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April 29, 2008

New Know-Nothings

Roy Meachum

When the county commissioners overwhelmingly rejected the notion of adopting English as Frederick's official language, I could but stand and cheer. The proposal came from Charles Jenkins, and I have no reason to doubt his motives.


Mr. Jenkins may have sublimated personal views to those of his constituency; that's what the democratic process is all about in this representative republic. If that statement confuses, it tells it like it is. Our system does not permit direct voting but electing representatives who vote for us. That is not democracy, but a republic.


Some of my friends are unusually concerned. They see recent arrivals, particularly Latinos, as taking jobs out of the pockets of residents; they view every "foreigner" as illegal, whether true or not. They want every sun tan matched with blue eyes, even though theirs might be brown.


For reasons not totally clear, these "good Americans" view with suspicion anyone who speaks in an accent that contradicts those familiar and comfortable to them.


These guardians of what is "real American" thrived in the last century's pre-Civil War era. Many belonged to the Native American Party, which felt its organization, membership and credo must be kept secret. Questions posed to understand their group and its purposes provoked the general reply: I know nothing.


History remembers the movement by this easier handle; they are called Know-Nothings. Even at the time, they were notorious for hating the newly arrived Irish. They also turned suspicious and hate-filled eyes to Roman Catholics. The church comforted refugees from the potato famines infesting the Emerald Isle. They used force at many opportunities, including torture and murder. They thought little of torching out foreigners.


The post-Civil War Ku Klux Klan continued the same philosophy and methods. The popular misconception that they targeted only blacks is wrong! Their horrible record with African Americans cannot be emphasized enough.


Rejecting all things not instantly understood, they were primarily anti-foreign by nature and that meant the religion that sheltered recent immigrants. Scores of Roman Catholic churches were put to the torch.


As the Know-Nothings before, the Klan succeeded in capturing a number of political offices and wrote xenophobic bigotry into state codes. The Bed Sheet Brigade easily turned out 35,000 for 1928's march down Washington's Pennsylvania Avenue. The economy's collapse the following year diverted the Kluxies to simple survival; an attempted revival to stop integration spluttered out but not before killing scores of black and "freedom workers," their white allies.


Noises around Winchester Hall are vague beside shouts from other sections of the country, operating in true Know-Nothing fashion against Latinos. The new targets echo the 19th century targets; they both are Roman Catholic and willing to work for wages that others spurn.


Rhode Island's governor ordered the state police and other agencies to clean out illegals, but offered no clues on how to separate them from legitimate residents of the same ethnic origin. Don Carcieri has been advised the faltering economy aborts his good intention. The governor persists.


In nearby Virginia, counties crowded by people fleeing the Washington metro area are now filled with talk about throwing out newcomers as a way to control growth, their code for keeping out all foreigners. Prosperous Latinos avoid shops and restaurants, fearing immigrant watchdogs. Hundreds of men, women and children live each day with fear. Even when legal, an arrest can cost a day's wage, while their legality is determined.


Commissioner Jenkins' proposal was flooded by the votes of all four of his colleagues. Jan Gardner, David Gray, Kai Hagen and John "Lennie" Thompson earned great credit for their united stand against growing public sentiment. Their position could cost support at the next election.


But this way lies the dictatorship sought in the past by Know-Nothings, the Klan and individuals like Joseph R. McCarthy.


I couldn't be prouder of all the commissioners, including Charles Jenkins who put on the table for dissection and dismissal an altogether un-American approach to today's local crisis in immigration difficulties.


Winchester Hall, well done!

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