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Unprompted: Know-Nothing Politics Is Back -- If It Ever Left at All

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In the mid-19th century a political movement known as the Know-Nothing party gained many followers. Sometimes known as the American Party with the ever popular Millard Fillmore as its standard-bearer, the Know-Nothings made their point and then faded into a laughable chapter American history, proving once again that, when they want to, Americans can do really dumb things.

But their thoughts linger today. The Know-Nothings were strongly anti-Catholic, and we still have some of that. They wanted to bring a halt to immigration, a prejudice that also lingers. It would be of great benefit if all of our leaders who actually know nothing would admit it.

The most rampant example of know-nothings disagreeing with each other is in religion. There’s a wide gamut of opinions, even within the Christian faith. There are liberals, for example, who reject the literal stories of the Bible but go on worshiping anyway. At the other end, we have snake handlers who are confident they’re doing the right thing even when one of their snakes disagrees with them. Kentucky preacher Jamie Coots was so sure of his faith he died for it. I have no doubt he was sincere. If Coots came back to life he’d probably do it again. Sincerity can be a real problem sometimes.

In politics and religion we’ll always find disagreement. There are many really bright people of all persuasions, but it’s probably a good idea to view with suspicion anyone who’s so confident of their opinions that that they insist we believe them too. Of these people there is no shortage.

I consider myself a know-nothing, not because I am anti-Catholic or anti-immigration, but because I have a modest education. A little knowledge can prompt strange behavior. I regret that I didn’t do better in school, or thereafter. I wonder sometimes that if I were really smart some of my opinions would change. Doubtful. As I said, there are really smart people who think each other idiots.

So what is a dull normal to do? We look for help, that’s what. I tend to study the opinions of really smart people I like and sometimes adopt them as my own. If I can find a really smart person who believes what I believe, well, I believe that person is really smart. On the other hand, sometimes I meet a really stupid person who shares my opinions and that is bothersome. I don’t want stupid people to agree with me.

I can’t understand Albert Einstein but I know he was a smart guy and what he said about things was probably right. I’ve read about that speed of light thing several times and still don’t get it. Quantum physics also means a lot, though I really don’t know what it means. There’s no end to knowledge that most of us have no knowledge of.

So, what can we know for sure? The test is simple: Be suspect of anything for which there is no evidence. If it’s true, there’s proof somewhere. A recent survey revealed that 26 percent of high-school students think the sun revolves around the earth. I believe they are wrong. Is it possible that we have a new generation of know-nothings waiting in the wings? I hope not, but the evidence suggests they may overtake us. Sometimes it’s easier to handle a snake than the truth.

But take heart. Amid the rampant mediocrity we still have genius to lead us out of the darkness. We can go to the moon and back, we can transplant organs, and we have iPhones so even we know-nothings can find out stuff, though we often have no idea what we’ve found out.

When I post what I think is a good idea on Twitter, nobody pays any attention. But when I say something really mindless, it finds a wide audience. So that’s what I do, we know-nothings have to hang together. We are, after all, the majority. As Abe Lincoln said, the Lord must like common people because he made so many of them.

We are in the midst of another election season and everyone hopes for an enlightened leader. But chances are we’ll elect another Millard Fillmore, whether we know it or not. S

Gene Cox is an author and inventor who recently retired from a 35-year career as a television anchor in Richmond. Connect with him at letters@styleweekly.com, or on Twitter at @genecoxrva.

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