The horrific things we do to each other


I brought a biography of Clarence  Darrow – Attorney for the Damned – with me for the flight to Boston. I am not so sure that it was a great idea: I was still in Dayton, Tennessee – at the Monkey Trial – when the plane landed in Boston. And still in Tennessee on the bus ride to New Hampshire.

Darrow was in my family’s pantheon of civil heroes – or, at least, my dad’s pantheon, and by extension, mine – and I was enjoying reading about him in more detail than the stories that had been pretty much fixed in my DNA as a child. Darrow was a free-love-bohemian and I was a little taken back by how much free love and bohemianism there was back in the 1890s. He defended so many people that nobody else would touch, like Loeb and Leopold, the Western Federation of Miners who were in an industrial war with the Mine Owner’s Association in Idaho, or a black family that moved into a white neighborhood in Detroit.

The Mine Owner’s Association had the politicians backing them, and the police, and the Pinkerton’s who beat strikers to death under the banner of law and order. The miners struck back, bombing mines and buildings. The black family had everybody against them also, with the police protecting a crowd of whites who were trying to force the family out. It was a time of brutality and it was a time that resonates today, both financially and racially, although in a milder form.

A couple of years later, William Jennings Bryan ran for president as a populist hero against the powerful, the police that protected them, the Pinkertons, and even President Cleveland, of his own party, who sent Federal troops in to back the rich. Much of what Bryan said then is still germane now: There are two great theories of government. One claimed that if you would only legislate to make the well to do prosperous, their prosperity would leak through to those below. But the Democratic idea is if you legislate to make the masses prosperous, their prosperity would find its way up through every class that rests upon them.

The book was about the Darrow I had been taught, the defender of the powerless, but there was a Darrow I didn’t know. A Darrow who also defended people because he wanted money, people like a white bigot who brutally killed a Hawaiian and who Darrow knew was guilty. My dad was a defense lawyer for a while and he constantly pitched that a person is innocent until proven guilty. In the same manner as Darrow, my dad defended people like a bartender who killed his wife. Daddy knew he was guilty – even I knew he was guilty hearing the stories over the dinner table – but that didn’t seem to matter to Darrow or my dad. But sitting on the airplane,above it all, it mattered to me and left me in a melancholy funk.

I had brought a New Yorker book review of a couple of books about the partition of Pakistan into two countries, Pakistan and Bangladesh. I put down my Darrow book and read the book review to improve my mood. That was even worse. Nixon was a prick and while he and Kissinger congratulated themselves on their masculinity and pragmatism, the Pakistani generals, our allies, slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Bengalis who were – as Nixon said – just a bunch of brown goddamn Moslems.

I thought of Obama and our drones and how our government seems to find killing people OK as long as it suits our political needs and my melancholy grew. I went back to Darrow, and, fortunately, I was able to cheer myself up with the Monkey Trail, The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes, in Dayton, Tennessee, where the Courthouse had a banner that said Read your Bible.

Today, it is easy to laugh at Dayton and the trial but it was no laughing matter then and it still isn’t. Like the  Capital vs.Labor  fight, Ignorance vs. Science is a conflict that is still with us.

On the bus to New Hampshire, in Dayton, it was Darrow against Bryan and Darrow was at his best. You can close your eyes, Darrow said, But your life and my life and the life of every American citizen depends, after all, on tolerance and forbearance….If men are not tolerant, if men can not respect each other’s opinions, if men can not live and let live, then no man’s life is safe. If today you can take a thing, like evolution, and make it a crime to teach it in public schools….At the next session you can ban books and newspapers.

Soon you may set Catholic against Protestant, and Protestant against Protestant, and try to foist your own religion upon the minds of men. If you can do one, you can do another. Ignorance and fanaticism is ever busy and needs feeding…After awhile, Your Honor, it is the setting of man against man,  and creed against creed until – with flying banners and beating drums – we are marching backwards to the glorious age of the 16th century, where bigots lighted fagots to burn the men who dared to bring any intelligence and enlightenment and culture to the human mind.

Getting off the bus in New Hampshire, the sun was out and people were taking family pictures.




One thought on “The horrific things we do to each other

  1. Dear Steve,

    I’m not sure it’s ever wise to read about the division of Pakistan and Bangladesh as a mood lifter, but you’re your own man. Your writing continues to improve, keep going. Soon you may be guest blogging with Ta-Nehesi Coates.

    Enjoyed the read.


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