U.S. Intellectual History Blog

to be un-American

After Donald Trump’s executive order banning immigrants from 7 muslim majority countries, American liberals and the American left went into overdrive. Protests sprung up almost immediately in airports across the country. Lawyers immediately started working and thanks to the ACLU, a stay was put in place. And across social media, people began singing the praises of immigrants and critiquing Trump’s policies.

But alas, many social media posts, especially those made by liberals, discussed America as a nation of immigrants. Others called the policies “un-american.” These statements, while surely meant as a show of solidarity with immigrants, yet again erase the histories of people of color and immigrants from American history. Native Americans and African Americans were not immigrants to the United States and to argue for the United States as a nation of immigrants, as a “melting pot,” is to discount the contributions of these groups to the development of the United States.

Even more egregious, are the comments about how these policies are un-american and that this nation was founded for and by immigrants and in the name of religious freedom. These comments ignore the history of oppression and nativism the United States was founded on.

For the class I am TAing this semester, American Revolutions, we just finished The Puritan Dilemma by Edmund Morgan. It’s a little dated, but has reminded me of some early American history that many have seemed to have forgotten. The Puritans came to America searching for their own religious freedom, but had little tolerance for the religious freedom of others. Early colonists to Virginia came to the states not searching for freedom, but searching for gold. Need I not remind you that in the quest for “rights,” these colonists killed and displaced many Native Americans.

In the early 20th century, as immigrants from Italy and China and Ireland increased, nativist impulses in the United States deepened. In the early years of the Holocaust, Jewish refugees were denied entry to the United States, including the family of Anne Frank. And Japanese Americans were forced into internment camps during World War II. These are but a few instances in our history.

This post isn’t meant to be a depressing list of America’s worst impulses: instead it is meant as a reminder that in many ways,  the foundation of the United States has always been oppressive and nativist and exploitative for people of color. Freedom of religion generally meant freedom of religion for white protestant men. A country of immigrants, for a long time, referred to a country of white protestant immigrants with little tolerance for those of other backgrounds. And importantly, the rallying cry of “a country of immigrants” erases the lives and contributions of African Americans and Native Americans from American history.

As we fight the Trump Administration and anti-immigrant policies, it will behoove us to remember that we are fighting the very impulses that America was built on. As we protest, write, and tweet we are fighting for the very best version of America-a version that has never existed and may very well never exist.

9 Thoughts on this Post

  1. “As we protest, write, and tweet we are fighting for the very best version of America-a version that has never existed and may very well never exist.”

    Thanks for writing this.

    When you use the phrase “version,” do you mean that humans practically engage in behaviors only when a holistic image/idea of what they’re trying to accomplish comes into focus?

    For example, to contrast/compare two positions, a “liberal” or “Trump supporter,” it seems like there can be piecemeal actions that sometimes align with multiple sides/positions/views. Do you find that politics today is based on an historical memory of a particular, holistic “version” (at least, in order to achieve progressive or “better” [vs. “very best”] results for people)?

  2. I didn’t read your post as “a depressing list of America’s worst impulses,” but I am curious why a professional historian would have to apologize for producing such a list. Do Americans have to be perpetually upbeat and cheery even when documenting our past?

    History, like notions of the American identity, are social constructions. As you noted, there has been a dance between “more liberal” notions of national identity along side more illiberal ascriptive notions of just what constitutes an American. Even though my own outlook toward the subject might be termed pessimistic, I must admit that progress has been made. In the earliest days of our polity , the “American” was a (male) White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. The concept was stretched to include Europeans, Catholics, African-Americans, Women, Jews, and now the theoretical ideal is a vast inclusive multiculturalism.

    I think it might be useful for us to remember how the state and our media help to mold our views of identity and the other. Since the Creel Committee, the American citizenry has been told to hate the Hun, the Bolshevik, the Fascists, the Japanese, the Soviets, and since the end of the Cold War, the Muslim. Our movies since Back to the Future have depicted Muslims as in as stereotypical manner as African-Americans were and often are portrayed as criminals. Will there be a Muslim version of Hollywood Shuffle?

    I am going to push back just a little at the notion that these xenophobic policies are restricted to just one political party by noting that the previous president holds the record for deportations (where were the protests then), and that the Democratic nominee for President voted in support of building a border wall.

  3. Mark: I do think that liberals (and other groups) have a memorialized idea of American history that they use when organizing. I don’t think a holistic vision is necessary, but I do think it’s often used as a tool for uniting behind a cause, if that makes sense.

    Brian: I tend to apologize unnecessarily, but in this case it was more because I felt like in those paragraphs I was stating the obvious-even it was meant as illustrative. Xenophobic ideas aren’t restricted to one party, but I think recent policies demonstrate important distinctions in ideology.

