The Return Of The Scopes Monkey Trial
The lesson of the trial of John Scopes nearly a century ago was that ignorance and fanaticism must never make the law or dictate the lives of free people. In so many ways, that is the lesson of the New York Carriage Horse controversy as well.
The trial became known everywhere as the Scopes Monkey Trial. It captured the attention of the world. It fascinated and inspired me when I was young, I read everything that was ever written about it. it was one of America's most epochal and seemingly never-ending confrontations between science and rationalism and dogma and ideology.
In 1925, a substitute high school teacher named John Scopes was accused of violating Tennessee's Butler Act, which made it illegal to teach the theory of evolution in any public school. The trial was held in the small town of Dayton, Tennessee during a sweltering summer.
Scopes incriminated himself so that civil liberties groups could have a defendant in order to fight the Butler Act in court. The trial drew two titanic figures of the time, the famed lawyer Clarence Darrow, who defended Scopes, and the preacher and politician William Jennings Bryan, a fundamentalist and creationist, who eagerly prosecuted him. Darrow's brilliant and withering cross-examination of Bryan was one of the most dramatic courtroom and cultural confrontations in American history. It hypnotized the nation, whose people listened to every word on the radio.
Darrow was brilliant, and devastating, he so skewered Bryan and his theories about education and the creation of the world that Bryan collapsed and died shortly after the trial. The conflict did not end in Dayton, Tennessee, it goes on and on and the New York carriage horses and drivers are right in the middle of it in sophisticated New York City. Perhaps this struggle is just endemic to human beings.
I often wonder why I have been so drawn to the carriage horse controversy. I do not own a horse any longer, nor do I live in New York City. I have often talked about the Scopes trial, and my wife Maria suggested this week that the struggle in New York between the carriage trade and the animal rights movement there reminded her of the Scopes trial. I saw right away that she was correct.
It is ironic, but the conflict between rationalism and fundamentalism pitted the progressives of the world against the creationists. In our time, in New York, in 2014, this dynamic has been reversed, and it is the progressives preaching a kind of fanatical and ignorant literalism and the conservatives who find themselves defending freedom and rationality and science.
The battle over the carriage horses is, at its core, a social war between rationalism and ignorance and fanaticism. Like the monkey trial,it is another struggle between science and a new kind of fundamentalism: the dogma of the animal rights movement, unyielding, unforgiving, hostile, unknowing, rigid as a marble slab. William Jennings Bryan would be right at home at NYClass, the animal rights group spearheading the horse ban. Learning is suspect, there is only one way to look at the world, and anyone who does not embrace it is immoral or worse.
Sadly, there is no Darrow and Bryan to rally around to articulate the real issues. The drama over the carriage horses asks us again to choose between fact and emotion, expertise and rhetoric, science and absolutism. And as always, the issue challenges us to try to survive opportunistic and blundering politicians, as always corrupted by money and power.
In this conflict, the science is all on one side, just as it was during the Scopes Trial. The American Veterinary Medical Association, the American Association of Equine Practitioners have all sent their scientists, their veterinarians to New York City to look at the horses, something the mayor says he will never do. So have many other equine associations and experts, they have all found the horses to be fortunate, healthy and safe in an uncertain world, they have all spoken in favor of the carriage trade. They have all joined the debate, arguing for the horses to stay.
Arrayed against them are the ideologues of the animal rights movement and the curiously apolitical and tone-deaf ideology of the mayor of New York. They both insist the work of the carriage trade is immoral, that the horses are being abused and mistreated. They demand that the work of the carriage trade be made illegal, and that the horses be taken from their owners and banned from the city. They will not negotiate in any way with the people in the carriage trade, nor will they acknowledge or listen to the avalanche of opposition to their desire to ban the horses. They wish to send the carriage drives to the outer boroughs, where they can drive those ugly green taxis or lump it.
