The Longer Version

So I recently did one of those very writer-like things. I produced a retrospective on the 1981 McLean v. Arkansas “monkey trial” for the Arkansas Times, our local monthly magazine of culture and politics, and I paid no heed to the word count at all. In that haze of creativity, I just kept writing and writing, and then I compounded the authorial stereotype by sending them the whole damn thing, convinced that they would make room for all of my brilliance. Well, as I should have expected, they cut the piece by about a third. While I admire their editing, I am still enamored of my original, as I believed it developed some of the core ideas a little more deeply, and so I present it here with the hope that this doesn’t seem too self-indulgent.


Creationists v. Arkansas: Re-Evaluating the 1981 “Monkey Trial”
By Guy Lancaster

In his 1874 paper “The Ethics of Belief,” Cambridge philosopher and mathematician William K. Clifford tells the story of a shipowner who worries about the seaworthiness of a vessel about to carry a group of emigrants to their new lives across the ocean: “He knew that she was old, and not overwell built at the first; that she had seen many seas and climes, and often had needed repairs.” However, he was able to dismiss these concerns from his mind and “put his trust in Providence” and watched the departure of the ship “with a light heart.” In the end, “he got his insurance money when she went down in mid-ocean and told no tells.” Clifford concludes that our fictional shipowner should be judged guilty of the deaths of these people: “It is admitted that he did sincerely believe in the soundness of his ship; but the sincerity of his conviction can in nowise help him, because he had no right to believe on such evidence as was before him. He had acquired his belief not by honestly earning it in patient investigation, but by stifling his doubts.”

While devout believers of missionizing religions do typically consider the personal belief of others a matter of ethical concern (is it ethical to let people go to hell?), most of us on the liberal spectrum tend to be a little more accommodating, at least as long as personal beliefs do not threaten a society built upon mutual tolerance and respect. But many personal beliefs today do endanger us collectively. Anti-vaxxers believe without evidence that vaccines, by their very nature, cause health problems, and as a result the nation has recently undergone several outbreaks of measles. Today, the cry of “religious freedom” serves as a rallying point for those who would deny public accommodations to non-heterosexual people, just as in decades past the cry of “religious freedom” served to rally those who wanted to keep their schools segregated, and in both cases these proponents of “religious freedom” believed without evidence that the nation would experience divine calamity for extending basic rights to gays and non-whites, respectively. Veritable reigns of terror have been fashioned from deeply held beliefs unsupported by the slightest whisper of evidence, as the parents of Sandy Hook victims can well attest.

Clifford would argue that people like climate change denialists and Pizzagate enthusiasts have no right to their beliefs, not simply because these beliefs do not accord with the evidence at hand, but because these beliefs can and do cause harm to other people. It’s a radical notion–the idea that a belief which has an impact beyond the individual must withstand the encounter with reality in order to be considered ethical. Such radicalism has emerged into our public discourse only a few times in our history. One of those was Arkansas in the year 1982, with Judge William Overton’s ruling in McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education.

The McLean v. Arkansas case centered upon the constitutionality of Act 590, a law that mandated equal time for so-called “creation science” in public school classrooms where the theory of evolution was taught. Although the people of Arkansas had, back in 1928, outlawed the teaching of evolutionary theory in public schools through an initiated act (a law overturned in the 1968 U.S. Supreme Court case Epperson v. Arkansas), the driving force behind what became Act 590 was, perhaps surprisingly, “from off”–that is, from out of state. A man named Wendell Bird of the Institute for Creation Research in San Diego, California, had drawn up a model bill for teaching creationism alongside evolutionary theory, and this model was picked up by respiratory therapist Paul Ellwanger of South Carolina, founder of the organization Citizens for Fairness in Education. He tinkered with Bird’s original work and sent it to state legislators across the country, hoping to get a bite, thus making Act 590 a clear example of what we call today “cookie-cutter legislation.”

There is some irony in the fact that the ignorance soon associated with Arkansas in the fallout of its own “monkey trial” was imported from California by way of South Carolina. But despite public protestations that the model legislation simply called for “equal time” for both scientific theory and creationism, that it in fact expanded the range of subjects that might be considered by students, those behind the law had no interest in fashioning equality for evolution and creationism. In a letter to State Senator Bill Keith of Louisiana that became public during the trial, Ellwanger wrote, “I view this whole battle as one between God and anti-God forces, though I know there are a large number of evolutionists who believe in God.” He also stated in a letter to one Tom Bethell that “we’re not making any scientific claims for creation, but we are challenging evolution’s claim to be scientific.” As historian Matthew McNair has written: “From a scientific viewpoint, the core problem with creation science is not that creation-scientists believe in a creator… but that creation-science activists have no positive evidence; that is, the sole purpose of the creation-science movement is not to explain but merely to debunk evolutionary theory.”

Multiple Arkansas legislators received copies of Ellwanger’s model bill and passed on it. But not James L. Holsted, a state senator from North Little Rock and a “born again” Christian. He introduced the legislation, Senate Bill 482, into the Senate without ever once consulting with the Arkansas Department of Education or any educators or scientists, and the bill passed the Senate on March 13, 1981, without ever going through a committee for hearings and with only a few minutes of discussion on the Senate floor. The House of Representatives conducted only a fifteen-minute hearing before passing the bill 69–18.

At this point, the general public was awakening to the likelihood that Arkansas was about to perform yet another act of self-inflicted harm. A passage from Jack Butler’s novel Living in Little Rock with Miss Little Rock speaks to the panic that was rising among the more liberal denizens of Arkansas:

“What did the Senate do?” Suddenly terrified by a number. The number of the beast. No, not that, another number: 482. Senate Bill 482. As if he had forgotten a murder, as if the dizziness at the back of his head was in fact a whirlpool, a spinning drain, as if something vital was spilling away down it, lost forever. “The Senate bill,” he insisted. “The one in the news.”

