Revisiting the Great Tennessee Monkey Trial

Ignoring the BBC’s implicit anti-Americanism, its radio play on the 1925 creationists-v-evolutionists trial was excellent.

Patrick West
Columnist

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It is a well-known fact that all Americans are morons. At least if you live in Britain, you will probably think this is true.

Deriding Americans as stupid and fat and crass is a national pastime here, and like anti-Semitism or bitching about Rupert Murdoch, it is something that transcends the left-right political divide. The British left professes to hate the United States because it is an imperial power; much of the British right despises America because it thinks we should still be the main imperial power instead. Both ask: how can such a congenitally thick people have come to rule the world? It doesn’t make sense. It’s not fair.

This is all cant, of course. The US has, rather predictably, been blamed for the global recession. Yes, it’s all the fault of idiotic banks lending money to even more cretinous mortgage borrowers, a sentiment echoed once again by host Dara Ó Briain on topical comedy panel show Mock The Week on Tuesday (1). Except that the US is not to blame for the recession. The reason why Britain is still in recession and the US isn’t is mainly because of the UK’s insane levels of personal debt accrued over a couple of decades. And the people who chuckle that Americans are imbeciles, and have no sense of irony, are often the same people who devour such sophisticated comedies as The Simpsons, Seinfeld, The Larry Sanders Show and Frasier. Now that is ironic.

‘But doesn’t America have a disproportionately large number of religious fruitcakes who believe dinosaurs co-habited with humans, and that the world was created in 4004 BC?’, our American-baiters might protest. It is true that America is a more Christian country than Britain, and a belief in young-earth creationism is far more widespread over there. Britain is the country where we debate about creationism being taught in schools; America is the country infamous for debating whether evolution should be taught in classrooms.

The issue was made notorious by the Scopes Trial of 1925, in which a Tennessee teacher, John Scopes, was charged with violating the Butler Act, which earlier that year made it unlawful ‘to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals’. Scopes was eventually found guilty, but few today remember the result. Rather, the ‘Monkey Trial’ lingers in the popular imagination for the very fact that such a matter came to court in the first place. Then, as now, it was viewed as emblematic of America’s backward religiosity, and a touchstone for much of that country’s subsequent and continued reluctance to teach science in science lessons.

The Great Tennessee Monkey Trial on BBC Radio 4, Saturday (2), was broadcast possibly with the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s On The Origin of Species in mind, and at a time when atheism’s strident advocates have become more vocal – and are championed and vilified with greater vehemence as a consequence. A microcosm of this heightened debate has been taking place within Radio 4 itself, which ruled last week that there was no room for atheist guests on its Thought For The Day morning slot (3). Knowing the prevaricating and introspective nature of the BBC, however, I don’t think this is the last we’re going to hear on the matter.

The BBC’s radio plays are normally a treat, and The Great Tennessee Monkey Trial was no exception. Atmospheric and laden with bathetic understatement, the programme was based on the actual transcripts of the court case, and conveyed the spirit of what must have been the most surreal juncture in the history of American jurisprudence. Only a century-and-a-half after the country’s foundation as a secular state, erected on rationalist principles, America had by the 1920s reached a stage where a vague, meandering and frequently contradictory assemblage of scripture was being cited in evidence in a court of law.

No wonder foreigners found it amusing, as did horrified sophisticates from the north of America, notably HL Mencken. After all, while the rest of the world thinks Americans are stupid, even Yankees can attain absolution by agreeing that southern-state Americans are really dumb.

Neil Patrick Harris (better-known to my generation as ‘Doogie Howser, MD’) was a fine and sympathetic Scopes, and Edward Asner played prosecutor William Jennings Bryan to perfection, every bit as preposterous and blustering as history suggests he was. But the star of the programme (as, by all accounts, was his real-life character) was John de Lancie as the defence lawyer, Clarence Darrow. ‘I’m going to argue this law as if it were serious’, began an incredulous Darrow, who had provided his services for nothing. ‘What we find here today is as bold and as brazen an attempt to destroy learning as was ever made in the Middle Ages. The only difference is that we’ve not provided that Mr Scopes should be burned at the stake.’

Not for the first time, the BBC did its best to try to ruin an otherwise excellent production with hyperbole and politically motivated distortion. The ‘Monkey Trial’, the BBC reminded us, took place in the same year that Kafka’s The Trial was printed. In the programme itself we were informed that 1925 was also the year Mein Kampf was published, as if to imply some kind of synchronicity. The whole point of The Trial is that the protagonist doesn’t know what he’s being prosecuted for, which is very different to being put on trial for a clearly stated crime – even if the law upon which it is based is absurd, or indeed unconstitutional. And to draw some implied comparison between creationism and Nazism is obscene. Those who refuse to accept scientific evidence may be soft in the head, and certainly extremely annoying, but they are not evil. If one is to judge by historical record, as moral agents, Christians are no worse or no better people than atheists.

Alas, a lot of the people who run the BBC do think Christian fundamentalists are bad as well as mad. Just like some newspapers, the BBC, when trying to excuse or find the ‘root causes’ for Islamist terrorism, often makes the point that America has a lot of Christian extremists, who are (im)morally equivalent to the jihadists. In doing so, a parallel is drawn between those who smash airplanes into buildings and blow up Tube trains and a few lone nutcases who shoot up abortion clinics now and again.

This kind of discourse is permitted in Britain because anti-Americanism is so embedded in our culture. Even those who support the various misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan still carp about the military incompetence of the American forces, in contradistinction to our brave Tommies. They make dark jokes about American ‘friendly fire’ – even though the Brits are past masters at killing their own soldiers and allies (4). We Brits like to remind ourselves about the Scopes trial because we like to think of Americans as eternal idiots. Of course, we don’t draw any metaphor from the fact that as recently as 1944 a woman in England was convicted for witchcraft, that we still have bishops in an unelected upper legislative chamber, and that the inhabitants of Hartlepool still celebrate the fact that their imbecile ancestors hanged a monkey during the Napoleonic wars, mistaking it for a spy. Oh, sorry, they were all obviously being ‘ironic’.

Patrick West is spiked’s TV and radio columnist.

Read on:

spiked-issue: TV and radio

(1) Mock the Week, BBC iPlayer (at 6.55 minutes)

(2) The Great Tennessee Monkey Trial, BBC iPlayer

(3) John Humphrys favours an atheist version of Thought For The Day, The Times (London), 18 November 2009

(4) See We Brits invented ‘friendly fire’, by Patrick West

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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