U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Trouble with “Un-American”

This past week has been deeply depressing. It started with the horrific Paris attacks, the response to which in this country largely consisted of calls from a number of prominent politicians to shut our doors to Syrian and Iraqi refugees. Despite not having the power to do so, twenty-six governors announced that they would close their states to such refugees. The House of Representatives then quickly passed a bill that would severely limit the number of refugees coming into the country.

Among the few political bright spots in this dreary week were the swift and eloquent responses to the xenophobic calls to shut out Syrian refugees.  Numerous commentators pointed out that Syrian refugees posed no significant threat and that building further barriers to their entry would be doing ISIS’s work for it. Before the House had even acted, the President had promised to veto any bill that put further restrictions on refugees coming to the United States.

But one aspect of this pushback has bothered me: the use of the word “un-American” to describe xenophobes who call to exclude Syrian refugees.

Karin Johanson, director of the ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office:

Speaker Ryan and this un-American bill’s supporters falsely claim it will simply pause U.S. resettlement of refugees.  In fact, it will bring resettlement of Syrian and Iraqi refugees to a grinding halt by adding layers of bureaucracy to an already rigorous process.

Congressperson Seth Moulton (D-MA):

Shutting the door on the very people who ISIS is trying to target is playing right into the enemy’s hands.  It’s un-American, it’s immoral, and it’s not going to lead to the defeat of ISIS.

Roulla Allouch, National Board Chair of the Council on American-Islamic Relations:

[I]t’s really disturbing and very un-American for these governors to be saying that we, as the United States, wouldn’t offer a place of refuge and a place of safety and security for people that have been suffering from horrific acts for many, many years now.

Congressperson Earl Blumenauer (D-OR):

Turning our back on Syrian refugees is un-American, un-patriotic, and morally weak.

New York Mayor  Bill de Blasio:

This is a nation of immigrants. So I find it absolutely hypocritical for anyone to say, ‘Let us shut our borders to people who are victims of violence’ — the innocent people who are fleeing a humanitarian crisis. That is un-American.

And so forth.

For at least two reasons, I think we ought to abandon using the word “un-American” in this way.

The word apparently goes back to the early 19th century. But since the middle of the 20th century, it has been most associated with the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), which played a central role in the Second Red Scare. It had become a standing committee in 1945, replacing a series of ad hoc committees stretching back into the 1930s and usually known by the names of their chairs — the Fish Committee, the McCormack-Dickstein Committee, and the Dies Committee – but often with the word “un-American” in their official titles.  To HUAC, an incredibly broad range of left-wing political activities was “un-American.”  Its “investigative” work formed an important foundation for a variety of blacklists that operated in the 1940s and 1950s. HUAC itself limped on into the 1960s – when it ineffectively targeted the New Left – before changing its name and eventually getting folded into the House Judiciary Committee in the 1970s.

Given the ugly history of “un-American,” its use by todays left / center-left is an almost ironized re-appropriation of the term. While I think such re-appropriations can be rhetorically valuable, in this case, I don’t think it works. The problem with HUAC was not simply who it went after, but how it went after them. The term “un-American” is pretty indelibly linked to an official governmental attempt to silence dissent. And we should abhor such attempts, whatever their political targets. Because of this, the rhetoric of un-Americanism should be set aside, not re-appropriated.  That’s the first problem with “un-American.”

My second objection involves the uses of history.  Many of the things that we might be tempted to call “un-American” (in the newly progressive sense) are, in fact, all too American.  This week’s events provide a perfect example.

There is certainly a long tradition of America presenting itself as a haven for oppressed peoples, from Tom Paine’s hope in Common Sense that America might be “an asylum for mankind” to Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus,” whose words are found on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. / Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, / I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

But there is an equally strong tradition of xenophobia in this country, which has led to numerous restrictions on immigration, real and imagined, from the Chinese Exclusion Act to Donald Trump’s fantasies about a border wall.  Japanese-Americans were thrown in concentration camps during World War II.  Our “golden door” was frequently closed to the world’s huddled masses.

This week, one particular moment in America’s history of xenophobic exclusion got a lot play online. Following a series of tweets on Tuesday by Peter Shulman, an historian at Case Western reserve, in which he recalled America’s refusal to take in Jewish refugees from Germany in the 1930s, the Washington Post’s WorldViews blog devoted two posts to the American response to that refugee crisis.

These posts were an important reminder of an ugly history.  But in order to move beyond that history, we need to acknowledge it. Calling either America’s actions in the 1930s or proposals to exclude Syrian refugees today “un-American” is, in a basic way, a refusal to acknowledge that they are part of American history.  Sadly, refusing a place to refugees is one very American response to international crises.

Calling political views that we dislike “un-American” suggests that political evil comes only from without, that if somehow we were to exclude foreign ideas, our political actions would be good and pure.  This idea is not only incorrect and chauvinistic, it is also particularly ironic as an argument against excluding foreigners.

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. If we have such a long history of declaring this or that unAmerican, would it not be unAmerican to call for an end of the term’s usage? I jest, but shouldn’t the strategy be just what you posed here—show how the good/opposed idea, whatever it may be, is precisely in America’s history and traditions? So really we should have a counter-rhetoric at the ready, or be able to develop one fast. Perhaps I’m suggesting that every political campaign ought to have a competent political historian, employed and on hand. File under: #historiansplanB #fullemployment. – TL

  2. I’m glad you wrote this Ben because I had the same thought for the last few days. Like you state here, recognizing how such arguments over who can and cannot enter the nation are as old as, well, the nation itself. One only hopes we learn from them–although it seems it takes a while for the message to come through, heh.

  3. As long as we have American nationalisms, I think we’re going to have people invoking American values, and their obverse, unAmerican ones. Empirically, one can find Americans throughout the history of the United States embracing a wide array of conflicting values; there are no coherent “American values” if what we mean by the term is a distinct, dominant and continuous sets of values practiced by all people who identify and have identified as Americans. Instead, we have conflicts in which various groups ascribe to other groups (who are normally American citizens or residents) “unAmerican” values. Strategically, giving up the cosmopolitan liberal or left claim on American values seems like it would be a bad idea; it would leave the field open for the xenophobes, the white supremacists, and the nativists to describe the left as “unAmerican,” while requiring the left to commit to a post-nationalist discourse that for many would simply confirm the image of them as unAmerican. Since American and unAmerican values have been essentially contested from the get go, why shouldn’t the advocates for values such as democracy, tolerance, humanitarianism, universalism, etc. define these as core American values, the rejection of which is unAmerican? You seem to be saying that this is playing on the xenophobe’s McCarthyite home court, and it seems to legitimate their strategy of defining one group as outside the American consensus–that speaking in terms of “unAmericanism” is essentially xenophobic. Is that right? We should, instead, switch the language from a question of American values to one of moral right and wrong (independent of national values)? I think the problem is that the popular symbol of American values is associated in a very large number of Americans’ minds with the idea of the right and the good. I’m not optimistic about dislodging that connection. Strategically, the xenophobes can be put on the defensive by claiming that their program is at odds with values widely identified by many to be “American”. Which is why, I think, liberals are invoking the specter of unAmerican values. It’s not an empirical matter for them, it’s an aspirational one in which American values are constantly having to overcome unAmerican ones.

  4. Ben–I enjoyed reading your piece and share your concerns about using the term Un-American. I would just note that not all of HUAC’s investigations were witch-hunts. HUAC did it’s homework in the Alger Hiss Case and the evidence from Venona and the KGB files has vindicated their conclusions.

Comments are closed.