Scott Thurman’s new film The Revisionaries is a postcard from the frontline of America’s culture wars.
The documentary follows the 2009 crusade by the Texas Board of Education to rewrite history and science text books in Texas public schools. By selectively ignoring historical and scientific fact, the board attempted to undermine the teaching of evolution in public schools and succeeded in revising social science curriculum to ignore minority culture and America’s history of institutional racism.
The documentary focuses on four key players. The conservative leadership consists of Chairman Don McLeroy, who frequently espouses his belief in a six thousand year old earth, and Cynthia Dunbar, Don’s powerful ally whose Machiavellian tactics and floral dress suits create an uncanny resemblance to Dolores Umbridge.
Opposing McLeroy and Dunbar are Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network and Ron Weatherington, a Texas anthropology professor.
While Thurman’s documentary clearly takes the political side of Miller and Weatherington, McLeroy and Dunbar are such interesting characters that you end up sympathizing with their personal strife. Here are two people who, due to their beliefs, are unable to reconcile their world view with objective truth.
In one of the early meetings of McLeroy’s chairmanship, a number of scientists testify that there is no scientific proof of intelligent design. McLeroy can’t seem to understand how his beliefs are wrong, “-it’s not complicated-it doesn’t take experts-” he pleads to the board, “I disagree with these experts-somebody has got to stand up to experts who-I don’t know why they’re doing it, they’re wonderful people but-” he speaks in confused, frustrated spurts.
The testimony sways McLeroy’s moderate colleagues, and the board votes down a provision that Texas public schools must teach the theory of evolution’s “strengths” and “weaknesses.” McLeroy has a meltdown.
Whether it’s the fact that McLeroy was told by a panel of experts that his “young creationist” beliefs were wrong or whether he was astounded that his colleagues voted against him, the way that McLeroy confronts opposition is fascinating. He begins to stutter and go boggle-y eyed and shake. “What is happening is that ideology has triumphed science,” he says in a strange twist in which he posits that his young creationist beliefs are in fact scientifically valid and that evolution is an ideology.
The idea that someone would tell him “no,” or “you’re wrong” is mind-blowing to him. Eventually, he breaks down into an almost catatonic state in which he repeats over and over “The evidence doesn’t support it. The evidence doesn’t support it. The evidence-”
McLeroy’s inability to admit that he might be wrong is what is at the heart of his extremism. “I’ve gotten to know Kathy Miller,” McLeroy says at one point during an interview. “We talked about things… I really do not understand her fear of conservatives. I don’t understand Kathy Miller.”
Instead of greeting Miller’s discourse with curiosity, he throws up his hands and walks away from the conversation. During another meeting of the Texas school board, Juli Berwarld. a freelance science textbook writer testifies, “it’s hard to find scientific evidence that’s not supportive of that theory [of evolution]” the crowd erupts into applause. McLeroy immediately bangs his gavel, “We will be silent in the audience,” he shouts. “I want to tell you this, outbursts like that? I’ll empty the room and just have the testifiers come in to testify.” He pauses, furious. “We are not going to have any outbursts like that. Thank you.”
The consequences of McLeroy’s extremism are harmful to Texas public schools and national public schools. As the largest text book consumers, Texas and California frequently dictate the content of curriculum.
McLeroy’s extremism is just as harmful to his political career. After controversy erupts over the board’s decision to weaken the way evolution is taught in public schools, McLeroy is stripped of his title as chairman. Then he loses his seat. All of these calamities are greeted with a wide-eyed naiveté, as if he just can’t believe that he wouldn’t get his way. You almost want to hug him.
As much as The Revisionaries is about culture wars, it’s also about hubris. Ron Weatherington says it aptly, “There are not many board members who say, ‘I am an expert in string theory,’ ‘I am an expert in gravitational theory and I will talk to you about that,’ but they’ll sure talk to you about evolution. And that is a mixture of ignorance and arrogance that is a flammable mixture.”
Throughout the documentary, McLeroy frequently says “It’s time to stand up to the experts.” He says it during board meetings, he says it during Tea Party rallies, he says it to the camera several times. In his view, the “experts” are not credible sources because they don’t have all the answers-they’re just ideologists who are trying to push an agenda. Instead of greeting their ideas with curiosity, McLeroy greets them with amiable disdain. “I became a christian when I was 29,” he says, “and within that first year after putting my trust in Jesus Christ, I was fully convinced that you could fully trust the Bible. And 30 years later, I’m even more convinced.”
This perspective closes the door on a lot of experiences and opportunities and creates conflict where there doesn’t necessarily need to be. Watching McLeroy get trounced over and over does ignite sympathy. Watching his colleges successfully implement his policy is frustrating. The combination of these two feelings? Fascinating.
Director: Scott Thurman
Writer: John Edison Betts Jr., Jawad Metni, Scott Thurman
Starring: Don McLeroy, Cynthia Dunbar, Kathy Miller, Ron Weatherington
Release Date: April 21, 2012