Thursday, November 15, 2007

Education with the Kranks

There is very little to recommend in the dreadful 2004 film Christmas with the Kranks. But there is one thing, one scene. It's a scene so fascinating, so insightful, so plain old undeniably true that it's presence in this pointless trifle of a movie must be counted as a kind of Christmas miracle.

Tim Allen and Jamie Lee Curtis are an empty nester couple who have just sent their only daughter off to school the day after Thanksgiving. She is not planning on spending Christmas with them. So with their schedule free and their nest empty, Allen and Curtis decide to go on vacation over the Christmas holiday. Allen works out that the money they save by not indulging in his family's traditional elaborate Christmas celebration will more than pay for a warm-weather getaway for himself and his wife.

To that end, and in a spirit of fairness, he sends out a memo at his workplace. I'm paraphrasing here, but essentially the memo says that Allen and his family have made a considered, rational economic decision to forgo Christmas in favor of their vacation plans. So for this year, he's choosing not to engage in the office's Christmas festivities. He isn't planning on giving gifts and he requests that the rest of his co-workers refrain from giving gifts to him. He makes a point of noting that this is a simple matter of money and choice. He doesn't hate Christmas. He's just going a different direction for one year.

And what happens?

His co-workers turn on him and vilify him like he sent out a memo advocating the Third Reich.

Imagine if he had sent out a memo with a similar declaration, but rooted in his conversion to Judaism. Or Islam. Would his co-workers' reaction have been the same? I bet not. I bet they would have been understanding and supportive. But he based his decision on a rational assessment of his family's situation and budget, and got, ironically, crucified for it.

When you challenge someone's dearly held traditions and beliefs on rational grounds, it is likely that they will perceive that you are calling them stupid. People don't like to be called stupid. Not even when it's accurate. Especially when it's accurate.

Which brings me to Darwin.

Memories of this remarkable scene from an otherwise gloppy forgettable movie arose this week as I watched the "Nova" two-hour special "Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial." It might still be airing on your local PBS outlet. It concerns the case of Dover, PA and how the Dover school board attempted to wedge the evolutionary alternative "intelligent design" into the science curriculum of the local high school.

The case is fascinating. The science and religion involved are fascinating. I highly recommend the program, or if it's not available in your area, click here to see the "Nova" companion website.

The show dramatically underlines just how dangerous it is to challenge belief armed only with reason. And how little reason matters to those protecting cherished beliefs.

It's like Christmas with the Kranks. Except the ending is a lot better.

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