Thursday, July 02, 2009

H. L. Mencken Covers the 'Monkey Trial'

by Len Hart, The Existentialist Cowboy

American education has deteriorated inversely with the rise of right wing politics! An example is 'Texas' and every child that Bush left behind. Texas beats out Mississippi for DEAD LAST in high school graduations at the same time that it LEADS the nation in executions due to the state's extremely high crime rate! This, I believe, is due to the neglect given a fact-based, a science-based liberal education. This is, I am convinced, the result of the influence of fanatics and 'religionists' upon education.

"Gulag” was the name for the penal labor camps that existed in the Soviet Union; the term was popularized by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s 1973 book, The Gulag Archipelago.

Some political commentators have compared the Texas prison system (and the facilities of the Texas Youth Commission) to the Soviet gulag system, calling it a “Texas Gulag” and calling Texas a “Gulag State.” The term “Texas Gulag” became popular about 2000, when Texas Governor George W. Bush was running for president of the United States. A February 2008 report by the Pew Center on the large number of prison inmates in the United States caused some political commentators to again use the “Texas Gulag” nickname (or epithet).

I see a pattern. Declining education is a recipe for guaranteed unemployment, poverty, and crime. It also represents a guaranteed, risk free income to the evil corporations who run the state's corporate gulag often with no-bid contracts! As long as the quality of public education declines, two groups will benefit: the corporate owned prisons and expensive private schools affordable only to the very, very rich and/or privileged. The GOP runs states like Bush ran the war of aggression against Iraq. State prisons are just another money making opportunity, as Iraq was for the likes of Dick Cheney's Halliburton and professional thugs like Blackwater.

My assertions are backed up by a recent Pew study of trends that had been embraced by Bush's Texas, primarily the rapid outsourcing of prison construction and management throughout the US. As in Texas, crime rates over the period under study increased. Guilt or innocence is of no concern to corporate robber barons. It is an Orwellian nightmare of waste, graft, and fascism in which no one is held to account.

As the GOP "Enronized" the great state of Texas, an assembly line criminal justice system, in cahoots with a medieval, privatized prison system, proved to be an oxymoron. It was "criminal" but hardly "justice". Despite the GOPs "worst" efforts, crime in Texas, always a topic of much discussion and study, has gotten worse. Texas is big on capital punishment, but even the industrialized application of the death penalty cannot kill off the criminals as fast as they procreate and multiply. The GOP may be seeking a "final solution".

Social Darwinism, creationism and 'intelligent design' are the result of this neglect of truth for ideology; they follow inexorably from the disdain shown 'education' by the elitists of the Republican party and the fanatics of that party's religious wing! Social Darwinism, for example, does not follow from "Darwinism" and, worse, it attributes to Darwin positions he never took. Interestingly, the term "survival of the fittest" has been variously attributed, but Hofstadter seems to attribute that phrase to rail road men:
Railroad executive Chauncy Depew asserted that the guests of the great dinners and public banquets of New York City represented the survival of the fittest of all who came in search of fortune. They were the ones with superior abilities. Likewise railroad magnate James J. Hill defended the railroad companies by saying their fortunes were determined according to the law of survival of the fittest.

—Hofstadter, Richard; 1959; Social Darwinism in American Thought, Braziller; New York.
Elsewhere, the term is attributed to Herbert Spencer who clearly inspired a generation of radicalized, latter-day robber barons and, bluntly, few of them evince the "...quality of mercy" so immortalized with but a few words by Shakespeare:
[Herbert] Spencer said that diseases "are among the penalties Nature has attached to ignorance and imbecility, and should not, therefore, be tampered with." He even faulted private organizations like the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children because they encouraged legislation.

Social Darwinism and American Laissez-faire Capitalism
An equally fallacious corollary to "Social Darwinism" is often phrased this way: the rich are rich because they are better, work harder and are more intelligent. George W. Bush put it more crudely: “The poor are poor because they are lazy!” In the same vein, the conservative economist Joseph A. Schumpeter likened recessions to a "douche" leaving us to wonder just who is "douched" and how? More importantly: who gets to make those life and death decisions? It is difficult not to conclude that New Orleans after Katrina is but the disastrous consequence of this kind of "blame the victim" thinking.

It is not surprising, then, that Spencer's influence continues, not in the field of biology, but in economics, specifically those theories most often associated with the right wing: the American apologists, William Graham Sumner and Simon Nelson Patten.

No doubt, Spencer’s ideas received a major boost after Darwin's theories were published, but unfortunately the issues have been muddled ever since. Simply, the application of "adaptation" and "survival of the fittest" to social thought is known as "Social Darwinism".

