Sunday, November 29, 2009

William Jennings Bryan

"Mr. Jefferson, who was once regarded as good Democratic authority, seems to have a different opinion from the gentleman who has addressed us on the part of the minority. Those who are opposed to this proposition tell us that the issue of paper money is a function of the bank and that the government ought to go out of the banking business. I stand with Jefferson rather than with them, and tell them, as he did, that the issue of money is a function of the government and that the banks should go out of the governing business. ..."-William Jennings Bryan, The "Cross of Gold" Speech, 1896 Democratic Convention

"Depressions may bring people closer to the church but so do funerals."- Clarence Darrow

William Jennings Bryan (not to be confused with the American poet William Cullen Bryant) is remembered, if at all today, as the confused old fool who prosecuted the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial and allowed himself to be mercilessly cross-examined by Clarence Darrow in defense of the Bible. Yes, Bryan did win the case, though Scopes' conviction was vacated on a technicality. Clarence Darrow cleverly quit while he was ahead asking the court to convict his client, avoiding closing arguments. Darrow knew that Bryan would shine if allowed to speak and tarnish Darrow's triumph over the old man in cross examination. Bryan was sick with diabetes and the stress he experienced at this media circus probably hastened his death on July 26 of 1925 as he napped. He did complete the eloquent closing argument that he had not been allowed to deliver before the court at the end of this unusual trial a few days earlier.
Interestingly, Bryan presented assertions against evolution that are still repeated today:

"Evolution is not truth; it is merely a hypothesis - it is millions of guesses strung together. It had not been proven in the days of Darwin - he expressed astonishment that with two or three million species it had been impossible to trace any species to any other species - it had not been proven in the days of Huxley, and it has not been proven up to today. It is less than four years ago that Professor Bateson came all the way from London to Canada to tell the American scientists that every effort to trace one species to another had failed - every one. He said he still had faith in evolution but had doubts about the origin of species. But of what value is evolution if it cannot explain the origin of species? While many scientists accept evolution as if it were a fact, they all admit, when questioned, that no explanation has been found as to how one species developed into another.
Darwin suggested two laws, sexual selection and natural selection. Sexual selection has been laughed out of the classroom and natural selection is being abandoned, and no new explanation is satisfactory even to scientists. Some of the more rash advocates of evolution are wont to say that evolution is as firmly established as the law of gravitation or the Copernican theory. The absurdity of such a claim is apparent when we remember that any one can prove the law of gravitation by throwing a weight into the air and that any one can prove the roundness of the earth by going around it, while no one can prove evolution to be true in any way whatever."

Bryan on Evolution LINK
Full Text of Bryan's Closing Argument with Darrow's reply LINK

The 1960 film production "Inherit The Wind" based on the 1955 Broadway play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee presented Spencer Tracy as Henry Drummond and Frederic March as Matthew Harrison Brady, representing the actual protagonists of the trial, Clarence Darrow (Tracy) and William Jennings Bryan (March). Gene Kelly plays flippant reporter E. K. Hornbeck, modeled after H.L. Mencken. Clarence Darrow was perhaps the premier defense attorney of his time, having defended thrill killers Leopold and Loeb in 1925.
But Bryan was much more than the confused fundamentalist who couldn't accept that man descended from apes. He was a religous man, a sincere Christian, and a great populist Democrat of the Gilded Age. Many of his progressive causes were later implemented by some of the same men who mocked and feared him. He was nominated for President three times and lost. He was flawed; he was beloved; he was despised. His greatest weaknesses in my opinion were: (1) he tended to react to problems after solutions had become impossible and (2) his implicit support of racist Jim Crow laws, which came with being a Democrat at the time. He was a kind of progressive reactionary who would rail on about the open barn door long after the cattle had all been stolen. The obvious example is his donning the free silver mantle long after the cause was essentially lost. His wonderful progressive vision included his monetary policy, female suffrage, anti-imperialism, trust busting, abandoning states rights to control the depredations of corporations and the big banks, and sadly, prohibition. But his belief in an America based on equality did not include the African-American, which may not have been surprising since most of his support was found in the South. The election maps of the time reveal that today's Red States, now voting Republican, were predominantly supporting the Democrat Bryan.
In this space, over time, we shall examine the career and the ideas of this man. His supporters would be characterized today as the same kinds of people who inhabit the Religious Right many of whom are their great grandchildren of various degrees. Yet, they were Progressives then who despised the Capitalists. What happened to contort the descendants of these most religious American Christians of the 19th Century into the stiff-necked, hidebound, money-loving, Plutocrat-worshiping, prosperity theology preaching hucksters we know today?