The bill now went to Frank White, whose bid the previous year to be only the second Republican Party governor since the death of Reconstruction was initially regarded as a long shot at best. But this obscure Little Rock banker hammered first-term wonderkid Bill Clinton relentlessly over “Cubans and car tags”–that is, the discord at Fort Chaffee due to an influx of Cuban refugees, and Clinton’s having increased automobile licencing fees. After eking out a 32,000-vote margin of victory, Frank White proclaimed his win “a victory for the Lord,” and so perhaps it was not at all surprising that the new governor signed the creation science bill into law on March 19, 1981. Nor was it surprising that he later admitted not having read the bill before signing it. Frank White had not really expected to become governor and entered office without the sort of legislative program that might guide the bills coming to his desk. This bill no doubt spoke to his own religious sentiments. After signing it, the governor extravagantly exclaimed to assembled reporters that Arkansas had assumed the scientific leadership of the known world.

(From this point onward, Arkansas Gazette cartoonist George Fisher would depict Frank White holding a half-eaten banana in one hand. Some things just stick like that–you enter office without a legislative plan and end up being forever defined by a bill you didn’t even read.)

Suddenly, national media attention was focused upon Arkansas, with the inevitable lawsuit fostering predictions of a sequel to the famous Scopes Monkey Trial. In response, some state legislators pleaded ignorance about the bill they had just passed. Senator Holsted himself acknowledged knowing very little about the subject of his bill, saying that if he had foreseen so many people asking him about creationism, “I might have gotten scared off because I don’t know anything about that stuff.” But he stuck to his guns, unlike others, who had turned around to denounce SB 482 as unconstitutional. Sure, they had voted for it, but they had not expected it to actually pass–they just wanted to make sure they were on the right side of religious issues when the next election rolled around. As McNair notes, “This casts dubious light on the assertion by some that SB482 was purely a bill to promote science education.” Some legislators floated the idea of a special session in order to revoke the law, but Governor White pledged to veto any such bill, and so everyone waited for the ACLU and others to file suit. And when they did, Act 590 became the new cause celebre for the Moral Majority. Arkansas had stumbled right into a new monkey trial, with national attention fixated upon the goings-on in Little Rock.

The trial began on December 7, 1981, and continued through December 17, 1981. Among the plaintiffs were a number of clergy representing Methodist, Catholic, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Jewish, and other groups whose inclusion was designed to counter the Moral Majority framing of the debate as one of atheism versus Christianity (the name of the court case takes itself from a United Methodist minister, Reverend William McLean). Other plaintiffs included biology teachers and organizations like the Arkansas Education Association. The ACLU took a two-pronged approach, with a “religious team” of witnesses arguing that creationism was an explicitly religious doctrine, and a “scientific team” whose job was to undercut the supposed scientific claims of creationism.

The state honestly had the more difficult job, and not just because it was forced to defend a law that had undergone no debates and that the few who voted for it even understood. Attorney General Steve Clark was seen as, at best, a reluctant defender of Act 590, and a number of state and national groups attempted to sign on as institutional defendants, citing a statement of Clark’s that he had “personal qualms” about the constitutionality of the act as a sign that he would not represent the case for creationism with full fervor. However, Judge Overton refused to allow any outside intervention. A September 2, 1981, Gazette cartoon by George Fisher, titled “The Intervenors,” depicts Clark, wearing old-fashioned riding gear and driving the sort of car that carried the Clampitts to California in The Beverly Hillbillies. The car is labeled, “Creation Science Case,” and in the voluminous back seat is a rowdy assemblage of men (along with one woman and a monkey), one at his own pulpit, one throwing leaflets into the wind, and one, with a steering wheel of his own, shouting, “Judge Overton or no Judge overton–I just don’t trust that driver!”

Then, it came to light in December 1981, in the very midst of the trial, that Clark had allowed the ACLU to auction off a dinner with him as part of a fundraising campaign. This raised the ire of the Moral Majority. On The 700 Club, Pat Robertson described Clark as “crooked,” while Jerry Falwell accused him of “collusion or worse.” Adherents of creationism felt that the fix was in.

From the moment Act 590 was passed, on up through the trial later that year, many equated their advocacy for creationism with democracy itself. Senator Holsted, who introduced the bill, said, “My job as a politician and as a senator from North Little Rock is to introduce something that represents my beliefs and the beliefs of the majority of my constituents, which I am convinced that bill does.” According to Dorothy Nelkin, a sociologist of science who testified on behalf of the plaintiffs in the McLean trial, many state witnesses accused “evolutionary biologists of ‘censorship,’ of ‘country club exclusion,’ of keeping those theories which were incompatible with their personal or philosophical views ‘out of the marketplace of ideas.’” Governor White liked to brag that the mail he received was five-to-one in favor of Act 590. Letters to the Arkansas Gazette regularly echoed the democratic rhetoric of those who promoted the bill, with one being titled, “Can 22 State Senators Be Wrong?” And when a judiciary not subject to democratic limitations dared to sit in judgment upon a popular idea, it evoked a great deal of ire; or as one correspondent to the Gazette wrote: “The majority did not vote these judges or laws, but enemies and subversives have infiltrated the security and legal systems, the courts, the schools, including Communists and the Mafia and evil moral perverts in every form of disguise and deception.” Even Attorney General Clark could not help implying that popular acclaim somehow legitimized the law, saying of the religious leaders testifying against Act 590: “I don’t think they represent the cross section of Christians in our state.”

