Expelled! — Unintelligent Design

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Expelled! — Unintelligent Design

Sarah Seltzer

"Expelled," the anti-Darwinist polemic, and the creationist movement behind it, share goals, tactics and leaders with anti-choicers. It's a multi-pronged mission to insert fundamentalist religious principles into all areas of public life.

"Expelled," the anti-Darwinist polemic starring Ben Stein and his famous monotone, bears the deeply-ironic subtitle: "No Intelligence Allowed." Despite the fact that such an unintentionally self-insulting tagline could be attached to only a very poor film, I bought tickets, hoping it might shed light on the wingnut mentality.

The film, and the creationist movement behind it, are all too relevant to reproductive justice activists. This crowd shares goals and fears, tactics and leaders, with anti-choicers. It's two sides of the same coin, a multi-pronged mission to insert fundamentalist religious principles into all areas of public discourse.

The filmmakers themselves make that connection for us; by playing ominous music and using shadows over an old Planned Parenthood poster, they indicate that in their minds, family planning and abortion are direct outgrowths of the so-called-evil ideas of the Darwinists'. ID advocates and anti-choicers both argue that we are made in the divine image, ignoring the hard science which shows us to be highly-developed animals. Both movements encompass this denial of the randomness and fragility of life: an embryo is just a few cells, a person is just an intelligent primate. But there are plenty of people who accept that randomness and that science, and still are able to find purpose and spirituality — and none of them were interviewed for the film.

The film, however, does offer a lesson on common right-wing tactics, and good practice debunking them. So let's get to it.

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Confusing "Freedom" With Domination!

"Expelled" purports to be about academic freedom and the suppressing of same. For the first hour or so, Ben Stein walks, nay, plods, to interviews with a handful of disgruntled scientists, each of whom moans about being disciplined for teaching God — that is, an "intelligent designer" — in the science classroom.

But it would be hard for even the most die-hard first amendment fan to get indignant at this. Freedom of speech and thought is one thing — trashing the foundations of one's scholarship field is another. Sure, a Renaissance English professor has the freedom to announce that Shakespeare sucks and we should be studying organic chemistry, but in a field which is based largely on Shakespeare, it's unlikely that this professor will advance far. Similarly, a bio professor who attributes evolution to supernatural intelligence belongs in a theology department.

Departments of theology and religion exist for people to talk about God in the classroom. This system protects individuals from having to study religion if they don't wish to, while allowing religious folks the freedom to pore over scriptural interpretation to their heart's content. But that is not enough for the folks behind "Expelled."

A parallel is abstinence-dogmatists who want religiously-inspired principles taught to all students, instead of the straight science of sex ed, even though they already have the complete freedom to instill these values in their own children, or to enroll them in a Sunday school. So when they say "freedom," they mean "freedom to impose their ideas on all."

Challenging Science and Rational Evidence!

Towards the end of the film, Stein forgets about the "academic freedom" message and attempts to frantically poke holes in Darwinian natural selection itself, even confronting the poor Darwin's statue and trying to stare it down. Unfortunately, all the evidence he marshals against Darwin consists of our disgruntled scholar crew muttering about how there are some vague "holes" in his theories, and a videos of molecules that is too complex for Ben Stein to understand. It's nothing that can't be refuted (by those who are rational) by ten minutes of staring at the gorillas at the Bronx Zoo.

This inability to accept rational scientific evidence and the use of rumor and speculation reminds me of anti-choicers who whisper about the motivations of abortionists and promiscuous women, but refuse to confront the hard evidence that the number of abortions actually goes down when it is legal and safe and a full range of reproductive freedoms are available.

Bringing up Hitler!

The nastiest tactic of all. At the end of "Expelled," Stein visits gas chambers and weeps, claiming that this is what Hitler's interpretation of Darwinism has wrought. Claiming that the Holocaust was motivated by "social Darwinism" erases a long, sordid history of European anti-Semitism, including countless massacres and pogroms. It was this anti-Semitism, inspired by the religious idea that the Jews killed Christ, that informed Hitler's willing executioners, ordinary citizens who enabled the genocide machine to function. Oh, and Hitler's anti-Semitism? That was religiously-motivated too. The pseudo-science came later.

You know who else likes to bring up the Nazis? Anti-choicers, when they're not comparing abortion to slavery. They share Steins' desire to use the most vivid horrors in Western memory to manipulate people's emotions, ignoring the fact that Nazism and slavery were systems which imposed a fanatical amount of control over individual lives and took away people's bodily autonomy — sound familiar?

Complaining About Religious Marginalization in a Secular Society!

It's hard to imagine a more ridiculous time for a movie about the poor religious fundamentalists being denied a voice than this week in America. Newspapers across the country went gaga for the Pope and afforded him more credibility than is given to most foreign presidents. Meanwhile, plenty of people stepped in to defend fundamentalist Mormon child-rapists, under the guise that they were "practicing their religion." Religion is still largely given a free pass in today's climate.

These points haven't addressed the aesthetic atrocities committed by the "Expelled" crew, only the factual ones. On that score, it was a manipulative, simplistic, obvious and boring film. It explicitly misquoted Darwin in the worst of ways and rewrote Thomas Jefferson, famous Deist and anti-cleric, as a good Christian.

But though such callousness may have been hard to watch, it's a comfort to know that the tactics of the wingnuts, no matter what science they're attacking, remain refreshingly predictable.