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Only in America - Episode One: The Monkey Trial and the Human Error

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The Alchemy of Ignorance

In few other areas do the myriad anomalies, peculiarities, contradictions and ironies embedded in The Grand American Narrative rear their ugly heads more frequently and more profoundly than in the U.S. legal system.

Without a doubt, the so-called Scopes 'Monkey Trial' in Dayton, Tennessee, and the Sacco and Vanzetti Trial in Boston, Massachusetts, during the post Great War 'era of normalcy', were two of the most bizarre, extraordinary and notorious of any of the many legal dog 'n pony shows that America has thrown up. To be sure they instantly bring to mind the sentiment embodied in the phrase "Only in America". Both events were of seminal significance at the time and, for a variety of reasons, together and separately, remain so. We will look into the Sacco and Vanzetti Trial in a separate episode, but first up, we will examine the Scopes Trial.

Even those with a passing interest in history would be aware of Charles Darwin's Theory of Evolution, whose extraordinarily radical findings about Homo Sap's primordial origins really set a cat amongst the pigeons, especially amongst those perched in the church steeples. Indeed it might aptly be titled his Theory of Revolution, as the 'debate' such as it is between Darwinism supporters and those proponents of creationism (which has now since been rebranded -- or exquisitely euphemised -- as "'intelligent' design"), is still very much 'Johnny Walker' as we speak.

Which is to say, the most developed, advanced country in the world, [that] more than any other country on the Big Blue Ball arguably has both contributed to and benefitted from scientific discovery and achievement and technological innovation and progress -- the former borne out of the Enlightenment and the latter manifesting itself as the Industrial Revolution -- also has almost twice as many folk who say they believe in creationism than those who don't. As the Americans themselves might say, "go figure!"

The dubious legislative 'initiative' that provided the catalyst for the judicial exercise in profoundly preposterous futility that was the Scopes 'Monkey Trial' has some interesting parallels in the history of American lawmaking in that it combines undiluted stupidity, wilful ignorance, baseless arrogance and wishful thinking in all but roughly equal measure. In the great 'battle' between modernism and traditionalism raging at the time, the 1925 Butler Act of Tennessee was enacted to ban the teaching of any theory of man's creation that did not sit with the well-known Biblical version, the idea of which was presumably to prevent any further spiritual impairment, intellectual retardation and moral corruption of Tennessee school children. This involved especially the teaching of Darwinist theory and evolutionary principles.

In the history of ill-considered American legislative initiatives, the Butler Act is up there with the Volstead Act which itself a few years earlier encouraged an enthusiastic do-it-yourself trend exemplified by the legally challenged brewing, fermenting and/or distilling and clandestine purveyance of one's own manufactured alcoholic beverages in exchange for tax-exempt legal tender. As history tells it, Volstead opened up not just a whole new cottage industry in America but an alternative, black-market economy, thereby stimulating on a national scale massive economic growth, albeit in organised crime, graft, political corruption, bribery, racketeering, smuggling, blackmail, murder, extortion, tax fraud, violence, general profiteering and various other manifestations of the all-too-American drive to make a buck by whatever means possible.

And like Volstead, the Butler Act was also about prohibition, except of course the "prohibition" in this case was designed to 'prohibit' folks from using their brains as distinct from the Eighteenth Amendment which presumably -- and well-intentionally one assumes -- was at least partly designed to prohibit folks from abusing said brains with the demon drink, and then going on to abuse one another.

No Genesis, All Revelations

Of course the reverberations from Prohibition are still echoing within the political psyche (war on drugs anyone?), as are the reverberations of the Scopes Trial and the legislation which inspired it ("intelligent design" anyone?) And it's no coincidence both legislative initiatives were inspired by the same Christian fundamentalist, Good Book thumping mindset. Which is to say, it should come as no surprise that most Prohibitionists were also anti-evolutionists, and, along with other sometime fellow travellers and kindred spirits such as the Ku Klux Klan, were breathing the same recycled, yet still unfiltered, primordial air, which one supposes was in plentiful supply at the time!

From the off the publicity surrounding the trial reached Charles Manson and OJ Simpson levels (for another time), and was driven by the nature of the case as much as it was by the involvement of two of the country's most famous trial attorneys and recognisable public figures of the era. These were Clarence Darrow (for the defence) and William Jennings Bryan (the prosecution), the latter having the dubious distinction of being America's most perpetually optimistic and prolifically unsuccessful presidential candidate.

Darrow for his part had just come off the Leopold-Loeb trial (another infamous legal spectacle of the era; again for another time), and his name was etched in the public consciousness as a result. His penchant for publicity, self-aggrandisement and his celebrity lifestyle underscored this. He had an uncanny instinct for the power and value of public relations, a concept and practice then still in its pioneering stage. It was during the Era of Normalcy that public relations as we have come to know it was coming to the fore in America courtesy of the work of Edward Bernays (aka The Father of Spin, and Sigmund Freud's nephew), a development that doubtless we have all benefitted from greatly and for which we should all be eternally grateful!

This 1925 trial was aptly described by Time magazine at the time as a "cross between a circus and a holy war". Life magazine -- presumably with some insight into Bryan's own personal fancies and pecuniary status -- said he (Bryan) had,

"...successfully demonstrated by the alchemy of ignorance, hot air may be transmuted into gold, and that the Bible is infallibly inspired except where it differs with him on the question of wine, women, and wealth."

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Greg Maybury is a Perth (Australia) based freelance writer. His main areas of interest are American history and politics in general, with a special focus on economic, national security, military and geopolitical affairs, and both US domestic and (more...)

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