Like the creationists in Tennessee, the people seeking to ban the horses do not ever consult or quote scientists, accept the word or diagnosis of veterinarians and equine specialists, listen to the wishes of tourists or residents. They reject science and learning absolutely. Their view of the horses is almost purely emotional and visceral. And there is a religious fervor to them. Steven Nislick, the millionaire real estate developer who has sparked the ban-the-horses movement, says he has never visited the stables or talk to the drivers.
He doesn't need to, he says, he has taken many walks through Central Park, and the horses look unhappy to him. Those walks and that belief constitutes the entire case against the carriage trade, those walks are the reason I am writing this and you are reading it and the people in the carriage trade live in continuous uncertainty and fear of the future.
The ideology of the animal rights movement does not come from any research or history or trainer or behaviorist or veterinarian or horse lover. It posits that all work for animals with people is abusive and cruel. It believes all animals like horses must return to the freedom of the wild or be confined to rescue ghettos. It believes animals like horses are just like people, they have the same needs, aspirations and emotions. A horse ought not be pulling a carriage in the park any more than a human child. Animals do not belong in cities, in circuses, in movies, or in any way used for the profit or entertainment of people.
The carriage trade advocates are almost obsessively fact-based. No horse has ever killed a human being, only three horses have been killed in traffic accidents in 30 years and three million rides, the horses get five weeks of vacation each year, every respected horse trainer in American says pulling a light carriage in Central Park is not hard work for a working horse. The veterinarians are anecdotal: the horses are content, nourished, healthy and secure, their hooves are well-trimmed, their coats shiny, their ears forward.
The animal rights hurl accusation after accusation at the drivers, the carriage trade hurls fact and statistic after fact and statistic back. This is America, the land of polarized people talking only to one another. So far, it is the carriage trade that is persuading the people of the city, 67 per cent of them want the horses to stay. New Yorkers seem to love science and expertise.
The mayor has rejected rationalism for dogma. He calls the carriage drivers and their work "immoral" and refuses to visit them, speak with them or talk to or negotiate with any of their representatives or leaders. To him, there is nothing to discuss, the carriage drivers are less than moral human beings and do not need to be considered or consulted about their work, fate or future. They are less than human, they are not entitled to the rights and courtesies given everyone else, especially wealthy real estate developers.
I often wonder what a rational consideration of the lives and future of the horses would be like. Perhaps the mayor might talk to the people in the carriage trade and invite them and the animal rights people and the horse owners and riders and veterinarians and experts to City Hall, maybe his agenda would be to actually make the lives of the horses better and ever, since he professes to care about them so much. Perhaps he would insist that the carriage drivers be given the same rights as everyone else, and that the people at the table be treated with dignity and respect.
If city fumes are really dangerous for the horses – there is no evidence this is so, then perhaps the city could do for the horses what it does for bicyclists and sets special lanes aside from. Or makes deals with billionaire developers to build new and roomy stables, perhaps near the grass of Central Park or the nearby miles of parks along the river. Maybe some cars and trucks could be banned from the park instead of the horses for whom the park was designed.
Perhaps there might be consideration of expanding the horses work to include education and therapy work for them in those outer boroughs. Maybe the mayor would listen to the people he serves and commit to finding a way for the horses to remain in New York, just as the city has committed to keeping so many dogs in the city. Is banning the horse and putting hundreds of people out of work really the only option? Or is it the only option that fanatics will accept?
Darrow came to believe creationists forbidding the teaching of evolution were ignorant and dangerous bigots. If they won, he said, science and thought and free thinking would be set back a century. John Scopes was convicted of teaching evolution, and fined $100, but the embarrassed Tennessee courts overturned his conviction. Technically, Darrow lost the trial, but rationalism won the day, or at least the hour.
Editorial writers and many City Council members say they are disgusted, even outraged that they have to waste their time debating a carriage ban when there are so many pressing issues facing New York City. Perhaps they do not see the real issues right in front of them. One way or another, they will make a kind of history.
The fate of the horses, and the manner in which the carriage trade has been pursued and dehumanized is an important issue. It speaks to the power of government to destroy lives, to the corruption of money in the political process, and once again, the long and bitter American struggle between science and rationalism and fundamentalism and dogma.
