From Scopes to Dover-7: The Scopes trial goes national

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

Once Scopes was charged with violating the Butler Act and the event publicized, things started moving extremely rapidly.

On May 9, 1925 “the county’s justices three justices of the peace formally held scopes for action by the August grand jury, in the meantime releasing him without bond” (Summer for the Gods, Edward J. Larson, 1997, p. 95). In mid-May, the 65-year old William Jennings Bryan, who had been campaigning across the nation against the teaching of evolution, volunteered to appear for the prosecution for free, thus guaranteeing the delighted city leaders that the trial would get the national publicity that the instigators eagerly sought. The local civic leaders, eager to get as many headliners as possible involved, even tried to get famous English author H. G. Wells, a supporter of evolution, to make the case for evolution at the trial. They considered that his distinguished literary presence would lend a certain cachet to the proceedings, but Wells declined to get involved (Larson p. 96).

Fearing that other cities, belatedly realizing the business boom that would result in having a nationally prominent trial, would try to take the trial away from Dayton, the local leaders decided not to wait until August for the trial but to move even more quickly. So the district judge, “acting with the consent of both prosecution and defense, called a special session of the grand jury for May 25 to indict Scopes before any other town could steal the show.” (Larson p. 96)

When the eventual lead attorney for the defense Clarence Darrow was initially approached about whether he would defend Scopes, he declined the offer because he had just retired at the age of 68 and was not interested in taking on new cases. But when he heard that Bryan was appearing for the prosecution, the agnostic Darrow changed his mind and offered to appear for Scopes for no fee, relishing the chance to argue, on a national stage, against one of the most visible proponents of religion. This caused some dismay to the ACLU that was underwriting the defense case. They wanted to focus the case on the issue of academic freedom and felt that Darrow’s militant agnosticism would alienate otherwise sympathetic potential religious allies. But Scopes chose Darrow to be his lawyer and stuck with him, feeling that an experienced defense lawyer was better than the constitutional lawyers that the ACLU wanted (Larson, p. 102).

Clarence Darrow was the perfect foil for William Jennings Bryan. Darrow was famous for his successful defenses of several high profile criminal cases but he also “delighted in challenging traditional concepts of morality and religion.” He called himself an agnostic but was effectively an atheist, in which respect he was very similar to Charles Darwin. According to Darrow’s biographer “He regarded Christianity as a ‘slave religion,’ encouraging acquiescence in injustice, a willingness to make do with the mediocre, and complacency in the face of the intolerable.” (Larson, p. 71)

Good intentions underlay Darrow’s efforts to undermine popular religious faith. He sincerely believed that the biblical concept of original sin for all and salvation for some through divine grace was, as he described it, “a very dangerous doctrine’ – “silly, impossible, and wicked.” Darrow once told a group of convicts, “It is not the bad people I fear so much as the good people. When a person is sure that he is good, he is nearly hopeless; he gets cruel – he believes in punishment.” During a public debate on religion, he added, “The origin of what we call civilization is not due to religion but to skepticism. . .The modern world is the child of doubt and inquiry, as the ancient world was the child of fear and faith.”
. . .
Darrow readily embraced the antitheistic implications of Darwinism. (Larson, p. 71)

Since both Bryan and Darrow were itching to square off against each other on the grand issue of science and religion, it was almost guaranteed that the trial would extend well beyond issues of free speech. The stage was now set for the ‘trial of the century,’ which would reverberate and color all future discussions on this topic.

POST SCRIPT: Comedian Lewis Black on Biblical literalism

Is Dumbledore gay?

By now everyone is aware of the bombshell dropped into the Harry Potter world by creator J. K. Rowling announcing that she had always envisaged Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore as gay, although she had not made it explicit in the books.

Advocates of gay rights have welcomed Rowling’s statement, although some have said that they would have liked to have had this development made clear in the books itself, rather than revealed as an afterword. Those who already saw the books as evil because its magical aspects appeared like witchcraft to them, now have another reason to condemn the books, seeing it as an attempt by the author to ‘further the gay agenda.’ They fear that by making the most universally admired character in the books gay, young children will become (oh, the horror!) more tolerant of gay people.

But Rowling’s announcement raises a different issue that has not received much attention and that is the question of to what extent an author has control of the content of her books after they have been published. In this case, does the fact that Rowling wrote Dumbledore thinking of him as a gay character actually make him so?

