Tennessee pols devolve into ignoramuses and put monkey on our backs once more

March 06, 1996|By MIKE LITTWIN

I CHECKED THE calendar before I sat down to write. It didn't help.

In Tennessee, time must have stopped. (This is perhaps an unprovable theory, but it's my theory. And you'll see why this theory business matters in a minute).

In Tennessee, it's 1925 all over again -- a time not only before cable, but also before Elvis.

If you listen carefully, Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan are arguing about evolution. And the sainted H. L. Mencken is writing off the locals as boobs and yokels.

It's the year of the Scopes monkey trial, the genuine trial of the century, unless you think Kato's hairstyle is as important as the origins of man. The Sunpapers sent five reporters to cover the spectacle, which was, as much as anything, about America's willingness to embrace the 20th century.

The great Darrow said he had come to defend Scopes, the teacher on trial for teaching evolution, in order "to prevent bigots and ignoramuses from controlling the educational system of the United States."

We need Darrow again.

In Tennessee, the lesson didn't take. In 1996 (yeah, I checked and double-checked), the legislature is debating a bill that would cause teachers to be fired for teaching evolution as fact.

Didn't we already go through this?

Didn't they catch Henry Fonda in the movie?

Evolution may be a theory, in the way that gravity is a theory or there always being room for Jell-O is a theory. But just about every scientist in the world believes in it.

Come to think of it, though, if you check out the antediluvian Tennessee legislature, you see hardly any signs of evolution.

Actually, the bigots and ignoramuses usually have other business these days. For example, in Merrimack, N.H., it's now illegal to teach about homosexuality. Meaning English teachers are afraid to teach "Twelfth Night" because of the cross-dressing scenes and Walt Whitman's poetry because he was gay.

Here's the theory, promulgated by the bigots and ignoramuses: The mere mention of homosexuality threatens to turn good little New Hampshirites into sodomites.

In Tennessee, they're concerned about homosexuals, too. But it isn't all they've got on their minds. Apparently, what the legislature wants is to bring back the 19th century before we can get to the 21st.

The state senate has already passed a bill saying the Ten Commandments should be displayed, for 10 days in May, in churches and schools and public squares. Why not the rest of the year? Your guess is as good as mine.

The legislature has also passed a law against same-sex marriages and is considering a bill that would allow students to leave school for an hour each day for religious instruction.

Is this America or is it Iran?

Look, religion is great in its place.

And there are so many wonderful places for it. There are churches, synagogues, mosques -- just to name a few.

I like religion. Religions often comfort the afflicted. They often offer a place of refuge. They're almost always strong on values. They usually have good songs.

Yep, religion is great in its place, so long as it's not the statehouse. Or the schoolhouse.

I'm not talking about prayer in school, although I could be. There's a case in Ecru, Miss., right now in which a mother of six wants their school to stop holding prayers over the intercom. That seems reasonable enough, except to the folks in Ecru, who can't understand why anybody would object to a little good-morning school prayer. They can't understand it to the point that the mother was forced to quit her job to avoid being harassed in public.

But the beauty of America is that we have no state religion (no inquisitions, either). And nobody gets to tell anybody what to believe in. In fact, in America, land of the free, you're free to believe absolutely nothing (say it again).

Which brings us back to Tennessee.

The legislators, of course, know better than to rail against evolution. Many of them have been to college. Some of them have read Darwin. They know that animals slithered out of the sea and billions of years later evolved into pandering politicians.

One legislator said the reason he voted for the bill in committee was that, "You can't explain a 'no' vote in a 15-second sound bite."

Well, actually, you can.

Let's put a clock on this one: "I am not an ignoramus."

Pub Date: 3/06/96

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