[25 July 2007]
Lately, Americans seem to be represented by three stereotypes:
1. The Redneck: Typically from the South, enjoys guns, the bible and Nascar.
2. The Intellectual: Self-consciously embarrassed, East-coast liberal.
3. The Classic: True American spirit, ready with freshly baked pies and smiles.
The truth lies somewhere between these worn out clichés and Matthew Chapman finds bridges between them in his latest book, 40 Days and 40 Nights. This is where the forgotten fourth category emerges: the principled, courageous, reasonable, tolerant Americans. Although they are rarely represented, Chapman discovers the existence of those who resist the urge to choose sides and who actually respect one another’s beliefs, realizing this doesn’t mean they must sacrifice their own, despite what fanatics and zealots would have us believe. His affection for the integrity he witnesses is engaging and breathes an unusual, but welcome, optimism into a typically controversial subject.
Being a descendant of Charles Darwin (he’s his great-great-grandson), Chapman boasts an undeniably advantageous hook, but also has a heavy cross to bear (mind the pun). I spoke with him about his book and dealing with Darwin in general, and he tiredly replied that he’s getting a little sick of all the Darwin questions lately. It’s never bothered him before, he said, but his world growing up was so untouched by what he called, “the whole Darwin thing”, that it can be frustrating. “I’d have the same thoughts, opinions, regardless”.
So what are his thoughts and opinions?
Chapman is an agnostic. His first book, The Trials of the Monkey: An Accidental Memoir, relates how he got to this point, among other salacious and sentimental asides. He recounts his alcoholic mother, first sexual experiences, a propensity to live beyond his means no matter how much money he was making (it was a lot, he is a successful Hollywood screenwriter) and a “wonderfully complicated” marriage to Brazilian actress Denise Dummont. That is, after his first wife left him for Steve Martin, which he was shocked by until noting his “heavy drinking” might have had something to do with it.
Oh yeah, and it’s also about the 1925 Scopes-Monkey Trial in Dayton, Tennessee, which centered around the prohibition against the teaching of evolution, and the town’s annual reenactment of said spectacle.
His latest book, 40 Days and 40 Nights, describes the attempt by a Dover, Pennsylvania School Board to force Intelligent Design (ID) into their science curriculum. He interviews almost everyone involved in the trial, including members of the school board, lawyers, judges, and other citizens of Dover. Despite this trial taking place in 2005, and it seeming intuitively ludicrous that ID, a dolled up form of Creationism, could ever be thought of as science, the trial lasted an ironically precise 40 days and 40 nights, calling to mind more biblical allusions. It’s also interesting that this trial, while certainly covered in the media, has not hit the same height of infamy as the Scopes-Monkey trial, which lasted a mere seven days.
Chapman, a successful screenwriter for over 25 years, has given up some of the financial security afforded by the movie business, to pursue avenues like books and documentaries, which he finds more satisfying of his self-described inextinguishable curiosity. He’s been living in the US for decades but says while he doesn’t feel British, he certainly doesn’t identify with the typical American image either. In fact, the whole concept of what it means to be American is fascinating to him and enters the narrative of his work as well.
In our conversation, he also told me that he’s pleased to see Hillary Clinton running for office and thinks both America and the world would be better served by the leadership of women; that it would be “fantastic”. I enjoy the implications of these beliefs; rejecting males as the source of ultimate power can certainly be interpreted as another fuck you to religion, whose patriarchal values are undeniable.
Chapman, an interesting man to say the least, told me that he feared this opinionated character of his was perhaps too intrusive in his latest work, but I tend to disagree. While I understand his concern that anecdotes or personal philosophy aren’t always necessarily relevant, I unabashedly and voyeuristically enjoyed his “character’s intrusion” throughout The Trials, as I suspect others did as well. The trend continues with 40 Days.