H.L. Mencken (not sympathetic to Christianity and Bryan by any means) gives us a hint about the answer to that question. He noted that to the Christian, the end justifies the means, especially to the strong aggressive man, like William Jennings Bryan (ironically a very Darwinian approach to things). But Bryan was fighting for a cause beyond his own selfish interest. We note that these modern mammon seeking Christians have internalized their idea of Jesus so much that they have finally identified their own selfish needs as their God's. Many of them have in fact accepted, without conscious knowledge (and in a very superficial erring manner) the occult teaching that they are gods.

"The best Christian among us is inevitably the most shameless hypocrite. There is probably no man in America who harbors a more genuine belief in the Christian doctrine of brotherhood and good will than the Hon. William Jennings Bryan, and yet it would be difficult to find a man who has devoted a larger part of his life to furious and merciless combat, or who seeks with greater ardor to rout, cripple and destroy his enemies. The whole uplift is Christian in theory, and yet the whole uplift is inordinately savage and vindictive in practice." - H.L. Mencken, "Transvaluation of Morals", March 1915

No matter where one stands on Bryan, Darrow, or Mencken, this trial was, in the end, about freedom of expression and whether any of us or any group among us should have the power to suppress any other opinions.

"True enough, even a superstitious man has certain inalienable rights. He has a right to harbor and indulge his imbecilities as long as he pleases, provided only he does not try to inflict them upon other men by force. He has a right to argue for them as eloquently as he can, in season and out of season. He has a right to teach them to his children. But certainly he has no right to be protected against the free criticism of those who do not hold them. He has no right to demand that they be treated as sacred. He has no right to preach them without challenge. Did Darrow, in the course of his dreadful bombardment of Bryan, drop a few shells, incidentally, into measurably cleaner camps? Then let the garrisons of those camps look to their defenses. They are free to shoot back. But they can't disarm their enemy."
-H L Mencken, "Aftermath" (coverage of the Scopes Trial) The Baltimore Evening Sun, (September 14, 1925)

H.L. Mencken

P.S. An Observation On the Misanthrope Mencken from Gore Vidal

"... A babble of words that no one understands now fills the airwaves, and language loses all meaning as we sink slowly, mindlessly, into herstory rather than history because most rapists are men, aren't they?
Mencken is a nice antidote. Politically, he is often right but seldom correct by today's stern standards. In a cheery way, he dislikes most minorities and if he ever had a good word to say about the majority of his countrymen, I have yet to come across it. Recently, when his letters were published, it was discovered that He Did Not Like the Jews, and that he had said unpleasant things about them not only as individuals but In General, plainly the sign of a Hitler-Holocaust enthusiast. So shocked was everyone that even the New York Review of Books' unofficial de-anti-Semitiser, Garry Wills (he salvaged Dickens, barely), has yet to come to his aid with An Explanation. But in Mencken's private correspondence, he also snarls at black Americans, Orientals, Britons, women, and WASPs, particularly the clay-eating Appalachians, whom he regarded as subhuman. But private irritability is of no consequence when compared to what really matters, public action.
Far from being an anti-Semite, Mencken was one of the first journalists to denounce the persecution of the Jews in Germany at a time when the New York Times, say, was notoriously reticent. On November 27, 1938, Mencken writes (Baltimore Sun), "It is to be hoped that the poor Jews now being robbed and mauled in Germany will not take too seriously the plans of various politicians to rescue them." He then reviews the various schemes to "rescue" the Jews from the Nazis, who had not yet announced their own final solution."
-Gore Vidal, Forward to Marion Elizabeth Rodgers' The Impossible H. L. Mencken

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