Expelled Critics: So Bored They Can't See Straight
I saw "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed," the controversial new documentary film by Ben Stein on the intelligent design debate, at one of the private screenings that was part of the grassroots marketing for the film, and I was disappointed. That's right. Here I made a trip all the way to Louisville, Kentucky from my home in Danville (almost 2 hours away), I go get a big bag of popcorn and a drink, climb the steps in the stadium seating at the Tinseltown Theater for the private screening and, as it turns out, not a single, solitary Darwinist tried to sneak past the big, scary looking octogenarian security guards to try to get in.
So I watched the movie instead, which was excellent. Now I know why the Darwinists are having such a fit--and spending so much time and effort throwing it: This is a powerful expose of academic intolerance. If this one gets wide exposure, they get a well deserved black eye.
"Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed" is effective in its presentation of its views. It is by turns funny, ominous, clever, illuminating, and entertaining, which is more than you can say about some of the reviews of this movie which are merely hostile. Apparently their strategy is to convince people that the movie is not very good, something they have spilled a lot of ink trying to do.
There are several things the critics are saying to accomplish this apparent objective, some of which have nothing to do with the quality of the movie at all.
The movie, say the critics, wasn't honest with the Darwinists who were interviewed for the film. In other words, they lied. They didn't tell them what the film was about--sort of like one of those soft drink commercials where the clueless attorney is interviewing the prospective clients who want to sue for copyright infringement. The producers, of course, dispute this, and point out that they not only told them what the film was about, but gave them the questions in advance and answered whatever questions they had about the film.
But they didn't reveal to them the title, say the critics. No, and they probably didn't tell them who the clapper loader and lighting gaffer were either. So what?
What difference would it have made to what people like Dawkins would have said anyway? Would they have been less honest about what they believed? If so, then wouldn't not telling them what the movie was about at all have been a greater contribution to the truth about which the critics say they are so concerned? Would Dawkins, et al. not have been willing to state their case at all if they knew more about the film than they apparently wanted to know? Well that would have been big of them.
But the main point is that that has nothing to do with the quality of the movie. Even if it were true, it has nothing to do with whether, when you leave the theater, you thought the hour and a half was well spent.
The film, some say, is intellectually garbled. Read: It it didn't come to a conclusion they agree with. Are there really people going to this movie to witness a visual academic treatise? Look, the movie is self-consciously (and self-confessedly) channeling Michael Moore--with the appropriate ideological adjustments. This is infotainment folks, get used to it.
There's the charge that the film doesn't give a definition of intelligent design. This could be a problem for dull minds that can't put two and two together to make four. But I have asked myself the question, if I did not know what intelligent design was before I saw this film, would I know afterward? I certainly would. What I would not think, after seeing this film, is that intelligent design is creationism, which is what the reviewers making this charge wanted to see, and are now upset because they didn't.
In fact, this is the best thing about this movie: it completely dispels the notion that intelligent design is just warmed over creationism. Let's face it, it's just hard to the square the image of, say, David Berlinski, the polymath Princeton PhD, postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University in mathematics and molecular biology, analytic philosophy, and philosophy of mathematics, and former professor at Stanford, Rutgers, the City University of New York, and the Universite de Paris with the stereotype of the creation scientist.
There are very few secular Jewish polymath creation scientists living in exquisitely decorated flats on the rue Montmorency. Trust me on this.
Then there is the assertion that no definition of evolution is offered. But evolution is discussed again and again, in detail, with shades of meaning parsed and commented on. Again, the lack of a definition isn't the problem for the critics: Rather, it's the lack of a positive portrayal of Darwinism as they see it is.
The movie, say others, caricatures Darwinism. Well let's face it: any 90 minute movie covering any topic is going to caricature anything it deals with. Caricature is when you take the significant aspects of something and exaggerate them for dramatic effect. And the alternative for an hour and half documentary is? Besides, if the Darwinist critics of this film don't like caricature, they ought to check out their portrayals of ID sometime. They can start with the charge that ID is the same thing as creationism.
In fact, ID critics seem to find it singularly profound to judge this movie on criteria that have little to do with the purpose of the movie. The movie doesn't prove ID; the movie doesn't give an accurate and detailed scientific description of this or that; the movie doesn't give a balanced treatment of the issue; yada, yada, yada. Of course, these are not things the movie even purports to do, much less attempt. This is not a movie about intelligent design or evolution. This is a movie about the debate over intelligent design and evolution. Any criticisms that don't take account of this are simply nonsensical and irrelevant.