More recently, the work of John Nash, recently the subject of the motion picture, A Beautiful Mind, argued persuasively that not only games but societies and economies benefit more from cooperation and community than from competition. Spencer, and Social Darwinists after him, took another view. And that is unfortunate.

Spencer believed that because society was evolving, government intervention ought to be minimal in social and political life ignoring that government is but a function of society and responsible to it. Influenced by Spencer, many describe American capitalism in terms of the “rational man” making rational decisions in a free market. In practice, however, economic decisions may or may not be rational and the free market exists only hypothetically. Moreover, "rational self-interest" is said to work collectively behind Adam Smith's "invisible hand".

That's all good theory and conservatives have worked mightily to force reality into the mold. That’s bad science; models must describe reality —not the other way round. Nash proved that cooperation is often more successful than competition, leading to the inevitable conclusion that societies which rationalize discrimination, income disparity, and social injustice on such a fallacious basis as Social Darwinism, are apt not be so successful themselves.

In A Beautiful Mind, Nash, portrayed by Russell Crowe, is in a favorite watering hole with two colleagues, later termed "negotiants" in his theories. The three young males were distracted by three unattended and comely females and among the three, a blonde, was seen to be the most desirable. Nash immediately saw a mathematical certainty of failure should all three males "hit on" the most attractive female. Equally certain, mathematically, was rejection by the remaining unattended females who would then be insulted, having become "second and third choices." Some fifty years later, Nash still polishes and refines the mathematics behind the only chance that three "geeks" might have with three comely young women--cooperation rather than competition: is more desirable to be accepted than to accept (!), so with there being reduced pressure to avoid the penalty of the {0,0,0} payoff when there is failure at the first step then the players naturally adapt at equilibrium by becoming "less accepting" and "more demanding." (The demand parameters...rise as the acceptance rate quantities decrease, but this turns out to be at a logarithmic rate).

...the players can be viewed as in a sort of "continuous auction" process where...the players are able to "bid"...and get into the process of cooperation. And this continuous version of the voting process seems probably to be good for generalization to any number of players.

--John Nash from a published email
The word "theory" is either misunderstood by the right wing or the term is perverted for the propaganda value. There is nothing wrong with "theory" per se, though the word is consistently used by the right wing in a pejorative sense except, significantly, when it is applied to Spencer and, more recently, Milton Friedman or Arthur Laffer. Accurately, the negative connotations implied are simply not to be found among those who use the word "theory" academically or in science. This linguistic abuse smacks of propaganda by a mentality for whom 'truth' is nothing more than whatever it is they can 'con' you into espousing.

It must be noted that Einstein was, likewise, a "theorist"; so, too, was Newton. Einstein has been confirmed no more times than Darwin; Newton is close enough for mundane applications or "government work". Significantly, neither "theory" has been challenged in court —though both theories may very well be replaced one day by a "theory of everything". One suspects, therefore, that there is a political agenda behind the campaign of attacks on Darwinism even as the same constituency supports Intelligent Design.

Theories are often never of a final form —nor should they be! Unlike ideology, real science is always self-correcting as new facts emerge from research. Darwin's theories were not only confirmed by Mendel, they accommodated Mendel which, in turn, tended to confirm Darwin. The science of genetics and the discovery of "mutations" confirm Darwin beyond any reasonable doubt.

Future discoveries will modify our view of Darwin, but that does not discount it. Our view of Einstein is already modified but he is, in no way, discounted. Moreover, no one has ever sued because Einstein is at odds with a particular dogma. It is certain, however, that no future discovery will confirm "intelligent design" —a logical fallacy on its face and quite beyond any confirmation of any kind! Theories explain "facts" but facts often confirm good theories as "fact”, just as facts have tended to confirm both Darwin and Einstein.

"Facts" tend to be narrowly phrased; theories, however, embrace a wide but finite set of related facts. Darwin and the sciences that followed him are entirely consistent with new discoveries in the field of genetics. [See: Science and Human Values, Jacob Bronowski]

Intelligent design, however, is of a religious nature and people have a right to believe it. But, it explains nothing and raises other issues which are obviously beyond scientific explanation. For example: who designed the designer? An unanswerable question which assumes a designer, Intelligent Design is a circulus en probando fallacy. People are free to believe fallacies, but they must not be free to impose them upon other people —especially at tax payer expense!

