The Flag of the Know Nothing’s of the 1850s
Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
Captain Jean Luc Picard said in Star Trek the Next Generation, “the road from legitimate suspicion to rampant paranoia is very much shorter than we think….”
I am amazed at the amount of fear being sown on the political campaign trail and by so many politicians, pundits, and preachers, the Trinity of Evil who employ fear and falsehoods with great aplomb to drive people into their camp. Sadly, too many people do not see this and respond based on the emotion of fear, and distrust, driven by the paranoia sown by the politicians, preachers, and pundits. I write about history all the time, and a few month’s back I wrote a piece for my Civil War and Gettysburg text that dealt with the Know Nothing Party and movement of the 1840s and 1850s. The story of the Know Nothings provides good lessons for us today, that is why I placed their flag as header for this article, because their whole platform was based on fear and paranoia. For the Know Nothings it was the fear of Irish and German immigrants, especially Catholics; for us it is Arabs, Moslems, Chinese, and Latin Americans, particularly Mexicans.
We live in a time when there are legitimate threats, and real things to fear, but the politicians, pundits and preachers take things that are reasonable to be concerned about, and then find some external or internal enemy to blame them on. As Captain Picard so well noted, the road from legitimate suspicion to rampant paranoia is very much shorter than we think, and if we go down that road, we will destroy ourselves and our civil liberties. The Roman philosopher Cicero expressed this so well when he wrote, “No power on earth, if it labors beneath the burden of fear, can possibly be strong enough to survive.”
I am reminded of the speech made by the character played by Burt Lancaster in the great movie Judgement at Nuremberg. It is really amazing and speaks to the condition that we are finding ourselves in today.
“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. The world said ‘go ahead, take it, take it! Take Sudetenland, take the Rhineland – remilitarize it – take all of Austria, take it! And then one day we looked around and found that we were in an even more terrible danger. The ritual began in this courtroom swept over the land like a raging, roaring disease. What was going to be a passing phase had become the way of life. Your honor, I was content to sit silent during this trial. I was content to tend my roses. I was even content to let counsel try to save my name, until I realized that in order to save it, he would have to raise the specter again. You have seen him do it – he has done it here in this courtroom. He has suggested that the Third Reich worked for the benefit of people. He has suggested that we sterilized men for the welfare of the country. He has suggested that perhaps the old Jew did sleep with the sixteen year old girl, after all. Once more it is being done for love of country. It is not easy to tell the truth; but if there is to be any salvation for Germany, we who know our guilt must admit it… whatever the pain and humiliation.”
We must guard ourselves from the rampant fear and paranoia promoted by the politicians, pundits, and preachers who rant throughout the twenty-four hour news cycle if we are to maintain our civil liberties and freedoms. This is why I write, because we cannot allow ourselves to fall into the age old trap that is being set for us by the politicians, pundits, and preachers who make their living by exploiting people’s fears and sowing distrust which becomes a poison, which left untreated leads of vast and heinous crimes.