WILLIAMSTOWN -- Local politics is of national concern -- that's one of the lessons from Scott Thurman's documentary covering the attack on evolution by the Texas Board of Education.
"The Revisionaries" screens at Images Cinema on Monday, Feb. 11, at 7 p.m., followed by Q&A with the director, Scott Thurman.
The film began as Thurman's graduate thesis and eventually expanded to focus on the state board of education debate on science standards. Thurman attended board of education meetings and turned his lens toward a Republican Christian dentist who was also chairman of the board, Don McLeroy. McLeroy seemed to spearhead the efforts to call into question the veracity of evolution as a valid scientific fact in the school text books.
"The biggest complaint here was that Don wanted to put his religious beliefs in the public schools, and the problem with that is that public schools are paid for by all of our money," said Thurman. "It shouldn't be used to promote or denigrate one religion over another, so he's walking on a thin rope in people's minds for that reason."
Texas is such a large market for the text book industry that its standards often dictate information contained in text books published for the entire country.
"I'd read about what Don was doing and I didn't like what I'd read," Thurman said. "It was part of my interest in focusing on him from the beginning, more to catch this guy showing how his evolution arguments were really religious arguments in disguise. I think there's more of a sincere attempt to be scientific on Don's part, but it's put in a new light when you see it from the perspective of his personal life."
McLeroy is shown as the type of guy who lectures patients in his dentist chair about evolutionists, and shares misinformation on the subject with the Sunday school class he teaches -- all with friendly laugh and smile. Thurman says some people on the right oppose bringing a person's religious convictions into the argument, but he thinks it's mandatory to the issue.
"I think with political figures, you need to shed light on them, we need to know who they are and what they believe personally if those personal beliefs make scientific claims," he said. "I think those claims need to be subject to the same kind of debate and critical review as scientific theories."
For Thurman, the real controversy became obvious following the evolution debate, when the board began bickering over the social studies and history curriculum, with a transparent agenda to remove many liberal-leaning facts and highlight multiple conservative ones.
"It put the science deliberations in a whole new light," Thurman said, "when you see some of the types of arguments, and then the process of including certain words and using particular language certain ways that came out of the creation-evolution debate. That formulated into a strategy in the social studies and history. The motive is more clear."
The best weapon against such actions, Thurman says, turned out to be enlisting the help of moderate Christians and Republicans, such as Lubbock board member Bob Craig, who is shown in the film trying to combat some of the far right efforts.
"He did challenge them and stepped up and said, look, we are listening to experts and they're saying this is creationist disguised language, strengths and weaknesses, and let's move on," Thurman said.
Thurman feels that, despite the obvious agenda, most of the board members, including those on the far right, were fairly sincere in their actions, though he also points to the political possibilities that anyone would have felt in that situation.
"For a lot of members, it was a pride in their district, like I'm standing up for what these people in my district are telling me," he said. "And more importantly, that's going to get them re-elected."
"People see Texas politics in general -- or at least we here in Texas seem to think that it's a stepping stone for national government.
People especially see the state board of education as a stepping stone for other political office, the House, usually, sometimes even the senate or higher. State board of education is really an entry point, a lower form of government that a lot of people don't really pay attention to."
The key in Texas, Thurman says, is not to focus on getting Democrats elected, but again to enlist the help of moderate Republicans, putting them in the forefront and helping them win primaries.
"People aren't going to vote for the Democrat because they don't even care," he said. "It's a ‘D' by their name. When they fill out their ballot, they'll just say give me all Republicans, not really knowing how extreme they are or how opposed they would be to some of the views held by these state board of education members."
The situation has changed after the last election, with an equal 5-5-5 split of moderates, liberals, and far right.
Less in the way of politics guides the board's decisions as they are about to start reviewing books. Also, the state senate changed the rules of that process, downgrading the required compliance to Texas standards from 100 percent to 50 percent, offering much more leeway for publishers and stripping the broad power of the board itself.
Thurman sees it as a cautionary tale worth keeping in our collective memory, one that highlights the clash of two specific world views that are incompatible, especially when they spill out into the realm of governance.
"One sees the world in terms of absolutes and the other sees it in terms of probability," said Thurman. "Gravity is a probability, right? We're going to drop this ball and it's going to fall and there's a pretty good chance it's going to happen again, because we've tested it, done it over and over. When you see it in terms of absolutes, something like science is hard to understand."
Thurman stresses that he and McLeroy's relationship was never, and is still not, touched by any animosity. They may stand on different sides of the issue, but McLeroy is a familiar type for Thurman, a Texas native, and a lifetime in that state has taught him to function happily with political and religious opposites.
"I can really relate to Don quite a bit," Thurman said. "I've got family members, and I grew up in the same kind of religious philosophy, so I deeply respect him on a personal level and can sit at the dinner table with him and chat about everything, from politics to other things, and be okay with it, and not have a personal enemy."
Thurman's confident that his portrayal of McLeroy is evenhanded and points to the number of emails he gets in support of McLeroy, thanking him for what he is shown doing in Thurman's film, as proof. These people see McLeroy as the hero of the film.
Others who write Thurman, of course, are not so supportive of McLeroy's efforts, including religious moderates who want to make sure that people know McLeroy's views do not represent their own.
The irony for Thurman is that the process of the board itself illustrated exactly what McLeroy was attempting to downgrade as a fact of the universe -- natural selection.
"I was looking at this political body, this creature that's active, and it's fighting internally for the winner," he said. "There's this struggle. Everything to me, I was relating to evolution. I was looking at this board and saw it more as an anthropological study."
"In fact, jokingly towards the end, when we were looking at narration, we thought David Attenborough would be a perfect commentator to say, ‘Look at these board members.'"
"The Revisionaries" can be found online at therevisionaries