The ACLU Talks Too Much
It was my old friend and mentor, Luigi Barzini, who asseverated: “Americans talk too much.” He was sitting in the elegant library of his home in Rome. The year was 1978, though I cannot recall the contemporary controversy that aroused him. Luigi’s point was that we were wrangling again fortissimo con brio, and he thought our jabbering was again obscuring careful thought. He was a great friend of America. He had been partly educated here. He wrote in both Italian and superb English. In fact, at the time he was finishing one of his many fine books, The Europeans. It contains a friendly chapter on the USA full of shrewd insights. He believed we often argued garrulously about things that were not worth arguing about.
A case has gone before the Supreme Court that fits Luigi’s diagnosis. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a suit in 2001 demanding that a sevenfoot cross erected in the California desert in 1934 commemorating sacrifices endured by our soldiers in World War I be taken down. At some point after 1934 the land on which the cross was erected became federally protected, and thus the cross became a fit issue for the ACLU’s squalling about the separation of church and state. The creation of this World War I monument was—get this!—part of a 1930s medical program to help World War I veterans recover from shell shock. Physicians treating them thought that their work in the desert heat would be therapeutic. In 2004 the Ninth U.S. Court of Appeals agreed with the ACLU, but veterans’ groups objected—thus the case’s journey to the Supreme Court.
Now it would seem to me that the cross is a historic monument that need not be subject to contemporary fashions in thought, to wit, the fashion of hunting down religious symbols and eliminating them from government property. The cross simply represents the feelings of soldiers from a bygone era. There are religious symbols on public display from the past elsewhere. For instance, there are religious symbols on the Supreme Court building. If I recall, I have seen a carving in the Court’s chamber of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments from God. There may even be a picture of God up there. Viewing the 1934 cross today might give curious Americans a sense of what our country was like back in those days before the ACLU was spreading goodwill around the country by harassing people of faith.
Yet that is not the way the battle-axes at the ACLU see it. One of its learned lawyers, Peter Eliasberg, told the Washington Times, “For us to choose the principal symbol of one religion that says Jesus is the Son of God and He is divine and say that is an appropriate way to reflect the sacrifice of people who don’t believe that…is excluding by its very nature.” Well, “we” did not choose the symbol. Veterans from what was once called the Great War did, apparently with the consent of their physicians. This is an interesting historic memorial that the ACLU would deny us.
Veterans’ groups that are opposing the removal of the cross disagree with Eliasberg. Their members argue that the cross represents the “Fallen Soldier Battle Cross.” That is a rifle and crossed bayonet that is driven into the ground to honor a fallen comrade. Will the ACLU oppose this too? Jim Sims, of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, told the Times the controversy is “about thousands of veteran memorials and monuments around the country. This is about the issue of honoring veterans.” It is trendy in our noisy public discourse to see “the right” being accused of injecting religion into politics. Actually, very often “the right,” or more specifically “the Christian right,” is merely defending settled manifestations of religion that go back decades in our history, occasionally centuries. As I see it the ACLU would have us rewrite American history, eliminating all references to God, the Bible, and other such artifacts. Of course, for people of faith these artifacts are reminders of faith. So maybe the ACLU could begin a campaign to disallow people of faith from lapsing into prayer in front of such reminders. Possibly the ACLU’s next campaign will be to eliminate religious symbols from public buildings, starting with the Supreme Court. As Luigi noticed, some Americanos are too disputatious.
In May, a 47 million-year-old fossil was put on display at New York’s American Museum of Natural History. Scientists accorded the event enormous attention, as did the press. The creature may be related to us, though it looks like a cat, not a chimpanzee, and certainly nothing like your mother or father or even one of your more eccentric aunts or uncles. Evolutionists tell us that of all the creatures known to science we humans are most closely related to chimpanzees.
That is not the whole story, of course. According to a very fine book that I have been reading, Why Evo lution Is True by Jerry A. Coyne, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago, mankind can be traced back over 3 billion years to our most distant relatives, self-replicating molecules. The fossil unveiled at the American Museum of Natural History is a relative newcomer, but she (the creature was a young female) has cleared up a debate among scientists.
Anthropologists have been pretty certain that we evolved from ape-like ancestors, but they have been divided on precisely which one. There were two, the family Tarsiidae—whose descendants, the tarsiers, are jungle creatures now living in Asia—and the family Adapidae, who were precursors of the lemur of Madagascar.
Scientists base their speculations on fossils that are rarely complete. Some scientists have extrapolated our ancestors from as little evidence as a tooth. The lucky ones have had a jawbone or a rib or some other skeletal fragment. The fossil displayed in New York is a complete skeleton, except for a missing lower leg. From it evidence mounts that our ancestor hails from the adapidae, the precursors of the lemur. “Lemur advocates will be delighted,” Tim White, a California paleontologist, is quoted as saying in the Wall Street Journal, “but tarsier advocates will be underwhelmed.” Scientists are given to such disputes, and then there are the creationists who doubt we have any animal ancestors whatsoever. Let the debate continue.
What I have found fascinating in Coyne’s book is how very old the earth is. Some of his evidence comes from fossils and measurements of the radioactivity in the layers of stone that harbor the fossils. The radioactivity gives us a good idea of the stone’s age, and the progression of the fossils gives us an idea of their steady development.
Scientists, by dating old rocks, have established that the earth is 4.3 billion years old. The earliest fossils, those being photosynthetic bacteria, trace life on the planet beginning about 3.5 billion years ago. Around 600 million years ago multicelled orga nisms appeared, for instance, worms and jellyfish. Then came terrestrial plants and four-legged animals about 400 million years ago. Mammals did not show up until 250 million years ago, and birds can be found in fossil form dating from 50 million years ago. Coyne writes that “Humans are newcomers on the scene—our lineage branches off from that of other primates only about 7 million years ago, the merest sliver of time.” Then just over four decades ago Barack Obama was born, and just over six decades ago Newt Gingrich.
Coyne and other evolutionary biologists have had their theories fortified by the ability, starting three decades back, to sequence the genomes of various species and discover genes shared by related species, some that still work, some that do not, thus allowing us to go our merry way from, say, our relative the chimpanzee. The key to this process, scientists say, is natural selection. There are good genes that help us survive and not-so-good genes that deny those who carry them the possibility of survival. Now creationists find all this highly dubious, but for me the information has come as a great relief.
The good news is that human beings adapt. We have survived, according to my reading of Coyne, for about 60,000 years, adapting to all sorts of challenges, climate changes, dietary changes, plagues, and other such unwelcome happenstances. The present hullabaloo over global warming is much ado about nothing. Let the climate change; the species Homo sapiens has survived 60 millennia. There is no reason for the Obama administration to tamper with the auto mobile market. We can survive carbon in the atmosphere and have since the last weakgened member of Homo erectus wobbled off. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that the automobile industry can survive politicians designing our cars, taxing our gasoline, and supplying us with tiny vehicles that few Americans want to buy.