March 2006

Scopes Monkey Trial

Richard Layton’s Discussion Group Report

The Humanist Study Group this month discussed four articles by H.L. Mencken in the Baltimore Evening Sun of June 29, 1925. The esteemed (by some) American journalist discusses the then upcoming “Scopes Monkey Trial,” where a Tennessee teacher was tried and convicted of breaking a law against teaching the theory of evolution in the schools. I have decided, instead of attempting to describe in resume all four articles, to give you word-for-word his comments from one of the articles, with same name as my present article, so that you can enjoy his writing by getting a better taste of it. It may seem that Mencken is being overly blunt or that he oversimplifies. I think he has something important to say with some very penetrating humor, even though I cannot say I agree with every single thing he comes out with:

“Such obscenities as the forthcoming trial of the Tennessee evolutionist , if they serve no other purpose, at least call attention dramatically to the fact that enlightenment, among mankind, is very narrowly dispersed. It is common to assume that human progress affects everyone–that even the dullest, in these bright days, knows more than any man of, say, the Eighteenth Century, and is far more civilized–though I should not like to be put to giving names–but the great masses of, men, even in this inspired republic, are precisely what the mob was at the dawn of history. They are ignorant, they are dishonest, they are cowardly, they are ignoble. They know little if anything that is worth knowing, and there is not the slightest sign of a natural desire among them to increase their knowledge.

“Such immoral vermin, true enough, get their share of the fruits of human progress, and so they may be said, in a way, to have their part in it. The most ignorant man, when he is ill may enjoy whatever boons and usufructs modern medicine may offer–that is, provided he is too poor to choose his own doctor. He is free, if he wants, to take a bath. The literature of the world is at his disposal in public libraries. He may look at works of art. He may hear good music. He has at hand a thousand devices making life less wearisome and more tolerable: the telephone, railroads, bichloride tablets, newspapers, sewers, correspondence schools, delicatessen. But he had no more to do with bringing these things into the world than the horned cattle in the fields, and he does no more to increase them today than the birds in the air.

“On the contrary, he is generally against them, and sometimes with immense violence. Every step in human progress, from the first feeble stirrings in the abyss of time, has been opposed by the great majority of men. Every valuable thing that has been added to the store of man’s possessions has been derided by them when it was new, and destroyed by them when they had power. They have fought every new truth ever heard of, and they have killed every truth-seeker who got into their hands.

“The so-called religious organizations which now lead the war against the teaching of evolution are nothing more, at bottom, than conspiracies of the inferior man against his betters. They mirror very accurately his congenital hatred of knowledge, his bitter enmity to the man who knows more than he does, and so gets more out of life. Certainly it cannot have gone unnoticed that their membership is recruited, in the overwhelming main, from the lower orders–that no man of any education or other human dignity belongs to them. What they propose to do, at bottom and in brief, is to make the superior man infamous–by mere abuse if it is sufficient, and if it is not, then by law.

“Such organizations, of course, must have leaders; there must be men in them whose ignorance and imbecility are measurably less abject than the ignorance and imbecility of the average. These super-Chandala often attain to a considerable power, especially in democratic states. Their followers trust them and look up to them; sometimes when the pack is on the loose, it is necessary to conciliate them. But their puissance cannot conceal their incurable inferiority. They belong to the mob as surely as their dupes, and the thing that animates them is precisely the mob’s hatred of superiority. Whatever lies above their level of comprehension is of the devil. A glass of wine delights civilized men; they themselves, drinking it would get drunk. Ergo, wine must be prohibited. The hypothesis of evolution is credited by all men of education; they themselves can’t understand it. Ergo, its teaching must be put down.

This simple fact explains such phenomena as the Tennessee buffoonery. Nothing else can. We must think of human progress, not as something going on in the race in general, but as of something going on in a small minority, perpetually beleaguered in a few walled towns. Now and then the horde of barbarians outside breaks through, and we have an armed effort to halt the process. That is, we have a Reformation, French Revolution, a war for democracy, and a Great Awakening. The minority is decimated and driven to cover. But a few survive–and a few are enough to carry on.”

