I had a conversation with my dad recently about the late Justice Antonin Scalia, a man who has aroused both our passions for many years. As always, I took issue with Scalia’s textualist judicial philosophy – basically, his commitment to interpreting the constitution and laws based solely on the text, ignoring context, changing social mores, and new information gained from social science and psychology. I hammered what I considered to be an overly rigid view of interpretation – one that left little room for judges to adjust to a nation’s evolving understanding of long-held rights and recognition of rights that should always have existed.
My dad played devil’s advocate, in effect asking, “what makes something a right?” He challenged me to confront my expansive view of rights and how the courts should interpret them. At the end of our conversation, my dad said something I take to heart: Scalia’s exceptional intelligence (or anyone’s) didn’t make them right, but it meant that we needed to be humble about our own views. No matter how sure we are that we’re right, there will always be someone out there way smarter than us who believes the opposite.
The conversation reminded me of Inherit the Wind, the 1960 Stanley Kramer film, inspired by the 1925 Scopes Trial, where a Tennessee high school teacher was put on trial for violating the state’s statute against teaching evolution. (This post will contain spoilers.)
The film begins with the town leaders of fictional Hillsboro, Nebraska, arresting high school biology teacher, Bertram Cates (real-life John Scopes), in front of his students. The town leaders fear the case will bring bad press, but are hopeful when it’s announced that three-time presidential candidate, former Secretary of State, orator, and fundamentalist Christian, Matthew Harrison Brady (William Jennings Bryan) will appear on behalf of the prosecution. To defend Cates the Baltimore Herald sends legendary defense lawyer Henry Drummond (Clarence Darrow), along with reporter E.K. Hornbeck (H.L. Mencken) to cover the trial. Drummond faces an angry town, including a fire-and-brimstone reverend, who just happens to be the father of Cates’s fiancée, Rachel.
After the judge throws out his witnesses vouching for the scientific validity of evolution, he puts Brady on the stand as a Biblical expert. Calling attention to some of the Bible’s internal inconsistencies, he accuses him of imposing his religious beliefs on students and humiliates him in front of the town. The next day, the jury convicts Cates, but the judge fines him a measly $100; Brady objects and tries to make a speech, but drops dead in the courtroom.
Like “The Crucible,” the film is an allegory about McCarthyism. It is heavily fictionalized, adding characters that never existed and personal conflicts that never happened. But the juiciest parts, the courtroom showdowns between Drummond and Brady are mostly taken from the real trial’s transcript.
I don’t remember how old I was when I first saw it, but I was only vaguely aware of its historical inaccuracies and the influence of McCarthyism. Needless to say, I fell in love with it. It is sweet, passionate, and, at times, utterly ruthless. The acting, particularly Spencer Tracy’s embodiment of gentle empathy and fierce conviction, along with his razor-sharp wit, is some of the best in any film I’ve ever seen. His character (and real-life legal giant) articulated a view of the world very similar to my own – that religion and progress are not mutually exclusive, but that we must be open to new facts.
As I matured and kept watching, I gained more historical context. The film portrays Brady as good-natured and deeply caring, but an often overzealous buffoon. The real Bryan was a pacifist who resigned as Secretary of State when President Wilson took a hard-line against Germany after the sinking of the Lusitania, fearing it would lead to war. He opposed Darwinism on humanitarian grounds, as well as religious, viewing social Darwinism, a then-popular perversion of Darwin’s theories, as a threat to the moral foundations of society; he saw social Darwinism as promoting callousness toward the poor. He even opposed policies, like the gold standard, that squeezed the currency supply and kept the poor trapped in debt.
With all this in mind, I began to see Brady/Bryan in a kinder, more nuanced light. I still didn’t agree with him; almost all of the scientific community accepts Darwin’s basic theory of natural selection and has resoundingly rejected social Darwinism. But his struggle against modernity was rooted in compassion for the downtrodden, something that motivates me as well. While Inherit the Wind can be heavy-handed and stack the deck against Brady/Bryan, watching it forces me to confront my initial reaction to him as an ignorant dope. He may have been on the wrong side of history, but his conscience led him to advocate for working people at a time when economic security was non-existent.
If I learned anything from Bryan, it’s that none of us is ever fully right. But wrongness can often be grounded in a greater truth worthy of our consideration and respect.