The following essay will appear in the September 2010 edition of The Scene.
The New(t) Know Nothings
In the mid-nineteenth century United States the “Know Nothing” movement emerged in opposition to European, primarily Catholic immigration. Vicious, widespread intolerance led historian Arthur Schlesinger, Sr. to call anti-Catholicism “the deepest held bias in the history of the American people.”
Know Nothing “leaders” like former president Millard Fillmore and congressman Lewis Levin argued that “Popery” could not coexist with representative democracy. Telegraph inventor Samuel Morse in a famous 1835 essay wondered if it were even possible for “Papists” to “repudiate” certain “noxious” Catholic principles. (Had Sam been a complete dimwit like a recent Republican Vice Presidential candidate, he might have said “refudiate.”).
Virulent anti-Catholicism existed into the twentieth-century, exemplified by the Ku Klux Klan’s overt and effective role in crushing Al Smith’s 1928 presidential campaign. Anti-Catholic fear mongering almost derailed John F. Kennedy’s 1960 campaign and forced delivery of a speech establishing that if elected President he wouldn’t be the Pope’s point main in the White House.
Kennedy’s “Address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association” celebrates its 50th birthday on September 12. In it he said “I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end, where all men and all churches are treated as equals.” The fact that six Catholics sit on the US Supreme Court offers proof that irrational anti-Catholicism is a thing of the past.
But the controversy surrounding the location of an Islamic community center near Ground Zero in lower Manhattan suggests we still have a long way to go to meet JFK’s ideal.
Looking back on the Know Nothings it’s easy to recognize the movement as a product of a combination of factors including fear of the unknown, bigotry, xenophobia, scapegoating, political opportunism and cowardice. Contemporary Islamophobia in America represents a vile kind of Know Nothingism, more frightening than its 19th century anti-Catholic counterpart in large part because of the ease with which major media can literally overnight transform fringe positions into the mainstream. The old Know Nothings had to organize at the street level; newbies need only feed the right wing blogosphere and radio circuit and wait for the establishment media to exploit cyber feuds and twitter feeds for ratings points.
Former House Speaker and probable 2012 GOP presidential contender Newt Gingrich, the Millard Fillmore of the mosque controversy, so thoroughly and shamefully demagogues the Manhattan mosque that even uber-conservative Pat Buchanan labels him a political opportunist. From making Nazi analogies to deconstructing “Cordoba House,” Newt’s rhetoric is like Know Nothingism on steroids.
Since September of 2001 the corporate media has done a poor job of calling out Islamophobic demagogues and opening up dialogue about the religion. Mix that with the cheerleading for wars against two Muslim countries and the result is an irrational, but completely understandable given the media environment, opposition to new mosques around the country. This excerpt from a recent New York Times article about opposition to a proposed mosque in Staten Island is heartbreaking in its depiction of vitriol that must have met plans to build Catholic churches in the 1840s:
The tenor of the inquiry became so fraught that the meeting eventually collapsed in shouting around 11 p.m., prompting the police and security guards to ask everyone to leave.
But just 20 minutes earlier, as Bill Finnegan stood at the microphone, came the meeting’s single moment of hushed silence. Mr. Finnegan said he was a Marine lance corporal, home from Afghanistan, where he had worked as a mediator with warring tribes.
After the sustained standing ovation that followed his introduction, he turned to the Muslims on the panel: “My question to you is, will you work to form a cohesive bond with the people of this community?” The men said yes.
Then he turned to the crowd. “And will you work to form a cohesive bond with these people — your new neighbors?”
The crowd erupted in boos. “No!” someone shouted.
Those who doubt the media’s influence should consider the lingering confusion about Barack Obama’s religious beliefs. According to the Washington Post, “The number of Americans who believe, wrongly, that President Obama is a Muslim has increased significantly since his inauguration and now account for nearly 20 percent of the nation's population . . . The number of people who now correctly identify Obama as a Christian has dropped to 34 percent, down from nearly half when he took office . . . Among those who say Obama is a Muslim, 60 percent say they learned about his religion from the media, suggesting that their opinions are fueled by misinformation.”
If the polls are accurate, today’s Know Nothing movement might make huge gains in the November elections, from the US House and Senate to state legislatures to governors offices. Abe Lincoln’s 1855 letter to Joshua Speed is instructive:
“As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it "all men are created equal, except negroes.’ When the Know Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.’ When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty, to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.”