By Niall Stanage - 04/12/14 06:00 AM EDT
Liberals have lately been employing a political term of abuse that was once mainly a weapon of the right.
Speaking at a Democratic fundraiser on Wednesday in Houston, President Obama described laws that he said restrict voting rights as “un-American.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) earlier this year described conservative activist billionaires Charles and David Koch as “un-American.”
And amid a rambunctious meeting of the House Oversight Committee last month, the panel's top Democrat, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) described the conduct of his Republican counterparts led by chairman Darrell Issa (Calif.) as "un-American."
“Un-American” has long been a multipurpose insult. A quick Web search reveals that it has been used as a term of objection to, among other things, the National Rifle Association, torture, Rush Limbaugh and a willingness to repair, rather than replace, consumer goods.
Among conservatives, the use of the term, or variants of it, extends far beyond the late Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.) and the activities of the House Un-American Activities Committee.
During the 2008 presidential campaign, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) told MSNBC host Chris Matthews that then-Sen. Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, held “anti-American views.”
During the same period, Sarah Palin, the vice presidential running mate of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), praised “the pro-America areas of this great nation”, apparently in reference to regions where she and McCain were receiving more support.
Four years later, when Obama ran for reelection, former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu (R) publicly expressed his wish that “this president would learn how to be an American.”
An Obama spokeswoman shot back that the remark was proof that the campaign of the president’s opponent, Mitt Romney, had “officially gone off the deep end.” Sununu apologized.
Some experts nevertheless believe that, in recent years, Democrats have become more likely to use the term.
“The Democrats have grabbed it and used it to disparage the wealthy — what they see as the robber barons — whereas back in the '40s, '50s and '60s, ‘un-American’ had more of a geopolitical tone as opposed to an economic tone,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a communications professor at Boston University.
“The term ‘un-American’ would tag you as a commie whereas now ‘un-American’ tags you as sort of being an evil wealthy person, preying on the poor.”
Others suggest that the word is freighted with meaning that lends itself more easily to use by conservatives.
“The left will use the term to point out undemocratic activities or behavior but the problem is that the term has a center of gravity that shifts it toward the right,” said Joseph Litvak, an English professor at Tufts University who is the author of The Un-Americans: Jews, the Blacklist and Stoolpigeon Culture.
“The left,” he added, “often tries to give it a philosophical meaning [but] the term is weighted with a whole history of, I would say, ethnic-bordering-on-racial invidiousness.”
In that context, he said, “‘American’ doesn’t primarily mean a philosophical position or a set of values. It means an ethnic identity. It tends to favor the white, the middle American, and the rural or suburban, at the expense of all the groups that are not those things.”
But can the term be fair rather than a slur, at least on occasion? Some defend it on the basis that the U.S. Declaration of Independence and the Constitution posit particular ideas and values. It would seem logical, they argue, that other, antithetical viewpoints can then be said to be un-American.
“Un-American, at least in the minds of liberal people, is said with a sneer, often,” said Peter Lawler, a government professor at Berry College and a co-editor of American Political Rhetoric. “And if you go back to something like the House Un-American Activities Committee, that is now seen as something stupid.
“On the other hand, among conservatives, it often is a term with real content to it. It’s the idea of being disrespectful to our underlying principles.”
Lawler asserts that a term such as “American socialist” is “unreasonable, because it so obviously contradicts our principles.”
Some see things quite differently, however. Berkovitz suggests that outright treason is about the only thing that can legitimately be described as un-American.
“You have the right to any thought,” he insisted. “This country is the marketplace of ideas. So if you want to be a communist, or a socialist, or a Nazi then — as long as you don’t want to violently overthrow the United States — that should be your right.”
Others, such as Litvak, are skeptical of the process they see as underlying the use of the word un-American.
“As far as I know, other nations do not have equivalent terms,” he said. “I’ve never heard of ‘un-English,’ ‘un-French,’ ‘un-Irish.’ This construction, the ‘un-American’ tells us that the coherence of the nation is kind of fragile and is constantly having to be shored up.”
Even if that is the case, however — and even if those who are labeled with the term object vigorously, as the Koch brothers have done — there is little reason to believe that the word will become extinct. It is, after all, almost as old as the nation itself.
“Thomas Jefferson was considered too French. He was called un-American and a Francomaniac,” said Rosemarie Ostler, author of Slinging Mud, a book covering two centuries of political insults. “He did things that weren’t ‘really American,’ like being interested in wine.
“Every time it comes up, it means something different.”