In “Un-American Accusations, Part 1: Big Oil” (May 15, 2011), I commented on the inane public statement and gratuitous whining by Conoco Phillips and its CEO, James Mulva, that any possible withdrawing of governmental subsidies to the large oil corporations would be “un-American.”
Our coddled and obscenely wealthy oil companies, however, are not alone in using such divisive language to alienate those with whom they disagree. Politicians and pundits succumb all too often to applying the word “un-American” to members of the opposition, and it is their use of this word in political discourse that I return today.
What does it mean for someone to be “un-American?” It may simply mean that the person is not a citizen of the United States of America, although in that case we are most likely to say that such a person is “not an American,” a phrase carrying no negative implications. The term “un-American,” on the other hand, carries with it all sorts of negative implications, foremost of which is that the person is “other,” not “one of us.”
It was my impression that the accusation of being “un-American” most often would be made by members of the right wing against liberals, and after what I consider to be an objective investigation of this topic, I found this to be the case. What follows are seven examples, the first two from the liberal wing and the rest from the conservative wing. What stands out in these examples is not the quantitative difference (2 : 5) but the qualitative difference, with the liberal clearly much less comfortable with making such an accusation.
Example 1: Obama as Accuser (?)
In an appearance on Morning Joe in mid-April, 2011, Mark Halperin (editor-at-large for Time and a senior political analyst for MSNBC) claimed that President Obama called Ryan’s budget plan “un-American.” Now, I can believe many politicians saying such a thing, but I thought to myself: “Obama is too careful to make such a slip of the tongue. Did he really say this?”
It turns out he didn’t. What he said was that Ryan’s vision was “about changing the basic social compact in America,” and he later concluded with these words: “That’s not a vision of the America I know.”
This is quite different from saying that Ryan’s budget plan is “un-American,” and Halperin, Joe Scarborough and the rest who were present that day on MSNBC have a responsibility to be much more accurate and more careful in their analysis of language. I would have been aghast had Obama called the plan “un-American.” I am, however, in total agreement with President Obama that Ryan’s plan “is not a vision of the America I know.”
Pundits and listeners who think these two statements say the same thing either have no understanding of the importance and subtlety of language or are not interested in applying the subtlety of language in this case. Shame on them, not shame on President Obama!
Example 2: Pelosi and Hoyer as Accusers
As health care reform was being debated in Congress in August of 2009, Nancy Pelosi (D, CA) and Steny Hoyer (D, MD) wrote an Op-Ed in USA Today. They complained that the many disruptions of town-hall meetings being held by members of Congress over the summer recess by protesters from the right were “simply un-American.”
Now, it is true that these “town hall” protests were far from spontaneous responses from constituents. They were organized by such right-wing organizations as Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks, along with instructions to “Yell,” “Stand Up and Shout,” and “Rattle Him,” and were funded by, among others, Koch Industries. Nevertheless, these demonstrations were as American and as much a part of our culture--even if far from its best part--as were the two KKK rallies and marches in Skokie, Illinois (in 1978 and 2000).
Therefore, despite the projected hate, the disruption of civic dialogue, and the undermining of any modicum of what we would consider democratic debate, this behavior ought not to have been called “un-American.” So it was appropriate that, the next day, the White House voiced its displeasure at the words used by Pelosi and Hoyer, and that Hoyer, eventually, also would come to regret their use of this characterization.
Example 3: Michelle Bachmann as Accuser
On October 17, 2008, Michelle Bachmann (R, MN) appeared on Hardball and, in response to Chris Matthews’ questions, claimed that Barack Obama had a “very strong association with Bill Ayers (one of the Weathermen of the late 1960s). Building on this issue of guilt by association with people whom she claims are “anti-American,” Bachmann adds the name of Jeremiah Wright, Saul Alinsky, and Tony Rezko. As Matthews pursued these accusations further, he actually got Bachmann to say that the media needed to probe Congress for evidence of “anti-American” views. In her words, “I wish the American media would take a great look at the views of the people in Congress and find out, are they pro-America or anti-America?”