When I read the Harry Potter books, the question of Dumbledore’s or any other adult person’s sexuality rarely crossed my mind. The books are quite innocent in that respect and this is typical for this kind of British boarding school fiction where teachers tend to be portrayed as aloof, asexual figures, with no real life outside the classroom and school. On rare occasions I did idly consider the possibility of whether any romance existed between Dumbledore and Professor Minerva McGonagall that would be revealed at the end. There was nothing in the books to suggest this. It simply seemed like they would make a nice compatible couple, spending a quiet retirement together.

So is Dumbledore gay? One school of thought would argue that if his creator says so, then he must be so. After all, the entire Harry Potter universe is a product solely of her imagination so surely she has the right to determine the nature of each character. But the relationship of the author to her creations is not that simple because another school of thought says that once a book is published, it is no longer ‘owned’ by the author and the meaning of the books now lies with whatever meaning the reader assigns. While the reader cannot change the text in any way or create new facts, the reader’s right to interpretation is on a par with that of the writer.

According to the latter view, since I had never considered the possibility that Dumbledore was gay while reading the books, he is not so, at least to me. Of course, now that this possibility has been raised, a re-reading of the books might cause me to change my mind, seeing in his character things I had not seen before. We all have experienced occasions when a conversation we have had or a film we have seen or a book we have read is suddenly recollected in a dramatic new light because we subsequently received new information. But whether Dumbledore is gay that is something that has to be determined by each reader, not the author.

I recall an author whose novels were sometimes assigned as texts by high school teachers and students would be asked to write essays on what was meant by such and such a passage. The author said that some enterprising students, realizing that he was still around, would track him down and call him to ask what he meant, hoping to get the ‘correct’ answer to their essay prompt. He would reply that he didn’t know any more than they did. He was not trying to dodge the question, he was just expressing the view that once a work is published, the author has relinquished control of the meaning of the work. The same issues arise with the meaning of a painting or a sculpture or a piece of music.

This does not mean that all creators are comfortable relinquishing control of their work. I recall the story of an art museum docent who was horrified to find a visitor painting over a work hanging on the museum wall. Upon arrest and questioning, the ‘vandal’ turned out to be the original artist who had not been quite satisfied with the work he had sold, and had decided to make some changes.

A colleague and friend of mine Professor Christine Cano wrote a fascinating book called Proust’s Deadline (2007) which dealt with the publishing history of Marcel Proust’s epic multivolume novel In Search of Lost Time (formerly called Remembrance of Things Past). The volumes were published over the period 1913-1927, the last three edited and published posthumously after his death in 1922. Proust, like Rowling, had never published a novel before and yet ambitiously conceived of the first novel as an epic work whose story needed many volumes (seven in both cases) to tell. But whereas Rowling’s story lent itself to being split into episodes and she seemed to have been a highly disciplined writer and mapped out the plotline carefully from the start and stuck to it, Proust had a much harder time of it. He was constantly rewriting, backtracking, changing course, and making revisions.

In 1987, long after Proust’s death, one of his original publishers issued a revised version of Proust’s novel based on an original manuscript in which Proust seemed, just before his death, to have deleted a huge 250 page chunk out of one of the novels. This posed a dilemma for Proust readers. Which was the ‘real’ novel: The longer version that had long been considered the canonical one? Or the 1987 abridged version that seemed to represent Proust’s ‘final’ thoughts on his own work? Cano and most Proust scholars think that what was originally published is the final word. Once a work is published, the author’s control over the story is over.

In a very minor way, I face the same problem with this blog. Sometimes, just after I have posted an item, I think of a revision that might improve the text. But I somehow feel that it is not quite correct to make the change, even though it is still ‘my’ work and I am the publisher. Once it has appeared on the internet, to be seen by the world, it no longer seems to belong to me except in the purely technical sense of owning the copyright. The only changes I make to published posts are if I discover a glaring factual error or a typo. I avoid making any substantive changes in meaning.

My discomfort with post-publishing changes may be because I have grown up with the older publishing model, where the appearance of a book was a landmark event simply because of the complex nature of creating a physical object. A bound book in one’s hand has a sense of finality. Internet publishing, where changes can be easily made in a few minutes, has created a new dynamic. As it gains ground, it is not clear when any work will be seen as the author’s final word.

POST SCRIPT: Janeane Garofalo

Watch actress and comedian Janeane Garofalo on a talk show a month before the invasion of Iraq. Notice that she was right about almost everything, unlike the idiotic interviewer. And yet she, and other people who were equally right, are almost never seen or heard from on the mainstream media while those who were wrong about everything (like the interviewer) are still there, this time yelling for war with Iran.

