THE BLOG
11/15/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Today's Know Nothing Movement, Seen from Boulder

It wasn't just in Washington, D.C. that we saw intrusive and know-nothing disruptions over the weekend. It also happened here in Boulder at our fair community center, Chautauqua, where several renowned experts of climate science and sustainability gathered for a panel discussion.

Environmental illuminati author and organizer of the 350 Movement Bill McKibben arrived as guest of honor; also present were local top minds Dr. Albert Bartlett of Manhattan Project fame and noted expounder on peak oil and population growth, and Dr. Kevin Trenberth of the National Center of Atmospheric Research, who won the Nobel Peace Prize with his colleagues for their work on two IPCC assessment reports. Additional Boulder experts focused on education of climate complexities.

As an august gathering brought together by a jocular, irreverent host, Richard Brenne, it was just another day in Boulder.

At the forty-minute mark Bill McKibben pointed out that Exxon Mobil "made more money last year than any company in the history of money," and onto the stage stormed a middle aged guy in shorts and yellow polo shirt, screaming that he was an event sponsor and he was irate that the panel was not speaking in a question and answer format to engage the audience in a climate debate.

The event was never billed as a debate. The audience yelled, "What company are you from?"

Yellowshirt Man never named his company, illogically pointing at the sponsor banner. He didn't even name himself as a way to legitimize his points before Brenne scolded him to leave.

While being dragged away by security Yellowshirt Man yelled in defense of Exxon because of how much pays in taxes.

Now there's new twist on know-nothing activism: complaining on behalf of Exxon Mobil's corporate taxes, a year after the nation learned all about the "Enron Loophole" which protects unregulated speculation in oil and gas.

Here in Boulder, whose population runs several renowned science laboratories and myriad companies in the sustainability sector, we listen to conservative talking points with a crunchy blend of mirth and disgust.

There is an increasingly mindless quality to conservative activism; it grows ever weirder, as if to sustain the same high. So I got to wondering, why are these ranters so credulous? Who's educating this bunch?

Here are some distinctive scholastic achievements of a key line up of Republican leaders:

Rush Limbaugh quit college in his first year. Glenn Beck didn't even start college. Sean Hannity dropped out of two colleges. John McCain graduated in the bottom one percent in his class at the U.S. Naval Academy. Sarah Palin took six years to acquire her degree from five different colleges. House Minority Leader John Boehner took nine years to achieve his bachelor's degree. George W. Bush was clearly a high achiever among this bunch, and he has freely admitted he butchers the English language.

By contrast on the progressive side, two leading pundits, Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow, have a Cornell pigskin and a Stanford degree respectively. The latter is also a Rhodes Scholar, like former President Clinton, who's married to a Wellesley valedictorian, who serves as Secretary of State for a nice guy who was President of the Harvard Law Review.

Which of these groups would be better at absorbing and weighing voluminous amounts of information and weighing its complexities? Which one is more prone to barking out predigested talking points?

Republican Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee has been admonishing Democrats not to "dismiss" the protesters she addressed at Saturday's 9/12 rally on the Mall, who waved signs festooned with fanatical charges of socialism and fascism. She thinks the protesters have legitimate policy concerns, but here's an inconvenient finding blogged by Ted Glick, who scanned the scene: "There was a 100%, complete and total absence from either the stage or people's signs of any negative words about banks and corporations."

How do you have a legitimate policy discussion of economic importance while leaving the corporations entirely out of it? Corporations in the health insurance sector increase executive compensation and profits by denying care and cutting off policies; in short they are acting directly and indirectly as death panels.

When Senator Chuck Grassley chose to cozy up to Sarah Palin's talking point about government run death panels I wrote to his office pointing out that he had thrown away his brand as one of the "grown ups" among the Republicans, and asked, "Do you really want to take up cause with that know-nothing Sarah Palin?"

Little did I know I had stumbled onto an actual political movement of the mid-19th Century called the Know Nothings, which I discovered while reading up on the demise of the Whig party (suspecting this could be the fate for Republicans).

Observe this gem in Wikipedia (and I paraphrase):

The Know Nothing movement was a nativist American political movement of the mid-1800's empowered by populist fears that the country was being overwhelmed by Irish Catholic immigrants who were often regarded as hostile to the nation and controlled by the Pope.

(Can you say, "He's a foreigner! A secret Muslim!"?)

The Know Nothings strove to curb immigration, though having little success and few prominent leaders, most participants ended up joining the Republican Party by the 1860 election.

(Can you say, Lou Dobbs?)

The origin of the "Know Nothing" term was in the semi-secret organization of the party. When a member was asked about it, he was to reply: "I know nothing." The term is better remembered than the party itself, becoming in the 20th Century a provocative slur suggesting the opponent was nativist and ignorant. In 2006 William Kristol in the The Weekly Standard attacked populist Republicans for not recognizing the dangers of turning the GOP into a Know Nothing party.

Well, at least we know this epidemic of noise devouring the conservative base has ancient roots in fear and bigotry, under-education in key leaders, and a willingness to be moved by a cabal. In today's context that cabal is all too corporate, and it's got the Republican Party by the base.