Thomas Nast cartoon
It is always interesting, at this time of year, to remind people that cartoonist Thomas Nast – beloved
for more or less inventing our cherished image of Santa Claus – was also a wildly anti-Irish, anti-Catholic bigot.

For proof, see any of his cartoons from the late 19th Century in which the Irish look like apes and Catholics are depicted as crocodiles or other scheming, rapacious beasts.

Nast has been in the news of late because an entity called the New Jersey Hall of Fame has suggested that he perhaps be enshrined in their institution.

Such a situation can make you think about many things, but one thing that comes to my mind is that what we think of as “the good old days” were pretty damned bad.
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Oh, without a doubt, we have our problems today.  This is reflected in polls which show that Americans feel about as bad as you can about everything from the economy to Congress.

Along with that, inevitably, comes a feeling that things were once good but we lost something along the way.


Look at politics for a moment.  You bet we have our problems now.  You can say we have a real problem with these boneheaded Tea Party types or these freeloading Occupy Wall Street types.

But that is baby stuff compared to the rough stuff that emerged from the political scene, say, in the 1920s.

In fact, not one but two new books have recently been published about the power and influence of the Ku Klux Klan in the early 20th Century.  Talk about your fun holiday reading!

The titles are One Hundred Percent American: The Rebirth and Decline of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s by Thomas R. Pegram and Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930 by Kelly J. Baker.

In his review of the two books in The New York Times this past Sunday, National Book Award-winner and Irish American historian Kevin Boyle blunders a bit by more or less comparing the Tea Party to the 1920s-era KKK.

“Imagine,” Boyle wrote, “a political movement created in a moment of terrible anxiety, its origins shrouded in a peculiar combination of manipulation and grass-roots mobilization, its ranks dominated by Christian conservatives and self-proclaimed patriots, its agenda driven by its members’ fervent embrace of nationalism, nativism and moral regeneration, with more than a whiff of racism wafting through it.”

He’s speaking, of course, of the Klan, but leading readers to think of the Tea Party.

Even if you agree with Boyle’s characterization of the Tea Party, to see them as inheritors of the Klan’s  tradition says more about the Tea Party’s current critics than it does about the group itself.

If anything, even if you believe the Tea Party is the new Klan, this shows you how much better off we are today.  After all, there’s no denying certain, maybe even many, Tea Party members have dabbled in race-baiting, class warfare and religious zealotry.

But those things are not central to the philosophy of the Tea Party, as they proudly were to the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s.

The Irish, Italians, Jews, the Vatican.  The Klan vociferously fought against all of these things and more.

As Ken Burns’ recent documentary on Prohibition showed, the Klan was making a final stand for a rural, Protestant America that saw cities as mongrelized bastions of sin.

And when Roman Catholic Al Smith was roundly beaten in the 1928 presidential election, it might have seemed the Klan was going to win.

Perhaps most interestingly, Republicans sat out this fight.  This was an intra-Democratic clash, with the ethnic Tammany Hall wing of the Dems doing battle with the racist, anti-immigrant rural wing of the party.

Yes, the KKK had members on the Supreme Court and in Congress and in state houses across the country. But the Klan was eventually ushered off the national stage.

Their paranoid impulses, of course, stuck around.  We see vestiges of it today all across the political spectrum.

Vestiges are one thing.  Burning crosses are another.

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