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Parini: Know Nothing Legacy

12/01/11 5:55PM By Jay Parini
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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."

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

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.

And 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?

It 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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