The New Know Nothings
This time around, we’re talking about people who actually know nothing.
A good deal has been written about the resurgence of the Know Nothing political tradition in America. I won’t be adding much to it here.
But in case you need a refresher, the Know Nothings were a political movement and, ultimately, a political party that began as a secret society. At once difficult to categorize ideologically but easy to recognize, they were populists and nativists. Indeed, the name of their official political party was the Native American Party—back then “Native American” was a term for the white folks who got here first, mostly of English descent (think Daniel Day Lewis in Gangs of New York).
The label “Know Nothing” didn’t begin as a pejorative, because the movement began as a network of secret societies not all that dissimilar to QAnon. When members of these organizations were asked about their political views, they would say, “I know nothing,” or, “I know nothing but my country.”
Their actual views were a dog’s breakfast of crazy, normal, progressive, populist, and reactionary. They were fine with bigger government, opposed slavery, supported workers’ rights, hated the Irish, and believed the pope was conspiring to destroy America by flooding it with mackerel-snapping hellions bent on overthrowing the republic. They didn’t allege that papists were pedophiles in the deep state drinking the blood of children, but they came pretty close. Posters in Boston—where Know Nothings controlled the governorship and the legislature for a while—declared, “All Catholics and all persons who favor the Catholic Church are … vile imposters, liars, villains, and cowardly cutthroats.”
Okay, now that you’re caught up, let’s put all that aside for a second, because I want to talk about a different kind of Know Nothing. Specifically, people who actually know nothing—or, to be fair, very, very little.
If she could turn back time.
Let’s start with Cher (of all people). Last week, in a since-deleted tweet, the chanteuse declared:
So here’s the thing: She meant Kyrsten Sinema, the Arizona senator. She later apologized.
Now, I admit that, in itself, this is a small thing. Lots of people pen errant tweets, including yours truly.
Cher called someone a “traitor”—in all caps, naturally. But rather than take two seconds to make sure she was talking about the right person, she just went with her gut. Why? I don’t know, but I suspect it was because she thought there was no time to waste. Gotta get the message out to those 3.9 million followers!
And then there’s the substance. Cher didn’t apologize for using the term “traitor,” she just apologized for calling the wrong person a traitor. We don’t need to belabor the point, but it’s worth at least acknowledging that Kyrsten Sinema is not, in fact, a traitor. Opposing abolishing the filibuster is not traitorous under any plausible definition. Nor is it grounds to kick someone out of the Senate.
In short, Cher had no idea what she was talking about. Bear in mind, she didn’t just get two names confused. She knew Gillibrand was a senator from New York, which is why she called on New Yorkers to—what?—kick her out somehow. If she followed politics even a little, she’d know that the Kirsten she thought was Kyrsten was from Arizona, not New York.
Oh, and by what mechanism would New Yorkers kick her out? Impeachment? Defenestration? Prayer circles? Transporter beams? This is like one of those Twitter games where someone asks, “Show me you have no idea how politics works without saying so.”
I bring this up not to dunk on Cher (though that has its pleasures) but because I think it illustrates a much broader phenomenon: the near total disconnect between political passion and rudimentary knowledge.
Balls and strikes.
Before you go on about how I am an elitist who wants some sort of unelected priesthood of experts, or a caste system where our intellectual betters run the “system” without plebeian interference, let me note that I’ve written tens of thousands of words, including in several books, against the cult of expertise.
That’s the thing: I’m not talking about expertise. I’m talking about the bare minimum of knowledge about basic facts. It’s like the difference between a baseball fan and a baseball expert. To accurately call yourself a baseball expert, you need to know all sorts of arcane things. But if you call yourself a baseball fan, you should still be able to explain what balls and strikes are. You should know what a bunt is and how runs are scored. If you watch a baseball game and shout, “Go sports team! Get a touchdown!” that’s fine. But don’t tell me you’re in any way a baseball fan. Cher was basically the equivalent of someone at a baseball game yelling, “Put Strasburg in the penalty box! That was high sticking!”
But hey, this is the life we’ve chosen as a free country. Everyone has the right to an opinion, yada yada.
Let’s carry this baseball analogy a bit further and talk about the people who actually claim to be players.
Riddle me this.
Let’s consider Jason Riddle.
Riddle, the pride of Keene, New Hampshire, was one of the Capitol rioters. You may have seen images of him quaffing some vino he stole from a liquor cabinet he found amid the ransacking. He got a little taste of fame as a result and now wants to run for office, in part because pro-riot folks told him he should. As he explained to a local NBC affiliate, “In the long run, if you're running for office, any attention is good attention, so I think it will help me.”
And in a world of Marjorie Taylor Greenes and Matt Gaetzes, who can really argue?