From Scopes to Dover-6: The Scopes trial conspiracy

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

Although Inherit the Wind, the original play and film based on the events of the Scopes trial, was made as a drama, it would have been more accurate to portray the actual events leading up to and through the trial as a comedy.

Right from the beginning, rather than being a bitter adversarial contest between science and religion, the whole prosecution and trial was staged by the local civic leaders of the sleepy little town of Dayton, Tennessee as mainly a public relations exercise, with both prosecution and defense sides working together to create a show trial and thereby benefit the town by increasing its visibility because of the resulting publicity.

When word got around that the ACLU had issued a press release to the Tennessee newspapers looking for someone willing to test the Tennessee law barring the teaching of evolution, Dayton resident George Rappleyea, who personally opposed the anti-evolution law, saw the opportunity to make the sleepy town of Dayton get national headlines and publicity. He felt that this ACLU challenge gave Dayton the chance to hold a trial with well-known figures that would draw the national media and tourists to the city, leading to an economic boom. So he and other enterprising entrepreneurs set about planning to create such a trial. Working with Fred Robinson (a local businessman and also chair of the county school board), the school superintendent (who supported the Butler Act prohibiting the teaching of evolution), two city attorneys who agreed to prosecute the case, and a local attorney to handle the defense, they put all the ingredients into place. (Summer for the Gods, Edward J. Larson, 1997, p. 89-91)

All they needed now was someone to charge with breaking the law. They did not want anyone’s life or career to be harmed by being charged in what was essentially a show trial created for publicity. The team looked around for a suitable candidate to accuse and found one in 24-year old John T. Scopes, a general science instructor and part-time football coach. Although he was not the regular biology teacher, he made a good candidate because he was single, not a local, had no ties to the region, no intention of staying permanently in Dayton, and thus had little to lose from the case. This made him preferable to the regular biology teacher, who was married and was also the school principal and thus would have had a lot more at stake.

In the film, Scopes was arrested in his classroom by grim-faced city leaders while teaching his class about evolution, and then flung into jail where he had to stay until the trial. While there, he had to listen to hostile citizens marching around the jail carrying banners and chanting slogans vilifying him, flinging bottles through his cell windows, and seeing himself burned in effigy, while in the evening the clergyman preached fiery sermons condemning him to hell for his evil act of teaching evolution.

In reality, Scopes was a cheerful co-conspirator in the staged trial. The chummy nature of the whole proceeding is illustrated by the fact that all these friendly discussions took place in the local drugstore owned by the school board chair. The prosecutor, who happened to be Scopes’ close friend, said he would be willing to prosecute Scopes as long as Scopes didn’t mind. (Even during the heat of the trial, the prosecutors and the defendant went for a swim in a pond during a lunch recess.) Scopes was invited to these discussions and asked whether he would be willing to be prosecuted. Scopes believed in evolution and disagreed with the law so he said he was willing to go along. The group then called over the waiting justice of the peace to swear out a warrant for Scopes, and the waiting constable served him the warrant immediately. Rather than being hauled off to jail, Scopes then went off to play tennis while the others set the publicity machine in motion by wiring the state’s newspapers with the news that they had charged someone with violating the Butler Act. (Larson, p. 91)

The little secret behind the trial was it was never firmly established that Scopes had even taught evolution at all and thus actually violated the law. He himself could not definitely recall teaching that particular topic. He never took the stand in his defense and thus was not forced to swear under oath on this issue. He and his students also seemed hazy on the entire concept of evolution. But everyone, including Scopes, decided to go along with the idea that he had taught it in order that the trial could take place. Since Scopes had filled in occasionally when the regular biology teacher was absent, and had used the assigned textbook that included a section on human evolution, this was enough for the friendly gang of conspirators to decide that they could reasonably charge him with violating the law. During the later grand jury proceedings, Scopes even had to urge his reluctant students to testify against him and coached them on how to answer in order that the grand jury would have grounds to indict him. (Larson, p. 108)

Thus from the beginning, the normal antagonism that characterizes the two opposing sides in highly charged trials was absent. It was said that the ACLU, eager to have a test case on the freedom of speech in the classroom, even volunteered to pay the expenses of the prosecution, but the offer was declined. The generosity was not all on one side. Anti-evolutionist William Jennings Bryan had not even wanted a penalty provision inserted in the law since he only wanted to make a point about what should be taught, and did not want to actually harm anyone, financially or otherwise. In fact, Bryan later offered, if Scopes were to be found guilty, to pay the fine himself (unlike in the film, where an outraged Bryan wanted an even stiffer sentence meted out). Everyone fully expected Scopes to be found guilty and even the defense wanted such a verdict so that the case could be appealed to the higher courts and the constitutional issues fully addressed.

