Thursday, June 5, 2008

BC HRT and the CIC v. Maclean's Case -- Life Imitates Art Imitating Life (Sadly)

The details aren't the same. The substance of the legal arguments are different. 1925 is not 2008. But the underlying themes are oddly similar, and the ways they have played out -- then as now -- are eerily unsettling, even chilling.

And so we add new chapters to the ongoing saga. The struggle of the Enlightenment ideal (the autonomy of the individual and his/her inalienable right to think, speak, challenge and prod) versus the Communitarian ideal (a collective consciousness of group identities, and the sometimes illiberal tendencies of groups to recoil when their identities, practices or beliefs are challenged or prodded) plays out again.

Exhibit A -- The Scopes Monkey Trial (1925)

In the 1920s, the State of Tennessee passed into law an Act prohibiting the teaching of Darwinian Evolution in the public schools. Specifically, it prohibited all scientific theories of the origins of Man that did not conform to the Creation Story as revealed in the Book of Genesis, chapters 1 and/or 2.

In 1925, John T. Scopes, a high school science teacher in Dayton, Tennessee, decided to test the law, and the resolve of the state to enforce it. In other words, Mr. Scopes was pushing buttons, and he was doing it deliberately and defiantly. A little bit like Henry David Thoreau about three score and ten years earlier, John Scopes freely engaged in an act of civil disobedience to challenge an asinine and illiberal law. Or, as the "chronicler laureate" of the 1920s, Frederick Lewis Allen, related the story (Only Yesterday, pp.167-168):

George Rappelyea, a mining engineer, was drinking lemon phosphate in Robinson's drug store with John Thomas Scopes, a likeable young man of twenty-four who taught biology at the Central High School. ... Rappelyea proposed that Scopes should allow himself to be caught red-handed in the act of teaching the theory of evolution to an innocent child, and Scopes -- half-serious, half in joke -- agreed.

The trial of John T. Scopes, in the summer of 1925, shone an unusually bright spotlight on the quiet, bucolic slice of Americana that was Dayton. And it exposed one of the widening fractures in American culture between progress and tradition (metaphorically urbane v. bucolic, or secular v. religious). As William Leuchtenburg reflected in The Perils of Prosperity (p.222):

Fundamentalism made sense to men in isolated areas still directly dependent on nature for their livelihood; they distrusted human capacity and relied on divine intervention, because it had been their own experience that men had to rely on the rains for the crops and were all but helpless when disease struck. Their adversaries in the city found fundamentalism incomprehensible because the rational methods of production in the factory and life in the metropolis suggested that men, through science and education, could solve the major problems of living and might even be able some day to solve the ultimate questions of human existence.

Dayton attracted attention from far beyond the countryside and the county line. When Scopes was charged, it made national headlines. Beyond Dayton's borders, the issues of free speech, free inquiry, free thought (and even the newfangled "academic freedom") dwarfed the 'evolution v. creation' debate. After all, creationism was the law, but (beyond Tennessee and the deep American South) it was a law that inspired more sniggering than praying. And John T. Scopes did break that law.

Still the drama played out in the Dayton court house. With the heightened media attention, three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan volunteered to prosecute the case against Scopes. To counter, the renowned civil liberties lawyer Clarence Darrow stepped up to defend the teacher, and to tilt at the windmill of a nonsensical law. Did it matter that Darrow could produce expert witnesses to testify about the science underlying the theory of evolution (zoology, geology, paleontology, etc.)? Of course not. The law was the law, and truth was not a defense. For acerbic and pointed commentary, one only had to turn to the meanderings and satirical witticisms of H.L. Mencken in The American Mercury.

Exhibit B -- Inherit the Wind (1960) -- Art Imitates Life

In 1960, the drama of the Scopes Monkey Trial jumped up onto the silver screen under the marquee title Inherit the Wind, directed by Stanley Kramer. While the names (including the name of the town) were changed (to protect the innocent?), the court room scenes relied heavily on the verbatim transcript of the actual trial. Dayton, Tennessee, became "Heavenly" Hillsboro; William Jennings Bryan became Matthew Harrison Brady (Frederick March); Clarence Darrow became Henry Drummond (Spencer Tracy); John T. Scopes became Bertram T. Cates (Dick York, better known to many as "the first Darrin"); and of course H.L. Mencken became E.K. Hornbeck (Gene Kelly).

Issues of free speech, free thought, free inquiry percolate throughout this screenplay. From the nobility of an idea to the 'holiness' of a child mastering the multiplication tables, the film warns of the need to be constantly vigilant in the defense of individual freedoms -- a quintessentially American homily to the world. To paraphrase and universalize the message, a man wishes to be afforded the same rights as a sponge -- he wishes to think! "Fanaticism and ignorance are forever busy, and need feeding," Henry Drummond warns, prefacing his remarks with this:

I say that you cannot administer a wicked law impartially. You can only destroy; you can only punish. And I warn you, that a wicked law, like cholera, destroys everyone it touches -- its upholders as well as its defiers.

Exhibit C -- the BC HRT Hearings into the CIC v. Maclean's (2008) -- Life Imitates Art Imitating Life

And so we arrive at our present pageant, taking place this week. Only now, the cast of characters has changed again. "Heavenly" Hillsboro has become left-coast Vancouver. Matthew Harrison Brady is transposed into former Crown prosecutor Faisal Joseph, for the Canadian Islamic Congress. Henry Drummond's shoes are filled in part by Julian Porter for Rogers Media and Maclean's. Mark Steyn is a suitable proxy in a pinch for Bertram Cates; and our resident H.L. Mencken is Andrew Coyne (furnishing the live blogging and running commentary).

Mark Steyn and Maclean's Magazine stand accused of the thought crimes of demographic "alarmism" and 'Islamophobia' in their pattern of media 'constructions and representations' of Muslims as "the Other." (No really, this is how some graduate students in universities actually talk.) The Canadian Islamic Congress (Mohamed Elmasry et al) are seeking a redress of their complaint of Islamophobia. Their demands included, but are not limited to, a rebuttal article of equal length and prominence (including cover art) in Maclean's, over which the CIC (not Maclean's) will be the ultimate editorial arbiter. The CIC appear to be making a case for balance and fairness in the media representation of minorities, and setting a precedent for the "rights" of minority groups in Canada to seek redress when offended. For Maclean's the issues are freedom of the press, editorial provenance, and their right to maintain, direct and protect their private property. For Mark Steyn (and many other writer and journalists from across the political and ideological spectrum), the over-riding and coalescing issues are freedom of speech, freedom of thought and freedom of expression.

Oh, and at the Tribunal, truth is not a defense.

From the Scopes monkey trial to the Steyn moon bat trial, plus ca change plus c'est la meme chose.

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