“The inferior man’s reasons for hating knowledge are not hard to discern. He hates it because it is complex–because it puts an unbearable burden upon his meager capacity for taking in ideas. Thus his search is always for shortcuts. All superstitions are short cuts. Their aim is to make the unintelligible simple, and even obvious. So on what seem to be higher levels. No man who has not had a long and arduous education can understand even the most elementary concepts of modern pathology. But even a hind at the plow can grasp the theory of chiropractic in two lessons. Hence the vast popularity of chiropractic among the submerged–and of osteopathy, Christian Science and other such quackeries with it. They are idiotic, but they are simple–and every man prefers what he can understand to what puzzles and dismays him.

“The popularity of Fundamentalism among the inferior orders of men is explicable in exactly the same way. The cosmogonies that educated men toy with are all inordinately complex. To comprehend their veriest outlines requires an immense stock of knowledge, and a habit of thought. It would be as vain to try to teach to peasants or to the city proletariat as it would be to try to teach them to streptococci. But the cosmogony of Genesis is so simple that even a yokel can grasp it. It is set forth in a few phrases. It offers, to an ignorant man, the irresistible reasonableness of the nonsensical. So he accepts it with loud hosannas, and has one more excuse for hating his betters.

“Politics and the fine arts repeat the story. The issues that the former throws up are often so complex that, in the present state of human knowledge, they must remain impenetrable, even to the most enlightened men. How much easier to follow a mountebank with a shibboleth–a Coolidge, a Wilson, or a Roosevelt! The arts, like the sciences, demand special training, often very difficult. But in jazz there are simple rhythms, comprehensible even to savages.

“What all this amounts to is that the human race is divided into two sharply differentiated and mutually antagonistic classes , almost two genera–a small minority that plays with ideas and is capable of taking them in, and a vast majority that finds them painful, and is thus arrayed against them, and all who have traffic with them. The intellectual heritage of the race belongs to the minority, and to the minority only. The majority has no more to do with it than it has to do with ecclesiastic politics on Mars. In so far as that heritage is apprehended, it is viewed with enmity. But in the main it is not apprehended at all.”

Harvey Gaster

April 19, 1926 ~ February 12, 2006

In Memoriam

The following tribute to Harvey was published in the Provo Daily Herald on February 15, 2006.

Harvey Gaster

On Sunday, February 12, 2006, my Grandpa completed his meaningful and well lived life. Harvey Gerald Gaster was born April 9, 1926 to Harvey and Pearl Gaster of Dayton, Wyoming. At eighteen he enlisted in the U.S. Navy where he served for two years during World War II. In the summer of ’49 he met the love of his life, Beulah Redding of Vernal, Utah whom he married three months later on November 17th. One year later they had a son, James, and three years later a daughter, Tamara “Tami” (Wilcox). In 1965 he moved his family to American Fork and was employed with the meter department of Utah Power & Light where he remained until retirement. My Grandpa was one of the kindest people I’ve ever known. He taught compassion and logic not through preaching, but through his own actions. My Grandpa’s motto was “practice random acts of kindness” and he took much pleasure in making people’s lives brighter with everything from a heart felt “howdy” to giving a helping hand. A proud skeptic my Grandpa was passionate about science, history and the humanities. He also enjoyed his memberships with the Humanists of Utah and the American Atheist Association. He always delighted in a good debate and always made his point in a pleasant, non-condescending manner. My Grandpa was a true believer of tolerance and peace. He and my Grandma spent many happy years together doing things like traveling, taking their kids and grandkids camping and fishing, or just conversations over a cup of coffee. They have also stood by each other during difficult times like the death of their daughter, and ongoing illness of the last few years. Their favorite activity as of recent was spending time with our small but very close family, especially their great-granddaughter.

Humanists of Utah extends our warmest wishes and condolences to the family. 

President’s Message

The annual Membership Meeting and Social on February 9 was most enjoyable. The food by Distinctive Catering was excellent, and musical guests “Blue Sage Trio” played some wonderful bluegrass music. Many thanks to board members Rolf Kay and Flo Wineriter for providing the wine and handling all of the mailing of the ballots and invitations. Thanks also to Sarah Smith for arranging musical entertainment. I had a very good time, and hope that everyone in attendance did, too.