This time, it is the progressives who are blind to fact and truth, the wheel turns and turns. New York is a sophisticated city, and so far, nobody is buying the mayor's arguments about the horses, not the people, the newspapers, the unions or business community. Even in our polarized world, there is such a thing as factual truth, it exists in this controversy for everyone to find and see for themselves. The many people who trek to the stables to see for themselves have done that, they are seeking the factual truth, it stands above and beyond blind and rabid ideology and in a progressive city, ought to prevail.
By now, it is clear to many people in and outside of New York City that there is no factual or scientific basis for banning the carriage horses, just as Darrow made it clear in his cross-examination of Bryan that the world could not have been created in the literal way the Bible suggested, or the earth would have spun off of its axis and out into space.
It was the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan who said "everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts." If facts do not prevail in conflict, then justice is a ghost and there can be no real resolution of conflict. In the case of the carriage horses, facts have trumped emotion and ideology. Facts are the sons and daughters of truth, its foot soldiers, they do not lie in the carriage trade controversy any more than they did in the Scopes Trial. The horses are not abused, they are not dangerous, they are not suffering.
In seems in our world, in our country, this is a struggle that never ends, this collision between rationality and fervor. Ultimately, in one way or another, the carriage trade will prevail, justice is streaming over to its side. We can just hope there is a carriage trade left to go forward and live their lives in peace, to once again pass along their dreams to their children, as their parents did.
When I was a teenager, I read the testimony from the Scopes trial many times. I memorized a dozen passages, especially Darrow's eloquent warning to the judge about what would happen to the world if ignorance and fanaticism prevailed in Tennessee, it speaks so directly to the carriage horse controversy.
"If today you can take a thing like evolution and make it a crime to teach it in the public schools," said Darrow, then " tomorrow you can make it a crime to teach it in the private schools, and next year you can make it a crime to teach it to the hustings or in the church. At the next session you may ban books and the newspapers… Ignorance and fanaticism are ever busy and need feeding. Always feeding and gloating for more. Today it is the public school teachers; tomorrow the private. The next day the preachers and the lecturers, the magazines, the books, the newspapers. After a while, Your Honor, it is the setting of man against man and creed against creed until with flying banners and beating drums we are marching backward to the glorious ages of the sixteenth century when bigots lighted fagots to burn the men who dared to bring any intelligence and enlightenment and culture to the human mind."
If today you can take a thing like a carriage ride and make it a crime to ride a horse-drawn carriage in Central park, then tomorrow you make it a crime to ride a horse on a farm, or to see an elephant in the circus, or a dog in a movie, and next year you can make it a crime to take your child for a pony ride, or have a dog without a big fence, or live on a farm with chickens and goats. If they can close the carriage trade down today, and take their property and livelihood, then they can do it to you tomorrow. At the next City Council meeting you might ban the border collies who herd the sheep, or forbid the poor and the elderly to adopt a cat because they have no money, or kill the dog of a homeless man because you can, or take an old woman's cat away because she has no money to pay the vet. Today it is the carriage drivers, tomorrow the people who train animals to be in movies, then the carters and ranchers and families who milk cows. After awhile, it is the setting of man against man and man against animal and people until one day we find we have marched so far backwards that the animals are gone, the individuals and free spirits driven to the bad jobs in uncaring places that so many people have, and then we are back in the sixteenth century when bigots burned the men and women who dared to be free and bring any intelligence or rationality or good will and free spirit to the human mind.
There are people in New York who will tell us that this issue is silly, a waste of time, that there are more important things to worry about in the great city. Maybe so, but Clarence Darrow well understand that the real issue in Dayton, Tennessee was not John Scopes and what he taught but danger of unchallenged ignorance and fanaticism. For the horses who might be forcibly taken from their safe and protected homes, and for the people whose lives and way of life are threatened and stand to lose their freedom, way of life, property and sustenance, those are big issues indeed, they are well worth fighting for.