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Know-Nothings: We've Been Here Before

Posted 61 months ago|12 comments|1,185 views
Written by
JAK Gladney
Saint Albans, WV
You hear much in the media these days about “Knownothingism”, especially as it relates to the current Republican Party and its recent slate of candidates. Lest you think this is just another hit piece in that tradition, let me clarify.

The “Know-Nothings”, known as the Nativist, Native American (before that term assumed an entirely different meaning), and the American party, were a political movement of the mid-19th century. The guiding mission of the Know-Nothings was the exclusion of foreign-born citizens from all offices of public trust, whether federal, state, or local. Facing successive waves of Italian and Irish immigration and competition for jobs, the Know-Nothings were virulently anti-Catholic—the religious affiliation of most of these immigrants—and it’s during this period that some of the most persistent myths about practicing Catholics (polytheistic, priest-ridden) were forged.

Modern sources are apt to link “Knownothingism” with ignorance, but the name of the movement is an allusion to its secrecy, not the wider knowledge of its members. Initiates to the party, not privy to the object of this fraternity, its name, or its higher-ranking members, found their curiosity over Nativist attentions greeted with the stock answer “I don’t know”. Secret societies steeped in ritual rites-of-passage were common throughout this period (notably freemasonry). Nativist belief, or outright involvement in the American Party (as it was officially known, beginning in 1854), became so mainstream that former president Millard Fillmore accepted the American Party’s presidential nomination in 1856.

That same year, the Republican Party nominated John C. Fremont as their first presidential nominee.

While the Republican Party has distanced itself from the Know-Nothing’s anti-Catholicism, it—or, a sizable, vocal segment within it—remains the torch-bearer of much of the Nativists’ social attitudes, and its single-minded pursuit of a small handful of crank issues.

There’s the insistence on rigid citizenship tests. Pending legislation in the current House of Representatives (H.R. 1503) would require “the principal campaign committee of a candidate for election to the office of President to include … a copy of the candidate's birth certificate, together with such other documentation as may be necessary to establish that the candidate meets the qualifications for eligibility to the Office of President under the Constitution. This carries on the proud tradition of proposals like the “Citizenship Reform Act in 1995,” which aimed to deny automatic citizenship to children born in the U.S. whose parents aren't citizens or permanent resident aliens—a proposal resurrected almost every year since 1995.

The 1856 American Party platform called for a 21-year period of residency for foreigners in the United States before granting naturalization—an attempt to bar the swelling Irish immigrant population, newly arrived but politically adroit, from public office.

But to talk to Know-Nothings and their biographers, like William Elliot Griffis, the aim of this legislation wasn’t simple hostility to foreigners—they wanted to insure that they were properly “imbued with American sentiments” before taking part in politics.

How to define “American sentiments” in a country as large, culturally-varied, and imperfectly assimilated as ours remains a challenge. But taking their cues from the Know-Nothings, and the McCarthyites who followed that tradition, modern Republicans have agitated for a more aggressive, almost nationalistic, sense of “Americanism”—seen more frequently in post-9/11 America, and epitomized in Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann’s call for the media to investigate “the views of the people in Congress and find out, are they pro-America or anti-America?”

The Know-Nothings, like anything that finds itself on the brink of extinction, failed to adapt to major changes in their immediate environment. On the touchstone question of the day, slavery, Know-Nothing candidates deferred, in favor of “trifles and side issues”.

British conservative Henry Fairlie, writing in the 1980’s, anticipated the GOP’s current populist everyman/hyperindividualist divide, and planted himself firmly in the everyman camp. “The conservative can all too easily drift into a morally bankrupt and intellectually shallow defense of those who have made it made and those who are on the make.” Attempts at uniting the country were destined to fail, so long as conservatives supported business interests to the exclusion of everything else. “The nation,” Fairlie wrote, “cannot be brought to you, as if it were Masterpiece Theatre, by a grant from Mobil Oil.”

Time will tell if, on the current question of the moment (health care reform), conservative Republicans cast their lot with the everyman, or with their corporate patrons (one such patron, Americans for Prosperity, is a major beneficiary of Exxon-Mobil monies). If the latter, stars may align for another extinction-level event.
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COMMENTS
Out Of The Box
Out Of The Box
 Moderator
61 months ago: Tisk, tisk.
Out Of The Box
Out Of The Box
 Moderator
61 months ago: "Health insurance reform shouldn't be about Washington politics. It's about American lives, businesses and our future."
"Right now, we have a system that works well for the insurance industry, but that doesn't always work well for you. What we need, and what we will have when we pass health insurance reform, are consumer protections to make sure that those who have insurance are treated fairly and those insurance companies are held accountable," Obama said.

Your terminology is a bit dated.
JAK Gladney
JAK Gladney
Saint Albans, WV
61 months ago: Semantics play, OOTB. I'm not interested in "re-framing" the issue--that's a salesman's job, and above my pay grade.