Now, coming from a member of our Congress, this is truly over the top. Could Bachmann really want our country to return to the witch hunt trials of Joseph McCarthy? The “threat” she posits is, at some level, much more amorphous and fictitious than McCarthy’s pursuit of Communists: At least, McCarthy could claim that he was seeking out “card-carrying Communists.” Does Bachmann think there is such a thing as a “card-carrying Anti-American?” Does she really fear that many of her liberal, democratic colleagues in the House need to be rooted out for being un-American? In saner times, a member of Congress who made such accusations would at least have been reprimanded, if not censured. Yet, for these outlandish remarks, she never even apologized. The fact that she is considering a run for the presidency of our country is an affront to all of us.
Example 4: Pundit JB Williams as Accuser
The right-wing political commentator, JB Williams, wrote an article in December of 2005 titled, “Why Many Modern ‘Liberals’ Qualify as ‘un-American.” His rant makes no attempt to clarify his positions with clear examples; but a careful reading does allow one to understand how he defines “American” (and “un-American”).
He defines Americans as those who hold “a set of common beliefs based upon a love and respect for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, freedom, self-governance and self-determination.” I would have thought that this defines all of us, not only in America, but also most common citizens the world over, but I digress.
Among the other aspects that define an American for Williams are Capitalism (the love of; ‘Capitalism = Americanism’); “free religious expression”; right to life (anti-abortion); patriotic love for one’s country; distrust of the federal government; and belief in corporate profits. He implies that these all emanate from the actions and beliefs of our “founders,” as if these wise men ever talked about abortion or voiced a distrust in the very government that they were working to create!
Those whom Williams considers “un-American” are Americans (in contrast to “anti-American” foreigners) who “hate American principles.” Williams claims that the term “un-American” describes “the behavior of many liberals living in America today.”
He then focuses ad-hominem attacks on certain liberals to prove his point that they are un-American by embracing some of the lies and distortions about them that were made by conservative attack ads during earlier election cycles. So Jack Murtha (D, PA) earned three Purple Hearts from “self-inflicted surface scratches,” and John Kerry (D, MA) was called “unfit to command” by his “military band-of-brothers.” Actually, Murtha earned two Purple Hearts, not three, as well as a Bronze Star and a Cross of Gallantry, and his injuries were definitely not “self-inflicted.” Kerry, by the way, earned three Purple Hearts, a Silver Star and a Bronze Star.
After these and a few other examples, Williams makes this blanket statement: “The examples of un-American politicians are nearly endless today.” And so, if one were to believe him, one can understand how, three years later, Michelle Bachmann might ask for an investigation of her colleagues in Congress. As was the case with Bachmann, Williams feels no remorse or need to apologize for his statements, false though they are. In fact, he takes pride in his (apparent) lack of education, “a dirt road scholar with a degree in BS from the school of hard knocks” who claims that “formal education seems a poor substitute for common sense.”
I would call this “pride in one’s ignorance,” and Williams’ attitude does get us closer to a real issue of how a segment of our citizenry defines being American. It has to do with not having too many advanced degrees, not being overly educated, not being an “elitist.” And the population segment that holds this attitude is pretty much limited to the conservative and Republican side of the American political spectrum.
Consider, for example, the regard given to the opinions of “Joe the Plumber,” as if he were a major thinker or Sarah Palin’s repeated embrace of “Joe Six-Pack” as the model American during our most recent Presidential campaign. Less recently, many of us can remember Spiro Agnew’s rant at liberals in 1969 which was subsequently condensed to the three words, “effete intellectual snobs.” Going even further back in time, we are able to unearth this attitude in the mid-19th century nativist American Know Nothing movement, which originated in New York in 1843 as the American Republican Party.
Example 5: Fox News as Accuser
I’ll leave it to someone better equipped than I to make connections between the Know Nothings and contemporary Republicans, but the idea that anti-intellectualism is a desirable “American” quality is, unfortunately alive and well today, and it appears to have a long history. But, back to the present.