Perhaps the most valuable aspect of his account of the PA trial is, in fact, Chapman himself with his particular vantage as an expat who possesses a keen attention to detail and a deliciously wry wit. As an outsider, aspects of American culture, such as an expected belief in some form of Christianity, or a general suspicion of science, are put in the spotlight, which exposes how bizarrely these conflicts are seen by anyone not American. The pervasiveness of religion seems to continually perplex Chapman, or perhaps simply the lack of atheists and agnostics he comes across during his many interviews. He is also especially confounded when the validity of evolution is repeatedly called into question. The town’s people find it equally odd that he takes it for granted that evolution is, if not fact, rather reliable. “I’m British, we think about things a little differently there”, is how he puts it. Yeah, remember England?
As a Canadian, perhaps I can identify more quickly with Chapman’s perspective about the absurdity of America. The idea that ID could be injected into a science class was amusing to me initially. That is, until it became evident how sure the school board was that they would succeed—and how close they got. The illogicality of the school board’s logic manifested itself as a permanent frown and looks of incredulity on my face through at least the first four chapters as Chapman describes the wildly arrogant dynamic duo Alan Bonsell and William Buckingham leading the rest of the school board members toward an inevitable cliff, like a herd of blissfully ignorant, galloping buffalo.
The confidence of these two is so disgustingly assured that I must quote Anchorman‘s Ron Burgundy: “I’m not even mad, I’m impressed!”
Chapman displays a similarly dismayed respect through his portrayals of these ID supporters. He self-effacingly describes this “ability to have sympathy” for people with whom he fundamentally disagrees as a “weakness”, however he must know that it’s anything but. Chapman’s narrative is highly entertaining, with wry descriptions of Dover interspersed with some superiority at times, but it’s tolerable because: he exercises more control than most, he’s probably right anyway, and he’s not overbearing or supercilious.
It seems like there’s some kind of a frenzied race to write books about the religious fervour of America; it almost seems like a competition—whom can outdo whom describing the terrible, witless, ol’religious folks, or who can say the most outlandish things, grab the most headlines. Chapman’s book doesn’t feature the eye-catching title of Christopher Hitchins’ increasingly popular and controversial book God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, which automatically garnered mass attention. It’s a sad commentary in and of itself that the state of American culture is such that a book could suffer from a more balanced viewpoint.
Ignoring the marketing aspect, the fair treatment Chapman affords both sides is what lends credence to the conclusion of the trial and the court’s decision to not allow ID teachings into the science classroom.
That’s not to say it isn’t evident where his sympathies lie. Although he avoids cheap shots, he can be rather harsh at times, especially to head defense attorney, Richard Thompson, and evangelicals, in general. Once again though, I’m not convinced that’s it entirely unmerited. Not to mention it’s usually pretty funny too. As a man with quite the acid tongue himself, Hitchens praises Chapman’s skewering of the ID cheerleaders, acknowledging that “Chapman employs the truly saving device of wit in ripping the false whiskers from the face that dares not show itself, and revealing the blank stupidity that lies beneath. He also shows that small-town America is not as gullible as some snobs believe. A book that restores faith—but faith in culture and free inquiry”.
Part of this restoration of respect and tolerance is Chapman’s admiring portrayal of John E. Jones III, the Bush-appointed Republican judge who presided over the case. He is depicted as a man deserving of his responsibility, whose intelligence and compassion are comforting in the tumultuous and polarized political climate of today.
Americans need this perspective, they need to realize that their own world isn’t the center of the universe, isn’t the way things are done everywhere. Much like the Dover School Board, people become obsessed with their own small realities, drawing nothing from what’s beyond them.
Chapman also points out the hilarious irony of the “believers” determination to find credibility gaps in scientific theories, or get all excited because, in their opinions, you can’t definitively prove every aspect of evolution. Where is the proof that anything in the bible is accurate? We’re waiting for the apocalypse I guess.
In the meantime, Chapman offers a realistic and forgiving portrayal of America, and his unique perspective is sure to resonate with a broad audience. It’s invaluable to Americans, seeking to understand their fellow compatriots better, as well as to outsiders, who get a glimpse into the real spirit of Americans, who aren’t as simplistic as we’re often lead to believe.
40 Days and 40 Nights is available from Amazon.com and in Chapters Bookstores across Canada.