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