My Turn: Who needs a library when we have the Internet?

For the Monitor
Published: 5/2/2021 1:00:04 PM

‘Who needs a library when we have the Internet?” I recently read on a local blog dedicated to inciting nativist and xenophobic trolls in our Granite State.

One of the enduring and dangerous ironies of our time is that an embrace of prejudice and ignorance, through rejection of knowledge and reason, that resulted in part in the triumph of Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party in 1860 is today being replicated by 21st century Republicans.

In the 1840s and 1850s, the “Know-Nothing” movement was primarily an anti-immigrant, mostly anti-Catholic and anti-Irish movement which at its nativist and xenophobic core empowered gangs like the Blood Tubs, Bowery Boys, Atlantic Guards and Plug Uglies to terrorize immigrants and burn Catholic schools and churches.

Among the victims terrorized by their embrace of ignorance and prejudice was Father Johannes Bapst, a Swiss-born Jesuit who arrived in America in 1840, the year Know-Nothings looted and burned an Ursuline convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts.

While a parish priest in Ellsworth, Maine, Bapst enraged Know-Nothings when he proposed that Catholic school children be exempt from reading the Protestant King James Bible. In response, they blew up the local Catholic school and broke the windows of both rectory and church, which they then tried to torch.

Who needs the Catholic Douay–Rheims Bible when you have King James?

Then, on Oct. 14, 1854, according to one account, the Know-Nothings “… carried [Bapst] on a sharp rail to a lonely place, stripped him naked, bound him to a tree, having smeared him with tar and feathers. They then piled brush around him and attempted to set it afire, but their matches gave out …”

Father Bapst, a survivor of terror and xenophobia, went on to become the first president of Boston College, which itself struggled for years to obtain a charter from the anti-Catholic state legislature.

By 1860 enough Americans had turned against the excesses of the Know-Nothings that a fairly new political party, created in 1854 in Exeter, New Hampshire, was voted into power and Abraham Lincoln was elected president.

Sadly, Know-Nothings weren’t America’s first or last dalliance with ignorance, racism and violence. For some, the malign spirit of evil and hate is never far removed from their soul and persists from generation to generation.

The Know-Nothing spirit has been rekindled, often in white supremacy, in the Ku Klux Klan, in the American Protective Association, in Jim Crow, in the 1940s America First Party, in George Wallace, in Donald Trump’s vile Birther-ism, racism and nativism, in demonstrations where chants of “Jews will not replace us” echoed in city streets, and in the Trump-inspired insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6 where a gallows was erected to lynch Vice President Pence.

“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been,” Isaac Asimov wrote in 1980. “The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

Yesterday’s Blood Tubs have become Oath Keepers and Proud Boys. 19th-century anti-Catholic terrorists have become Islamophobes. Yesterday’s anti-Irish terrorists have become inciters of violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, against LGBTQ and BIPOC peoples.

Yesterday’s White Supremacists are today’s White Supremacists.

The terrorists who torched Father Bapst’s church in Ellsworth in 1854 were the political antecedents of those who torched the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1963, who attacked a Sikh gurdwara in Oak Tree in 2012, who attacked the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018.

Sadly, in America, there’s no expiration on irrationality and xenophobia. No vaccine against violence. No vaccine against the deeply held anti-intellectual tradition that believes its ignorance is just as valid as truth and knowledge.

No protection against deeply held anti-intellectual traditions that deny the humanity of anyone unlike themselves.

“To be an intellectual really means to speak a truth that allows suffering to speak,” Cornel West wrote in 2000. “That is, it creates a vision of the world that puts into the limelight the social misery that is usually hidden or concealed by the dominant viewpoints of a society. ‘Intellectual’ in that sense simply means those who are willing to reflect critically upon themselves as well as upon the larger society and to ascertain whether there is some possibility of amelioration and betterment.”

I’m not optimistic about the possibility of amelioration and betterment.

What confronts us today is what Karl Popper calls the paradox of tolerance that “unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. [That] If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them… [that] … We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant…”

What confronts us today is the fact that someone can actually posit: “Who needs a library when we have the Internet?”

The first free modern public library in the world supported by taxes was the Peterborough Town Library (presently being expanded) in Peterborough, New Hampshire, established in 1833.

The public library is one of America’s few surviving public squares, fully accommodating Plato’s maxim that “Knowledge is the food of the soul.”

Libraries nourish us in intellectual shelters that have endured for generations. They are provocative, engaging, and enlightening - shelters that offer safe harbor against the malign forces of ignorance and anti-intellectualism presently being offered by today’s Republican Party.

Libraries nourish our democracy.

“The question of whether our democracy will long endure is both ancient and urgent,” Biden said this week in his address to Congress. “Can our democracy deliver on its promise that all of us … Can our democracy overcome the lies, anger, hate and fears that have pulled us apart?”

The Party of Lincoln, the GOP that once countered the Know-Nothings, has so shifted to its dystopian right, especially since the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, even more so recently since Barack Obama’s presidency, has today become what it once rejected — a party of know-nothings embracing nativism, racism and xenophobia rooted in such ignorance and anti-intellectualism that it directly threatens our survival as a democracy.

Republicans need libraries.

(Robert Azzi, a photographer and writer who lives in Exeter, can be reached at theother.azzi@gmail.com. His columns are archived at theotherazzi.wordpress.com.)




Concord Monitor Office

1 Monitor Drive
Concord,NH 03301
603-224-5301

 

© 2020 Concord Monitor
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy