Kitzmiller v. Homo Boobiens
In many cases, the writings of H.L. Mencken are less examples of journalism than they are master classes in the art of crafting an insult. Mencken was one of the great scourges of American Christian fundamentalists, calling them “Homo boobiens,” and wrote bluntly that a person was a “fundamentalist for the precise reason he is uneducable [sic]. . . . [And] no amount of proof of the falsity of their beliefs will have the slightest influence on them.” One of the centerpieces of H.L. Mencken’s considerable body of work is his series of dispatches from the Scopes “Monkey Trial” as published in the Baltimore Evening Sun in 1925. They are perfect examples of his slashing rhetoric and merciless assaults on ignorance and cant, and are still wickedly fun to read more than eighty years after their original publication.
Such flinty insights make one yearn for a present-day Mencken to have been at the trial of Kitzmiller v. Dover Board of Education, a twenty-first century Monkey Trial, to launch a fusillade at the intellectual dishonesty that ran rampant in Judge John Jones’s courtroom. Matthew Chapman, the great-great-grandson of Charles Darwin, is no Mencken, but his account of the trial in 40 Days and 40 Nights: Darwin, Intelligent Design, God, OxyContin, and Other Oddities on Trial in Pennsylvania is an entertaining and thoughtful look at a notable battle in America’s seemingly endless culture wars.
The book begins with a loose and often rambling journey through the events that led to the trial in late 2005. A decision by the Dover, Pennsylvania, Board of Education to purchase the creationist/intelligent design book Of Pandas and People to replace its aging biology textbook for use in ninth-grade science classes was met with strong resistance by two of its members and a group of eleven parents who united to sue with the assistance of the American Civil Liberties Union. As the case progressed, more interested parties became attached to the case, and it grew to become, like the Scopes trial, a flashpoint for argument, a cause cél`ebre, a media event across the globe, and yet another referendum on the separation of church and state.
The three rings of this circus were filled with dozens of colorful performers, all of whom are profiled with an eye for telling detail (although that detail is too often a label as “eccentric”) and a large dose of compassion. Indeed, Chapman often comments about how likable the people he encounters are, even though one would think he would dislike them. Leading this category is former board member Bill Buckingham, a retired police and corrections officer who is the most pugnacious and belligerent of the bunch. He defiantly shouted during one of the board discussions over the textbook controversy, “Two thousand years ago, someone died on a cross. Can’t someone take a stand for him?” That his curriculum decisions and comments were made while addicted to OxyContin is not glossed over by Chapman. But when he interviews Buckingham during the trial, almost two years after his outrageous behavior that precipitated the conflict, he finds a broken-down man who has experienced the deaths of many family members, had two stints in detox, and contemplated suicide.
Chapman does not have trouble finding compassion for Buckingham but cannot find it in himself to have it for the other board members, and in a chapter titled “Bonsell and His Trinity of Loyal Women,” he gets in touch with his inner Mencken. He finds a particular distaste for one of the female board members whom he describes as a “woman who seemed to think—against all evidence—that everything she did and said was astoundingly adorable and funny” and who “fell squarely into the repellent category without mitigation.” Even the normally evenhanded Judge Jones became exasperated with her inability to answer questions clearly and stopped her from leaving the witness stand after questioning by attorneys in an attempt to clarify her opaque answers.
As the book progresses to the trial stage, its focus sharpens considerably, as does Chapman’s observations of the proceedings. His detailing of the slow and steady demolition of Michael Behe’s credibility as a scientist at the hands of the plaintiff’s lawyers, including the uncovering of documentation that indicates that his “landmark” theory of irreducible complexity was plagiarized from an article in the June 1994 issue of the Creation Research Society Quarterly written by Dr. Dick Bliss, is to be savored.
In some ways, Chapman is the polar opposite of Mencken: he is empathetic where Mencken is condemning, inquisitive where Mencken is barbed. His sensitivity, however, does not mean that the considerable dishonesty of the defendants and the damage done by their actions are slighted. The concluding chapter of the book effectively braids together the many threads of observation made by Chapman about the grave dangers of fundamentalism and irrationality.
While not as scholarly as Edward Humes’s recent Monkey Girl: Evolution, Education, Religion, and the Battle for America’s Soul, Chapman’s book focuses on the human story behind the trial and succeeds at illuminating the emotional and ideological underpinnings of this legal and political event. Reading these two books along with Judge Jones’s masterfully written decision in the case provides a wide-ranging and thorough view of this generation’s own Scopes trial.