I am happy to report that everyone listed on this year’s ballot was elected/re-elected to the HoU Board. Long term board member Rolf Kay was re-elected to another term, as was Cindy King, who now begins her second term. We also have two new members joining us and extend a warm welcome to Julie Mayhew and Alan Burnham. Julie and Alan will be a fine addition to the chapter and we are very glad to have them with us. On behalf of the entire board and the membership at large, I would also like to thank John Chesley for serving a term as a board member. John has been a longtime supporter of the Humanists of Utah, and was instrumental in seeing that local libraries and other facilities had chapter literature available for the public.

The proposed bylaws change also passed with only a few ‘no’ votes. Because it is often difficult to find enough chapter members to serve on the board, we decided that we would change section IV. A (where it reads) “The Association shall be governed by its membership and between meetings thereof, by a Board of Directors consisting of a President, Vice-President, Secretary, Treasurer, and five other board members”. This has now been changed to read “…and up to five other members.”

I would like to invite everyone to attend the discussion group on March 2 at 7:30 p.m. This meeting will be a departure from the usual discussion format, as we are hosting a special guest, Vern Bullough, Ph.D., a Senior Editor at Free Inquiry magazine. Vern will be discussing the state of humanist organizations.

–Robert Lane
President, HoU

Theater Critic

On January 12, 2006 Nancy Melich was the featured speaker at our general meeting. Here is a synopsis of her remarks.

A unique combination of high culture and cowboy, because she grew up in rural Moab, former Salt Lake Tribune theater critic Nancy Melich delighted everyone with articulate and knowledgeable plain speak about theater. Now a literary seminar director for the Utah Shakespearean Festival, Melich began with high praise for SLC’s plays now currently running which deal with universal themes of human struggle, particularly about those living on the margin.

Among them, she singled out Doug Wright’s “I Am My Own Wife” at Salt Lake Acting Company, Terrence McNally’s “Love, Valour, Compassion” at Rose Wagner, and California writer Claire Braz-Valentine’s “When Will I Dance?”, about Frida Kahlo, at Utah Museum of Fine Arts. Collectively, these three plays deal with death, sex, loneliness, and ultimately, freedom of expression.

If she still was a Tribune critic, the ideal would be to first review separately all three plays, then write a follow-up article about what the playwrights are saying, why these Utah companies chose to present these works now, look at the audition process, and so on.

However, in this age of diluted reporting, Melich doubted that she would be the one to review all three plays or have the luxury of writing a follow-up. Clearly frustrated, Melich asked how the Tribune has devoted so much space to film “Brokeback Mountain,” even before Larry Miller’s pull-out of it from his theater. Other questions included: Why is it there are full pages devoted weekly to capsule reviews of films, but not even a half-page to reviews of theater, dance, music, or visual art exhibits? Why do the two daily newspapers have movie and TV columnists, but no performing arts columnists? In her opinion, television coverage of local arts is almost nonexistent, and the only radio station that consistently shows interest in the cultural climate of Utah is KUER.

Recently on KUER’s “RadioWest” program, Doug Fabrizio interviewed poet laureate Ken Brewer, who is dying from cancer. An emotional intense interview, Melich described the scene from Brewer’s kitchen in Providence, Brewer’s poignant but humorous depiction of his failing body, and the proliferation of new poems since the fateful diagnosis.

Melich then posed additional questions: What if Doug Fabrizio never spoke to Ken Brewer on the air? What if Ballet West cancelled its fall season and no one wrote about it? What if Clear Channel bought the Utah Theatre, renovated it, and scheduled month-long runs of “Phantom of the Opera” and “Beauty and the Beast,” and the local columnists had no opinion on the impact of such a decision? What if the only place to read about the current art scene was on a blog, written in cyberspace by someone you have never heard of and whose credentials are unknown?

