A Woman, Thinking

Hofstadter AIiAL: To Boldly Go

Words on WordsPoppy LochridgeComment
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In chapter 5, Hofstadter quotes:

Sidney E. Mead has remarked that, after about 1800, “Americans have in effect been given the hard choice between being intelligent according to the standards prevailing in their intellectual centers, and being religious according to the standards prevailing in their denominations.”

Although Mead marks 1800 as the turning point, the shift he refers to picked up steam around 1900, and that steam carried us about 75 years into the century before dropping us off in a completely changed world still full of the same hard choices. In short, it is 2012, and the religious right are still no happier with modernity than they were 100 years ago.

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When Inherit the Wind was initially performed on Broadway, 30 years after the original Scopes trial, it was a quaint period piece, even though the law against teaching evolution in Tennessee that John Scopes had violated in 1925 was still on the books. When performed in small towns across the country, however, Brady's fundamentalist speeches earned cheers from the audiences. Meanwhile, in 1965, an Arkansas teacher sued the state regarding that state's anti-evolution law in a court case which went all the way to the Supreme Court before the law was overturned and legal precedent was set preventing states from prohibiting the teaching of evolution.

It was 1967 before Tennessee repealed the anti-evolution law. And, since 1972, there have been 16 circuit court cases (not solely from Tennessee) on the supposed controversy, as fundamentalist parents and school boards have sought to cast doubt on the theory of evolution and deny scientific progress. And, coming around full circle, last month, March 2012, Tennessee legislators passed a law covertly named an "academic freedom" law, which encourages science teachers not to "take sides" in the scientific "controversies" of evolution and climate change, but to teach the "pros and cons" of scientific facts and let the students decide what's true.

Influence from Outside

The very early printing presses in America were used to print newspapers, pamphlets, and magazines with a limited circulation range. After the Civil War, however, the installation of the cross-continental telegraph line made it possible for news to be transmitted via telegraph from one newsroom to another, allowing important news stories to be sent around the country in a matter of hours where once it tooks days. Also, Westward expansion combined with improvements in transportation moving West allowed the US Postal Service to re-organize postal rates, setting a lower rate for non-priority mail. The range made possible for subscription services jumped enormously between 1865 and 1880, which made the reach of magazine advertisers quite a bit longer. These changes, which seem insignificant to our larger regarding the resistance of the religious conservative to modernity, are, in fact, critical to it. As Hofstadter says,

Advertising, radio, the mass magazines, the advance of popular education, threw the old mentality into a direct and unavoidable conflict with the new.

Prior to these advances, a movement or product which became popular in one region stayed in that region unless it was brought by travelers or migrants. New discoveries, scientific progress, and the cosmopolitanism of large cities rarely reached small towns, and when it did, it was an anomaly, like the city mouse on a visit to his country cousin. But when the local newspaper is able to receive news stories (and publish them more or less as written) across the wire, the news becomes more up-to-date and able to print more wide-ranging information. Look at any TV news today for an example - many affiliate stations air nationally syndicated news broadcasts covering the top national news of the day with an segment set aside in the middle for local news.

And when the latest fashion spread comes in a magazine once a month - almost reliable! - and includes articles talking about the latest intellectual fashion, suddenly, knowing what people are talking about in the cities cannot be avoided. The information they wanted was now bundled with information they'd prefer to avoid, inviting a difficult choice between eliminating desirable information and accepting that which was undesirable. This became more difficult with the advent of the moving pictures in the early 20th Century, which were appealing as a form of entertainment, but which presented ideologies which the small-town religious conservative might have otherwise not have encountered.

As people will, the response was - and nearly always has been - to try and have both. The history of media is riddled with attempts to sanitize and censor what is published. From the 1970s until today, Christian groups have protested several movies about Christ, angling to remove them from production. In the 1980s, parents wrote to comic book publishers, complaining that the comic had featured a Buddhist or Muslim character with some spare information about that character's background and religion - information that they didn't want their children to have. And in 2012, Rick Santorum, a religious conservative running for the Republican presidential nomination, came out strongly in favor of banning internet pornography.

We've been attacked by the intelligent, educated segment of our culture. [Paster Ray Mummert, via Idiot America]

Sex and Consequences

In 1965, the last of the Comstock laws were struck down in Griswald v. Connecticut, making birth control legal. Although humans have practiced birth control for a very long time (references to birth control methods can be found in medieval writings), by the 1960s, advances in medical and pharmaceutical technology had led to a reliable birth control pill, and, once legal, it became widespread.

The sexual revolution of the 1960s-1980s had many causes, of which, access to reliable, effective, and safe birth control is one. Running deeper, however, is the shift in American culture beginning in the late 1800s to a metropolitan, commercial culture. As people moved to cities to work and live, and found themselves competing more regularly for jobs and resources, a shift started which has continued to excess - from a Culture of Character, wherein ones character and integrity mattered, to a Culture of Personality, which spawns books such as one I saw at the bookstore yesterday: The Charisma Myth: How Anyone can Master the Art and Science of Personal Magnetism. In a Culture of Personality, ones beliefs and how well one lives them, are far less a part of their personal success than their ability to charm others. And over half a century of declining emphasis on character and integrity, people became far more socially liberal.

However, most religions still teach that sex is part of marriage, for procreation, and should not be indulged in outside of marriage. Creating another tension - between being sexually adventurous according to the standards prevailing in modern culture and being religious - and abstaining until marriage - according to the standards of ones church.

And again, we see the same sort of tactics from religious conservatives: using politics to try and change the culture which creates this tension for them. In the early 1960s, 1 in 3 women who felt they were done having children experienced at least 1 more pregnancy before menopause - and by 1965, all 50 states had banned abortion. Since 1973, when Roe v Wade decriminalized most abortions, religious conservatives have pushed to restrict abortion in any way legally possible, added requirements intended to cause women to feel shame, incited the less-well-hinged to terrorist acts, and generally have attempted to roll American sexual mores back to an idealized pre-1950s era. Just in the last 10 years, they have attacked women's access to birth control several times, even though modern society nearly requires that most families have multiple incomes and woman's ability to have a career is tied very closely to her ability to control her fertility. All to try and wiggle out of a hard decision: whether to be sexually open according to modern culture or to be religious according to their faith.