In February of 2010, Ryan Mason, demonstrated how Tucker Carlson of Fox completely (or purposefully) misinterpreted a report by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute which showed that those with higher degrees tend to have more liberal stances. Mason even titled his article, “Fox News: Being Liberal Is Un-American.” In the video, we hear Carlson state, in regard to higher education, “propaganda works,” while host Clayton Morris anxiously asks, “How do you fix this?” as if Universities actually were propaganda tanks (a case of Fox projecting its own behavior on other institutions?) and these needed to be cleaned up.
Example 6: Obama as the True “Un-American”
As we might expect, the main target of the accusation of being “un-American” is Barack Obama, our first African American president. Some accusations fall into the category of anti-intellectualism, as when Obama is castigated for pronouncing words such as Pakistan correctly. Some accusations stem from the reflex to protect one’s own, even if in the wrong, as when Liz Cheney said that prosecuting members of the Bush administration for torturing prisoners was being “un-American,” or when James Inhofe (R, OK) called a speech by Obama “un-American” because in it he called the Iraq war a “war of choice.” Other accusations derive from the need to defend the Republican’s close alliance with business, as when Rand Paul (R, KY), appeared on Good Morning America last year and complained about Obama’s tough stance on the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico with these words: “I think that sounds really un-American in his criticism of business.” Still other accusers take on Obama’s cosmopolitanism--derived from his formative years when he attended local schools in Jakarta and his other travels abroad--as un-American; so Mike Huckabee (R, AK) noted last year that Obama “grew up more as a globalist than an American," which leads him to this non sequitur--"to deny American exceptionalism is in essence to deny the heart and soul of this nation."
Similar to Huckabee’s criticism of Obama, but much more rabid and even more indefensible is that of conservative columnist and radio talk show host, Ben Shapiro. Shapiro asked, “why does President Obama appear to be so un-American?” and then answers his question with these words: “He is not one of us – he is rather a member of the same global community that despises America and tolerates Islamism, that slams American consumerism and praises Chinese communism, that rips evangelical Christianity while ignoring Muslim-imposed clitorectomy....President Obama is the culmination of a century of foreign infiltration already in place.” All I can say to this is “Wow, is this guy for real?!”
But, to take Shapiro’s fatuous and indefensible assessment of President Obama, what could be less “like us” and more like some “foreign infiltration” than some animal species? Obama may have been born in America (although Hawaii is so far away!), he may not have been educated in an Islamic Madrasah (as some like to claim), but he is black and his father was Kenyan, so it clearly didn’t take much for Marilyn Davenport (R, CA) of the Orange County Republican Central Committee and a Tea Party activist to send out this picture [below] of this most “un-American” president--the ostensible birth certificate photo of baby Barack Obama with his mother and father.
Given the tendency of conservative Republicans to deny the relevance of the theory of evolution, it may be that Ms. Davenport actually believed that this picture made Obama into the “other” as far as possible. But just consider how mean-spirited this doctored photograph is, and what a different view of America it presents when compared to Barack Obama’s words during his speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention when he mused that, given his unusual upbringing, "in no other country on Earth is my story even possible."
In way of a conclusion, I call on Dana Sciandra, the Florida host of Stimulated Boredom, who describes himself as a “staunch Independent....neither liberal, conservative, libertarian, moderate or progressive. As should be the case with any intelligent human being who is contemplating the complexities of domestic, foreign and social issues.” This is a good start, because I am a liberal, progressive and a Democrat, and here is someone who isn’t and who comes from a very different position, yet who arrives at the same conclusions that I would on this topic.
In his article, “On Personal Politics,” (May 7, 2011), Dana writes the following in a section on the topic of hypocrisy: “Most Democrats (I’m looking at you, former Rep. Alan Grayson) don’t call people, “un-american” for disagreeing with them. Democrats don’t call parts of the country, “more American” than others, simply because they do agree with them. Democrats don’t pander to the basest prejudices and fears of race, nor do they incite and/or encourage imagery of violence, revolution and hatred.”
So it is that Republicans and America’s conservative movement--in contrast to Democrats and liberals--are much more comfortable and willing to use language that divides and demeans their opponents, language that is meant to belittle and disgrace them, to turn whatever they say and do into something unworthy of consideration. “Un-American” is the ultimate word of gratuitous disrespect and it ought to have no place in intelligent political discourse.