The Scopes trial in Dayton was to be merely the first step in a case that was supposed to have much broader implications.

POST SCRIPT: The Chasers ask what should be done about Iraq

In a comment to the previous post, Nicole expressed incredulity that anyone could be oblivious to the infamous history of tattooing people of particular groups for identification purposes. Alas, such people do exist. There are many people out there who not only have no idea of the basic elements of history or current affairs or geography, they also have no empathy at all for people who are not like them, which leads them to say the most outrageous things.

The Chasers regularly exploit this dangerous combination of ignorance and bigotry for humorous purposes.

From Scopes to Dover-4: Bryan’s views on religion and evolution

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In order to understand what happened to Bryan during his testimony in the Scopes trial, it is necessary to understand something of Bryan’s religious views. In those days, as now, there were splits among religious believers between those who took the Bible as an inerrant literal record of historical events, and those who allowed for some level of interpretive license, whereby some events could be interpreted metaphorically so as not to clash with scientific truths.
[Read more…]

From Scopes to Dover-3: The role of ‘social Darwinism’

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

As far as the legal issues were concerned, the famous 1925 ‘Scopes monkey trial’ did not actually resolve anything and did not even deal with the same weighty constitutional issues that now surround the issue of evolution in the classroom.

The issues involved in the trial arose as a result of the collision of two trains of events, one emerging from the rising unease with the implications of Darwinian thinking for Christian beliefs, and the other with concerns about infringements on the fundamental right of free speech that followed the creation of the Soviet Union following World War I and the ‘Red Scare’ that followed.

Unease over the implications of the theory of evolution for religious beliefs had been simmering for some time, even since the full implications of Darwin’s theory had become recognized. While some people were willing to tolerate the idea of all species other than humans being evolutionarily linked, the idea that human beings were also part of the great tree of evolutionary descent was repugnant to many because it seemed to imply that we were no different from other mammals and thus not in the image of god nor possessors of an immortal soul.

Williams Jennings Bryan was a devoutly religious Christian and also a populist, supporting many progressive causes while championing the underdog and fighting for the rights of the poor against their exploiters. Because of this, he was often referred by the nickname of The Commoner, in addition to the name of The Boy Orator, which he had acquired early in life because of the skill he displayed as a public speaker. He had basically a majoritarian democratic view that held that people, through their collective voice, had the final say in how they were to be governed. As such, he opposed elitist ideas, and he saw evolutionary theory as one such doctrine that was being imposed on people by a scientific elite.

In fact, while one reason he opposed Darwinian thinking was because of his religious beliefs and his fears that the theory left no room for god, another of the sources of his opposition to Darwin’s theory were the claims of the so-called ‘social Darwinists’ like Herbert Spencer, who tried to extend Darwinian natural selection to explain human society and argued that ‘survival of the fittest’ meant that harsh social conditions were inevitable and maybe even desirable since that would weed out those who were ‘unfit’, thus improving humanity in the long run. The ‘robber barons’ of that time, people like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, who had made enormous fortunes at a time of widespread poverty, also took comfort from social Darwinism since it seemed to bestow a seal of approval on them and their actions, suggesting that their success was due to them being exceptionally ‘fit’ for the world of business and innately gifted at it, and not because of their exploitative business practices. Bryan saw Darwin’s ideas as being at the root of that particular evil, saying “The Darwinian theory represents man as reaching his present perfection by the operation of the law of hate – the merciless law by which the strong crowd out the weak.” (Summer for the Gods, Edward J. Larson, 1997, p. 39).

Bryan was a humane and peace-loving man, who even resigned in 1915 from his position as Secretary of State in the administration of President Woodrow Wilson when it looked like Wilson was taking the country into World War I. That war gave Bryan yet another reason to oppose Darwinism because he was strongly influenced by some books written at that time that argued that the war was due to Darwinian principles at work among nations.