If you slog through the comments from critics and keep your eye peeled, you can find an occasional criticism that, right or wrong, actually belongs in a movie review. One of these rare specimens is the charge that the film is "boring." C'mon. Unless you fall within the category of totally ignorant of the issue of evolution and uncaring (in which case you didn't buy a ticket to go see the movie in the first place), you're going to be mad--either at the Darwinists' ideological cartel, or at the producers for making the movie. You're either going to be cheering Ben Stein on or gnawing on knuckles in frustration. But bored? No way.
In fact, one wonders how such a boring film can elicit such hostility. Peter McWilliams once defined boredom as "hostility without enthusiasm." But these people are not only hostile, they are enthusiastic in their hostility. If they're bored, they sure are worked up about it.
The negative reviews of Expelled are primarily written by people who disagree with the film's central contention, just as the positive reviews are largely from people who agree with it. When it comes to a film like this, there is little room for objectivity. Darwinists aren't going to give this film a positive review any more than a conservative would give a positive review to a Michael Moore film. If you agree with it you like it, if you don't you don't. It's pretty simple.
I actually went to the movie not expecting much. Call me gullible, but I actually believed some of the rhetoric coming from the critics. I was thinking, okay, here these people were nice enough to invite me to the sneak preview and I'm going to walk out feeling obligated to write up something nice about it when I may think it was just a shameless piece of propaganda. Maybe I just won't say anything. Yeah. That's what I'll do.
I needn't have worried.
The thing that I was expecting to be particularly turned off by was the communist and Nazi allusions I had heard were in the film. The film, said one reviewer, "wanders off to blame the theory of evolution for Communism, the Berlin Wall, Fascism, the Holocaust, atheism and Planned Parenthood." Well, to say that this constitutes "wandering off" is, I suppose, the right of the critic concerned about the integrity of a film, but I doubt that is the motive behind the criticism. The point of the film is whatever the filmmaker wants the point of the film to be, and if part of the point is to analyze the ideological origins and implications of the idea of Darwinism, then it's not "wandering off."
In fact, the Nazi and communist imagery was perfectly appropriate to the filmmakers' point. They were talking about ideological totalitarianism. So why isn't imagery that shows totalitarianism in its political form not relevant to it? While I think the more relevant comparison is McCarthyism here, I'll also readily admit that that analogy is not nearly as dramatic, and probably less useful for a filmmaker.
Is the imagery overdone? Perhaps. But those critical of this aspect of the film have to answer the charges included in the film that, in fact, National Socialism and communism relied on a Darwinian view to help ground their political ideologies. Are they denying that they did? All I've heard is squealing that the charge was made. Was Charles Darwin a Nazi or a communist? Of course not. And, being the gentleman that he was, he would undoubtedly have been appalled at the use to which his theory was put.
But he was not just a gentleman: he was a Victorian gentleman. And the whole Victorian project was to try to maintain the traditional moral system without the religious system that engendered and undergirded it. In that respect (and a few others) Darwinism was a product of its time. But the Victorian project was accounted a failure: their moral system could not be maintained without the religious foundation, as Friedrich Nietzsche had predicted. Darwin himself accepted it, good Victorian that he was, but his theory only served to undermine it.
The film doesn't give us a complete account of all this, partly because it can't. But it does call attention to the historical connections, and to connections with the eugenics movement as well. The question is whether these connections are a coincidence or not? Is there something about Darwinism that lends itself to this? When morality is undermined, are we supposed be surprised when it is violated?
The reaction to "Expelled" has not only been hostile, but sometimes ugly (not that that should come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the rhetoric of those opposed to Intelligent Design). The review that ran in my local paper was by Roger Moore of the Orlando Sentinel, who urged readers not to see the film because Ben Stein might profit from it: "Ben Stein wins your money if you go to his expose on bias against intelligent design." One wonders whether that is an equally good reason not to read Moore's review.
Then there is FOX News' Robert Friedman: "After seeing a new non-fiction film starring Comedy Central's Ben Stein, you may not only be able to win his money, but also his career ... But that career may be over come April 18." It sounds like Friedman would love it if he were a university department chair and Stein was a professor. In that case, he could just fire him. Or deny him tenure. Or write nasty e-mails to his colleagues besmirching his reputation behind his back and then denying it.
Whatever Darwinism's ramifications for morality, it certainly doesn't do much for your temper.