“No, not that movement,” he wrote cleverly.

What a remarkable gem from the New York Times Sunday Book Review — in this case reviewing two books about the Ku Klux Klan:

Imagine a political movement created in a moment of terrible anxiety, its origins shrouded in a peculiar combination of manipulation and grass-roots mobilization, its ranks dominated by Christian conservatives and self-proclaimed patriots, its agenda driven by its members’ fervent embrace of nationalism, nativism and moral regeneration, with more than a whiff of racism wafting through it.

No, not that movement. The one from the 1920s, with the sheets and the flaming crosses and the ludicrous name meant to evoke a heroic past. The Invisible Empire of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, they called it. And for a few years it burned across the nation, a fearsome thing to behold.

No, not that movement“? To what, exactly, is the good liberal professor Boyle referring with his overwrought, massively condescending and faux-cryptic allusion?

My best guess is the Know-Nothings, started in 1854 in reaction to the hundreds of thousands of Irish immigrants to America. They were nearly all poor, Catholic, uneducated, hungry (they were escaping a horrible famine in Ireland) and spoke with a barely intelligible brogue. It was America’s first experience with mass immigration — and America’s almost exclusively Protestant stock, at the time, wasn’t pleased. Riots, burnings and lootings erupted across the Northeast and Midwest. Opponents of immigration formed the Know-Nothing Party, which swept the Massachusetts elections and polled well across the north. Their platform promised strict limitations on immigration from Catholic countries and the teaching of Protestantism in public schools.

The Civil War was a bit of a burp in the northern hate, what with the hordes of immigrants pressed into war service immediately after their arrival at Ellis Island. The Know-Nothing Party (so called because they began as a secret society and were instructed to say, “I know nothing” when asked about their secret meetings) dwindled, immigration from other Catholic countries surged, and “nativism” settled into local disputes.

While I believe I’ve teased out Professor Boyle’s clever allusion, I’m a bit troubled by this fact. Most Americans know nothing about the Know-Nothings. You have to be a pretty geeky student of history to pick up on the Know-Nothings with nothing but “No, not that movement” as a hint.

True, the good professor is writing for the New York Times, which fairly presumes ideologically selective omniscience of its readers, but the style-book would have then dictated this cleverness: “No, not that movement, you know-nothing, I mean the Ku Klux Klan.” That is, the less (excruciatingly) obvious choice. Yeah, no, it’s not adding up.

There is another possibility. Less plausible — but at least a bit later in time, and therefore not requiring readers to pick up on a fairly obscure mid-19th century allusion with no clues. Congress enacted the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 — a mind-boggling bigoted enactment intended not only to block Chinese immigration, but to prevent existing Chinese immigrants from becoming naturalized citizens.

Chinese immigrants built the first transcontinental railroad (and about 1,000 died in avalanches and accidents). America responded with hatred of the “yellow peril.” San Francisco created segregated schools for Asian children and western states enacted laws making it illegal for Asian immigrants to own property or open businesses.

The Immigration Act of 1924 made clear that the exclusion of 1882 applied to all Asians (and incidentally limited immigration from southern and eastern Europe, i.e., Italian and Polish Catholics and Jews).

And again, a big war was a bit of a burp in the Northern hate. China was our ally in World War II, and so Congress eased the exclusion nastiness — and simply set the quota for Chinese immigrants way low. (Japanese-Americans were huddled into internment camps around this time.)

Now that’s got the makings of “nationalism and nativism” — but I’m not sure I see any “movement” here — much less “a political movement created in a moment of terrible anxiety.” While helpfully later in time, I just don’t see the good Professor Boyle’s allusion pointing fruitfully to the horrible racism against Asians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

So whatever could he mean by “No, not that movement?

One Response to “No, not that movement,” he wrote cleverly.

  1. I’ve no recollection of the Know-Nothings – having snoozed through much of American History. I blame the teacher.

    I thought he was referring to the Religious right, Kendrick. But I followed the link and it appears that he’s referring to that other movement or party. Honestly, the guy’s a bit hysterical, don’t you think? And he paints with a mighty broad brush, eh? Anyway, the sentiments expressed by the author have been written in places far closer to home than Russia.

    Hyperbole and labeling, affixing broad categories to an entire group is revolting whether it happens to that “other movement” or that “other one.”

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