Creationism may have been (and perhaps still is) popular, but as a philosophical point of view, is it actually democratic? No. As one of the founders of modern young-earth creationism, Henry M. Morris, whose work was cited in the McLean ruling, wrote in an early textbook of his: “… it is … quite impossible to determine anything about Creation through a study of present processes, because present processes are not creative in character. If man wishes to know anything about Creation (the time of Creation, the duration of Creation, the order of Creation, the methods of Creation, or anything else) his sole source of true information is that of divine revelation. God was there when it happened. We were not there … Therefore, we are completely limited to what God has seen fit to tell us, and this information is in His written Word.” Likewise, Duane Gish of the Institute for Creation Research, and a prominent witness for the defense, once wrote, “God used processes which are not now operating anywhere in the natural universe. This is why we refer to divine creation as special creation. We cannot discover by scientific investigation anything about the creative processes used by God.” In other words, in the creationist mindset, average people themselves cannot access the truth about the world by observing the present state of things and working backward, building upon our knowledge, making new discoveries as our technology advances. Harold Coffin, a creationist writer and witness for the defense, admitted in a deposition that scientific inquiry would lead to the conclusion that the earth was billions of years old but that his view “is not so much based on scientific evidence as on Scriptural-historical information”–or counting backward through the generations listed in the Bible to determine when God created the world. Such claims show up across the spectrum of modern Christian fundamentalism, but there were elements of this from the early years of the Church; as St. Augustine put it: “Seek not to understand that you may believe, but rather to believe that you may understand.”

Creationists like to accuse real scientists of constituting a “country club” set with an undemocratic hold upon education, but the scientific method is fundamentally democratic. Anyone can, for example, test the rate of acceleration due to gravity on Earth, regardless of the experimenter’s nationality, age, race, religion, or gender, and come up with the same answer. The recent Netflix documentary Behind the Curve features a group of flat-earthers engaging in experiments to test flat-earth ideology, and despite their fervent belief, each one of these experiments only helped to confirm that the earth is, in fact, a globe. Renowned astronomer Carl Sagan once wrote: “The whole idea of a democratic application of skepticism is that everyone should have the essential tools to effectively and constructively evaluate claims to knowledge.” However, according to creationists, God, the creator of the universe, designed this world of ours to lie to us. The only people who have access to the truth are those who not only believe in a God but believe in the right kind of God the right kind of way, and the only way to evaluate claims of knowledge is via one of these self-appointed emissaries of God. And to think that they call scientists “elitists.”

It honestly surprised no one when Judge Overton ruled, on January 5, 1982, that Act 590 was unconstitutional. As expected, he based a large part of his ruling on the establishment clause of the First Amendment, finding that creationism was a religious doctrine which could not be supported by the state, and that no amount of public support justified its inclusion in educational curricula: “The application and content of First Amendment principles are not determined by public opinion polls or by a majority vote. Whether the proponents of Act 590 constitute the majority or the minority is quite irrelevant under a constitutional system of government. No group, no matter how large or small, may use the organs of government, of which the public schools are the most conspicuous and influential, to foist its religious beliefs on others.”

But Judge Overton also took the time to expound upon the nature of science and thus illustrate just how far creationism was removed from actual scientific method. Namely, he listed five essential characteristics of science: (1) It is guided by natural law; (2) It has to be explanatory by reference to natural law; (3) It is testable against the empirical world; (4) Its conclusions are tentative, i.e., are not necessarily the final word; and (5) It is falsifiable.

In other words, science is the pursuit of understanding reality, and in that, science is not so different from other pursuits of ours. Harvard University biologist Stephen Jay Gould, who testified in the McLean trial, recounted later how, when he returned to his hotel room in preparation to leave Little Rock, he encountered a plumber looking for the source of a water leak that had caused the ceiling in the room below to collapse. Said plumber gave the biologist “a fascinating disquisition on how a professional traces the pathways of water through hotel pipes and walls” that “was perfectly logical and mechanistic.” However, when Gould asked the plumber his opinion on the trial across the street, “he confessed his staunch creationism, including his firm belief in the miracle of Noah’s flood.” Apparently, the plumber did not recognize the fact that the principles underlying his own work–tracing effects back to causes–also served as the foundation of evolutionary biology.

A plumber operating according to the tenets of some faith–doctrines which tell him to disregard his observations and tests–would not long remain in business. As University of Chicago biologist Jerry A Coyne has written, “science and religion are incompatible because they have different methods for getting knowledge about reality, have different ways of assessing the reliability of that knowledge, and, in the end, arrive at conflicting conclusions about the universe. ‘Knowledge’ acquired by religion is at odds not only with scientific knowledge, but also with knowledge professed by other religions. In the end, religion’s methods, unlike those of science, are useless for understanding this reality.”

The McLean case was never appealed–likely thanks to the strong opinion written by Judge Overton–and thus never had the chance to establish a precedent at the Supreme Court level. However, five years after McLean, the U.S. Supreme Court had the opportunity to weigh in on a Louisiana law that also demanded “equal time” between creationism and actual science in the classroom. While Justice William Brennan’s ruling in Edward v. Aguillard found that the Louisiana law violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment, it did little to address the fundamental inaccuracies of so-called “creation science” and even evinced a sympathetic attitude toward creationism in how it tackled the issue of “balance.” For Brennan, the key to his ruling seemed the fact that, despite its contention otherwise, the law did little to advance “equal time.” As he writes, the Louisiana law “evinces a discriminatory preference for the teaching of creation science and against the teaching of evolution by requiring that curriculum guides be developed and resource services supplied for teaching creationism, but not for teaching evolution, by limiting membership on the resource services panel to ‘creation scientists,’ and by forbidding school boards to discriminate against anyone who ‘chooses to be a creation scientist’ or to teach creation science, while failing to protect those who choose to teach other theories or who refuse to teach creation science.” The real kicker comes in the following line: “A law intended to maximize the comprehensiveness and effectiveness of science instruction would encourage the teaching of all scientific theories about human origins.” But Brennan never defines “scientific theories” the way that Overton did, and this rhetoric of teaching “all scientific theories about human origins” seems to reflect the demands of creationists themselves. In other words, for Brennan, the issue was not the fundamental invalidity of creationism but rather the fact that creationists, in this case, were simply too greedy and sought absolute dominance in the marketplace of ideas. Or as McNair has written, “Rather than draw upon Overton’s definition of science and rejection of thinly veiled religious dogma, Brennan has instead codified the High Court’s sympathy with religion-infused pseudoscience, even as the bill championing such pseudoscience is rejected as unconstitutional.”

