Does anyone think it is the best of times? Many of my friends seem to think it is the worst of times. They refer to the Big Lie claims of a stolen election, the insurrection of January 6, 2021, trying to prevent the consequences of a valid election, conspiracy theories from pedophilia to the great replacement, to racists in office, and so on. They believe that the internet and social media have made America’s worst tendencies worse and that they will continue to spread misinformation, hate, and divisiveness among us. My pessimism about America may not be as great as my friends’, not, however, because I don’t share their feelings, but because I realize that racial hate and violence, attacks on our elections, and dangerous conspiracy theories have been imbedded in this country from its beginnings. American exceptionalism has always contained a heavy dose of craziness.
Long before the internet and social media, this country was crawling with controversies. Looking back many of them seem comical. But many weren’t. They were taken seriously. Many harmed individuals and families. Many harmed the country. A few examples. Consider North Manchester, Indiana.
The 1920s saw an extensive resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan. We may think of the Klan today as a group of anti-Black organizations, and racism has always been a dominant ideology of the KKK, but a hundred years ago, the Klan also heavily featured antisemitism and anti-Catholicism. The anti-Catholicism was a component of an anti-immigrant animus. The Klan followed a Great Replacement theory. Native-born whites were being replaced by dark immigrants from Southern Europe who held a foreign, dangerous, and anti-Christian ideology, that is, Roman Catholicism, and of course, the leader of this Devil’s brigade, and therefore, the figure for reviling, was the Pope. The politics of many northern states were heavily influenced by anti-Catholicism, including attempts to ban Catholic parochial schools. Bizarre conspiracy theories were rampant, including one that affected North Manchester, then and now a small town in north central Indiana.
The 2,700 residents of North Manchester in 1923 saw much Klan activity including a cross burning in February that apparently gave concern only because it was windy that night, and a fire might have spread from the oil-saturated burlap that covered the twenty-foot construction of two-by-four timbers. In April, the local newspaper reported a talk by Reverend Blair to a “large audience,” who explained that the Klan was founded in the South during Reconstruction “when the negroes, controlled by unscrupulous white men, were creating terrorism.” He said that the Klan had been recently reorganized and it was now “composed of American-born Protestant citizens to combat existing evils in the U.S. The Klan never took the law into its own hands, but that it obtained evidence and then turned that information over to the proper authorities.”
A Klan parade in May clogged the roads, and the North Manchesterites saw 129 hooded people participate. In September, 2,500 people attended a Klan picnic and heard Klan speakers.
And during these times, a Klan lecturer warned that the arch-villain, the Pope, was coming on the morning train to Chicago the next day. To protect the native-born Protestants who were exceptional defenders of the country, a thousand people met the train and confronted the one person who disembarked. That man spent an uncomfortable half-hour and finally convinced the concerned citizens that he was not the Pope in disguise but only a corset salesman. Nevertheless, to be on the safe side the Klan acolytes put him on the next train out of town. (See Hooded Americanism: The History of the Ku Klux Klan by David Mark Chalmers.) No one was hurt although one corset salesman had to have been terrified and could not do his job, but this craziness was a mere sliver of what affected the country.
A different conspiracy theory affected my hometown while I was growing up. In the 1940s, scientists learned that fluoride could help prevent tooth decay. Sheboygan, Wisconsin, has not been a national leader in many things, but according to the Sheboygan Water Utility Company, in 1946 it became the first water company in Wisconsin and the third in the country to fluoridate its water supply. I drank that water from infancy and do have good teeth. However, in the 1940s and 1950s, far right politicians maintained that fluoridation was a plot to impose a communist regime in this country by sapping the brainpower and strength of a generation of kids. I would explain the logic behind this movement, but I was mystified by it then, and I still am. Even as a pre-teen, I thought that if the communists sought to take over this country by targeting Sheboygan, then those Bolsheviks were a long way away from dominating the world. But the spread of this paranoia had significant success as referendums around the country defeated fluoridated water, and it was not until the 1990s that most of the country had the benefits that it brings.
We tend to forget now how often the communist label was spread to oppose progress. Rachel Carson writing about imminent ecological damage was a tool of the communists. Martin Luther King, Jr., if not an actual communist, was a dupe of them. The National Council of Churches had communistic tendencies. Medicare is communism. Teachers teaching anything that a red-blooded American might object to was a communist. Rock ‘n roll fostered communism. And so on. The right wing in the era of McCarthyism and beyond trotted out fears of a giant communist conspiracy again and again with as much basis as the Big Lie today, and many individuals and this country suffered because of it. Conservatives then and now could not tell the difference between radicalism to be feared and an idea.
(concluded May 27)