Another factor at play in the popular opposition to Darwinism was the rise of eugenics and its suggestion that the human race, just like livestock, could be improved by selective breeding, such as by segregating those people who were seen as ‘defective’ and preventing them from having children. Many viewed this as an abominable practice and those opposed to evolution saw this as a direct consequence of Darwinian thinking applied to humans, and dangerously close to playing god. Their linking of Darwinian evolutionary theory with eugenics was buttressed by the fact that one of the founders of this new field (and the person who coined the term) was the British polymath Francis Galton, who happened to be Darwin’s cousin and one of the earliest supporters of Darwin’s theory.

Bryan was opposed to the excesses of both capitalism and militarism and also rejected social engineering at the expense of the poor. He saw Darwinian thinking as the source of all those evils and thus as a pernicious idea that should be defeated and definitely not taught to students in public schools.

Next: Bryan’s views on religion and evolution.

POST SCRIPT: How to get into any nightclub

Do you have trouble getting into selective bars or nightclubs? The guys from The Chasers tell you the secret of getting in that works every time. Well, almost.

From Scopes to Dover-2: How the Scopes myths originated

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

From the beginning the Scopes trial captured the popular imagination as symbolizing the conflict between science and religion, on a par with the trial of Galileo for his support of Copernican views. But just as the myths about the Copernican revolution have supplanted the actual history, so have the myths about the Scopes trial obscured the more fascinating real account. (See here and the links therein for my posts on the Copernican myths. The December 2007 issue of Physics Today will also carry an article by me on this topic.)
[Read more…]

From Scopes to Dover-1: Overview

I have always been interested in the law, especially constitutional law. And given my interest in the subject of evolution, I was intrigued by how the teaching of that subject has been, at least in the US, the focus of so many court cases, involving various subtle shades of meaning and interpretation of the US constitution. This week begins a fairly long series of posts that attempts to clarify this issue, although the series will be interrupted from time to time with posts on other topics.

It is almost impossible to think of the evolution-religion controversy (or the larger science-religion issue) in America without immediately thinking of the famous ‘Scopes monkey trial’ of 1925, where a high school teacher John T. Scopes was prosecuted for teaching evolution in the state of Tennessee. That event has become a touchstone, framing the issue in a way that is hard to shake off.

In some ways this is odd because that case played only a very minor role legally, setting no legal precedent. I recently read two books God v. the Gavel: Religion and the Rule of Law by Marci A. Hamilton (2005) and Separation of Church and State by Philip Hamburger (2002) that dealt solely with the relationship between church and state and neither even mentioned the Scopes case. Yet, because of a curious confluence of factors, the shadow of the Scopes trial has hovered over all subsequent public discussions of the teaching of evolution in schools in a way that is completely disproportional to the actual legal significance of the case.

Because the legal questions surrounding the teaching of evolution in public schools are a fascinating subject in their own right, it is easy to forget that the real underlying questions extend beyond mere legalities and raise fundamental, difficult, and yet unanswered, questions about the relationship of individuals to their government in a democratic society. In this case the question is: Who gets to determine what should be taught in public schools? Should it be the community which funds the schools, through their elected representatives to schools boards and state and national legislatures? Should it be the subject matter experts in the disciplines being taught? Should it be professional educators like teachers, principals, and professors in schools of education?

If one takes the view that since it is the community that pays for the schools through their taxes, that they should be the ones who determine the curriculum, then how far is one willing to take that idea? Is the ‘community’ defined purely by the local community that is directly served by those schools or should the larger groupings in which it is embedded, such as state and national governments, also have a say? What if a local school board is dominated by members of one religious sect that seeks to teach its own version of religion-based science or history to all students in the school, overriding any and all minority views? What if the local school board wants to teach something that is flatly rejected by the community of experts in that field of study, such as that the Earth is 6,000 years old? What if they want to teach a version of history that is rejected by professional historians but inculcates in their students their sense of racial or regional pride? Should local bodies be allowed to do that?

In other words, should we adopt a majoritarian point of view and say that local communities absolutely do have the right to determine what should be taught and that the only recourse of the minority is to try and obtain redress through the ballot box?

On the other hand, if we dislike that approach, do we really want to adopt a purely technocratic attitude that says that local communities should abdicate their right to determine what their children should be taught and delegate it to content experts? Isn’t there a danger that in doing so we are creating an elitist technocracy that could, in the long run, undermine the democratic ideal?