In the Book of Genesis, there is the story of Joseph, whose jealous half-brothers conspire to sell him into slavery. He undergoes a series of adventures and ends up right-hand-man to the pharaoh of Egypt. Many years later, a famine sends Joseph’s half-brothers to Egypt to seek food, and Joseph finds that he is in the perfect position to help his family. As he tells them of their original crime, “But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good.”

In like manner, those who foisted Act 590 upon Arkansas intended evil for its citizens; they intended to inaugurate a reign of ignorance that would leave the state crippled and its citizenry without the tools to understand reality. And as with William K. Clifford’s shipowner, it matters not in the slightest that they truly believed in their cause and wished only the best: “For although they had sincerely and conscientiously believed in the charges they had made, yet they had no right to believe on such evidence as was before them.” We are lucky that the only major harm they caused was to Arkansas’s image.

But although these creationists meant evil, the result of their efforts was, as manifested in Judge Overton’s eloquent ruling, a full-throated defense of the scientific method, one that would remain unparalleled in jurisprudence until the 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover case that similarly destroyed the intellectual pretensions of intelligent design (and, like the McLean ruling, was never appealed to the Supreme Court). Many who lived through the trial remember McLean as a blight upon Arkansas, an embarrassment for a state that perennially lingered at the bottom of any ranking (save for, maybe, rice production and teen pregnancy). But we should remember, instead, the rousing vindication of rationality and democracy that emerged from this time of trial. For although the creationists meant it for evil, Act 590–in the hands of the plaintiffs and Judge Overton–was turned into an opportunity for good.



Alabama Goddamn

So here’s what you do. You form a PAC called “Rapists for Republicans.” Then you run the following ad, starring the sleeziest, slimiest, most stereotypical pedophile type you can:

I like little girls. The younger the better. And I’m gonna be a daddy, thanks to the Republican Party of Alabama.

You see, with this new law, I can kidnap your little twelve-year-old girl, lock her up in my basement, rape her every day for a month, and even if the cops finally track her down and free her from my clutches, well, I’m still on top. Because if she’s pregnant, and she probably is, you can’t do anything about that. Nope!

I mean, it’s gonna be hard. ‘Cause I brutalized her pretty badly, you know. And now she’s gonna have to have a baby on top of that? It’s gonna ruin her life. And yours. But it’s gonna be my baby. I’m a member of your family now!

Thank God the Republican Party of Alabama is standing up for the parental rights of rapists everywhere.

You run that ad constantly. You make a character of the guy–call him Ralph the Rapist or Pete the Pedophile–and run ads with him personally endorsing every goddamn Republican in the state. And then you take him national, have him give his endorsement to every Republican around: Cause my good friend French Hill is gonna bring Alabama-style justice to the whole country. He’s a Republican, and he’ll stand up for rapist rights everywhere!

You do not worry about misrepresenting slightly nuanced views on the extreme right regarding abortion. You do not worry about your opponents taking offense at being called cheerleaders for rapists everywhere. You do not overthink this.

No, you do this because the Republican Party constitutes an existential threat to human rights and democracy and because, yes, they are actually siding with the rapists on this one. And because, as my mom taught me when I was young, there is no such thing as a fair fight–there is only the fight you walk away from. “Don’t punch anyone in the face,” she said. “God after the soft bits–crotch, gut, throat, eyes. You punch, kick, scratch, bite–whatever it takes. And for goodness sake, don’t try to ‘be a man.’ Don’t give him a single chance to get at you. Remember, the fight is only over once you have gotten safely away or he has stopped moving.”

In other words, whatever it takes to save your life and the lives of those you love. That attitude is what we need in politics right now. Republicans understand that this is a bloody fucking fight, not a celebration of the marketplace of ideas. And we need to do the same.

This ad was paid for by Rapists for the Republican Party.

Ecclesiology and Its Discontents

Albert Furtwangler, in his book Bringing Indians to the Book, noted that once missionaries showed up in the Americas with their religion, native religion became a matter of choice, not simply a matter of people’s habits or traditions, and thus defenders of native religion had, in many respects, to develop their own sort of missionizing language to keep people in the fold. In many respects, the process of the Protestant Reformation, and later the various waves of secularization in Europe (and the United States), made Christianity a choice. Where previously one went to church because everyone went to church, and one went to the local church because it was closest and everyone went to church, now one chose a church, and that choice spoke to (or was supposed to speak to) deeply held beliefs, beliefs that often separated one from one’s neighbor. Church became like a book club or group of hobbyists–congregations of people who shared similar interests (in this case, apparently similar doctrinal views). So now, even among Christian populations, “home missions” became a preoccupation, because even in a Christian culture, not everyone might be the right kind of Christian.

Lost during this cultural shift was the ability to take things for granted, to take things as a given, when it came to “matters of the spirit.” Even if you were raised in a church, your adherence to church was regarded as a matter of choice, for there were so many other options available to you.  Of course, many believers would say (and this was the substance of Protestantism) that the “laxity” of previous generations of Christians simply spoke to the need for revival and reform, for one must always strive for the truest interpretation of God’s Word and not simply relax into habits because they tend to be the habits of the population at this particular time and place. But even though I am no longer a Christian, I can’t help but to feel that something was lost in this shift–namely, the existence of an institution in which one connects with one’s neighbors outside the cloud of ideology, which can easily poison those relations. What has been lost is the language and symbolism that allows interpersonal connections to flourish in a shared context, especially beyond the ongoing struggle for the necessities of life.

