Darwin Wins One In Texas: A Ray of Hope for America
“When I think back on all the crap I leaned in high school, it’s a wonder that I can think at all” (Kodachrome, Simon and Garfunkel)
Last night (November 8, 2012), `The Revisionaries‘, a documentary film about the take over of the Texas School Board by right wing Christian fundamentalists, played as a part of the 35th annual Denver Film Festival. In the midst of reading a fascinating book on evolution, Jonathan Weiner’s The Beak of the Finch, and as a part of a personal interest in evolution, I decided to go. Besides, it wasn’t just Mitt Romney’s economic policies that took a hit in the national elections a few days ago, but his narrow vision of American culture as well.
The theater was packed, although not with too many of the under the age of fifty in attendance – guess they were too busy texting each other. A shame that young people do not appear interested as it is their future that is being played with. Still, the audience response suggested that are a lot of people concerned for the fate of public education in America.
The film focused upon the efforts of Tea Party types to hijack Science and Social Studies text content, to purge it of its more objective content, to do nothing short of savaging American history and attacking Darwin’s theory of natural selection. A couple of lonely anthropologists and a few other concerned citizens made futile efforts for curriculum sanity, but they might as well have been pissing in the wind, for all the good it did. This was a tone-deaf school board, pickled in their own ignorance, and proud of it – as only Texas right wingers can be.
Ironically, Texas is a state where many of these same anti-evolutionists are at the mercy of what might be called `practical evolution’ every day as they try to find new ways to confront insects that have grown resistant to pesticides in the cotton fields. Dependent upon the principles of evolution first to understand and then counter an attack on their economic activity which threatens the very livelihood of large swaths of people in Texas (and Louisiana), doesn’t stop many of them from railing against the theory essential to their livelihood. But then, Texans have a great tradition of shooting themselves in the foot so to speak, so why stop now?
All this is nothing new. These `culture wars’ have been aflame since the mid 1980s, the Reagan Years, when the Christian right first began to come to the fore as an influential political force in American life. At the time there was a major review taking place among high school history teachers to develop national history standards for high school teachers. done at the time by the nation’s high school and college history teachers which came to fruition in 1994 after nearly a decade of work.
The guidelines those produced with great effort and no small amount of give and take seemed an ideal path of taking history out of the realm of national mythology and and placing it on a more comprehensive and objective footing. Seemingly out of nowhere – although it came from `somewhere’ – Lynne Cheney, wife the former vice president and Halliburton executive – launched the beginning of a right wing counter attack on the project. In an editorial printed in the Wall Street Journal, Cheney Cheney charged that the National History Standards had produced a `grim and gloomy’ picture of American history (but interestingly enough NOT inaccurate).
As a New York Times article described it:
Why so much attention, she asked, to topics such as the Ku Klux Klan and McCarthyism? Why did this curricular framework save its “unqualified admiration” for “people, places, and events that are politically correct?” By way of evidence, she cited one out of the nearly twelve hundred illustrative classroom activities, included to support the standards on what young Americans should learn. This particular example invited students to conduct a trial of John D. Rockefeller on his business practices. Students taking the roles of prosecutor, defense attorney, judge, and jury would investigate his piratical dealings–of the kind a PBS documentary on him had explored several years before.
Citing other teaching examples rather than the standards themselves, Cheney found six references to Harriet Tubman, an escaped slave who used the Underground Railroad to rescue scores of other slaves. In contrast, such white males as Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee were mentioned only one and zero times, respectively. The standards give no hint, she complained, “of the spell-binding oratory of such congressional giants as Henry Clay and Daniel Webster.” And Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Jonas Salk, and the Wright brothers, she claimed, “make no appearance at all.”
The story of `Round One’ of the Culture Wars is vividly described in Gary Nash’s History On Trial. It resulted in a number of other books critiquing the quality of high school history and science texts; among the best of them is James Loewen’s Lies My Teachers Told Me. Arguing that high school should teach `American values’ rather than American history, Cheney led the charge for American high schools to sanitize – maybe castrate would be a more apt term – the history curriculum.
Christian fundamentalists and others `who have seen the light’ soon jumped on Cheney’s bandwagon adding their own issue to the mix: an attack on Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection – the modern theory of Evolution, perhaps the most important scientific theory of the past 200 years. The campaign compensated in strategy what it lacked in content. It targeted the high school text book market in two of the country’s two largest states – California and Texas. As the rest of the nation tends to use the same texts, shaping history and biology text books would have nation-wide ripple effects. A key element was for these ultra-conservatives to win seats on local and state school boards to eventually control them. And that is what happened in Texas as a well financed persistent campaign of the Christian right came to fruition.
