Monday, August 10, 2009


Quickly, while packing.

In my review of Zoë Heller’s sensational novel The Believers, I observed in passing that un-American is a “term used exclusively on the Left to pound away at the Right for imaginary sins.” (See footnote 2.)

In a coauthored editorial in USA Today this morning, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D–Calif.) and minority leader Steny Hoyer (D–Md.) object to the “ugly campaign” of opposing President Obama’s proposed health call reform by misrepresenting it. The campaign, they say, includes the tactic of disrupting public meetings. Then they write: “These disruptions are occurring because opponents are afraid not just of differing views—but of the facts themselves. Drowning out opposing views is simply un-American.”

Only the Left accuses its opponents of un-American activities.

Thus my small contribution to a history of contemporary political discourse in the United States.


Michael Hartford said...

While I agree that "un-American" is a blunt instrument generally useless in advancing debate, I don't think it's exclusively used by the Left. Just yesterday the Pacific Justice Institute stated that "[i|t is simply un-American for the government to censor speech, including the mention of God or Jesus, by private citizens in a public setting." And Minnesota's Rep. Michele Bachmann made more than a little hay during the election with the "anti-American" variant. Both ends of the spectrum enjoy puffing themselves up as the sole inheritors of the American tradition, and bashing the other side as outside their perceived version of that tradition. This doesn't help move things along at all; the American tradition is large and contradictory, with more than enough room for everyone from socialists to libertarians. The real question is how to fit the future into the American framework and solve our shared problems, not who the "real" Americans are.

Richard said...

Are you claiming that the House Un-American Activities Committee was a body of the Left?

Do I really have to point out that Pelosi and Hoyer have nothing to do with the Left? That Democrats are actively hostile towards the Left?

Your "proof" in the footnote to your Heller review was similarly comical: you seem to be under the impression that the Washington Post and New York Times are organs of the Left, or even sympathetic to the Left; they are not. They are indeed "liberal" newspapers, which is not nearly the same thing. Of the writers named in your footnote, only Barbara Ehrenreich would qualify as being on the Left. And none of the writers were accusing anybody of "un-American activities", but at most, either predicting the kinds of accusations Republicans might make (as in Judy Mann's Helms example) or characterizing an accusation Republicans did make (the Apple and Cohen remarks about the elder Bush's jab at Dukakis' ACLU membership). The Ehrenreich example doesn't even go that far.

Scott said...

Do you mean that only the left uses that specific phrase? I only ask because I'm wondering why it might be that the left would accuse individuals of "un-American" actions or beliefs while the right would accuse people of "hating America" or hating freedom or hating whatever.

D. G. Myers said...

Michael Hartford offers a good counter-example from Brad Dacus of the Pacific Justice Institute. I have heard of neither, but a cursory examination of their website suggests that Dacus and the Institute belong to the Right.

My statement will need further adjustment, although I would observe to Hartford that Dacus does not accuse his political opponents of being un-American. He describes the censorshop of political speech as un-American. Even if I agreed, Dacus’s example of censorship is not that either.

D. G. Myers said...

As for Richard. Do I really have to point out that I said explicitly that the only use of “un-American” that I could find in the last three decades, before Michael Hartford supplied another, was on the Left.

And saying that the Washington Post and the New York Times are not “organs of the Left” makes about as much sense as my saying that Commentary or the Wall Street Journal editorial page are not organs of the Right. Insiders may anathematize deviationism, but ordinary readers know better.

Richard might ask himself whether the first President Bush and the late Senator Helms were figures of the Right, and if so, whether unfounded accusations that they might smear their opponents as “un-American” does not qualify, accordingly, as coming from the Left.

D. G. Myers said...


I am a literary scholar, and I was offering philological evidence—evidence of one way in which American language use has changed.

The ephithet anti-American is different in kind from “un-American,” but you are probably correct in implying that it is more native to speech on the Right than the Left.

R. T. said...

At a minimum, the implications of the label "un-American" are fraught with unpleasant freight. Given her position of leadership, the Speaker of the House ought to know how to choose her words better. Of course, this verbal gaff will be fodder for the pundits, and the polarized left and right will be energized for another ten-round event, but--in the final analysis--I share in Professor Myers' observation that the Speaker's choice of language is rather suggestive of the ways in which diction has become problematic in 2009.

Richard said...

In my re-read of the older post, I missed the reference to the last three decades. My apologies.

The rest of my comment, however, stands.

"Insiders may anathematize deviationism, but ordinary readers know better."

There is no deviationism at work. There is of course much sectarian bickering among the not-very-united American left, you're not wrong to imply that. But liberals are not part of that (though certainly leftists bicker with liberals too). I don't see much value in taking up comment space describing the differences.

Yes, Helms and, to a lesser extent, former President Bush were figures of the Right, but I don't see those remarks as having come from the Left.

D. G. Myers said...


Thanks for the generous correction.

Any definition of the Left that is not relational will disappoint one or the other of us. And all I really mean is to speak relationally.

Look, I don’t particularly want my conservatism associated with the first President Bush (the second is a different matter!) nor with Senator Helms any more than you want to be associated with Reps. Pelosi and Hoyer.

