Roger Ebert, Ben Stein, and the culture war
Ever since Will posted about Roger Ebert earlier I’ve been reading Ebert’s blog (which is fantastic) and came across this explanation of why he never formally reviewed the Ben Stein mockumentary (er, documentary) Expelled. For those of you who don’t know the premise of that film, it’s basically Stein’s extremely dishonest propaganda exposé on Intelligent Design. Here’s a passage (though you should read the whole thing):
This film is cheerfully ignorant, manipulative, slanted, cherry-picks quotations, draws unwarranted conclusions, makes outrageous juxtapositions (Soviet marching troops representing opponents of ID), pussy-foots around religion (not a single identified believer among the ID people), segues between quotes that are not about the same thing, tells bald-faced lies, and makes a completely baseless association between freedom of speech and freedom to teach religion in a university class that is not about religion.
And there is worse, much worse. Toward the end of the film, we find that Stein actuallydid want to title it “From Darwin to Hitler.” He finds a Creationist who informs him, “Darwinism inspired and advanced Nazism.” He refers to advocates of eugenics as liberal. I would not call Hitler liberal. Arbitrary forced sterilization in our country has been promoted mostly by racists, who curiously found many times more blacks than whites suitable for such treatment.
Ben Stein is only getting warmed up. He takes a field trip to visit one “result” of Darwinism: Nazi concentration camps. “As a Jew,” he says, “I wanted to see for myself.” We see footage of gaunt, skeletal prisoners. Pathetic children. A mound of naked Jewish corpses. “It’s difficult to describe how it felt to walk through such a haunting place,” he says. Oh, go ahead, Ben Stein. Describe. It filled you with hatred for Charles Darwin and his followers, who represent the overwhelming majority of educated people in every nation on earth. It is not difficult for me to describe how you made me feel by exploiting the deaths of millions of Jews in support of your argument for a peripheral Christian belief. It fills me with contempt.
I know that both Ebert’s post and Expelled are old news at this point, but the debate itself is ongoing. Will linked to this frightening story of the revanchist push in Texas to infuse creationism into Texas public school classrooms. Whatever else Texas may have going for it, teaching religion in science class is inexcusable, whether or not it’s dressed in the deceptive language of intelligent design. My (very) conservative Catholic grandma believes that evolution and faith are compatible. Plenty of people do. That’s because they are compatible. The evolution vs. creation debate is less about that issue than it is about cultural dominance in general. It’s just one battleground chosen in the ongoing culture wars.
What creationists don’t realize – can’t realize – is how nefarious their theory is to America’s vitality as an economic power. What sort of handicap will be placed on kids who are forced to learn – in public school – both evolution and creationism intelligent design? What sort of unintended consequences will the pamphleteers of ignorance bestow upon us if they have their way? And what sort of damage will they do to the religion they claim to represent in the process?
I think a culture can maintain its religious beliefs – however crazy they may seem to nonbelievers – only if they can make them function within the framework of scientific fact. This does not mean attempting to explain the resurrection of Christ via scientific data. It means accepting both miracles and the wonders of science at the same time. It’s not hard to do if you are more interested in Christianity than in scoring socio-political points.
When the overwhelming scientific consensus points to evolutionary biology as the explanation for life, Christians have two choices. They can say that this is consistent with their religion (God created everything including the field of evolutionary biology); or they can attempt to subvert the overwhelming consensus to fit their own narrative. Conservative institutions like, say, the Catholic Church have chosen the former over the latter.
But in America the culture war itself has taken shape as far more important than whatever its victory may actually represent. The war is the beast that must be fed. Abortion, evolution, gay marriage – these are merely means to an end, ways to keep the beast alive. Yes, many culture warriors believe in their causes, and passionately. Many are misled into the belief that the cause itself is more important than the faith behind that cause. In some sense, the cause becomes a proxy for that faith.
But I digress. I think there is something more cynical at work here than simply belief. The culture wars are really about power, after all. Cultural power, political power. And the masters of war will sacrifice even their religions to reap ever more power, influence, and cultural division. If it were merely a cultural struggle, or an attempt to preserve a culture, it would never have taken this shape. It is a revanchist movement more than a conservative one.
This is not to say that everything secular is good while everything traditional or religious is bad. I’m religious after all. I like my traditions. Part of what I’m working through at this blog is how the interaction of modernity, secularism, and tradition can actually work to preserve a strong and vibrant civilization. I think a lot of what modernity has wrought is dangerous to our social cohesion. We overreach and then self-correct. Such is society. Such is humanity. We step too far in one direction and then have to rein ourselves in, take a few steps back. It can be a struggle, a civilizational tango, or it can be an apocalypse.
Perhaps the culture wars are inevitable to some degree. But they are also destructive. In America the culture wars have spawned an arms race of sorts, and I can’t help but think the pile of bodies at the end of this path will be high, the victims of its excesses too many to count.
And on that note, Ebert also has a pretty entertaining post on how new-agers are the progressive equivalent of creationists.