  4. Thanks for this post Holly.

    It’s rare that current events line up so neatly with my syllabus, but they’re way too on the nose for me this week (and for everybody else teaching the second half of the survey, I’m sure.)

    I usually teach synchronically — looking at ideas, culture, politics, etc in one time period before moving forward. But today I’m going to follow through time the idea of “American” v. “unAmerican” as it relates to immigration. So, Chinese Exclusion Act alongside The New Colossus, World War I Liberty Bond posters alongside anti-German propaganda, voyage of the St. Louis alongside the Superman “Un-American” poster alongside HUAC alongside Brown v. Board alongside the 1965 immigration act. So, a sort of whirlwind tour through nativism *as* patriotism and nativism *vs* patriotism from the Gilded Age to the Cold War.

    The Cold War valence of “un-American” is particularly important — people using the term today to describe this nasty nativism are using it in that sense, I think. Apparently, the moral urgency of modeling a multi-cultural society (supposedly) unified by a shared commitment to the ideals of democracy has waned considerably, now that the Cold War is over. Nobody is worried any more about how the Soviets will use our domestic racism and nativism for their anti-American propaganda, and ethno-nationalism is the order of the day in both Moscow and Washington D.C.

  5. The Cold War valence of “un-American” is particularly important — people using the term today to describe this nasty nativism are using it in that sense, I think.

    Not sure I entirely agree with this, L.D. (though I suppose a lot turns on what “Cold War valence” is taken to encompass).

    One can say that nativism/xenophobia/racism etc is ‘un-American’ in the sense that, despite being present and often influential throughout the country’s history and some of its traditions, it runs against one particular strand in American thought and culture, one that represents
    the inclusive, pluralist, welcoming spirit of Lazarus’s poem and that can probably be found, to one degree or another (an important qualification), throughout one significant part of the country’s intellectual and political traditions (e.g. Thoreau, Whitman (?), Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, M.L. King, Thurgood Marshall etc.).

    In other words, people using ‘un-American’ in this way are using it to mean “contrary to what we take to be the best, or the most aspirational, aspects of the country’s traditions”. This seems to fall roughly in line, for example, with how E.J. Dionne, who has recently co-edited a collection of Obama’s speeches, says that Obama talks about the arc of the country’s history.

    Is this view too rosy-eyed, naive or old-fashioned? Quite possibly. But it does appeal to something beyond the instrumental view of ‘we have to end segregation etc. because it’s giving propaganda fodder to our enemies’, which is what the phrase “Cold War valence” suggests to me.

    • p.s. haven’t read Danielle Allen’s book on the Declaration of Independence, but that could probably be cited here …

  6. There’s a broader point worth making here, which is that not only w/r/t the U.S. but also more generally, liberalism and ‘civic’ (as opposed to ‘ethnic’) nationalism arguably emerged from histories strongly marked by violence toward and intolerance of religious and other (e.g. racial) minorities. Intolerance and exclusion were mechanisms for consolidating what became national ‘communities’.

    In his 2003 book Faith in Nation: Exclusionary Origins of Nationalism, Anthony Marx made this argument as applied to early-modern Europe. There is a striking passage or two in his concluding chapter worth quoting, but would take too long to type out right now (see pp.200 ff.).

  7. Louis, I would agree that there’s been a strand of something like pluralism or small-c catholicity through much of American history, and I think a lot of people “believe in” the American ideal of inclusivity, tolerance, pluralistic democracy, etc. To such people (and I’d count myself among them) it really is un-American — contrary to the best idea/ideals of what America stands for — to be a xenophobic racist bigot.

    However, I think it’s worthwhile to recognize that one of the reasons that people have for “believing in” this American ideal is that it formed part of a sort of national doctrine that was articulated and advanced in a major way during the Cold War, and that many of us were raised and taught to believe in this vision/version of America through public school curricula and public broadcasting and public discourse more generally. I don’t think recognizing the uses of the idea during the Cold War delegitimizes the idea. Besides, “un-American” as an historical term is stamped all over with its mid-20th-century, anti-Communist uses. That doesn’t make it a bad term, but it does help with the carbon-dating of it, as it were. I’d argue that many people who say “This is un-American” about the current immigration order are reflecting how deeply ingrained is that “doctrine” — a doctrine which may antedate 20th century American anti-Communism but which was most fully articulated and systematically promulgated during that ideological struggle.

    When people say this immigration ban based on national origins is un-American, they — we — are being sincere, and our sincerity derives from and reflects, at least in part, the civic education of an earlier generation.

Comments are closed.