But you make the former association; I, the latter. And in that sense Bush and Helms are men of the Right, while Pelosi and Hoyer stand on the Left.

By the way, John J. Pitney at the Corner blog of National Review Online found more evidence of the term’s use on, relationally speaking, the Left.

Here is what Pitney wrote:

“The Pelosi-Hoyer attack on ‘un-American’ health-policy protests is a case study in political psychology. Liberal Democrats have long taken nearly any criticism of their positions as an attempt to discredit their patriotism. Twenty-five years ago, Speaker Tip O’Neill shouted at Newt Gingrich for his floor remarks on Democratic foreign policy: ‘You deliberately stood in that well before an empty House and challenged these people and you challenged their Americanism and it's the lowest thing that I've ever seen in my 32 years in Congress!’ Gingrich had done no such thing. Though his criticism was harsh, he did not call Democrats un-American or un-patriotic. Republicans seldom use such terms, but liberal Democrats insist on thinking that they do. And now they are deriving their tactics from their own distorted image of Republican and conservative rhetoric. Politicians are not smart to plagiarize figments of their imagination.”

Pretty much my point exactly. Some on the Left invent an accusation of un-Americanism which they put in the mouths of the Right.

That was pretty much the only slip in Zoë Heller’s Believers.

Scott said...

I wasn't really challenging your assertion about the exclusivity of the phrase so much as I was wondering out loud what the difference is between "un-American" and "hating America."

D. G. Myers said...


What follows is an educated guess. When I have more leisure—and access to more materials—I’ll examine the question in greater depth and detail.

At all events, my sense is that the term un-American connotes subversion and betrayal, while anti-American connotes, as you point out, the hating of America: an ideological hatred, I would add, open and public and principled.

The term un-American was used in the New York Times as early as 1851. But it did not assume the form it now has in American political discourse until, as Richard observes, it became associated with the House Un-American Activities Committee.

According to Richard Gid Powers’s history of anticommunism Not Without Honor, HUAC grew out of “countersubversive anticommunism.” It was first proposed in 1934 by a Jewish congressman from New York to investigate antisemitic German-American groups that were suspected of ties to Nazi Germany.

But it was not founded until 1938 when Texas congressman Martin Dies introduced the bill that would successfully establish it.

Its original charter, as Powers says, was to investigate “extremists of both left and right,” which “appealed to just about everybody.” For the next twenty-five years, HUAC “would be the nerve center of countersubversive anticommunism,” Powers says—giving the word un-American the ineradicable connotation of subversive activities that it continues to bear to this day.

Michael Hartford said...

A more significant recent instance from the Right of accusing the other side of "un-American" activities was Sen. James Inhofe's June 2009 response to Pres. Obama's Cairo speech; the term comes up twice in the clip on his press office's YouTube stream. It's a good example of using the "un-American" stick to shut down debate.

There are other examples I've run across in the blogosphere, including a cluster around whether then-candidate Obama could be considered "un-American" for not wearing a flag lapel pin. These are less well-thought-out, though, than the statements of a senator (or at least one would hope).

Probably there are some qualitative differences in how the Left and the Right (however those slippery categories are defined) sling the term around, which is a more interesting topic than who uses it the most; and "anti-American" seems to be more native to the Right. I contend, though, that both ends of the spectrum deploy it often enough; a quantitative analysis might turn up more or less on one side or the other in different time periods.

R. T. said...

In the context of the ongoing discussion about "un-American," perhaps now is a good time to share my review of SHOOTING STAR: THE BRIEF ARC OF JOE McCARTHY. If past is prologue to the future--an arguable axiom--then perhaps a glance back at the McCarthy era is now appropriate.

D. G. Myers said...


More good evidence. (I am in New York, writing on a hotel computer. Could you provide the URL?)

Given the bad reputation that the term un-American has on the Right, you would think that Senator Inhofe would be more circumspect--or at least more careful. But he is not a mental giant.

Still, you may not be interested in the question where the term is predominantly used, but I am--especially since I am concerned with the ways in which public vocubularies leak into the language of fiction like Heller's; fiction, that is, with a historical consciousness.

So far you have persuaded me to abandon my claim that the term un-American is used exclusively on the Left, but not (as I put it in my original post) that only on the Left is the term used as an accusation against the political opposition.

Michael Hartford said...

The Inhofe statement is here; it got quite a bit of coverage in the Left blogosphere (Kos, Huffington, etc.), which might be a symptom of how infrequently the Right uses the term.

The Left (where I place myself, a little to the right of Kropotkin on cranky days) seems to use the term in a defensive, often preemptive way: "I know you're going to accuse me of being un-American, so I'm going to counter that it's really the Right that is un-American!" On the Right, it's used to narrow the scope of the debate, defining the Left as out of bounds. (Anti-American is the preferred variant.)

My theory on the origins of the term on the Left is that it's part of the McCarthy martyrology: it's supposed to bring to mind the ugly apparatus of HUAC, the Hollywood blacklisting, Red baiting, etc. Where would we Leftists be without our martyr complex? It gets us through many a cold winter.

I think, by the way, that you're right about Heller's clunker; the Post would likely have just left it at "rent-a-radical," no need to gild the lily.