These days, I am absolutely committed to a secular worldview. I find the very idea of church to be unfulfilling, to say the least, because I do not think that religion embodies any form of truth. In fact, my eventual estrangement from all things religious was based upon a developing understanding of the nature of truth and the realization that the truth claims upon which religion is based had no relationship to a reality that could be independently verified–and that I much preferred the uncertainty principle to the “cloud of unknowing.” However, I have realized here lately that my departure from the social enterprise of church has allowed the mental preoccupations that guide my paid employment to creep into more and more facets of our life, and that I have not had much socialization beyond co-workers and comrades in the same field, loosely defined. I have a Swedish-speaking group that meets every other week, but that’s about it unless I make a specific effort.

So while I find the ideology of religious congregations anathema, contrary to the precious idea of truth, I have to recognize that there was another aspect of church that had value–the part of church outside religion, if you can separate those in your mind. There is a bit of a feedback loop going on in the history of religion, with the process of  secularization driving the church toward more and more explicit ideology, in order to justify its existence and retain its adherence, which, in turn, drives yet a further wave of secularization, as people distance themselves from this ideology. Certain conservative voices are not wrong when they claim that secularization has left people lonely, but that is simply because what was socially valuable about church has not been replicated in another setting free of ideology. Sweden has largely escaped the secularization blues, but that’s because the nation actively promoted membership in athletic clubs, book circles, and more, thus driving people into groups that could compensate for what was missing.

So here’s the thing. Parishes used to be not only the seats of ecclesiastic authority but also the sites of local governance. Parish councils operated like city councils before systems of government became nationalized and professionalized, and in some places today the parish council still makes decisions about local ordinances. Parish councils organized access to common lands (“the commons”). Parish councils were organizations of great import for people who lived an explicitly local life, bringing neighbors together for tackling issues collectively or debating the future of the community. And so maybe what we need to replace church is not church but, instead, democracy at all levels of our lives: neighborhood associations and town councils and school boards.

After all, only democracy can really bring you together with all of your neighbors to work out your real-world problems. Should we really be surprised that it is under attack so fervently by conservatives?


Educated and Education

My wife occasionally complains that I don’t buy books like other people. Most of my reading material for the last several years has consisted of various academic books, though if I found myself at a used book store I would certainly browse a bit for some out-of-print novels. For many years, whenever a new academic volume after which I lusted appeared on the market, I would try to figure out how to get a free review copy of it. Buying seemed like a failure, like a defeat, and as a consequence I’ve reviewed a ton of books for more journals than is really sensible, all to save on the price of purchase. Here lately, perhaps either because I have a little more money or a little less time for writing reviews, I will buy the odd volume if it’s not prohibitively expensive. When I decide I have to have a new book, I e-mail our local bookstore and go pick it up when they call me about it. I don’t browse, just get my book and go.

But my friend Bill Lindsey, who blogs over at Bilgrimage, has been writing recently about the book Educated by Tara Westover, and it sounded a worthwhile read, especially as I recently finished Kate Manne’s Down Girl: The Logic of MisogynyEducated is the memoir of a woman who grew up in a strict, rural, paranoid survivalist Mormon household, overseen by a patriarch who believed that public education was socialism. Despite having never attended any sort of school during her young life, as well as being denied any real home schooling, Tara managed to get into Brigham Young University and, from there, go on to receive a doctorate in history from Cambridge University. It sounded quite the book, and I had that title in the back of my head when I found myself at the Barnes and Noble in Jonesboro, Arkansas, over Easter weekend. Now, when I am in a bookstore like that, I might go in with the idea of perhaps buying a book, and there may be one that I am contemplating, but then I’ll see another, and another, and another, and soon my intended purchase has to compete with all these other worthwhile volumes, and in the end I give up and leave without getting anything because who needs a new book when I already have so many back home that I haven’t read. And, in fact, we had driven away from the bookstore when I began to regret not having gotten a certain book, and so we went back, but the indecision re-emerged, and I was going to leave bookless yet again until the wife forced Educated into my hands and scooted me over to the register.

And a good thing, too, I’ll admit, because this book has been the source of many a thought since Saturday. One of the recurring themes in the book is the conflict between what Tara recognizes as truth, from her own experience and her own learning, and what she has been taught to perceive as truth through the influence of her family, especially her father, who has shaped her reality for so many years. As she writes, when this starts to come to a head: “My life was narrated for me by others. Their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute. It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs” (p. 197).  But she never breaks completely free. Even at Cambridge, where she is surrounded by people re-affirming her own worth, she still has to contend with the voices planted inside her own head by her family, voices telling her that she has no place there and that her chosen studies have no bearing upon the real world.

Worse are her attempts to narrate her own life to her parents. What ends up forcing the total separation from her parents and most of her siblings is her insistence that older brother Shawn abused her repeatedly.  Her mother, especially, witnessed Shawn beating Tara, and her friend Charles saw Shawn push her face violently into a toilet bowl, but her simple efforts to get her parents to acknowledge this reality proved fruitless, for they insisted that any fault was hers. If she would only be the meek and submissive woman their faith demanded, then she could see that any violence between the siblings was provoked by her, for wasn’t Shawn a holy patriarch like her father? Her insistence on remembering what she remembered was the real stumbling block: “All I had to do was swap my memories for theirs, and I could have my family” (pp. 299-300).

Watching these dynamics of physical and psychological abuse play out in the Westover family throughout the span of the book, I’ve been put in mind of our broader history, and how the struggle for emancipation encounters the same patterns of gaslighting and torture at the collective level. Any emancipatory movement struggles to define its reality against those in power, whose actions easily parallel those of patriarchal abusers:

Slavery wasn’t like you say at all! Masters cared for their slaves like members of their own families. We never saw any abuse on southern plantations, and we were there. Besides, such a primitive race needed a guiding hand to prepare itself for civilization.

Sure, lynching is bad, but you people provoke it. All this talk of equal rights makes the negro think himself the equal of any white man, and so he wants to take his place, even in the bedroom. This talk of equal rights turns negro men into rapists, so it’s really your fault that lynchings happen.

How dare you talk about police like that! Don’t you know that they are the ones protecting us from anarchy? I saw that same video, and that dude was clearly provoking that cop to shoot him. The only people who think otherwise have some kind of agenda.