The White House website isn't even consistent. "Health Insurance Reform", "Health Care Reform", "Health Care Insurance Reform", "Reform of Our Health Care System", and "Health Reform" are used more or less interchangeably.

http://www.whitehouse.gov/issues/health_care/
http://www.healthreform.gov/

Hour-by-hour workshopping of these phrases isn't unique to this issue. I'm reminded of when the Estate Tax became "The Death Tax"; "insurgent", "guerilla", and "terrorist" were made interchangeble; "war" vs. "conflict" (and who could forget "enemy combatant" instead of "prisoner of war"?).
Out Of The Box
Out Of The Box
 Moderator
61 months ago: Don't forget this one.
"this administration prefers to avoid using the term 'Long War' or 'Global War on Terror' [GWOT.] Please use 'Overseas Contingency Operation.' "
Out Of The Box
Out Of The Box
 Moderator
61 months ago: Obama is over-simplifying when speaking to what he considers the ignorant masses, a tactic used by automobile salesmen, reducing to the ridiculous. By calling this proposal "health insurance reform", he hopes to shift the public perception away from the aspects of health care that will be fundamentally changed by the socialist view on medicine.

You can vilify Rebublicans all you want, and while not comparing them to Nazi's, you try to paint them as paranoid, nationalist, separatist, and racist. Your carefully worded Rant cannot be taken apart on content, but the inferences you leave for your readers are obviously an attempt to deceive.
Just remember, that not all of the opposition to this "reform" comes from republicans. I opppose it, amd i am not a republican, neither are the millions of conservative democrats that oppose it.
The Cypress Gang
The Cypress Gang
61 months ago: OOTB, why expect more from a hack politician.
JAK Gladney
JAK Gladney
Saint Albans, WV
61 months ago: I don't see where I've "vilified" anyone--Republicans or Know-Nothings/Nativists. I've drawn a parallel that I think is apt, and I've relied on Republicans in their own words to support that parallel.

This is the second time I've been called-out for a "carefully worded" rant. I don't know how to respond to this. I'm limited by word count and the reader's patience, so a lot is left to inference.
Out Of The Box
Out Of The Box
 Moderator
61 months ago: "While the Republican Party has distanced itself from the Know-Nothing’s anti-Catholicism, it—or, a sizable, vocal segment within it—remains the torch-bearer of much of the Nativists’ social attitudes, and its single-minded pursuit of a small handful of crank issues."

Without knowledge of history, the casual reader might be led to believe the the two parties were associated. In my opinion, a misleading choice of words.

Calling a republican opponent a Know-Nothing is not a new tactic. Democrats in the late 1800's called republicans by that term in order to get the Catholic vote, and in reference to an immigration bill before Congress, William Kristol referred to "this generation's Know-Nothings".

I consider a vote against the HR3200 as a vote for the everyman ideal, as do uncounted others.

To require proof of citizenship for elected officials is only logical. Do we want persons with allegiance to other countries to be able to come to America and govern? I would say not.

The Citizenship Reform Act of 1995 was only meant to discourage illegal immigration by eliminating the "anchor baby" loophole in our immigration laws, not to punish the child. Illegal immigrants come to America, pop out a kid as soon as possible, get the kid on our government assistance rolls, and burden an already straining system, just because they know that if they have a child on American soil, they will be allowed to stay.
Out Of The Box
Out Of The Box
 Moderator
61 months ago: How do I know that? Because I am down in the trenches with them. They tell me so. I look at every one I meet as a friend, and have close ties to the local Mexican, Middle Eastern, Asian and Black communities. We get to know each other and learn from each other.

And to me, there is no subject that is taboo, or "too sensitive to ask about."
61 months ago: Any commodity that floods the market results in a drop in the market value of that commodity. i think that big business is happy to depress the price of the commodity of labour by flooding the country will immigrants, both legal and illegal.

I believe that immigration provides America with a central component of its evolving character. But the right to live in America is a gift that should be bestowed in an orderly and lawful fashion on behalf of the American people by its government. None of my four grandparents were born in America. I feel an emotional affinity to immigrants. But our borders should be secure. The flow of immigration should be regulated according to the capacity of the nation at any given time to absorb it. It this makes me a "nativist" then so be it. I feel that this is rational national self preservation, an idea that is normative for most developed nations
61 months ago: I'm going to stay away from the health care for now but I would like to make a point about the bad old big businesses such as Exxon Mobil. This is a quote from the site Tax Fiundation.org "Oil giant Exxon Mobil Corp. on Thursday posted the largest annual profit by a U.S. company -- $39.5 billion -- even as earnings for the last quarter of 2006 declined 4 percent. The 2006 profit topped the previous record, also by Exxon Mobil, of $36.13 billion set in 2005." [Full story]

While they were recording record profits last year, they were also writing checks to Uncle Sam to the tune of $100.7 billion -- two and a half times what they made in net profit. In fact, previous Tax Foundation research found that from 1977 to 2004, federal and state governments extracted $397 billion by taxing the profits of the largest oil companies and an additional $1.1 trillion in taxes at the pump. In today's dollars, that's $2.2 trillion.

Please notice that Exxon Mobil paid two and one half times the taxes that they made in profit. We can say these big evil oil companies have all sorts of "influence" in Washington but this influence is not keeping them out of taxes. Also notice that Uncle Sam is taxing us at the pumps on top of taxing the oil companies.

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