A fact, for example, is the equation describing the acceleration of falling objects; examples of theory are both the Newtonian and the Einsteinian view of "gravitation" —seen differently by both. The entire science of genetics confirms Darwin who, interestingly, did not have the benefit of Mendel's research when he wrote Origin of the Species and the The Descent of Man. It was Mendel's research that described the mechanism by which Darwin’s “traits” are passed on to succeeding generations. Accurate predictions are, in themselves, evidence in support of theories. [See: Evolution in Action, Julian Huxley]

Evolution is often considered to be so true as to be trivial: what survives survives. Critics of Darwin will often cite the tautology though it does not support them; it supports Darwin. Species which survive pass on their genes as well as random mutations. This is quite beyond debate. Every farmer who has bred for specific characteristics knows the truth of it. And every cowboy will tell you that if you kill a slow roach, you improve the breed. Evolution! Adaptation! Natural Selection! Some of the more subtle critics of "Darwin" say that "survival of the fittest" is a circular argument: the fittest are those who survive, and those who survive are deemed fittest. There are problems with that. Though it is attributed to Darwin himself, the term 'fittest' is a value judgment.

The term 'natural selection', rather, describes the process while avoiding the subjective value judgment that, I am told, Darwin himself might have missed. I am willing to cut Darwin some slack on this point. His research was exhaustive and his conclusions are valid. His work, after all, did precede the work of the logical positivists, primarily A. J. Ayer, who would have insisted upon a revision of the phrase 'survival of the fittest' consistent with a 'verifibility criterion of meaning' that is found in his Language, Truth and Logic. Certainly, Darwin's 'theory' meets Ayer's test of meaning itself. It is verified daily in observations ranging from 'fruit flies' to snow rabbits.

The proponents of "intelligent design" have erected several huge straw men. Evolution, for example, has nothing to do with "coming down from the trees". [See: Richard Leakey's "The Origin of Humankind" ; also: Answers to Creationist Nonsense!]

It could be said, however, that no one has yet produced a new specie by selection. But they have indeed done just that! Consider wheat! Wheat does not grow in the wild. Related to ancient grasses, wheat is clearly the result of an ancient application of "artificial selection." Had wheat evolved naturally, it would be found growing wild like prairie grass. But it isn't and it didn't.

Social Darwinism is one of many ideas that have harmed mankind by providing a rationalization for the perpetual and quite deliberate impoverishment of large segments of our society and, insidiously, it does so with a baseless theory that is not only fallaciously associated with Darwin, it is a 'theory' for which there is no evidence.

In simpler terms, the philosophical basis for the American right wing is this:
"Are there no workhouses? Are there no prisons...then let them die and decrease the surplus population."

Following is H.L. Mencken's report of the infamous "Scope's 'Monkey Trial'" in Dayton, Tennessee in which were pitted the infamous 'Attorney for the Damned', Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan, whose advocacy of the 'free coinage of silver' is all but forgotten, overshadowed by his disastrous advocacy of 'religious myth' bordering on bigotry.
The Scopes Trial: A Reporter's Account, July 9

On the eve of the great contest Dayton is full of sickening surges and tremors of doubt. Five or six weeks ago, when the infidel Scopes was first laid by the heels, there was no uncertainty in all this smiling valley. The town boomers leaped to the assault as one man. Here was an unexampled, almost a miraculous chance to get Dayton upon the front pages, to make it talked about, to put it upon the map. But how now?

Today, with the curtain barely rung up and the worst buffooneries to come, it is obvious to even town boomers that getting upon the map, like patriotism, is not enough. The getting there must be managed discreetly, adroitly, with careful regard to psychological niceties. The boomers of Dayton, alas, had no skill at such things, and the experts they called in were all quacks. The result now turns the communal liver to water. Two months ago the town was obscure and happy. Today it is a universal joke.

I have been attending the permanent town meeting that goes on in Robinson's drug store, trying to find out what the town optimists have saved from the wreck. All I can find is a sort of mystical confidence that God will somehow come to the rescue to reward His old and faithful partisans as they deserve--that good will flow eventually out of what now seems to be heavily evil. More specifically, it is believed that settlers will be attracted to the town as to some refuge from the atheism of the great urban Sodoms and Gomorrah.

But will these refugees bring any money with them? Will they buy lots and build houses? Will they light the fires of the cold and silent blast furnace down the railroad tracks? On these points, I regret to report, optimism has to call in theology to aid it. Prayer can accomplish a lot.

It can cure diabetes, find lost pocketbooks and retain husbands from beating their wives. But is prayer made any more officious by giving a circus first? Coming to this thought, Dayton begins to sweat.