An optimist, Melich doesn’t believe all that would happen. However, tangible signs are that informed, thoughtful arts coverage has been moving for some time in a bad direction: shorter stories, more listings, four stars and thumbs-up / thumbs-down reviews substituting for analysis, fulltime critics leaving major papers who are not replaced.

An active participant in the American Theater Critics Association, Melich cited that currently there are 270 members compared to 290 five years ago, and that members now are largely comprised of freelance writers. When they meet twice a year, the conversation inevitably turns to the shrinking space devoted to the arts, and how editors are giving that space to television, movies, pop culture stories, and DVD reviews.

Years ago after eight years reporting on a variety of subjects for the Tribune, including the arts, Melich said that no editor had ever asked if she knew anything about the arts. Recounting how in 1978 after being accepted into a month-long program called the National Critics Institute, her mentor named Ernie Schier, the Institute’s director, said, “Now go home and educate your editors that covering the arts is not the same as covering the police beat or the legislature, but just as important.”

For the next 21 years, she practiced that wisdom. At the Tribune, she spent countless hours interviewing actors, directors, and playwrights while also writing stories about truck drivers, softball players, symphony strikes, and consumer advocates in Washington. On the concrete pillar next to her desk at the Tribune, she’d taped this quote: “The job of a theater critic is not to get people to go to the theater, or to get them to stay home. The job of a theatre critic is to keep the reader interested in the theater.”

Interestingly, Eliot Hall has been the home of much theater. In 1973, Melich reviewed the anti-war musical “Hair,” not knowing whether the production would be shut down because a local official had said the play, with its nudity, violated community standards. Reason prevailed and the Salt Lake Acting Company production continued on. In 1978, Eliot Hall was the rehearsal place for “Saturday’s Voyeur,” and Melich was fortunate enough to see it in its infant stage.

According to Melich, the creative and performing arts and the dedicated critics are integral and essential to the growth and vitality of a community. When the arts are ignored by the media, the message is they are not that relevant. Asking why newspaper editors vigorously cover city halls, sports, businesses, and schools, and largely ignore the arts beat, there is no one answer. Her mentor, however, said editors and reporters need to be educated.

Melich has worked long hours and spoken up forcefully to push for more arts coverage. Whether as a reporter for the Tribune or in her current position at the Shakespearean Festival, everyone can learn from her knowledge and passion for the arts.

Sidebar: Two audience Q and A may interest some readers.

One question was how does SLC rate on arts venues compared to other cities of the same size. Melich answered that SLC fares very well with exciting regional theater, Westminster College’s poetry program, one of the best in the nation, great jazz at the Sheraton, Pioneer Theater, Salt Lake Acting Company, Ballet West, Repertory Dance Theater, an explosion of visual arts, Utah Shakespearean Festival.

Another question was how could an audience member benefit the most when attending a play. Melich’s answer was: Practice, practice, practice! Observe. Is the curtain up or down? If it is up, then most scenes will have the same setting. If there are more than two doors, then the play is probably a farce.

What do the props do? Everything on stage should have a purpose; if not, then it is not as professionally done. What do the costumes do? Are actors comfortable in their costumes? The audience must be able to hear the actors if you can’t, inform someone during intermission. Do you feel safe, or are you constantly thinking that the, e.g., chandelier might fall? Watch the actors. Look at the lighting. What is the energy of the play? After fifteen minutes, are you thinking about the weather or mowing the grass? If so, then something is amiss with the production.

–Sarah Smith

Conservative Criticism

Francis Fukuyama says it is very hard to see how developments in Iraq justify the blood and treasurer the United States has spent on the project. The conservative professor at John Hopkins University says Neo-conservatism has evolved into something he can no longer support.

His comments were published in the New York Times Magazine February 19th. In the lengthy article Fukuyama said the president and his supporters underestimated the difficulty of forcing political change in places like Iraq. He calls for a return to Wilsonianism that calls attention to how rulers treat their citizens. He says “outsiders can’t impose democracy on a country that doesn’t want it, demand for democracy and reform must be domestic.”

He calls for new ideas on how America is to relate to the rest the world.

His New York Times Magazine commentary was based on his new book, America at the Crossroads.

–Flo Wineriter