The Know-Nothing Party, the Chandler House and Our National Sherbert Salesman

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Michael Davidow

Bi MICHAEL DAVIDOW, Radio Free New Hampshire

The Chandler House in Manchester is a gorgeous old Victorian pile loaded with stunningly intricate interiors and a two million dollar renovation cost.

It is owned by the Catholic diocese, and the Catholic diocese wants to tear it down. Unable to afford the upkeep and so far unwilling to hand it off to someone who can, church officials have been churlishly insisting on their right to do whatever they want with it.

Manchester’s mayor and other city officials are trying to convince them to stop being so selfish. It’s been a while since our Catholic friends were this obtuse about public relations.

History comes alive now and then. I grew up in Manchester, which for many decades could be loosely yet accurately described as a small (but gritty!) city in which Protestant professionals paid Irish cops to keep tabs on French-Canadian mill workers.

That city is gone, of course. But it was nice of the Catholic Church to remind us of its existence (even if it accomplished this trick by picking up its marbles and threatening to go home).

There is a classic essay called The Paranoid Style in American Politics, written in 1964 by a mid-century academic named Richard Hofstadter. This work is more cited than studied, and more misunderstood than appreciated. People tend to name-check it whenever they discuss the American right wing in deprecating tones, wondering what is wrong with these people: these people who disrespect science, these people who hate outsiders, these people who fight progress in all its guises. But Hofstadter was not interested strictly in what was wrong with these people. He wanted to know what made them tick.

He was particularly interested in why they tended to vote against their own interests: why they voted as if they themselves were wealthy, when they tended to be poor. He pointed out that liberals often praise people who vote against their own interests, but only in the other direction — only when wealthy people vote in favor of policies that help the needy. We liberals consider that to be admirable. Yet when the poor vote in a similarly principled fashion, we question their intelligence.

In tracing its history, Hofstadter argued that the American right wing grew up as a nativist construct, one which sees itself as suffering one onslaught after the other. And one of the first threats it had to weather, of course, was Catholicism, as most obviously embodied by the wave of Irish immigrants that hit this country in the 19th century.

Picture a group of people who all look and speak alike (freckles, blue eyes, and porcelain skin predominating, if I recall my youth correctly). Picture them massing in numbers large enough to take control of giant cities; picture them taking over entire neighborhoods. Picture them pledging allegiance to a foreign power. Picture them refusing to integrate with the rest of our society; insisting on having their own schools, their own hospitals, their own social clubs. Picture them putting uniforms on their children.

Now picture yourself in the position of a 19th century farmer, and ask yourself how you would feel (for added fun and amusement, imagine if there were enough Muslim immigrants today, to accomplish what the Irish managed to do) (and if you can imagine that, then you can imagine modern France). That was Hofstadter’s true contribution to American political debate: making the advent of the Know-Nothing Party a completely reasonable thing.

I try hard to remember that lesson when I am dealing with those who still support our national sherbet salesman.

I try hard to remember that what seems like contempt for science is something deeper, an attempt to cleave to higher moral standards than science alone can provide; that what seems like hatred of the other is really just a reflection of the love one has for one’s own, and the fear one has for its safety; that the worship of guns is not just an advocacy of violence, but an assertion of selfhood in an age of conformity. I try, but mostly I fail. Because the sherbet salesman himself does not know these things. The sherbet salesman himself is beneath them. And he is opening up doors that we will all regret.

Anyway, from the vantage point of nearly two hundred years later, we can see that the fears of the Know-Nothing Party were misplaced. We can see that the Irish and their Catholic brethren gave our country vitality, drive, and beauty.

The Know Nothings represented a dead end. But thanks to the Manchester church’s recent display of pride and ego, at least we can also see why they weren’t that crazy. So, I thank our local prelates for that handy reminder.

Michael Davidow is a lawyer in Nashua.  He is the author of Gate City, Split Thirty, and The Rocketdyne Commission, three novels about politics and advertising which, taken together, form The Henry Bell Project.  His most recent one is The Book of Order. They are available on Amazon.

Views expressed in columns and opinion pieces belong to the author and do not reflect those of

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