Parini: Know Nothing Legacy

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(Host) Given the recent gaffes of presidential candidates and lack of effective
action in Congress, commentator Jay Parini has been wondering if,
indeed, it really matters what our leaders think or say.

(Parini) There’s a long and robust political tradition of knowing nothing in the
United States. I’m referring to the Know Nothing Party of the 1840’s and
1850’s. That was largely an anti-Catholic movement, which consisted of
White Anglo-Saxon Protestants who thought the country was letting in too
many Catholic immigrants. Party members who were asked about the
beliefs of their movement were told to say: "I know nothing."

a sentiment that seems back in force these days, as many politicians
seem, quite literally, to know nothing or are determined to pretend they

The writers on Comedy Central have had an easy month or
two. All they have to do is replay tapes of Herman Cain and Rick Perry
and Michelle Bachmann over and over. Every time they open their mouths,
it’s a comic field day.

The potential pitfalls of running for
president range from not being ready to avoid ‘gotcha questions’ to not
knowing important elements and allies in U.S. foreign policy.

the blunders are so entertaining that it’s tempting to wonder if this
stuff really matters. Why should we care if Rick Perry can’t remember
his own policies or thinks that the American Revolution happened in the
1500’s? Or that Michelle Bachmann believes that the extremely important
vaccine against human papilloma virus actually causes what she calls
"mental retardation"? Or that Herman Cain doesn’t know how President
Obama dealt with the Libyan crisis?

But it’s not so funny when
otherwise intelligent and well-informed politicians – who have
previously gone on record quite sensibly about sensitive subjects like
climate change and stem cell research – begin back-pedaling in order to
pander to modern day Know Nothings. It suggests a lack of character that
is truly frightening. If they’ll say anything to get elected, what does
that suggest they would do, if elected, to stay in power?

always sounds horribly snobby to complain about the statements of
political candidates who are making an appeal to the lowest common
denominator in the American public. But unless we’re willing to accept
this kind of nonsense as par for the course we must be willing to say
over and over: You got that wrong, buddy!

And don’t even get me
started on another modern day descendent of the Know Nothing Party. It’s
not much of a conceptual leap from "Know Nothing" to "Do Nothing." And
"Do Nothing" pretty much sums up most of our national leadership lately,
from congress to Super Committees.

So here we are with the
deficit still looming, unemployment still holding us back, the economy
still a ghost of its former self, and we’re surrounded by Know Nothings
on the one hand, and Do Nothings on the other.

And that’s definitely not a laughing matter.

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