Many of the struggles over history actually follow the same pattern as does the struggle for selfhood in an abusive family. Near the end of her book, Tara Westover relates that her parents visited her at Harvard University, where she had a fellowship, as her father wanted to give her a priesthood blessing that would drive the evil from her. As she writes:

“Everything I had worked for, all my years of study, had been to purchase for myself this one privilege: to see and experience more truths than those given to me by my father, and to use those truths to construct my own mind. I had come to believe that the ability to evaluate many ideas, many histories, many points of view, was at the heart of what it means to self-create. If I yielded now, I would lose more than an argument. I would lose custody of my own mind. This was the price I was being asked to pay, I understood that now. What my father wanted to cast from me wasn’t a demon: it was me” (p. 304).

Education is the process of self-creation, which means it is the process by which relationships between self and other are redefined. No wonder, then, that elites and conservatives work so hard to abolish education for the masses or reduce it to the technical knowledge allegedly necessary for the job market. Their motivation is the exact same as that of the abuser, being a fear of the loss of power and authority. They fear having reality defined against them. They fear losing the custody of our collective minds.


The Book of Jasher

Having children is often cast as a sort of immortality, sometimes literally in the transmission of genes through time. You may wither away into nothingness, but some part of you, some cluster of molecules, still lives in coming generations. But from a material perspective, from the perspective of the gene, this is false. When you and a mate create a child, you each contribute half of your respective genomes, and likewise that child passes along half of hers to the next generation. But this does not mean that an even twenty-five percent of you survives in your grandchild. Some does, but each individual passes along half of its genome irrespective of which parent it came from. In fact, the proportion is likely to favor one grandparent over another. Even assuming a 49–51 split, with enough generations, there will not be any of your genetic contribution detectable in your distant descendant. The last remnants of the material you will have ceased to be.

But this does not mean that your existence was not relevant to later generations. Sure, none of your genes may have continued in circulation, but there still remains a huge family tree that will come crashing down if you are removed from the equation. Your existence was necessary.

In a similar vein, there is a lot of literature that is no longer extant but whose historical existence, we know, influenced the creation of what survived. The Hebrew Bible, for example, makes reference to a Book of Jasher, likely a collection of poetry. In his City of God, St. Augustine regularly quotes a pagan philosopher by the name of Varro, and those quotations are all that survives of the man’s work as we know it. Throughout history, various works of philosophy, history, medicine, poetry, and more have been lost to us, but we can recognize the influence they had upon audiences through the centuries during which they were still in circulation. The fact that they don’t exist in our present time does not mean that their influence does not remain. Take out all of those cultural artifacts that did not make it to the present era, and you would likely be dismantling all of our history and heritage.

What has me mediating in this vein is the search for some solace. Right now, the institution which employs me is undergoing some radical transitions, and I simply do not know if the project to which I have devoted the last fourteen years of my life has that much of a future left before it. And the thought that it may simply vanish fills me with dread and despair. This is, admittedly, because I have rather failed in recent years at keeping work and life somehow separate, but that, I understand, is rather normal when one’s job takes on the qualities of a “calling,” when one has a “vocation” in that religious sense of the word. And I’m working to carve out a little more life for myself, to rediscover the person I was (or create the person I could be) beyond my job title.  Part of this project has been a meditation upon mortality and immortality, a realization that death does not render meaningless the life that existed, be it of a person or a cultural artifact.

Chaos theory makes the butterfly as great a mover upon the plain of history as the mightiest general or wisest leader. Every little thing we do exerts its influence somehow, changes the shape of the future. And our work lives on, sublimated in the lives and labors of others. The individual cannot attain immortality unless we all do.

The Physical and Mental Inferiority of White Supremacists: Hypotheses to Guide Future Inquiry into the Evolution of a Unique Hominid Group

At this point in our history, the objective inferiority of white supremacists—inferiority that encompasses both the physical and mental realms—can no longer be doubted. Naturally, this assumption would be rejected by white supremacists themselves, but the irony is that even by their own metrics, they fall short in all ways possible. White supremacists posit themselves as defenders of “Western civilization” and “European culture,” but where among their own ranks can one find true adherents to ostensible European values, much less the exemplars of the supremacy they claim to exhibit? Where are the literary giants and Nobel Prize–winning mathematicians among their ranks? Despite their alleged devotion to “Western” culture, the white supremacist who can quote Shakespeare from memory or explain Newton’s three laws of motion is a rare beast indeed, even if such beast exists. Moreover, these white supremacists consistently reject other artifacts of European culture, such as Darwinian evolution or Marxist economics, likely because they are simply unable to grasp such complex, overarching concepts. The irony is that the white supremacist is the creature least capable of understanding, much less defending, the rich inheritance of European literature, philosophy, and scientific thinking.

For what reasons, then, has the white supremacist failed to rise to the level of culture and ability at which stands the rest of Homo sapiens? This is a question that has indeed engaged the scientific community for many years, and my intention here is not to offer a definitive answer but, instead, to summarize the, thus far, two most common approaches to this problem with the aim of guiding future research—research that will hopefully determine whether or not the white supremacist is simply a benighted subgroup of our own species that may, through a concerted campaign of integration and education, be lifted up from its dismal state, or whether the white supremacist population functions as essentially a subspecies of our own and is perhaps destined to devolve (if it has not already) to a point where any hybridity becomes unfeasible, if not impossible.

