Today’s Know Nothing Party wears it proudly

Back in the mid-1800s there was a political party that called itself the “Know Nothings.” Ahead of their time, they were anti-immigration and pro religious purity. Eventually they disappeared, reanimating in our time, morphing into the “You Shall Know Nothing” party”; although I believe they prefer “Republican.”

Some people don’t like it when I say things like that. But in the 1850s the name was meant ironically; today’s version flaunts know-nothingism like a banner. For today’s Republicans, to whom true conservatism is as foreign as whatever it is Sarah Palin sees from her porch, proscribing knowledge is an organizing principle. To see what I mean, let’s have an edifying look at several examples.

Wyoming’s governor has asked President Obama not to explore the environmental impact of burning coal. Congressional Republicans kiboshed funds to study gun violence. Texas Republicans banned any mention of rising sea levels from assessments of climate change; cut the words right out of a report. North Carolina Republicans made it illegal to use sea level predictions in developing coastal management policies. A Republican congressman on the House Science Committee (!) calls science “lies from the pit of Hell.” Included in the Texas Republican party platform (Texas: it’s columnist gold) is this memorable statement: “We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills, critical thinking skills and similar programs … which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.” Imagine that: challenging students’ “fixed” beliefs by teaching them to think, exposing them to stuff their parents didn’t!

“What a snob,” said Rick Santorum of Obama’s plans to help kids get education beyond high school. Sarah Palin mocks educated people for a living. (Full disclosure: she crossed a line with me when she derided fruit fly research, in which discipline I did my honors research project in college.) When Jon Huntsman warned Republicans not to become the anti-science party, he was ejected from presidential candidacy faster than Mitt Romney’s money hied to the Cayman Islands. Last November, Congressional Republicans squelched a nonpartisan report from the Congressional Research Service that found no correlation between top tax rates and economic growth.

There’s more: A Republican congressman is introducing legislation banning the Census Bureau from collecting demographic and economic data, despite their critical importance to both public and private agencies. House Republicans have managed to restrain the National Science Foundation from doing social science research; and one of them (a Texan!) has proposed subjecting all research to Congressional approval, as opposed to scientific peer review. Bye-bye small government, hello Politburo!

Everyone tends to ignore, let’s call them, inconvenient truths. But there’s only one political party methodically preventing them from being known, while characterizing intellectualism and quality education as some sort of fey elitism. From their propagandists of the airwaves to their elected officials, hiding the truth and making up falsehoods (reeducation camps! birth certificates! jihadists in the White House!) isn’t the occasional outlier, it’s the factory setting. Plan A: suffocate unwelcome information at birth; Plan B: block new facts from conception. In what way is this conservatism? How do thoughtful conservatives rationalize associating with a party that aggressively expurgates knowledge? If it bothers them, why aren’t they saying so? These aren’t made-up accusations; they’re visible to the naked eye. Where’s the outrage? Or embarrassment.

Throughout the country, public education is under attack by Republican legislatures (some calling it “mind control”), cutting funding, seeking to give religious beliefs equal time in science classes. (Fun project: Search “4th grade science quiz dinosaur.” Then define “mind control.”) The charter schools movement threatens to become a Trojan horse for public funding of retrogressive or religious education (happily, the Louisiana Supreme Court just declared Bobby Jindal’s plan unconstitutional), producing kids deliberately taught not to think. (Texas out-bagged that cat.) It’s as if Republicans have concluded that informed people will no longer vote for them.

And here’s the irony: neither recognizing nor acknowledging it, today’s Know Nothing Party counts on liberals to save them from themselves. Because it sure won’t be products of their redaction-based education, or people they’ve blocked from knowing stuff, who discover a cure for cancer, who solve our energy problems, negotiate a treaty, or make the next technological leap. As long as there are liberals who value education and respect science, today’s Republicans can indulge their culture of censorship and denial, while the rest of us strive to secure the future for everyone, against the tide, facing facts.

Sid Schwab lives in Everett. Send emails to

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