For his one brief moment in the national spotlight early in the Republican Party primary contest, Texas Governor Rick Perry made an ass of himself by taking on not only Barack Obama, but an opponent who has been dead and gone since 1882 – that gentle genius, Charles Darwin. Groveling to the Christian-fundamentalist-Tea Party right wing of the Republican Party, Michele Bachmann, who makes soul-make Sarah Palin appear moderate, did likewise.
Maybe there is a ray of hope for America.
Such nonsense might play well among Christian fundamentalists of the radical right but such blathering – an insult to Christianity as much as to Science – was one of a number of early warning signs that the base of the Republican Party had gone over the edge. Although a sure road to scientific illiteracy, the apparent goal, attacking Darwin’s theory of natural selection was not a platform on which a presidential election could be won.
It was not just Mitt Romney that was defeated, and soundly so, but an economic agenda demanding greater austerity (which means alot more suffering for the people of this country) and a cultural agenda, long in the making, which has attacked women’s rights – especially the right to an abortion, gays, `secular humanism’, unions, `multiculturalism’, immigrants, documented or not, the Islamic religion, and Darwin’s theory of natural selection.
It is an agenda which has utterly failed to take into consideration the country’s diversity – religious, ethnic, political. Rightwing rants against multi-culturalism are behind the times. The United States has never been a `Christian nation’ (although Christianity is a part of the national cultural mix), nor has it been `mostly white’ for a very long time – perhaps more than a century. If anything, the country is not only heading in a more ethnically and culturally diversified direction. It is already there.
A new coalition that has been long in the making came together and crystallized to give Barack Obama a second term as president. Republican appeals to `white America’ – the continuation of Nixon’s so-called `southern strategy’ – have lost much of their punch as have anti-abortion campaigns, this anti-evolutionary nonsense and the repeated mantra of the United States being `a Christian nation’ `based on Christian values. Barack Obama didn’t need `white America’ to get elected and Mitt Romney – although he didn’t understand it needed the support of Hispanics, Blacks, Asian Americans and Women to succeed in his bid for the presidency.
It is fitting that the electoral wave that resulted in Barack Obama’s decisive victory over Mitt Romney also broke in the Lone Star State where five ultra-conservative members of the that state’s school board have been replaced. Three – Don McLeroy, Gail Lowe and Charlie Garza – were defeated in re-election bids. Two others – Cynthia Dunbar and Terry Leo – quit rather than run again. As a result “ the state board’s faction of far-right ideologues should be smaller next year than at any time since before the 2006 elections.”
It is fitting that the electoral wave that resulted in Barack Obama’s decisive victory over Mitt Romney also broke in the Lone Star State where on November 6, five ultra-conservative members of the that state’s school board have been replaced.
This a hopeful sign although the damage done to high school education through text book censorship will continue for some time as the next textbook review, which might improve the situation, won’t happen until 2020. In the interim, Texas high school students will be forced fed the latest creationist garbage – the notion of intelligent design – and given the Social Studies guidelines, will be learning a version of American history that only exists in the minds of Christian fundamentalist ideologues.
In its 2009, 2010 deliberations, the Texas School Board was shadow-boxing with Howard Zinn’s `People’s History of the United States’. where the questions of textbook review were addressed. Board McLeroy, who was board chair during the hearings on the biology guidelines, believes that dinosaurs and humans shared the same historical slot in space and time. Dunbar wants to strike the name of Thomas Jefferson from American history books, replacing it with Thomas Aquinas. The board as a whole rejected the notion that the state has a role in educating its people, and repeatedly injected, wherever possible, Christian fundamentalist values and opinions into the curriculum guidelines. Any mention of respect for freedom of religious expression was rejected. The critical issues of the country’s history, the history of the country’s social and class struggles – the stuff that makes Zinn’s `History’ so vibrant – were completely purged.
There is a scene in `The Revisionaires` that was quite curious.
Cynthia Dunbar appeared to have a special animus for including the mention of Thomas Jefferson in the high school Social Studies program, despite the fact that Jefferson was the main author of the Declaration of Independence. She moved that Jefferson’s very name strickened from Social Studies texts. The motion was seconded and passed by an overwhelming majority of the illustrious Texas School Board which supported her amendment on the subject. Jefferson is considered by Christian fundamentalists to be as much of a heretic as Darwin as a result of the `Jefferson Bible’. The evidence was Jefferson’s personal copy of the Bible in which all mention to miracles and supernatural phenomena are cut out, with only the quotations of Jesus remaining.
Dunbar was not above twisting the thrust of the American Revolution suggesting that its goal was a `Christian nation.’ She is able to argue this point by emphasizing the saying on the dollar `In God We Trust’…but by ignoring the separation of Church and State explicitly stated in the Constitution and defended in many ways in the Bill of Rights. By so doing, she is simply regurgitating the arguments of the KKK in the 1920s who supported the vapid idea of `100 per cent’ Americanism, itself simply a veiled racist call for a White America.
To be continued in the next few days. ..