Saturday, September 12, 2009

A Culture that Sees Darwin as More Evil than Hitler?

Anita Singh, Showbusiness Editor for the London Telegraph, has just written a piece about Creation, the new film about Charles Darwin during the time leading up to the completion and publication of On The Origin of Species. If her account is accurate, then its message about the prevailing culture in the United States is, to say, the least, chilling:

Creation, starring Paul Bettany, details Darwin's "struggle between faith and reason" as he wrote On The Origin of Species. It depicts him as a man who loses faith in God following the death of his beloved 10-year-old daughter, Annie.

The film was chosen to open the Toronto Film Festival and has its British premiere on Sunday. It has been sold in almost every territory around the world, from Australia to Scandinavia.

However, US distributors have resolutely passed on a film which will prove hugely divisive in a country where, according to a Gallup poll conducted in February, only 39 per cent of Americans believe in the theory of evolution., an influential site which reviews films from a Christian perspective, described Darwin as the father of eugenics and denounced him as "a racist, a bigot and an 1800s naturalist whose legacy is mass murder". His "half-baked theory" directly influenced Adolf Hitler and led to "atrocities, crimes against humanity, cloning and genetic engineering", the site stated.

The film has sparked fierce debate on US Christian websites, with a typical comment dismissing evolution as "a silly theory with a serious lack of evidence to support it despite over a century of trying".

Two points in this account stuck in my mind. The first was the statistic that "only 39 per cent of Americans believe in the theory of evolution." I have always seen myself as part of a minority, one way or another; but it had not occurred to me that, in this particular case, my minority should be as low as was reported.

The more interesting point, however, says something about our cultural reaction to the very idea of telling biographical stories at all. It had to do with this idea of Darwin as an influence on Hitler. I would hope that most of my readers remember a 2002 film named Max. The name referred to the influential Viennese art dealer Max Rothman, who was played by John Cusack in the film. More specifically, it concerns the rather odd relationship that ensued when Rothman took under his wing a World War One veteran and aspiring painter named Adolf Hitler. One of the things we learn is that, in his time, Rothman was a champion of what, towards the end of the twentieth century came to be called "performance art." At the end of the film, Hitler abandons his painting in favor of exercising his gift for oratory on a (then insignificant) National Socialist party. I have always felt that the film's conclusion offered the ironic suggestion that Hitler was drawn to this party because it provided him with an opportunity for what he saw as pretty much the same thing as Rothman's performance art events.

The important point for this discussion is that Max shows Hitler in a very sympathetic light. This struck me as a rather bold thing to do, since I could imagine any number of people who would be violently offended by any impression of Hitler that was even slightly favorable. Nevertheless, the film (which was made in the Netherlands under Hungarian, Canadian, and British production companies) had no trouble getting American distribution, followed by release on DVD and scheduling on cable. This leads me to conclude that, in some perverse way, American culture sees Darwin as so much more evil than Hitler that any insights into the man's biography would be tantamount to a pact with the Devil (and there appear to be only 39 per cent of us who disagree with this proposition)! Could this say something about why the will behind our willful ignorance of history is as strong as it is?

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