John Dickson: Melville's political prescience

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PITTSFIELD >> Perhaps it is time to reconsider Herman Melville, not for the whale, but for his social commentary that speaks to us across generations in this presidential campaign season.

Melville is back in the news following the release of the much promoted Ron Howard movie "In the Heart of the Sea," the account of the sinking of the whaling ship Essex that inspired "Moby-Dick." As Americans, we grow up knowing the broad parameters of Melville's tale (not tail), even if we never made it past the first chapter. Ahab's chasing the white whale is part of our cultural DNA, shorthand for an obsessive, disastrous pursuit.

Embedded into this novel, written in Pittsfield shortly after Melville moved here in 1850, though, is the story of Ishmael, the sailor-narrator, and Queequeg, the tattooed, heathen Polynesian harpooner who was peddling shrunken heads when Ishmael first met him. Initially terrified of Queequeg, Ishmael concludes that "The man's a human being just as I am: he has just as much reason to fear me, as I have to be afraid of him." Melville's summation reaches across 175 years with a pointed rebuke of politics following the San Bernadino shooting after Thanksgiving: "Ignorance is the parent of fear."

The Know-Nothings

As Melville was writing these lines, he was surrounded by an outburst of nativism, of anti-foreign and anti-Catholic sentiment in Massachusetts, where a new, secret society was gaining adherents: the Know-Nothings. The Know-Nothing name emerged not from a desire to be equated with stupidity, but from the secretive nature of its early days when adherents were instructed to answer questions about the order by saying they "know nothing." Following their success in several state political elections in 1854, they gave themselves the respectable official title, the American Party, but the Know-Nothing name given to them by outsiders had already stuck.

In 2015, the current crop of Republican presidential candidates seems to drawing for their playbooks a page from the 1850s and the Know-Nothings. They are drawing on several themes and tactics from the 19th century movement, most notably anti-immigration and the rejection of traditional politics. The third pillar of the Know-Nothings, anti-Catholicism, could easily be updated using the "replace all" function on a computer, substituting the word Muslim for the earlier threat to Protestant values.

One Know-Nothing member, Henry Wilson, who was elected as a U.S. senator from Massachusetts, relayed the 1850s playbook, describing the secret order whose "professed purpose was to check foreign influence, purify the ballot box and rebuke the effort to exclude the Bible from the public schools." The societies that fed into the political movement bore their anti-immigrant leanings in their names: Sons of America, the American Protestant Association, the Order of the Star-Spangled Banner, and the Order of United Americans. Members took oaths, according to a national convention in November 1854, to "not vote for any man for any office unless he be an American-born citizen." If elected or appointed to any office, the member would "remove all foreigners, aliens of Roman Catholics from office or place."

The movement saw its greatest growth spurt in a period of generalized dissatisfaction with the inability of both parties to deal with the major issues of the time. Failure of the Whigs in the presidential elections of 1854 and the only temporary resolution of the slavery issue in 1850 left a vacuum in the two-party system, leading quickly to the disappearance of the Whig party.

Tactically, the Know-Nothings focused their attention at the state and municipal levels of electoral politics drawing on their secret organizations to mobilize voters to head to the polls and reject traditional politicians. They were most successful here in Massachusetts, when voters in 1854 swept into office Henry J. Gardiner as governor and nearly all 400 races for the Senate and House. Races from Maine to Louisiana and California saw gains from Know Nothing candidates, moving Charles Francis Adams of Massachusetts to state "There has been no revolution so complete since the organization of government."

The parallels to 2015 resound — anti-immigration in the rhetoric of "deny entry to all Muslims" and "build a wall;" anti-political parties in the rhetoric of "I am not Washington's candidate;" secret political organizations in the fund-raising behind super-PACs; the tactics of state and local mobilizing paying off in gerrymandered and now permanently safe electoral districts in the House of Representatives; the "purity of the ballot box" in the attempted legislated election restrictions making it harder for minorities to cast their ballot.

Virtue of ignorance

One aspect of the current version, though, does not track with its earlier model. While the 1850s movement did not embrace a lack of knowledge, the 2015 version can lay claim to the connotations of ignorance in knowing nothing, especially when one of the candidates derides the field for its "fantasy" policy proposals. Ohio Governor John Kasich seemed to be mimicking another one-time candidate, former governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindahl, who, in 2013, urged Republicans to "stop being the stupid party. It's time for a new Republican Party that talks like adults."

Instead of answering they "know nothing" when asked a tough question, the candidates resort to an attack on the questioner, for his or her audacity, unfairness or meanness. Knowing nothing or very little can extend to other statements: listing five cabinet departments for elimination that included naming the same department twice; the unwillingness to walk back claims of thousands of people from New Jersey cheering the collapse of the World Trade Towers on Sept. 11; the claim that Obamacare is the worst thing to happen in this country since slavery.

By spouting ignorance, this year's crop of politicians is making good on Melville's dictum of delivering fear. In considering all they advocate, though, that might just be the up side. In fact, they could be driving the ship of state in pursuit of a white whale, with its disastrous ending.

John Dickson served in the U.S. Foreign Service and writes on history in relation to current events at historyallaround.org."


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