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“The Revisionaries”: Texas Schoolbook Battle — Crazier Than You Thought!

An alarming, hilarious documentary revisits the Tea Party-fueled fight over evolution and Obama in school textbooks.

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McLeroy, for example, is almost distressingly eager to pursue an awkward friendship with Ron Wetherington, an anthropology professor at Southern Methodist University who leads what might be called the secular-humanist faction in the textbook battle. Wetherington is himself a character sent by Central Casting, a goatee-wearing academic who lives surrounded by books in a spectacular house and moves through the world with a distinctive air of pomposity. It’s entertaining to hear him describe the Texas board’s toxic combination of “arrogance and ignorance,” but from a political point of view someone else (anyone else!) might have been preferable. You can tell it’s acutely painful for him to suffer fools gladly, but the scene when McLeroy and Wetherington share a cordial dinner is actually a moment of genuine human decency amid the bleak and blasted political-cultural landscape depicted by this film. (I suppose Cynthia Dunbar would eat dinner with Satan, Lenin’s corpse and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad if she thought it would pay off politically, but she’d wear a plastic smile the whole time and ask them questions about their kids without listening to the answers.)

If Ron Wetherington makes a kind of imperfect hero in “The Revisionaries,” Thurman paints a less distinctive portrait of Kathy Miller, head of the  Texas Freedom Network, a grass-roots activist organization that has battled against the Christian right, especially on the schoolbook issue, for many years. Miller serves almost as a narrator or Greek chorus in the film, offering commentary on other figures like McLeroy, Dunbar and the legendary Texas couple Mel and Norma Gabler, who pioneered the nationwide evangelical attack on “ideas, situation ethics [sic], values [and] anti-God humanism” within public education. (McLeroy is indignant that Miller’s group has taken a name that sounds like it should belong to a right-wing, Bible-thumping organization.)

On one hand, “The Revisionaries” is clearly meant to support Miller’s argument, which is that liberals and progressives need to focus harder on fighting at the granular level of school-board elections and other lower-level political bodies that actually set policy, as opposed to electing the lesser of two evils every four years. That’s true and all, but I can’t help feeling that on a larger scale people like McLeroy and the vastly more sinister Dunbar are trying to fight back the tide of demographic and social change. Non-Hispanic whites are already a minority in Texas – and a rapidly shrinking minority among those under 18. What’s keeping the state reliably red are the lower rates of citizenship and voting among minorities, both of which will normalize over time. Yes, the right can edit Cesar Chavez and Rosa Parks out of the textbooks, and concoct tortured phrases meant to undercut Darwinism. But how long can that extend their hegemony? I’m left with the vision of Don McLeroy wandering around a soccer field with a handful of Sunday school kids, pacing off 300 cubits by 50 cubits and explaining how Noah got those caribou and beavers and scorpions and T-rexes in there. The lower of the three decks, he tells the kids, was for all the poop. I always wondered about that!

“The Revisionaries” opens this week at the  Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center in New York, the  Laemmle Playhouse 7 in Los Angeles and the  Violet Crown Cinema in Austin, Texas, with more cities and home-video release to follow.

 

Andrew O'Hehir is a senior writer for Salon.

 
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