Monkey Trial, but the reality is it was, as was the Confederacy, routed.
Like Dixie, however, defeat didn’t mean obliteration. Anti-intellectualism, Bible-thumping redneckism is ingrained in the American psyche. A virulent cancer, hiding undetectable at times in some remote cells of our body politic, it roars back periodically in ravaging forms.
H.L. Mencken dubbed State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes the Monkey Trial. For his transgression, I chastise Mencken and offer the great apes, chimpanzees, and their bonobo cousins, surely offended by the notion that strain of homo sapiens is an extension of their family tree, an overdue apology. We all have crazy relatives, after all, we’d rather disown. But connecting a noble creature to humans incapable or unwilling to use their reason goes beyond the pale.
Last week, I wrote I hadn’t read much Mencken. I am happy to report, though, I’ve rectified that situation and atoned for my sin of literary omission. A little research uncovered a trove of his trial dispatches for the Baltimore Evening Sun.
In his initial submission, “Homo Neanderthalenthis,” (apology as well to our Neanderthal cousins) on June 29, 1925, he wrote, “The human race is divided into two sharply differentiated and mutually antagonistic classes, almost two genera — a small minority that plays with ideas and is capable of taking them in, and a vast majority that finds them painful, and is thus arrayed against them, and against all who have traffic with them.”
Simplicity, clarity and familiarity, as Albert Camus posited, v. complexity, ambiguity, and the unknown.
The Greeks celebrated curiosity; the Romans and Christians abhorred it. Pandora and her box and Eve at the Tree of Knowledge, two curious women villainized but who, instead, should be honored and feted. I propose establishing July 21, the day Scopes was found guilty, Eve and Pandora Day to celebrate curiosity and learning.
Educated elites were once held in esteem. Sure, we honor achieving students. But that’s it. After graduation, it’s about status and income. We put economic elites, the big-money dudes who inherited their dough or made it hook or crook, on a pedestal. Superstars to be emulated. Yes, we like those who make theirs the old-fashioned way, but then, they’re boring, every-day, run-of-the-mill workers, small-business people, and upstarts with start-ups. Yawn.
That’s America today. We adore the rich and dread the smart because they might tell us something we don’t want to hear, like our mothers reminding us to eat our vegetables, only in this case, like how our consumer lifestyle and sources of wealth and convenience are killing the planet.
Ninety-two years later, we’re back in court. This time, climate-change, Flat Earthism, honor, democracy, and constitutionalism joining evolution as cause célèbre for the unlearned.
“The inferior man’s reasons for hating knowledge,” Mencken continued, “are not hard to discern. He hates it because it is complex — because it puts an unbearable burden upon his meager capacity for taking in ideas.”
And knowledge lays responsibility squarely on the learner, requiring him/her to act.
See no evidence, hear no reason, speak no fact.
Quackery—apologies to our ducky lake friends—unbound.