Flag of the Know Nothing Party
“The segregation laws in your country and the anti-Semitic laws in mine, are they not just a difference of degree?“ Herman Goering (Brian Cox) to Captain Gustave Gilbert (Matt Craven) in the Miniseries “Nuremberg
Today a rather short post as I had a rough night sleeping and in the midst of a nightmare screamed and threw a body block into the bookcase that serves as my nightstand. You will be happy to know that though I woke up my wife, my trusty dog slept comfortably through the episode. But I digress….
Tonight I am taking a break from writing about the rise of the Islamic State and our war against it. Instead I am going back to a favorite subject of mine; that of civil rights and liberties. I find it strange that there are a host of people, mostly on the political right that are doing their best in their local communities, state legislatures and even Congress to roll back civil liberties for various groups of people. This includes the outright disenfranchisement being legislated in several states to roll back voting days and hours that disproportionally affect African Americans, students and the poor.
Likewise there are numerous attempts to roll back the rights of women, especially working women; the use of the legislature by religious conservatives to place limits on the reproductive rights of women, holding them to the standard of a religion that they do not practice. There are numerous attempts to curb any civil rights, including the right to marriage or civil unions of the LGBT community. There is also a certain amount of xenophobia in regard to immigrants of all types, especially those with darker skin white Americans, but some of the worst is reserved for Arabs and other Middle-Easterners, even Arab Christians who are presumed as all Middle Easterners are to be Moslem terrorists, even those who have been here decades and hold respectable places in their communities.
See what bothers me about all this is not that it is new, but rather these are a new twist on old formerly acceptable means of discrimination. The proponents just clothe them in new terminology and play on fear to rile up support for their policies. Their words and actions are actually very similar to the virulently anti-emigrant (especially toward the Irish), anti-Catholic and anti-Black groups known collectively as the Know Nothings. While I would not call them a new incarnation of the Know Nothings, I have to notice the similarities in their message and the way that they push their agenda. The late Spencer Perkins who worked to reconcile whites and blacks in Mississippi noted: “They saw no contradictions in how they treated me and Christianity.”
Abraham Lincoln wrote to Joshua Speed about the Know Nothing Party:
“I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor or degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. 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 hypocracy [sic].”
Likewise it is a very similar spirit that existed in many European countries in the years leading up to the First World War which was magnified, especially in Germany, Austria and Eastern Europe following that war, a spirit which animated the National Socialist movement in Germany, a movement which carried such intolerance toward those deemed racially inferior to an extent unimagined by a supposedly civilized “Christian” country. There is a great scene at the end of the movie Judgment at Nuremberg where Burt Lancaster plays a jurist who served the Nazi regime, a jurist who before the Nazis was considered to be one of the best legal minds not only in Germany but in Europe. In the film the character played by Lancaster, Ernst Janning discussed who he and others like him ended up doing what they did. It is a penetrating look at how people justified their actions.
“There was a fever over the land. A fever of disgrace, of indignity, of hunger. We had a democracy, yes, but it was torn by elements within. Above all, there was fear. Fear of today, fear of tomorrow, fear of our neighbors, and fear of ourselves. Only when you understand that – can you understand what Hitler meant to us. Because he said to us: ‘Lift your heads! Be proud to be German! There are devils among us. Communists, Liberals, Jews, Gypsies! Once these devils will be destroyed, your misery will be destroyed.’. It was the old, old story of the sacrificial lamb. What about those of us who knew better? We who knew the words were lies and worse than lies? Why did we sit silent? Why did we take part? Because we loved our country! What difference does it make if a few political extremists lose their rights? What difference does it make if a few racial minorities lose their rights? It is only a passing phase. It is only a stage we are going through. It will be discarded sooner or later. Hitler himself will be discarded… sooner or later. The country is in danger. We will march out of the shadows. We will go forward. Forward is the great password. And history tells how well we succeeded, your honor. We succeeded beyond our wildest dreams. The very elements of hate and power about Hitler that mesmerized Germany, mesmerized the world! We found ourselves with sudden powerful allies. Things that had been denied to us as a democracy were open to us now…”
Likewise, those with a more religious view who attempt to enact laws specifically designed to give their religion more protections, and allow discrimination based on religious preference are startlingly similar to the Taliban and other extremist groups that use religion to limit the rights of people that do not agree with their interpretation of Islam, including other Moslems.
There is a remarkable scene in the 2001 movie Nuremberg which is about the major war crimes trials following the Second World War. There is a scene where the American Army psychologist assigned to the confined war criminals goes to Herman Goering after he hears the testimony of and then questions the commandant of the Auschwitz concentration camp. The climax of that scene involves Goering dressing down the psychologist in words that make one think, and I have included a link to that scene below.
Unfortunately this is what happens when people or groups, be they political or religious are more committed to their ideology than they are to their fellow citizens. It matters not if they are Christians, Moslems, Jews, Hindus, secularists, or others that hold the purity of their political, social, ideological, racial or economic theories as more important than people. It occurs when old prejudices are used under the banner of patriotism and nativism to confront real or imagined danger.
My comparison to the Taliban and the Know Nothings while I am sure that it is offensive to some is fitting. Because the spirit of such beliefs is the same, even if they differ in the degree in which people will go to enforce them. Like Hermann Goering’s comments at Nuremberg to Gustav Gilbert the difference between the ideology and actions of the Taliban, or the Know Nothings or the authors of the Jim Crow Laws as opposed to militant Christians and others, who attempt to use the power of the State to suppress, control and persecute those that they find offensive is only a matter of degree.
That may not seem important to some. But it is the difference between a divided society that can agree to disagree respecting the differences within it, and one for which factions attempt to use the police power of the State and the law of the land to persecute those that are different.
Goering in his critique of America in the 1930s and 1940s was correct; what we as a society enshrined in law and in our culture to discriminate against others differed little from what the Nazis did, only in the matter of degree. The sad thing is there are those today that work tirelessly to bring about a return to such practices.
It is something for us all to think about.