As the 20th century evolved celebrity status became increasingly common. Actors, comedians, royalty, musicians and singers, politicians, business and sports personalities, TV presenters — their widespread fame through the media transformed most into hackneyed VIPs. Many of them thrive on a simpering sycophancy that’s hard to stomach. We need to remind ourselves a host of today’s famous elite are in fact no more worthy of recognition than the workaday folk in the street where you live. Being courted for fame is very different to being genuinely important.
Clarence Darrow (1857-1938) is a good example of someone who became famous for good reasons. Many considered him important, and not just because of his lively intellect and commanding skills as an attorney. His forceful and somewhat bombastic personality was certainly hard to ignore. He was also well known for his agnosticism, frequently maligning fundamentalist belief and practice. “Have you got to get rid of all your knowledge and all your common sense to save your soul?… I know the weakness of [human reason], but it is all we have…” (Absurdities of the Bible).
In 1925 reason and science clashed with faith during the engineered and widely publicised Scopes Trial. Darrow attempted to defend teacher John Thomas Scopes who was charged with teaching evolutionary theory in a public school. During the proceedings Darrow took several shots at literal interpretations of the Bible, one of his pet hates. We can only guess how peeved he would be in our scientifically enlightened age by the intelligent millions who continue to believe the Bible is inspired and relevant. He would certainly be very colourful in his dismissal of Christian Apologetics, the somewhat optimistic expression of a scientific and “reasonable faith”. He preferred the age of rocks to The Rock of Ages.
No one can deny that he could be opinionated, controversial and overbearing. To be fair, the failings of human nature have a lot to do with many things, but Darrow’s uncomfortable traits were often counterbalanced by his dedicated humanitarianism. He cared about the little guy, sometimes at his own expense. He was very much a people person who upheld the sanctity of human life, even to the point of headline-grabbing controversy. He defended those who were victims of Social Darwinism, the despicable notion that natural selection was a good excuse to treat the underprivileged like dirt.
He wrote: “When we fully understand the brevity of life, its fleeting joys and unavoidable pains; when we accept the facts that all men and women are approaching an inevitable doom: the consciousness of it should make us more kindly and considerate of each other. This feeling should make men and women use their best efforts to help their fellow travelers on the road, to make the path brighter and easier as we journey on. It should bring a closer kinship, a better understanding, and a deeper sympathy for the wayfarers who must live a common life and die a common death” (The Essential Words and Writings of Clarence Darrow).
It may be ironic to some that Clarence Darrow’s self-sacrificing concern for the helpless and the oppressed reflected an attribute of the very Creator and Christian fundamentalism he vigorously dismissed and mocked. Somewhere much deeper than laws, logic and politics we find neighbourly individuals who love and give freely. Regardless of their personal beliefs and failings, they help hold our world together and heal many of its wounds.
Darrow’s vision and drive should inspire us to be people people. In spite of our innate selfishness we can find ways to go the extra mile and show compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience. Suffering with those who suffer and practising forgiveness might not come easy, but the alternative is ugly—and common.