Inherit the Wind

Inherit the Wind was on television the other day. The film, released in 1960, was adapted from a 1955 play loosely based on the 1925 Scopes trial, in which a Tennessee school teacher was convicted of violating state law by teaching evolution. But it is not really about science or religion. It’s about the open discussion of ideas, the tension between orthodoxy and independent thought, the fear of change, and the deceiving security of habit and tradition.

The movie stars Spencer Tracy and Frederic March as two old adversaries, once close friends, at odds over the prosecution of a young teacher, played by Dick York, for teaching evolution. Tracy plays Henry Drummond, a character based on Clarence Darrow, the most prominent attorney of his day, and who defended John Scopes in the 1925 case. March plays Matthew Harrison Brady, who is based on William Jennings Bryan, the famed orator and three-time presidential nominee who volunteered his services to the prosecution team in the Scopes trial.

Gene Kelly also stars, as a cynical newspaperman based on H.L. Mencken.

Bertram Cates, the teacher played by York, is arrested in the opening scene as he and his high school science class discuss evolutionary theory.  And seeing it again, I was struck how contemporary the scene was. We  want our children to learn, to be educated, but not if it challenges our ideas about our place or our country or our most dearly held beliefs.

I said Inherit the World was not about evolution, but that is not quite correct. During the movie, we learn that Tracy’s Henry Drummond and March’s Matt Brady were quite similar as young men. Brady remained in the past, entrenched, unwilling to listen to new ideas, sure of his own rightness. When Drummond asks how Brady explains the enigma of Cain’s wife, Brady says he leaves such questions to the agnostics.

Drummond, though, has changed. He has remained open to new ideas, to new discoveries. He asks questions. He listens. He has, to borrow from Darwin, adapted. Brady suffers a final heart attack as he attempts to deliver his final oration, standing in the middle of the courtroom ignored and abandoned as the world moves on, and his ideas die with him.

In the final scene, as Kelly’s newsman sarcastically eulogizes Brady, Drummond comes to his old friend’s defense, and bitterly denouncing the newsman who has been his ally throughout the trial. In his own way he is just as small-minded as Brady, and not nearly as noble.

“You are like a ghost pointing with an open sleeve, and smirking at everything people feel or want or struggle for,” says Drummond.

This is the challenge of life. To be be curious without losing faith. To be skeptical with becoming cynical. To respect the past without becoming enslaved to it.

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Alfalfa Bill

More than a century has passed since William Henry David Murray exerted his will on Oklahoma’s constitutional convention. He left public office 80 years ago this month, dismissed as a crank and an anachronism even then, and died penniless, trying to peddle his rambling political tracts in downtown Oklahoma City in 1956.

But as Bill Murray bent the twig, so is Oklahoma still inclined. It is impossible, even now, to understand the state’s political culture without some knowledge of Alfalfa Bill.

Grasping, opportunistic, racist, anti-Semitic, uncouth and maybe even a little crazy, Murray could also be generous and insightful and wonderfully fearless. He was a dreamer and an idealist and never understood why the rest of the world didn’t see things his way. The constitution whose writing he supervised and greatly influenced was widely regarded as a model of progressive thought and included significant safeguards for working people. Murray wasn’t personally responsible for all of the reforms, but as president of the constitutional convention he had great influence on what was and was not in the final product.

Murray hated railroads and corporations and cities. He proclaimed himself a friend of African Americans as long as they remembered their place. He disdained universities, except for the agricultural college at Stillwater, and saw to it that the constitution authorized six “agricultural high schools” scattered across the state. Five of the six still exist in some form, four of them as college campuses. Civilization, he maintained, “begins and ends with the plow.”

Bill Murray was born at Toadsuck, Texas, a long-dead settlement southwest of Sherman in the Red River Valley. Murray ran away from home at 12, worked as a farm hand and went to various public schools, failed at newspaper publishing in Corsicana and at law in Fort Worth before moving to the Chickasaw Nation around 1897.

There Murray found his fortune, or at least his future, the way countless other ambitious white men of his generation did in the Indian Nations — by marrying into the tribe. In Murray’s case, his bride was the niece of Chickasaw Gov. Doulgas Henry Johnston. Murray became active in Chickasaw politics and was prominent in the 1905 Sequoyah Convention, which tried to bring Indian Territory into the union as a state separate from Oklahoma.

The Sequoyah movement went nowhere, but its leaders took control of the constitutional convention and then the new state government. Murray was the first speaker of the House and then served in Congress. Defeated for re-election in 1916 because of his support of American preparations to enter the Great War, he eventually drifted to South America and started an agricultural commune in Bolivia. Broke and starved out, he returned to Oklahoma just in time to get himself elected governor in 1930.

