The enduring Know-Nothing strain

THE ENDURING KNOW-NOTHING STRAIN…. Washington Times editor Wesley Pruden trashed President Obama in his column today, which wouldn’t ordinarily be especially interesting. The right-wing writer, however, touched on a specific kind of attack that illustrates a larger trend.

In this case, Pruden is all worked up because the president bowed before the Japanese Emperor. Pruden believes Obama doesn’t understand “American history” because “the essence of America is that all men stand equal and are entitled to look even a king, maybe particularly a king, straight in the eye.”

That’s nice rhetoric, which would be more compelling were it not for the various photos of Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, and H.W. Bush bowing before foreign leaders during their respective tenures. I’ve looked for related columns of Pruden trashing these Republican presidents for forgetting “the essence of America,” but can’t seem to find any.

But the key to the column is the wrap-up:

…Mr. Obama, unlike his predecessors, likely knows no better, and many of those around him, true children of the grungy ’60s, are contemptuous of custom. Cutting America down to size is what attracts them to “hope” for “change.” It’s no fault of the president that he has no natural instinct or blood impulse for what the America of “the 57 states” is about. He was sired by a Kenyan father, born to a mother attracted to men of the Third World and reared by grandparents in Hawaii, a paradise far from the American mainstream.

This is obviously some pretty offensive nonsense from a shameless hack, but it also speaks to a Know-Nothing strain that lingers in American politics.

Nativism was more common during last year’s campaign. Columnist Kathleen Parker, for example, wrote a piece in May 2008 on questions of candidates and “full-bloodedness.” She wrote, “It’s about blood equity, heritage and commitment to hard-won American values. And roots…. We love to boast that we are a nation of immigrants. But there’s a different sense of America among those who trace their bloodlines back through generations of sacrifice…. Full-blooded Americans get this.”

The skepticism was, of course, directed at Barack Obama, which is odd when one thinks about it — his grandfather fought in Patton’s Army, and Obama himself is apparently a distant cousin of Dick Cheney. How his “roots” have been deemed inadequate is a mystery.

Unless, of course, you’re a conservative who think the president’s father doesn’t count because he was African; his mother doesn’t count because she married a man from “the Third World”; and his birthplace doesn’t count because it’s a non-contiguous state. It’s what makes Pruden comfortable openly mocking the president’s “blood impulse” — as if the president is only technically American, in a way that we shouldn’t respect.

It’s a shame such reminders are necessary in the 21st century, but I’d like to note that America isn’t a country club or fraternity reserved for the white, wealthy elite. Obama’s story is a uniquely American story. Some of us take pride in such things. The notion that we must judge citizens based on a right-wing understanding of “natural instincts” or “heritage” — more generations = more American — is an idea that offends everything our country stands for.