Friday, November 25, 2005

History: Kansas. Now we know

On 15 August 1896 William Allen White printed in his Emporia Gazette his famous essay “What’s the Matter with Kansas?”  It was a rounding condemnation of the radicalism then espoused by William Jennings Bryan’s populist movement.  It was influential enough to be reprinted by GOP newspapers nationwide and was a likely factor in Bryan’s loss to McKinley that year.
In the 109 years since that essay, one is led to ask what has happened to the level-headed, businesslike approach once espoused by the Republican party? 
William Jennings Bryan was not only a social radical, but a fundamentalist apologist (as witness the Scopes trial some 30 years later.)  Today, the radicalism is that of the religious right and that movement has hijacked the once-proud Republican party and turned Kansas into a national laughingstock over the issue of evolution.  The radicalism and fundamentalism now so dominates the GOP as to chase many of the more thoughtful party faithful out of its ranks.
Although there are numerous manifestations of this trend, the most obvious and most silly is this evolution controversy.  The state school board now mandates that our schools give serious attention to what they call “intelligent design.”  (How they’ll enforce that among the biology teachers remains to be seen.)
Now, the term “intelligent design” is a smoke screen, although it sounds innocuous enough.  After all, there really is – or should be – no conflict between belief in God and acceptance of evolutionary theory.   If God set evolution in motion billions of years ago, how does that argue against Him – or Her – as a deity?  Is not such a God even more awesome than the vengeful Old Testament Jehovah who intervened in the petty doings of us humans?
Unfortunately, what the term “intelligent design” really means is that one must accept biblical literacy in the form of seeing the universe as formed in six 24-hour days in approximately the year 4004 BC.  The world, the solar system, the universe, plants, animals, and humans – all of these were formed whole in those first few days.  This means that evolution has not had any time to occur and is therefore false.  As the most “intelligent” form of life, humans are at the top of the food and morality chain.
Now, it’s understandable that the ideas of ancient Mesopotamian tribesmen (including but not limited to the Hebrews) would have produced a God a little more immanent, or closer to the vest than what we have – or should have – today.  After all, the vicissitudes of otherwise unexplainable natural disasters made more sense when given a divine origin.  The lore produced by these ancient people is certainly poetic and culturally significant.  But why is it that we must treat this lore as anything more than campfire stories?
Oh sure, tell us the Bible is inerrant and the verbatim word of God, never minding the fact that so much is lost in translation from ancient Hebrew to Aramaic to Latin to German to English.  The problem is that the justification for this claim comes from – you guessed it – the Bible itself.  This brings to mind the old Firesign Theater quote, “You can believe me because I’m always right and I never lie.”
In point of fact, the Bible was penned by humans with human failings.  Even if and when divinely inspired, they would write through the prism of their own prejudices and understandings.  Yes, there is lots of history in it, but the history is also intimately mixed with superstition and tribal stories.
Facts don’t change, no matter how much we might want them to be different.  Evolution is a fact.  The creationists like to say that evolution is “only” a theory and therefore in dispute.  The scientific use of “theory” means that – in contrast to unquestioned acceptance of biblical fiat – it is subject to constant empirical verification.  Evolution stands up impressively to that verification.  To imply that evolutionary theory is faulty because there are differing scientific views on some of the particulars is like saying that the heliocentric (sun-centered) view of the solar system as a theory is in dispute because some scientists may disagree on minor details of how gravity operates.
To argue that the world is only about 6000 years old and that we humans are the moral center of the universe is egomaniacally ethnocentric.  It flies in the face of so many discovered facts that one must conclude that those who support such wishful thinking are blinded by a misguided conception of what is required by faith.  A God that has only been in operation for 6000 years and that is fixated on humans is too small and too limited for the wonder and vastness that is our universe.
Moreover, it would be good to know how we are to continue to combat diseases like e-bola, AIDS and avian flu without the perspective given us by evolutionary theory.

To this cabal of fundamentalists, it is appropriate to say, “If you don't want your children exposed to good science, then keep them out of the public schools and stop trying to force your particular brand of faith down our throats.”

Nevertheless, the religious right has hijacked a major political party in Kansas and the state Board of Education and has now bullied its way into having its own narrow-minded religious fundamentalism taken seriously by people charged with educating (not indoctrinating) our youth.  There are many of other faiths who are as certain of their path as are the fundamentalists.  Are we to give equal time also to the creation myths of the ancient Greeks, the Hindu Vedas or the Native American tribes?
What’s the matter with Kansas?  As William Allen White put it, “Nothing under the shining sun… There is absolutely nothing wrong with Kansas.  ‘Every prospect pleases and only man is vile.’”  Let us continue to bury our heads in the sand and ignore ignorance.  All will then be well.
Douglas B. McGaw
1809 Briarcliff Lane
Emporia, KS  66801


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