Such tricky questions were less likely to arise in the past in the US when the communities involved were smaller, more homogeneous, less sensitive to the needs of minorities, and where the primary purpose of public (or ‘common’) schools was seen primarily as religious education. Indeed in the early days of Western science, even the scientific communities believed in the divine revelation of nature as taught in the Bible and could not envisage any contradiction between the two. The role of scientists and other scholars was seen to be to explain how god had done what he had said he had done in the infallible religious texts.

But starting with Copernicus and Galileo, that role for science became harder to sustain, and it was inevitable that scientists would, at least tacitly if not overtly. cut their ties with religion and start pursuing lines of inquiry that did not seek or require consistency with religious doctrines. The tremendous success of science that followed the Enlightenment validated this approach and it then became seen as the task of theologians to try and modify their beliefs about god to make them consistent with rapid advances in scientific knowledge. This caused a split within the religious community between those who adopted a ‘modernist’ approach and those who adopted a ‘fundamentalist’ approach. Both agreed that scientific truths and religious truths had to be consistent. But modernists argued that in any apparent conflict that arose between scientific truths and religious truths, it is religious truth that must undergo reinterpretation to re-achieve consistency, while the fundamentalists feared that such reinterpretations would destroy the credibility of the Bible by making it seem less than infallible. The fundamentalists wanted to draw lines in the sand beyond which they were not willing to compromise their beliefs. If science crossed those lines, they were unwilling to move the lines as the modernist theologians tended to do but fought to try and force science to return behind the lines.

Where those lines were drawn depended on the individual and there were many such lines at play: the age of the Earth, the age of the universe, the origin of new species, the common ancestor of humans and apes, the creation of the soul, and so on.

It was the theory of evolution that seemed, at least in the US, to be a kind Maginot line for many religious believers, the line that they would defend at all costs. As a result, this arena is where the high profile science-religion battles have been fought, starting with the Scopes trial.

In this series of posts, we examine the history of the legal battles over the teaching of evolution in schools (which itself is embedded in the broader question of the role of religion in schools), starting with the Scopes trial in 1925 and ending with the 2005 trial in Dover, PA. As we see how the various cases were decided, the creation of various constitutional precedents, the evolution of legal reasoning, and the setting of the parameters of the decision making process, it is good to bear in mind that all these issues revolve around that single fundamental question: Who gets to decide what is taught in public schools?

POST SCRIPT: Interview on Machines Like Us

The indefatigable Norm Nason, the man behind the wonderful website Machines Like Us which serves as a gateway to the latest scientific developments, especially in the fields of artificial intelligence (AI) and artificial life (AL), conducted an interview with me where we explored some of my views and their origins.

You can read the interview here.

Soaps and Soap

For a very brief time in my life, about one week actually, I got hooked on daytime TV soap operas.

It happened in December of 1978. I had received a phone call that my father had died suddenly of a heart attack back in Sri Lanka. I was in graduate school in the US, far away from my family, and thus away from the kinds of support networks and rituals that help one get through such times of grief. I could not concentrate on my studies or reading or other things to distract my mind so turned for solace to watching TV all day, as so many do in such situations when seeking escapism through mindless activity.

In those pre-internet and early cable days, your TV choices were largely limited to just the three networks CBS, NBC, and ABC and during the day all three served up a diet of talk shows, game shows, and soap operas. Although I wasn’t at all interested at first, quite soon I was quite absorbed in the various stories that made up the soaps. For those not familiar with the genre, these daytime soap operas involve multiple intersecting story lines involving quite a large cast of characters of usually middle class or rich people, with a few low-lifes thrown in to spice things up. The tales involve love, jealousy, intrigue, adultery, murder, larceny, backstabbing, lying, cheating, and other strong human characteristics.

These programs can be quite addictive and develop faithful followings as can be seen from the longevity of soaps like Days of Our Lives, All My Children, The Young and the Restless and As the World Turns, all of which have lasted over three decades.

Although I stopped watching after a week, these shows gave me a greater appreciation for the riotously funny weekly prime-time sitcom Soap, which was a parody of the daytime soaps, and ran for four seasons during the years 1977-1981.

