“The Revisionaries”: Texas Schoolbook Battle — Crazier Than You Thought!
Don McLeroy is a dentist in suburban Texas with the geeky, earnest manner of an American guy who has educated himself, however imperfectly, on a wide variety of topics. With his balding pate and high-waisted, pleated slacks, he makes Ned Flanders from “The Simpsons” look like Mick Jagger, circa 1969. I found myself utterly unable to resist McLeroy, who is likable and 100 percent sincere. He’d be a great neighbor, in large ways and small; the kind of guy who’d pull over on a busy highway to help a stranded motorist, while everybody else zoomed past. But as we see in the documentary “The Revisionaries,” it’d be a mistake to consider him harmless just because he’s a nice fellow.
As a Tea Party zealot, fundamentalist Christian, young-Earth Creationist and, for a while, chairman of the Texas State Board of Education, McLeroy became nationally notorious for his efforts to undermine scientific education and sneak covert religion into textbooks. One of the great things about Scott Thurman’s film — a low-budget but thoroughly watchable documentary, largely funded on Kickstarter – is that it helped me see the world from McLeroy’s point of view, which I might previously have considered impossible. He feels almost painfully oppressed by arrogant experts with fancy university degrees who insist on a difference between scientific evidence and faith-based personal opinion, and he genuinely believes that the half-baked, cherry-picked “weaknesses” in evolutionary theory expose the ideological underpinnings of modern science.
But if McLeroy is the most famous figure, and oddly the most compelling, in the Texas textbook battle of recent years, “The Revisionaries” makes clear that others were probably more powerful and influential. National media drifted away from the half-comic, half-tedious circus of the Austin school board meetings after the partially successful right-wing attempt to wiggle discussion of “intelligent design” into science textbooks that addressed evolution. But Thurman and his fellow filmmakers stuck around for a battle over social-science textbooks that was arguably worse, since opinions and analyses in that field can’t be subjected to the same scientific rigor. Culture-war amendments were added fast and furious to the academic standards in that area: removing references to the slave trade from the texts and praising leaders of the Confederacy; substituting “country music” for “hip-hop” in a discussion of pop culture; adding, preposterously, religious figures like Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin as inspirations for the American Revolution, while deleting the word “Enlightenment.” (One board member even suggested that every reference to Barack Obama should include his middle name.)
Many of those were the work of Cynthia Dunbar, a board member who is much smoother, subtler and smarter than McLeroy – and enormously more dangerous. Dunbar is a highly articulate lawyer who teaches at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University in Virginia, and who was evidently groomed for her position on the Texas board by political activists on the Christian right. She cooperates readily with Thurman’s film and appears to have nothing to hide, but neither in talking-head interviews nor in board sessions does she ever offer the least insight into her personality, offering bland generalities about “community service” as she doggedly pursues a hard-right agenda. McLeroy is honest to a fault, haranguing his dental patients and Sunday-school students about Noah’s ark – yes, he got the dinosaurs on there somehow – and apologizing regretfully for his most inflammatory statements. Nothing, on the other hand, ever penetrates Dunbar’s Teflon surface; I had to consult Wikipedia to learn that she has described public education as unconstitutional and a “subtly deceptive tool of perversion.” (She served one term on the board and did not run for reelection; one gets the feeling bigger things are contemplated.)