We laughed at the Republican busybody who couldn’t joke, declared war on dirty paintings, and peered through your bedroom window. Now that person has switched sides, and nobody’s laughing.
By Matt Taibbi and cross-posted from his substack blog.
In August, 2005, Rolling Stone sent me to cover a freak show. In a small Pennsylvania town called Dover, residents contrived to insert a sentence about teaching “intelligent design” into the curriculum, and fought for its right to do so in an extravagantly-covered trial in the “big city” capital of Harrisburg.
Dover’s school board president, Alan Bonsell, was a fundamentalist who believed God shaped man from dust. It was said Bonsell would stand at his window at night, wondering, as he gazed at the stars, at the intervening hand of God. “If you can’t see that, you’re just not thinking clearly,” he said. His wife supposedly told him he looked like Chuck Norris.
The bureaucratic atmosphere Bonsell presided over was not kind to the eggheads trying to teach. When the head of the district’s science department, Bertha Spahr, begged the board not to promote “intelligent design,” listing past Supreme Court decisions about religion in classrooms, another fundamentalist board member named Bill Buckingham – an ex-cop who wore a lapel pin in the shape of both a Christian cross and an American flag – shouted her down. “Where did you get your law degree?” he snapped. Author Laurie Lebo in the book The Devil in Dover described what happened next:
Neither Nilsen nor Bonsell spoke up to address Buckingham’s rudeness to the thirty-year veteran teacher. Spahr pulled back, shocked, and then sat down without saying a word.
It was after this meeting in October, 2004 that a passage about teaching “gaps/problems in Darwin’s theory” was inserted into the curriculum. The science geeks fought back, however, and roughly a year later I sat in a packed courtroom with overeducated reporters from all over the world who came to gape at the spectacle of rural ignorance showing its rump in an American courtroom.
When a Christian attorney named Robert J. Muise tried to cross-examine the smooth-talking Superstars of Science who’d flown in from places like Brown and Harvard to denounce “intelligent design,” journos murdered their thesauruses looking for new words for “hayseed.” The chuckling press section felt like front row of a comedy club.
Dover’s failed school board rebellion inspired multiple books, law review articles, and films, including a Nova doc that won a Peabody award. For decades, whether in Arkansas or Texas or Louisiana, every time even a small group of fundamentalists tried bullying teachers via this stacking-the-school-bureaucracy trick, northern press heathens would descend in mammoth numbers. Especially in 2005, which felt like the dawn of a new thousand-year reign of Bushian conservatism, liberal audiences jumped at any opportunity to re-create the magic of one of their foundational knowledge-over-superstition parables, the Scopes Monkey Trial.
Fifteen years later, America is a thousand Dovers, and the press response is silence. This time it’s not a few Podunk school boards under assault by junk science and crackpot theologies, but Princeton University, the New York Times, the Smithsonian, and a hundred other institutions.
When the absurdity factor rocketed past Dover levels this week, the nation’s leading press organs barely commented, much less laughed. Doing so would have meant opening the floodgates on a story most everyone in media sees but no one is allowed to comment upon: that the political right and left in America have traded villainous cultural pathologies. Things we once despised about the right have been amplified a thousand-fold on the flip…