With no money for a campaign, Murray literally hitchhiked from town to town. An entertaining if not always sensical orator, Murray held forth on street corners and park benches and claimed to live off  crackers and cheese.

As governor, Murray sent the National Guard to keep Texas from collecting tolls on a bridge over the Red River and to shut down oil wells that had glutted the market and driven prices down to 10 cents a barrel. He allowed poor people to plant potatoes on the lawn of the governor’s mansion but resisted Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, chained his office chairs to the radiator to keep people from getting too close and met visitors in his stockinged feed. He ran for president in 1932 but succeeded only in embarrassing himself and further alienating Roosevelt.

Several of the ideas incorporated into the Murray constitution have been negated or wired around. The state’s current regime is intent on weakening the legislative branch in favor of the chief executive, something diametrically opposed to the state’s founding principals. And yet Alfalfa Bill’s spirit lives, often not in a good way, in our idiosyncrasies, in our simultaneous sensitivity and indifference to the the opinions and criticisms of others, and in our romanticized notions of rugged independence.

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Ten hymns

I’m not a particularly dedicated church-goer but I do appreciate church music, and recognize the affect it has had on me personally and on American culture. So one Sunday, after attending the church in which I grew up, I started playing with the idea of compiling a list of my Top 10 hymns.

Well, forget that.

These may not be my Top 10, but there are 10 of them, and they are personal favorites:

I’ll Fly Away (Albert Brumley, 1929): The most-recorded gospel song of all-time. I actually wasn’t very familiar with “I’ll Fly Away” until hearing the Kossoy Sisters’ 1956 recording of it in Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? The Kossoy Sisters version was replaced on the film’s soundtrack album by a new recording by Gillian Welch and Alison Krause. Brumley said he worked out the lyrics to the song while picking cotton on his family’s LeFlore County, Oklahoma, farm.

This Is My Father’s World (Maltbie D. Babcock, 1901: This is one of those hymns that has remained in my consciousness since childhood. Why, I can’t say for sure. There is something about the line “In the rustling grass I hear him pass” that just won’t go away. The lyrics stem from Babcock’s hikes near Lake Ontario in upstate New York.

Simple Gifts (Joseph Brackett 1848): I may not have a top 10, but I do have a top two or three, and this Shaker meditation is one of them: “‘Tis the gift to be simple, ‘Tis the gift to be free/’Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be.'” Popularized by Aaron Copeland in “Appalachian Spring,” the song — for so it is described by Shaker historians — deftly encapsulates the sect’s philosophy.

A Mighty Fortress (Martin Luther, 1529): Translated into English from the original German more than 70 times, “Ein feste Berg ist unser Gott” may be the most historically significant hymn ever written. Called the “Battle Hymn of the Republic of the Reformation,” it became the anthem of early-day Lutheranism and later for all Protestantism. The hymn also took on nationalist tones for those seeking freedom from the Holy Roman Empire, with Swedish forces singing it before battle during the Thirty Years War.

Leaning on the Everlasting Arms (Elisha Hoffman and Anthony J. Showalter, 1887): I loved this hymn even before Iris DeMent’s driven, haunting recording for the Coen Brothers’ True Grit. This was one the congregation of our little church used to really get into. The hymn was inspired by letters of condolence written by Showalter to two recently widowed young men. Showalter wrote the refrain, Hoffman the verses.

Silent Night (Franz Xaver Gruber and Joseph Mohr, 1818): Composed in rural Austria by a young priest and a schoolmaster, “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht” has been translated from the original German into some 140 languages. Famously, German, French and English troops joined in singing it during the Christmas truce of 1914. Simple, direct, the perfect Christmas hymn.

His Eye is on the Sparrow (Civilla D. Martin and Charles H. Martin, 1905): A hymn of solace for the oppressed and downtrodden and often associated with the Civil Rights movement, the lyrics were inspired by an infirm white couple named Doolittle who, in the words of Civilla Martin, remained optimistic and happy despite their troubles. Asked how they maintained their spirits, Mrs. Doolittle replied: “His eye is on the sparrow and I know he watches me.”

In the Sweet By and By (Joseph P. Webster and S. Fillmore Bennett, 1868): Written in 30 minutes in an Elkhorn, Wisconsin, pharmacy by a manic depressive (Webster) and his friend (Bennett). One of those hymns that invites the congregation to really let go.