The town, I confess, greatly surprised me. I expected to find a squalid Southern village, with darkies snoozing on the horse blocks, pigs rooting under the houses and the inhabitants full of hookworm and malaria. What I found was a country town of charm and even beauty....

July 10 the first day

The town boomers have banqueted Darrow as well as Bryan, but there is no mistaking which of the two has the crowd, which means the venire of tried and true men. Bryan has been oozing around the country since his first day here, addressing this organization and that, presenting the indubitable Word of God in his caressing, ingratiating way, and so making unanimity doubly unanimous. From the defense yesterday came hints that he was making hay before the sun had legally begun to shine--even that it was a sort of contempt of court. But no Daytonian believes anything of the sort. What Bryan says doesn't seem to these congenial Baptists and Methodists to be argument; it seems to be a mere graceful statement to the obvious....

July 11

The selection of a jury to try Scopes, which went on all yesterday afternoon in the atmosphere of a blast furnace, showed to what extreme lengths the salvation of the local primates has been pushed. It was obvious after a few rounds that the jury would be unanimously hot for Genesis. The most that Mr. Darrow could hope for was to sneak in a few bold enough to declare publicly that they would have to hear the evidence against Scopes before condemning him. The slightest sign of anything further brought forth a peremptory challenge from the State. Once a man was challenged without examination for simply admitting that he did not belong formally to any church. Another time a panel man who confessed that he was prejudiced
against evolution got a hearty round of applause from the crowd....

In brief this is a strictly Christian community, and such is its notion of fairness, justice and due process of law. Try to picture a town made up wholly of Dr. Crabbes and Dr. Kellys, and you will have a reasonably accurate image of it. Its people are simply unable to imagine a man who rejects the literal authority of the Bible. The most they can conjure up, straining until they are red in the face, is a man who is in error about the meaning of this or that text. Thus one accused of heresy among them is like one accused of boiling his grandmother to make soap in Maryland...

July 13 the second day

It would be hard to imagine a more moral town than Dayton. If it has any bootleggers, no visitor has heard of them. Ten minutes after I arrived a leading citizen offered me a drink made up half of white mule and half of coca cola, but he seems to have been simply indulging himself in a naughty gesture. No fancy woman has been seen in the town since the end of the McKinley administration. There is no gambling. There is no place to dance. The relatively wicked, when they would indulge themselves, go to Robinson's drug store and debate theology....

July 14 the third day

The net effect of Clarence Darrow's great speech yesterday seems to be preciously the same as if he had bawled it up a rainspout in the interior of Afghanistan. That is, locally, upon the process against the infidel Scopes, upon the so-called minds of these fundamentalists of upland Tennessee. You have but a dim notice of it who have only read it. It was not designed for reading, but for hearing. The clangtint of it was as important as the logic. It rose like a wind and ended like a flourish of bugles. The very judge on the bench, toward the end of it, began to look uneasy. But the morons in the audience, when it was over, simply hissed it.

During the whole time of its delivery the old mountebank, Bryan, sat tight-lipped and unmoved. There is, of course, no reason why it should have shaken him. He has these hillbillies locked up in his pen and he knows it. His brand is on them. He is at home among them. Since his earliest days, indeed, his chief strength has been among the folk of remote hills and forlorn and lonely farms. Now with his political aspirations all gone to pot, he turns to them for religious consolations. They understand his peculiar imbecilities. His nonsense is their ideal of sense. When he deluges them with his theologic bilge they rejoice like pilgrims disporting in the river Jordan....

July 15 the fourth day

A preacher of any sect that admit the literal authenticity of Genesis is free to gather a crowd at any time and talk all he wants. More, he may engage in a disputation with any expert. I have heard at least a hundred such discussions, and some of them have been very acrimonious. But the instant a speaker utters a word against divine revelation he begin to disturb the peace and is liable to immediate arrest and confinement in the calaboose beside the railroad tracks...

July 16 the fifth day

In view of the fact that everyone here looks for the jury to bring in a verdict of guilty, it might be expected that the prosecution would show a considerable amiability and allow the defense a rather free play. Instead, it is contesting every point very vigorously and taking every advantage of its greatly superior familiarity with local procedure. There is, in fact, a considerable heat in the trial. Bryan and the local lawyers for the State sit glaring at the defense all day and even the Attorney-General, A. T. Stewart, who is supposed to have secret doubts about fundamentalism, has shown such pugnacity that it has already brought him to forced apologies.