Of course, any inquiries into the divisions of mankind typically break along the nature-versus-nurture axis. Nature, these days, encompasses one’s genetic inheritance, as well as any influences upon the developing individual in the womb of its mother. Are there signs that the white supremacist suffers from genetic defects common to its particular subgroup? And if so, were these adaptive traits that developed in response to environmental change, or are these traits maladaptive? Perhaps answering the first question will pave the way toward an approach to the second, because yes, it can in fact be argued that the white supremacist does suffer from some form of genetic defect. In this modern era, we understand that many learning disabilities (and even what, in a former age, would have been dubbed forms of “mental retardation”) have a genetic foundation, and this could explain the white supremacist’s unique inability to understand complex subjects. For example, those people who have Down’s syndrome find abstract thinking and higher-order mathematics difficult, and it could be that the white supremacist suffers from something similar. But is this adaptive? It defies logic to believe so. The counterargument will be, of course, that white supremacists continue to reproduce, thus allegedly showing some form of Darwinian success, but our modern society, fortunately or unfortunately, facilitates the continued existence of many individuals who would otherwise have failed to survive in a more Hobbesian state of nature “red in tooth and claw.” Dachshunds find it impossible to reproduce without human assistance, yet they remain, and it could be that some group within the species of Homo sapiens regards the white supremacist with the kindness extended the mental defective or the housepet, or perhaps otherwise finds the existence of the white supremacist of benefit to itself in some way or another, and thus continues to facilitate its reproductive success. But survival need not necessarily indicate fitness, and by any metric, the white supremacist is an unfit individual, both mentally and physically.

Next, let us consider the “nurture” side of this argument. By “nurture,” we mean not exclusively parental care but, instead, the complete array of cultural influence. It should not be controversial to assert that white supremacists possess a most defective culture, especially when compared with other cultural divisions within the species of Homo sapiens. First and foremost, the white supremacist lacks the basic drive toward industry that is common among human beings. Instead of seeking to better himself and his community through employment in some beneficial enterprise, the white supremacist, instead, devotes his time to railing against the advantages bequeathed upon other groups. Although the white supremacist regularly makes reference to something called “white pride,” the deadly sin of sloth, not pride, arguably afflicts this culture to a much greater degree. It is a staple of white supremacist culture that the individual white supremacist need not assert himself in the physical and mental training needed to attain praise and/or employment in some worthwhile endeavor; instead, the white supremacist believes that all social praise and economic advantage belongs to him by right of his pale and wan physical appearance, that this mythical “whiteness” somehow trumps the more tangible assets of education and physical fitness, not to mention a developed morality and an ethical approach to human interactions. In other words, the white supremacist is inherently lazy but justifies this laziness by reference to a framework of superstition centered upon the ostensible “purity” of a melanin-poor epidermis. Some anthropologists investigating white supremacist culture have elevated this superstition to the level of an ideology, but such a categorization cannot be maintained with any credibility and perhaps reveals more about the tendency of anthropologists to romanticize the subjects of their research than it does the true nature of white supremacist ideas. The Neanderthal, as we know from recent archaeological findings, engaged in the coloration of the body with certain pigments, especially the bodies of the deceased, but we cannot realistically ascribe to this population of semi-sapient beings a coherent ideology, with all that implies. There is a categorical difference between the individual who wears around her neck a crucifix as a reminder of the soteriological and redemptive nature of the death of Jesus Christ, and a young boy who wears his “lucky shirt” on game day because once he hit a home run while wearing the same shirt. Even animals, such as birds and mammals, have exhibited superstitious behavior. The white supremacist simply believes that his skin tone constitutes a lucky shirt, and much of the violence to which he is given perhaps results from a disappointment in the failure of this luck to manifest itself.

Of course, culture can shape nature. Once white supremacist superstitions have taken root in this particular subspecies, its inherent genetic diversity could have become artificially limited, allowing maladaptive traits to persist over time. White supremacists are notorious for their unwillingness to interbreed with the various cultural groups that constitute the species Homo sapiens. Assuming that there was a time when interbreeding was possible, before white supremacists as a group degenerated past the point of even hybridity (if they have), the introduction into the proto-cultural group of a superstition regarding the “purity” of skin coloration could have created an artificial barrier to cross-breeding, resulting in these proto–white supremacists separating themselves from the concourse of humankind, and thus when certain maladaptive traits (discussed above) arose, population in-breeding would have ensured the success of those traits; in fact, it could be argued that in-breeding was the genesis of these maladaptive traits, just as in-breeding in the Hapsburg line resulted in Charles II of Spain, who exhibited some of the physical deformities and mental defects that have been observed in white supremacist populations. But it is just as possible that the ancestors of modern white supremacists developed as a separate branch of the genus Homo, albeit one that has managed to acquire some of the abilities of actual human beings, such as language, and that the superstition of white supremacy emerged as a psychological defense mechanism to shield individual white supremacists from the reality of their degenerate state.

The answers to the cladistic conundra that white supremacists pose to the disciplines of physical anthropology and evolutionary biology are, we hope, forthcoming in the near future. The emerging field of genetics, for one, should be able to reveal in greater detail the relationship between Homo sapiens and white supremacists. Even linguists hope to offer some contribution to this field of inquiry. Fresh off their successes in teaching sign language to chimpanzees, some linguists hope to teach certain abstract human concepts (such as fairness and hard work) to white supremacists. Such research will probably have to be restricted to confined laboratory settings, given that white supremacists in their native environments exhibit the most repulsive behavior and communicate largely through the violent propulsion of excreta. But the scientific method offers us hope that we can unravel the most tenacious of puzzles, and I have the utmost confidence that, one day, perhaps not too far in the distant future, we will have a more complete picture of the physical and mental nature of white supremacists. May this brief essay help to inspire our search for answers.

Marked Men

1) I have a friend, let’s call her Nina, who is of mixed Haitian and German extraction. But she lives here in the United States, so she is black. Anyhow, while a graduate student, Nina often went to parties with her classmates, and at these parties she tended to be the only person of color around. When she would invite her student friends to her own parties, which included a lot of her non-student friends, the ratio was a bit different. And, as you might well regard as an inevitable development, eventually one of Nina’s student friends expressed the sentiment that he felt really uncomfortable being one of the only white people at a large party. Words said without any sense of irony whatsoever, given all the times Nina had been the only person of color in a social gathering. The real privilege of whiteness is its invisibility.

