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TV and the movies slyly and subtly distort history

It is quite remarkable how television and the movies slyly and subtly reshape and remold our perception of historic events, even those we have lived through.
I’m not so much talking about such major upheavals as the Cold War, the Cuban
missile crisis, and Vietnam War. Although, in reality, these were by no means entirely as presented to us in movies, TV documentaries and on the nightly news, there is sufficient public discussion about them to act as a corrective to the misinformation that abounds.

A rather more serious problem involves our perceptions of less cataclysmic, but no less profound, issues that have, for example, framed educational and social policies for the past half century.

I was reminded of this last week during a conversation with a recent acquaintance. We were discussing the Scopes “Monkey Trial”—an event he imagined had been faithfully depicted in the famous stage-play/movie Inherit the Wind.

Actually I had been under the same misapprehension until some years ago when a friend reminded me that back in the late 1990s (I think it was) the monthly First Things published a fascinating analysis of the way in which Inherit the Wind had been largely responsible for molding public opinion about the trial, ultimately giving evolutionists the upper hand in the ongoing debate with creationists.

Writer Carol Iannone pointed out that Inherit the Wind grossly distorts the circumstances in which the trial took place, the characters of the main protagonists, and the nature of the arguments presented.

For example, it represents Scopes as a young high school science teacher arrested and jailed for illegally teaching Darwin’s theory. Moreover it portrays the townsfolk in the small Tennessee community in which the trial took place as fundamentalist bigots, eager to do violence to Scopes and his defense attorney.

In reality, Scopes was never arrested or jailed: He volunteered to go on trial after responding to an American Civil Liberties Union advertisement seeking someone willing to challenge the law against teaching Charles Darwin’s theory of creation.

Far from being threatened, he and his attorney—as well as the whole prosecution team—were feted by the townsfolk, who hoped the trial would put their community “on the map.”

Nor was Scopes fired from his school teaching post after his conviction. In fact, he quit his job to take up the offer of a graduate school scholarship in geology at the University of Chicago—rich pickings for a small town math teacher and athletic coach who couldn’t be called to the witness stand because he wasn’t able to remember whether he had taught evolution or not.

Inherit the Wind actually tells us far more about the mindset of its authors and producers than the Scopes trial.

Writer Iannone commented: “The play reveals a great deal about a mentality that demands open-mindedness and excoriates dogmatism, only to advance its own certainties more insistently—that [claims to] promote[s] tolerance and intellectual integrity but stoops to vilifying the opposition, falsifying reality, and distorting history in the service of its agenda.”

Unfortunately, it is a mentality that is by no means confined to folks caught up in the evolution debate. Indeed, it explains why so many people, young and old, have such a distorted grasp of our nation’s history. GPH✠

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