What H.L. Mencken Could Tell Topeka, or, Here’s What’s the Matter With Kansas (5/6/05)

December 26, 2006

The reign of the Bushies could not have come at a worse moment in history.

At a time when the main question about global warming is no longer “does it exist?” but “how bad and how fast will it be?” — as this magisterial series in The New Yorker is making abundantly clear — the Bushies are more interested in bobbing and weaving and letting lobbyists write legislation so that their campaign contributors won’t have to suffer anything but the slightest inconvenience.

At a time when Islamist terrorists began gearing up to strike us on our home soil, the Bushies took their cues from their boss and went fishing. When the 9/11 disaster unfolded, the Bush administration finally acted — to secure more tax cuts, chop away at the Constitution and invade a country that posed no threat to use. Meanwhile, the architect of 9/11 is free and at liberty.

At a time when the government is sodden with corruption and lies, blatantly contemptuous of any calls to restrain its power, our corporate news media are so relentlessly focused on trivia and celebrity that even when presented with fresh evidence that Bush lied us into an unnecesary war with Iraq, all they can muster is a shrug before returning to the question of how many wedding gifts should be returned by the runaway bride.

And, at a time when America’s leadership in science and technology is being eroded by stiffer competition from the rest of the world, the Bushies and the Republican Party pander to the deranged religiosity of flakes like Pat Robertson, and encourage wingnut fundamentalists to resume their old crusade against reason. Take Kansas, for example, where the fundies in charge of the state school board are forcing people into a pseudo-debate about evolution for the ten-thousandth time.

I’m not going to rehash the distortions, lies and debating tricks that make up the case for “intelligent design theory” — that’s what valuable sites like this are for.

Instead, I’m struck by the sheer amount of damage the fundies do to themselves and the people around them by turning Kansas into a punchline for jokes about religious troglodytes. The New York Times story quotes Cheryl Shepherd-Adams, a high-school physics teacher who thought the hearings were important enough to take an unpaid day off: “Kansas has been through this before. I’m really tired of going to conferences and being laughed at because I’m from Kansas.”

Her words bring to mind H.L. Mencken, the famed journalist who covered the Scopes “monkey trial” as it unfolded in the summer of 1925 at the Rhea County Courthouse in Dayton, Tenn. Mencken had a keen eye for the grotesqueries of the fundamentalists opposed to the teaching of evolution in schools, led by their paladin William Jennings Bryan. He also appreciated the work done by the opposing side, led by legendary attorney Clarence Darrow. Mencken, surprisingly, restrained his viperish wit when he first saw Dayton — expecting a hellhole, he instead found a lovely town tucked into the Cumberland Mountains. During his long stay while covering the trial, he met many like-minded people who took it for granted that they were viewed as freaks by the rest of the community:

“Such is the punishment that falls upon a civilized man cast among fundamentalists . . . all the brighter young men of the state — and it produces plenty of them — tend to leave it. If they remain they must prepare to succumb to the prevailing blather or resign themselves to being more or less infamous. With the anti-evolution law enforced, the state university will rapidly go to pot; no intelligent youth will waste his time upon its courses if he can help it.” Some civic boosters had welcomed the trial as a way to bring money and recognition to Dayton, but Mencken correctly predicted that the trial would make the place “a joke town at best, and infamous at worst.”

I spent an afternoon in Dayton about ten years ago, and what I saw was pretty depressing. The houses that so charmed Mencken were abandoned or seedy-looking; many of the stores in its downtown area were boarded up. The best-looking building in town was the Rhea County Courthouse, where the basement has been converted into a “museum” devoted to the Scopes trial. The exhibits were mainly a bunch of photos and a timeline of the trial: aside from chairs and fans used during the sweltering hearings, the trial left little in the way of physical evidence. You’ll get a better sense of the trial from reading one of the many Mencken anthologies. The action was all verbal, and when the players were done talking, they rolled out like a traveling carnival and left Dayton to its fate.

I’m not saying Dayton went downhill solely because of the “monkey trial” and the ridicule that followed. For all I know, the town may have rebounded in the last decade, though I’d find that pretty hard to believe. But I am saying that intellectual capital is a fragile thing — easy to lose and hard to replace. People who can imagine a better life for themselves and conceive the means to get it will not stick around if they feel unwelcome or scorned. People willing to work for serious scholarly credentials won’t earn their degrees in states that are synonymous with intellectual squalor. The fundies can start their own think tanks like the Discovery Institute and convince numbskull legislators that their “theory” deserves to be taught alongside evolution. But real science is real science, and chasing it out of Kansas simply means Kansas will have one less avenue back to prosperity. The brain drain flows in only one direction — away from the state.

Mencken’s summation, written 80 years ago, should offer encouragement to the intellectual heroes who are in Kansas today trying to face down the intellectual kangaroo court ginned up by the fundamentalists on the state school board:

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.

If you don’t see a message for our times in those words, then you’re probably reading the wrong blog.

2 Responses to “What H.L. Mencken Could Tell Topeka, or, Here’s What’s the Matter With Kansas (5/6/05)”

  1. Dean R Howland Says:

    Not to worry. God still loves you even if you don’t like yourself.

  2. Steven Hart Says:

    Sure, we get along just fine. It’s what he thinks of you that worries me.

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