The basic story of Soap was that of the intersecting lives of two families, the Tates and the Campbells, where the two mothers Jessica Tate and Mary Campbell were sisters. The best way to describe Soap is as daytime soap opera on steroids. Where the daytime soaps stories proceeded excruciatingly slowly, with long pregnant pauses in the dialogue, lengthy meaningful looks, and dragged-out plot developments, Soap went at break-neck speed with plot twists occurring in rapid-fire succession. All the standard complex plotlines of the daytime soaps were present and then made even more extreme in Soap by adding outlandish things like UFOs, alien abductions, demon-possessions, guerillas, gangsters, blackmail, kidnappings, exorcisms, brainwashing by a religious cult (led by the Reverend Sun whose followers were called “the Sunnies”!) and so on. Storylines that would be sufficient for a full season on the regular soaps were crammed into just a few episodes of Soap. This breathless pace was compressed into weekly half-hour programs, each episode beginning in classic soap style with a voice-over announcer saying what had happened in previous episodes, and ending with a dramatic cliff-hanger, followed by the announcer hyping up the suspense for the episodes to come.

What really made Soap one of the funniest TV programs was clever writing coupled with one of the best ensemble casts ever put together, easily triumphing over those of the more-heralded Seinfeld or Friends casts. Katherine Helmond as the ditzy Jessica (whom men found irresistible) and Cathryn Damon as Mary were the anchors that held the two families (and the show) together as increasingly bizarre things happened all around them. Some of the funniest scenes were when the two were sitting around a kitchen table, each trying to bring the other up-to-date on the latest bizarre happenings in their families and, in a perverse way, competing to top each other’s stories.

Richard Mulligan as Bert Campbell (Mary’s working class husband) was superb in his physical comedy, his body and face seemingly made of rubber, responding spasmodically to his nervous energy. Billy Crystal (a newcomer then) appeared as Jodie (Mary’s son) in what may be the first portrayal of a gay person on TV that got laughs out of being gay while remaining a sympathetic character and avoiding becoming a caricature. Robert Guillaume as Benson, the sardonic back-talking butler for the rich Tates, was another actor who managed to take what might have become a stereotypical role (black servant of a rich white family) and infuse it with dignity and humor. In fact Crystal and Guillaume were perhaps the most sensible (or at least the least eccentric) of the entire Tate-Campbell menagerie.

Perhaps the most eccentric character was Bert’s son Chuck who always went around with his ventriloquist dummy Bob. Chuck acted like Bob was a real person and would hold conversations with him while Bob would insult everyone and leer at women. The humor arose because other members of the family also sometimes ended up treating Bob as a real person and speak and argue and get angry with him, while not holding Chuck responsible for Bob’s words. (It is an interesting thing to speculate as to what you would do if someone you knew acted like Chuck did. In order to spare his feelings, wouldn’t you also treat his dummy like a real person, even if you felt ridiculous doing so?) In one such scene, Chuck plans to go out on a date leaving Bob behind but Bob harangues him until Chuck agrees to take him along. When they both finally leave, Mary asks Bert (who have both been watching this) whether they shouldn’t get professional help for Chuck, to which Bert replies, “Chuck doesn’t need professional help, he should just learn to discipline Bob more.”

The reason for these fond reminiscences is that I just discovered that these old programs are now available on DVD and I have been watching them again. There is always a danger in doing these kinds of trips down nostalgia lane because one’s memories of old books, films and TV programs often make them seem better than they actually were. I was a little fearful that Soap would disappoint were but it passed the test handily. It is still laugh-out-loud funny.

The added bonus to watching on DVD is the absence of commercials. I also noticed how the opening and closing credits were more leisurely than they are now, allowing one to actually read the names of the actors and crew without distracting sidebar promos for other shows. The running time of each half-hour episode then was also 24 minutes and 30 seconds. I suspect that nowadays this has been reduced to allow for more commercial breaks.

There were other good TV comedies at that time, like M*A*S*H and Newhart, but I would not seek out DVDs of them the way I did with Soap.

Soap was a comedy classic and if you get the chance you should see it. And make sure you watch it in sequence.

POST SCRIPT: Class politics

Here’s another provocative clip from the 1998 film Bulworth (strong language advisory).

Language and Evolution

I have always been fascinated by language. This is somewhat ironic since I have a really hard time learning a new language and almost did not make it into college in Sri Lanka because of extreme difficulty in passing the 10th-grade language requirement in my own mother tongue of Tamil! (How that happened is a long and not very interesting story.)

But language fascinates me. How words are used, their origins, how sentences are structured, are all things that I enjoy thinking and reading about. I like playing with words, and enjoy puns, cryptic crosswords, and other forms of wordplay.