The high point of yesterday's proceedings was reached with the appearance of Dr. Maynard M. Metcalf of the John Hopkins. The doctor is a somewhat chubby man of bland mien, and during the first part of his testimony, with the jury present, the prosecution apparently viewed his with great equanimity. But the instant he was asked a question bearing directly upon the case at bar there was a flurry in the Bryan pen and Stewart was on his feet with protests. Another question followed, with more and hotter protests. The judge then excluded the jury and the show began.

What ensued was, on the surface, a harmless enough dialogue between Dr. Metcalf and Darrow, but underneath there was tense drama. At the first question Bryan came out from behind the State's table and planted himself directly in front of Dr. Metcalf, and not ten feet away. The two McKenzies followed, with young Sue Hicks at their heels.

Then began one of the clearest, most succinct and withal most eloquent presentations of the case for the evolutionists that I have ever heard. The doctor was never at a loss for a word, and his ideas flowed freely and smoothly. Darrow steered him magnificently. A word or two and he was howling down the wind. Another and he hauled up to discharge a broadside. There was no cocksureness in him. Instead he was rather cautious and deprecatory and sometimes he halted and confessed his ignorance. But what he got over before he finished was a superb counterblast to the fundamentalist buncombe.

The jury, at least, in theory heard nothing of it, but it went whooping into the radio and it went banging into the face of Bryan....

This old buzzard, having failed to raise the mob against its rulers, now prepares to raise it against its teachers. He can never be the peasants' President, but there is still a chance to be the peasants' Pope. He leads a new crusade, his bald head glistening, his face streaming with sweat, his chest heaving beneath his rumpled alpaca coat. One somehow pities him, despite his so palpable imbecilities. It is a tragedy, indeed, to begin life as a hero and to end it as a buffoon. But let no one, laughing at him, underestimate the magic that lies in his black, malignant eye, his frayed but still eloquent voice. He can shake and inflame these poor ignoramuses as no other man among us can shake and inflame them, and he is desperately eager to order the charge.

In Tennessee he is drilling his army. The big battles, he believes, will be fought elsewhere.

July 17 the sixth day

Malone was in good voice. It was a great day for Ireland. And for the defense. For Malone not only out-yelled Bryan, he also plainly out-generaled and out-argued him. His speech, indeed, was one of the best presentations of the case against the fundamentalist rubbish that I have ever heard.

It was simple in structure, it was clear in reasoning, and at its high points it was overwhelmingly eloquent. It was not long, but it covered the whole ground and it let off many a gaudy skyrocket, and so it conquered even the fundamentalist. At its end they gave it a tremendous cheer--a cheer at least four times as hearty as that given to Bryan. For these rustics delight in speechifying, and know when it is good. The devil's logic cannot fetch them, but they are not above taking a voluptuous pleasure in his lascivious phrases.

July 18

All that remains of the great cause of the State of Tennessee against the infidel Scopes is the formal business of bumping off the defendant. There may be some legal jousting on Monday and some gaudy oratory on Tuesday, but the main battle is over, with Genesis completely triumphant. Judge Raulston finished the benign business yesterday morning by leaping with soft judicial hosannas into the arms of the prosecution. The sole commentary of the sardonic Darrow consisted of bringing down a metaphorical custard pie upon the occiput of the learned jurist.

"I hope," said the latter nervously, "that counsel intends no reflection upon this court."

Darrow hunched his shoulders and looked out of the window dreamily.

"Your honor," he said, "is, of course, entitled to hope."...

The Scopes trial, from the start, has been carried on in a manner exactly fitted to the anti- evolution law and the simian imbecility under it. TThere hasn't been the slightest pretense to decorum. The rustic judge, a candidate for re-election, has postured the yokels like a clown in a ten-cent side show, and almost every word he has uttered has been an undisguised appeal to their prejudices and superstitions. The chief prosecuting attorney, beginning like a competent lawyer and a man of self-respect, ended like a convert at a Billy Sunday revival. It fell to him, finally, to make a clear and astounding statement of theory of justice prevailing under fundamentalism. What he said, in brief, was that a man accused of infidelity had no rights whatever under Tennessee law...

Darrow has lost this case. It was lost long before he came to Dayton. But it seems to me that he has nevertheless performed a great public service by fighting it to a finish and in a perfectly serious way. Let no one mistake it for comedy, farcical though it may be in all its details. It serves notice on the country that Neanderthal man is organizing in these forlorn backwaters of the land, led by a fanatic, rid of sense and devoid of conscience.

Tennessee, challenging him too timorously and too late, now sees its courts converted into camp meetings and its Bill of Rights made a mock of by its sworn officers of the law. There are other States that had better look to their arsenals before the Hun is at their gates.

Trailer: A Beautiful Mind