2) In her book Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, Caroline Criado Perez shares an anecdote about the British pound. In the UK, the central bank occasionally chooses new cultural figures to go on all of its currency as part of a general redesign, and some years back the latest selection would have been all men, eliminating the one non-royal woman to have ever been featured on a British bill. Of course, the central bank authorities insisted that they did not intend to eliminate the only example of female representation on pound notes but that the latest selection was conducted by entirely “objective” measures, and no women really amounted to great significance. Perez was part of a group organizing against this change and recalled being in conversation with a man about it when he erupted, “But women are everywhere nowadays!” Just one woman to be on some unit of currency, just one, and he already thought that too much, a case of special pleading or affirmative action run amok. Because the real privilege of maleness is its invisibility.

Paul Campos, a blogger at Lawyers, Guns & Money, recently posted a piece titled “Marking the Unmarked Category,” in which he wrote:

What “identity politics,” so-called, has done is to slowly and painfully and partially transform being a white man in America into a marked category.  And [that] makes a lot of the people who have become white men rather than members of society’s invisible default category very uncomfortable.  And when people get very uncomfortable, they often get mad at whoever they blame for making them feel that way.  And then they vote for Donald Trump.

The Swedish stand-up comedian Özz Nûjen, who is of Kurdish background (his parents having fled Saddam Hussein), had a bit in his 2014 show Statsminister Özz Nûjen  (Prime Minister Özz Nûjen) about how Americans in Sweden will be praised by natives for saying no more than one or two words correctly, even if they have lived there for years, while someone of apparent Arabic extraction who speaks fluent Swedish, but with a slight accent, will be told to go back to his own country. White Americans could pass as Swedes, and Swedes generally speak enough English to communicate, so the Swedish-speaking Arab is more objectionable than the white American because the latter does not make the Swede feel a marked category. For so long, in both American and Swedish society, being white or being male was not a category worth noting but, instead, a given, the background against which everything else stood out. But now, as cultural environments and general workforces are more diversified, white males in particular are being regarded as their own grouping with perhaps their own group interests and dynamics. And these people who are now marked assert, instead, universal principles as a means of asserting their non-markedness. (Or as my mom asks me, “Why do people insist on calling themselves African American instead of just American?” She now also writes down “American” as her race on any required forms).

But universalisms can offer their own forms of oppression. Brazil is occasionally lauded as a land free of the racial categories that typify American social life, but as Howard Winant observes in his book The World Is a Ghetto: Race and Democracy since World War II, a society that celebrates its “mixedness” can still prove oppressive, especially against indigenous groups and African groups, for such a society can condemn a failure to blend into the mainstream and thus deride efforts to protect localized or marginalized cultures. In other words, “universality” can constitute its own oppressive frame of identity if contrasted with some other group pitched as not so universal. Religion scholar Denise Kimber Buell observed something similar in Why This New Race: Ethnic Reasoning in Early Christianity when she argued that early Christians positioned themselves positively compared to Jews in that their community potentially encompassed all humankind—all one needed to do was to be born again—while Jews were a more narrowly defined group.

Of course, what universalism means is not necessarily being able to accept other people and cultures but, instead, being able to accept this “other” so long as it is reinterpreted via as an un-marked category. And thus did Elvis Presley bring musical sensibilities long common to African Americans to the white mainstream by virtue of being white himself. And thus are folks from the various “Jews for Jesus” groups in great demand in evangelical circles, for they, by both theology and deed, present Jewish-ness not as alien to the Christian experience but as part of a continuum. One of the ironies of Brexit is that there are companies selling large containers of canned food should the worst happen with a no-deal Brexit—supplies you need to survive the shortages to come—and one of the British “classics” you can get large canisters of is Chicken Tikka Masala. Of course, Chicken Tikka Masala is a curry dish—not native to India but created by Indians in the UK to accommodate the British palate—but it has been around long enough that Brits have essentially baptized it as British and make it themselves. Vote Brexit to drive all the foreigners out but stock up on canned Chicken Tikka Masala to survive the apocalypse Brexit will create.

In The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity, philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah observes that heretics were never killed for arcane theological points but for challenging authority. Think about the fact that there are many Catholics in American politics who have voted for expanded contraceptive mandates or other policies which run directly against Church teaching (such as, on the more conservative spectrum, the death penalty) but who are still allowed communion in the Church because they do not challenge the fundamental teachings of the organization within that organization. Or the many gay and lesbian members who were even employed by the Church in some capacity (or were lay ministers or musicians), with everybody knowing they were gay, but who were only outed and expelled and fired after getting married to their same-sex partner, because marriage challenges the authority of the Church as it is a Church sacrament.

Ta-Nehisi Coates dubbed Donald Trump “the first white president” as an expression not only of Trump’s explicit commitment to white supremacy but also the fact that he would not be president were he not white; he would not be president were not white Americans so terrifyingly invested in making America white again. Because what Barack Obama did was to mark the whiteness of the presidency by having the audacity to not be white. He made being a white man a marked category by not being one and yet still rose to the highest political office in the land. This was a heresy of deed.

But here’s the problem. Because whiteness has only been allowed to remain an invisible, unmarked category through an overarching system of exploitation, the system of white supremacy, that touches all spheres of life from the cultural to the economic. Its invisibility is not some artifact but is, in fact, a key mechanism in the system, fostering what the philosopher Charles W. Mills dubbed an “epistemology of ignorance,” whereby whites who have benefited from the system of white supremacy remain ignorant of the means by which these advantages have accrued to them and thus can attribute everything to their own individual goodness. So one can only regain invisibility–one can only remove the mark–by re-instituting the system that made that happen. Or as Steve King asks, “What’s so wrong with a term like white supremacist?” If you want to know why so many people can insist that they are not personally racist even as they spew forth the more racist garbage imaginable, or that they are not sexists even as they say that they just believe women should be back in the home, it’s because they just want to be unmarked again, universal again, and they don’t understand how much their social comfort depended upon the reality of exploitation.