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On Williams Jennings Bryan, the Monkey Trial and False Patriotism

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It was Nov. 22, 2004, a gray, overcast Monday, and I was in trouble with editors of the Knoxville News-Sentinel. I was supposed to meet three of them at the Regas Restaurant to talk about the future of my weekly column, but the sudden mortal illness of that genial and honest sportswriter, Gary Lundy—a man I liked and respected--caused them to be late.

And so I stood on Gay Street and gazed down on the old railroad tracks, and found myself thinking about William Jennings Bryan. He was famous for opposing the teaching of evolution nearly 80 years before at a Dayton, TN, courthouse, in what's become known as the Scopes Monkey Trial, and for his nearly successful run at the White House years before that.

Maybe it wasn't so strange I'd think of him. After all, his body had lain right there where I was looking. He'd died right after the trial, and his body had been put on view in a Southern Railway car, where a steady procession of the admiring and curious visitors had paid their respects, before he was shipped away for burial. Something about his monumental life and death resonated with my human-scale drama that November morning.

During a darkly bright phone call from Jack McElroy, editor of the News-Sentinel a few days before, I'd learned that the editorial page editors had serious issues with me stemming from too many columns against what I judged to be the stupid and immoral policies of our president. I seldom if ever used such words in print. Unlike many of my opponents, who'd been blasting me on the Letters page, at the NS website and on the radio, I mostly stuck to rational arguments. I'm not fanatical about it, but I do believe in reason as a good way to arrive at bottom line truths.

Unfortunately, my editors were interested in a different kind of bottom line. Let's call it "community viability." They'd endorsed Bush for a second term in keeping with East Tennessee sentiment. That endorsement was and remains a black mark on the News-Sentinel record. It meant collusion in a war that has cost maybe a million lives and created millions of refugees, amputees and mental cases. It also meant endorsing global warming, fiscal ruin and turning the world toward a future of wars, lies, torture, spying and much else.

So when McElroy asked me to meet with him and the editorial page editors at the Regas, one of Knoxville's classiest old restaurants downtown, I was worried. It occurred to me that restaurants like this was where people often fired colleagues or dumped old lovers so they'd make no unpleasant scenes. What could be clearer? They've called you here to grease the skids with a last meal.

Yeah right. When the final breach arrived two-plus years later, it came courtesy of a truncated message on my answering machine. They were cutting my column's frequency in half—an offer I could refuse. Maybe you heard about that.

But that November, 2004, morning, as I stepped out on the Gay Street viaduct to collect my thoughts and ponder the possible end of a 20-year association, I found myself gazing down on a valley of shadows where Bryan had arrived as if lying in state.

A weird dissonance came calling as I thought about Bryan's death, July 26, 1925. There'd been an outpouring of love for Bryan by thousands who crowded the tracks in Knoxville for a glimpse of this champion of the common man.

I thought about how Bryan deserved a measure of the contempt heaped on him by the likes of H. L. Mencken, who wrote, "Once he had one leg in the White House and the nation trembled under his roars. Now he is a tinpot pope in the Coca-Cola belt and a brother to forlorn pastors who belabor halfwits in galvanized iron tabernacles behind the railroad yards…. It is a tragedy, indeed, to begin life as a hero and to end it as a buffoon."

I thought about how Bryan's motives had been misunderstood, how he'd upheld the Christian view of creation mostly because he saw Darwinism as a philosophy of hate--reducing everything to a power equation expressed by the doctrine, kill or be killed.

Cognitive dissonance found its hold on me for a moment, and I found myself disconnected from my own ideals, my own body, as I imagined myself looking down on a sea of hats and jackets of people dressed in Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes surrounding the freight yards. They loved Bryan—not for a lifetime of progressive campaigning on their behalf for better wages, better jobs, better education, or freedom from fear. Not for his campaigns against an imperialist foreign policy, against monopolies and other special interests running the country. No, what our ancestors honored in Bryan 80 years ago was his upholding of their old time religion. His assertion that Christian faith was the bedrock of brotherhood and charity. It was Christ's love--God's faithfulness to his own faithful followers--that should serve as our railway to the future, Bryan believed.

It was a stand I could almost admire—a bulwark against the big lie of social Darwinism. Hadn't every progressive strand in man's history—universal suffrage, emancipation of slaves, the Bill of Rights—been about blunting our animal drive for dominance?

And yet, how was Bryan's yielding to conservative Christian dogma in the name of love any different from my friends' and neighbors' and editors' willingness to embrace feel-good patriotism espoused by a buffoon. The answer was, of course, that there is no difference. Like feel-good patriots espousing the virtues of war, Bryan had been wrong. Arriving at a philosophy of charity—or of patriotism--by denying reality does not turn lies into any kind of truth.

Or does it? I wondered. To this day, the sort of Biblical creationism Bryan defended holds sway in this country. Like jingoistic patriotism, it's a sort of tribal truth. True even if it didn't happen. It's a consensus truth that lends East Tennessee, indeed, most of America, an epic-scale identity. Surveys show a majority of Americans believe in the Garden of Eden. Most do not believe in evolution.

Somehow the thought was a somber one on a somber day in November. What kind of chance did I have in a town that believed Adam and Eve rode to church on dinosaurs? With this practical question sinking in, I returned to the present, to my own body and soul. I turned away from the tracks, almost in a military pivot, I realized, and squared my shoulders to enter the restaurant.

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Don Williams is a prize-winning columnist, short story writer, freelancer, and the founding editor and publisher of New Millennium Writings, an annual anthology of literary stories, essays and poems. His awards include a National Endowment for the (more...)
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