The Know-Nothings

August 6, 2014

The Know-Nothings were a party/movement in the 1850s, known more formally as the American Republican Party. Lewis Levin, an American Jew and three-term Congressman, started the group. (In my faith we call this a shonda, or shame/embarrassment.) The Know-Nothings were white men who were upset with German/Irish/Catholic immigration. (Apparently, the name came from a mandate that party members say “I know nothing” in response to questions. Think Sergeant Schultz from Hogan’s Heroes!)

Skip ahead about 160 years. People still want to keep others out. And, in the American tradition, much of the upset comes from those whose forebears were not so welcome in their own time.

Alas, I have the movement’s name in my sights today. How fitting that we have a party with so many leaders whose words bring to mind the Know-Nothing name.

We’re talking “not a scientist” people! First up, representing the health care wing, is Rep. Michele Bachmann (R.-Minn.). In 2011 she claimed the HPV vaccine causes brain damage, adding that she’s not a doctor or a scientist. (The Congresswoman based her statement on a report from a woman she met, who claimed her daughter was mentally retarded after getting the vaccine. Here’s the report, and I didn’t choose the words.)

Then there is Ohio State Representative John Becker, also a Republican. Seeking to ban all abortions, IUDs, etc. in Ohio, he made the following statement, when confronted with facts about how IUDs work:  “This is just a personal view. I’m not a medical doctor.”

Then there’s the climate change brigade. “Non-scientists” here include House Speaker John Boehner, and Governor Rick Scott and Senator Marco Rubio, both from Florida.

Related to the climate change brigade is the nuclear waste desk. Representative John Shimkus (R.-Ill.) said:

A mountain is a suitable place to put high level nuclear waste. I believe it is, but I’m not a scientist.

Maybe so, maybe not on the waste site, but the rest of the statement seems false on its face. Congressman Shimkus received a B.S. (that’s Bachelor of Science) in general engineering from West Point! (Remember when politicians were ready and willing to claim knowledge in an area based on their major in college? So unassuming, that Congressman Shimkus.)

Once these people disclaim any knowledge or expertise, they press on with anti-science approaches. “I’m not a scientist” does not come before “so maybe I should be quiet and listen.” Instead, “I’m not a scientist” is a discussion-stopper, after which the speaker goes along, incurious and seemingly happy.

Professional writers have addressed this claptrap. Why Do Republicans Always Say “I’m Not a Scientist? was written by Jonathan Chait for New York magazine back in late May. More recently, Paul Krugman wrote Knowledge Isn’t Power for the July 31, 2014 New York Times. (Mr. Krugman writes about knowing nothing about economics, a subject where Know-Nothings are far less modest about what they don’t know; still, the piece is a “can’t miss.”) Finally, there is Beyond the War on Science: Why the Right Embraces Ignorance as a Virtue by Amanda Marcotte for AlterNet/Salon. Ms. Marcotte takes readers back 10 years, to the 2004 quote from a Bush Administration official criticizing the “reality-based community” and talking about how “we create our own reality.” What hell hath ignorance wrought!

Here’s what confounds me:  the audience! I always thought being smart was a virtue, the other wasn’t, and that speakers appealed to listeners’ higher angels. Something must have changed, though, for these people sell “dumb as a buffoon” as a point of pride, and it works!

I have also noted two related points:

First, Rush Limbaugh and others make empathy sound evil, and although his best successes seem to be long gone, his audience is still plenty large.

Second, some people take pride in wasting resources, as if using less means acknowledging that the other team might be right about something. Really!

So there it is. We have serious players—the man behind the man who’s a heartbeat away from being POTUS, for heaven’s sake—who thrive on selling stupid, and seem to be succeeding with their salesmanship. In 2014. In the richest, most advanced nation the world has ever known! Just wow!

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