All this background is to explain why I recommend an excellent book The Power of Babel by John McWhorter, who used to be a professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley but is now a fellow at the Manhattan Institute. In the book he discusses the complexity of language and points out that the evolution of language is very similar to that of biological life. He suggests that there was originally just one spoken, very primitive, language and as the people who spoke it fanned out across the globe, the various languages evolved as separated communities formed. And in the process the languages became more complex and sophisticated, and evolved intricate features in their vocabulary and grammar that now seem to have little functional purpose, in a manner very analogous to biological systems.

The precise origin of spoken language is hard to pin down. McWhorter argues that it probably arose with the evolution of the ability to form complex sounds and roughly synchronous with the arrival of homo sapiens about 150,000 years ago. Others have suggested a more recent date for the origins of language, about 12,000-15,000 years ago, but pinning this date down precisely is next to impossible given that spoken language leaves no traces. What we do know is that written language began about 5,000 years ago

McWhorter points out that purely spoken languages evolve and change very rapidly, resulting in an extremely rapid proliferation of language leaving us with the 6,000 or so languages that we have now. It was the origin of writing, and more importantly mass printing, that slowed down the evolution of language since now the fixed words on paper acted as a brake on further changes.

He also makes an important point that the distinction between standard and dialect forms of languages have no hierarchical value and is also a post-printing phenomenon. In other words, when we hear people (say) in rural Appalachia or in the poorer sectors of inner cities speak in an English that is different from that spoken by middle class, college-educated people, it is not the case that they are speaking a debased form of ‘correct’ or ‘standard’ English. He argues that dialects are all there is or ever was, because language was always mainly a local phenomenon. There are no good or bad dialects, there are just dialects.

We can, if we wish, bundle together a set of dialects that share a lot in common and call it a language (like English or French or Swahili) but no single strand in the bundle can justifiably lay any intrinsic claim to be the standard. What we identify as standard language arose due to factors such as politics and power. Standard English now is that dialect which was spoken in the politically influential areas near London. Since that area was then the hub of printing and copying, that version of language appeared in the written form more often than other forms and somewhere in the 1400s became seen as the standard. The same thing happened with standard French, which happened to be the dialect spoken in the Paris areas.

McWhorter points out that, like biological organisms, languages can and do go extinct in that people stop speaking them and they disappear or, in some cases like Latin, only appear in fossilized form. In fact, most of the world’s languages that existed have already gone extinct, as is the case with biological species. He says that rapid globalization is making many languages disappear even more rapidly because as people become bi-lingual or multi-lingual, and as a few languages emerge as the preferred language of commerce, there is less chance of children learning the less-privileged language as their native tongue. This loss in the transmission of language to children as their primary language is the first stage leading to eventual extinction. He points out that currently 96 percent of the world’s population speaks at least one of just twenty languages, in addition to their indigenous language. These languages are Chinese, English, Spanish, Hindi, Arabic, Bengali, Russian, Portugese, Japanese, German, French, Punjabi, Javanese, Bihari, Italian, Korean, Telugu, Tamil, Marathi, and Vietnamese and thus these are the languages most likely to survive extinction. It is noteworthy that the population of India is so large and diverse that seven of these languages originated there, and two others (English and Arabic) are also used extensively in that country.

He also points out that languages are never ‘pure’ and that this situation is the norm. Languages cross-fertilize with other languages to form language stews, so that language chauvinists who try to preserve some pure and original form of their language are engaged in a futile task. For example, of all the words in the Oxford English Dictionary, more than 99 percent were originally obtained from other languages. However, the remaining few that originated in Old English, such as and, but, father, love, fight, to, will, should, not, from turn out to be 62 percent of the words that are used most.

McWhorter is a very good writer, able to really bring the subject to life by drawing on everyday matters and popular culture. He has a breezy and humorous style and provides lots of very interesting bits of trivia that, while amusing, are also very instructive of the points he wishes to make. Regarding the ability of language to change and evolve new words, for example, he explains how the word ‘nickname’ came about. It started out as an ‘ekename’ because in old English, the word ‘eke’ meant also, so that an ‘ekename’ meant an ‘also name’ which makes sense. Over time, though, ‘an ekename’ changed to ‘a nekename’ and eventually to ‘a nickname.’ He gives many interesting examples of this sort.

Those who know more than one language well will likely appreciate his book even more than me. It is a book that is great fun to read and I can strongly recommend to anyone who loves words and language.

POST SCRIPT: Whipping up war frenzy

Jon Stewart show how it is done.