Asked what his arrest for participating in the riot should tell voters, Riddle said, “It tells them I show up. I'm going to actually keep my promises and make some changes.” His campaign platform will be something like “Let’s get back to work.”
He’s now running against Democratic Rep. Annie Kuster in the 2022 midterms.
Now, you really should watch the video to get the full effect. But the next time we hear from Riddle, he says, “I thought Anne was a state representative.”
NBC reporter Katherine Underwood explains to Riddle that his intended opponent is actually a congresswoman in Washington, not a state rep in Concord, New Hampshire.
“Oh, I guess I gotta run against that, then,” Riddle says.
Look, I don’t know jack about this guy beyond what I just told you. He may be a genius at canasta. He could be a hair’s breadth from completing his cold fusion reactor in his garage. For all I know, he may be the only person in the world who has Kobayashi Maru-ed 12-minute brownies by baking them in only seven minutes. But when it comes to politics, this guy is a moron; the “back to work” candidate isn’t willing to put any work at all into figuring out what he’s doing.
But he’s not just a moron, he’s an idiot. As I note in Suicide of the West, the word “idiot” didn’t come to mean “stupid” until the 14th century. Before that, starting with the ancient Greeks, “idiot” was a term for, in the words of John Courtney Murray:
“the man who does not possess the public philosophy, the man who is not master of the knowledge and the skills that underlie the life of the civilized city. The idiot, to the Greek, was just one stage removed from the barbarian. He is the man who is ignorant of the meaning of the word ‘civility.’"
And since we're Greeks, let’s talk about Plato. In the Phaedrus, Plato analogizes the human soul to a chariot. The charioteer is our intellect or capacity to reason and search for truth and the horses represent our passions. One horse personifies (or “equinifies,” I guess) the noble passions and the other represents the baser passions.
Admittedly, it requires manhandling this analogy a bit, but our politics today is shot through with people putting the cart, or in this case the chariot, before the horse(s). If politics required an SAT test, Riddle wouldn’t get the 200 points for filling out his name correctly.
But this is just an extreme illustration of a widespread phenomenon. We don’t need to run through Madison Cawthorn or Lauren Boebert’s greatest hits. They are idiots who champion idiocy as a badge of honor. Cawthorn’s decision to build his staff “around comms rather than legislation” does underscore the point nicely. So does Matt Gaetz’s view that being a jackass on TV is “governing.”
But here’s the thing: There’s really nothing wrong with being an idiot in the original Greek meaning. I mean, it’s nothing to brag about. But you can be an utterly decent and productive member of society without being involved or invested in civic affairs. It’s worth remembering that the ancient Greeks—like the Romans—considered merchants and the like to be inferior people because they were more concerned with their own affairs than the philosophical debates of the elite.
But there’s something grotesque and disordered about a society that thinks passion—particularly baser passion—is something to celebrate. Here’s Scottie Nell Hughes in 2016 defending pro-Trump rioting: “Riots aren’t necessarily a bad thing if it means it’s because [Trump supporters are] fighting the fact that our establishment Republican Party has gone corrupt and decided to ignore the voice of the people and ignore the process” (Hat tip: Amanda Carpenter).
If a liberal said this about Black Lives Matter or Antifa rioting—and a zillion of them did!—Hughes and her ilk would be the first to recognize the perfidy of this thinking.
But again, my point isn’t about the left, the right, or the hypocrisy of either side. It’s about the country. And it’s about the invincible arrogance of placing feelings over everything.
The roots of this romanticist mindset go way back, probably because this is a problem with human nature. There have always been populists and rabble rousers who think passion is more important than reason or knowledge. Thirty years ago, Democrats started arguing that the most important quality in a politician was “concern,” or the ability to, in Bill Clinton’s words, “feel your pain.” When Hillary ran for the Senate from New York, she said her chief qualification as a carpetbagger was that she was “more concerned about the issues that concern New Yorkers.” To which I replied, “Would you prefer a blasé surgeon remove your appendix or a very concerned plumber?”
Say what you will about the Clintons—and I’ve said a lot—they at least did their homework. Democracy requires homework.
Again, this is not an elitist point. It’s about civics. It’s about patriotism. I don’t think you need a Ph.D. in political science to be a good president—Woodrow Wilson had one and he was a horrible president. But if you don’t know what you’re talking about and you want to run for office, you have a moral and patriotic obligation not to be an idiot.
William F. Buckley’s line about how he’d rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston telephone directory than the faculty of Harvard University has taken a beating in recent years. But I’d like to think he assumed that if all those 617-area Abernathys and Adamses were suddenly made congressmen and senators, they’d take a little time out of their suddenly busy schedules to figure out what congressmen and senators, y’know, do.
We expect that of babysitters and baseball coaches. Is it so crazy to expect it of people who hold some degree of political power over our lives?