Amazing Grace (John Newton 1779): Written by a slave trader-turned-clergyman to accompany a sermon, “Amazing Grace” appeared first in England but found popularity in the United States during the Second Great Awakening. Originally, the hymn was probably recited or read without music, and for its first five decades was set to numerous tunes until a Baptist song leader named William “Singing Billy” Walker matched it with a traditional melody called “New Britain” in 1835. Cherokees sang a version of “Amazing Grace” translated into their language by Samuel Worcester on the Trail of Tears.

How Great Thou Art (Carl Gustav Boberg, 1885): We didn’t have many records in my house when I was growing up, but we had one of George Beverly Shea singing “How Great Thou Art.” The song is so associated with Shea that he almost ruined it for everybody else — which hasn’t prevent it from being record more than 1,700 times. Based on a Swedish hymn written in 1885 and paraphrased into English from a Russian translation by British missionary Stuart K. Hine, the song was virtually unknown in the United States until sung by Shea at a 1957 Billy Graham Crusade in Madison Square Garden.


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Why Christmas still matters

We all know that Christmas is not really Christmas. It is not Jesus’ birthday. In all likelihood, the date evolved from a combination of pagan festivals and Christian traditions centered on the winter solstice. Epiphany, which predates Christmas and is observed on Jan. 6, commemorates what might be thought of as Christianity’s spiritual birth. The origins of many of our Christmas traditions, including the exchanging of gifts, predate Christ.

One can only wonder what Jesus would think of a holiday in his honor whose most recognizable figure is a fat man in a red suit.

And that’s an improvement. In centuries past, Christmas was known more as a time of drunken revelry than religious contemplation. England’s seventeenth-century Puritan rulers outlawed the holiday, and it wasn’t generally celebrated in Boston until the 1850s. Even now, some Christians consider Christmas a blasphemy.

Today it sometimes seems as if Christmas’ primary purpose is sustaining the American economy. The annual tragic-comedy known as Black Friday — and its sanitized sequel, Cyber Monday — leaves one trying to envision the magi camping out in a Wal-Mart parking lot all night in order to get a good deal on gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Christmas has acquired a lot of baggage. It is used to sell luxury automobiles, milk chocolate snowmen and Victoria Secret lingerie. In honor of Christ’s birthday we eat too much, drink too much and fall asleep watching NBA tripleheaders on new 65-inch curved screen TVs.

And yet, with all the commercialization and crass exploitation, Christmas still matters. It matters because it reminds us that life is about more than ourselves. Christmas shopping serves its own strange greater purpose in our materialistic socieity: It makes us think about someone besides ourselves, even if it’s only to choose between the festive Dr. Seuss tie and a box of handkerchiefs for the office gift exchange.

Because that is the fundamental message of Christmas and the man it purports to celebrate. Life is not all about you. It is not about what you get, it is what you give. Stop and listen, in a checkout line or pew or middle of the night, and hear the whispers of a world — a universe and all that is, seen and unseen — that is bigger than any one of us, or even all of us.

And if that takes a sale on “Frozen” karaoke machines, so be it.

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Cruel and unusual punishment

On Sunday, two of my Tulsa World colleagues published a detailed and grisly account of the state of Oklahoma’s crude execution of murderer Clayton Lockett, a stone killer convicted (and by all accounts rightfully so) of shooting a young woman and then burying her alive. There seems to be no doubt of his guilt.

Lockett and another murderer, Charles Warner, were to be executed by lethal injection at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary on April 29. Because the state could no longer get the drugs it had formerly used in executions, it was trying a new combination of uncertain effectiveness.

For reasons explained in the stories linked above, Lockett’s execution turned into a blood-soaked “cluster,” as one of those responsible for carrying it out put it. When Lockett finally died, almost an hour after the execution began, it was from a heart attack.

Predictability, the response to this has been, “So what?” His crime having been particularly cold-blooded, Lockett could hardly have been a less sympathetic figure. Many objected to descriptions of the execution as “botched.” Lockett was supposed to die and he did, and if it turned out to take a little longer and be a lot more painful than expected, so much the better.

The obvious answer to that is the U.S. Constitution forbids “cruel and unusual punishment,” and that what happened in Oklahoma’s execution chamber on April 29 seems to fall into that category.

But there is more to it than that. This is not about Clayton Lockett. It’s about us. It’s about doing things right. It’s about respect for the law and behaving like a civil society and not a lynch mob. The Eighth Amendment is there for a reason.

People who believe the death penalty should remain an option — and I’m one of them — ought to be outraged by what happened to Clayton Lockett, not because of Clayton Lockett, but because it reeks of incompetence and gives impetus to those who believe execution itself is cruel and unusual punishment.

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