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Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Who's Your Hero? William Jennings Bryan or H. L. Mencken?

Typically when people tell the story about the Scopes trial, Clarence Darrow emerges as the hero, the one who defended science in the face of religious anti-intellectualism, and William Jennings Bryan is seen as a religious conservative who ultimately lost the battle in the fight against teaching evolution in U.S. schools. Our source for much of how we retell the story of the trial come from the journalist and cultural critic, H. L. Mencken, who covered the trial and was the one who dubbed it the Monkey Trial.

The contrast between Bryan and Mencken is interesting. Bryan was a three-time nominee for the Democratic Party, an outspoken critic of crony-capitalism, an advocate for socialism, and a pacifist who resigned as Secretary of State because of the U.S.'s entry into World War I. It's doubtful that he could secure a nomination for President in today's Republican party (or the Democratic party, for that matter). Bryan objected to evolution on two grounds: (1) one was that he believed it contrary to the account of creation in Genesis; (2) the other was the popularity of social Darwinism, which embraced the idea of the survival of the fittest, the implications (e.g., eugenics) of which Bryan found appalling.

Mencken, by contrast, had no issues with social Darwinism. He was an admirer of Nietzsche, an advocate of eugenics, an opponent of representative democracy, a racist, and an anti-Semite (some have excused the last two points, noting that Mencken didn't like anyone). In short, apart from his rapacious wit, Mencken had few redeeming qualities (unlike Bryan). Thus, I find it curious that today many continue to mock Bryan's life while celebrating Mencken's. I'd like to think that if they actually took the time to compare the two, they'd change their minds. My sense is that few actually will (or even want to). It's so much easier to hold on to our prejudices than hold them up to the light.

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