Un-American, the Label

October 22, 2010
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Here we mark the release of a new DVD box set of Humphrey Bogart films, including his memorable angry man in Black Legion (watch a trailer here), about a clandestine fascist KKK-like group during the Depression. Fascist groups in America? That’s un-American.
    But what is un-American anyway? Joseph McCarthy kicked up dust with the term with his anti-Communist hunt in the 1950s, but the concept goes back much further. (Are Americans unique in our outraged determination to define what we aren’t? Do you hear about un-French activities, or un-Chinese?) Other countries might use the term ‘traitorous,’ but that’s not quite the same thing.
    The OED finds the first use of un-American in 1818, barely a generation after the United States became a nation. Later Theodore Roosevelt tried to define the term as simple extremism. He wrote, “Everything is un-American that tends either to government by a plutocracy or government by a mob.”
    Maybe that’s what Rand Paul meant in May when he called the Obama administration’s efforts to make BP responsible for the Gulf clean-up un-American. Or maybe it was just a handy word for lighting a fire.

    The first Congressional attempt to uproot un-American-ness began in 1938 as war clouds gathered overseas. Texas congressman Martin Dies chaired the House Committee on Un-American Activities, known popularly as HUAC, with considerable public support. In Gallup polls at the time, Americans placed Dies above FDR on a list of patriots. Dies had his own criteria for un-American, but they were elusive.
    Martin Dies said he found potentially un-American content about labor history in the WPA guides, and about race in an essay by Richard Wright on “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow” that appeared in a 1937 anthology by WPA writers called American Stuff. (American Stuff also included songs from inmates in Southern prisons gathered by John Lomax, Jim Thompson’s short story about an oil-worker who runs amok on a rampage of rape and murder, and a Kenneth Rexroth poem.)
    As historian Douglas Brinkley said about Dies in an interview for Soul of a People, “When he’s talking about un-American, it’s people that have funny last names.”
    That echoes Frank Taylor, Bogart’s embittered auto worker in Black Legion: “No matter what it is or who commenced it, I’m against it,” Frank growls. “Especially if they’re after my job and have an unpronounceable last name.” Bogart himself held more progressive views.
    Un-American has often been used to refer to deeply ingrained aspects of American life that the speaker would like to amputate: Racism, greed and class strife have been as likely to get labeled un-American as Communism, hedonism and any other -ism. In this sense, the un-American label is like a tourniquet someone uses to isolate a limb that they think is causing trauma to the body politic. What’s really causing the trauma is another story.
    When the cry of “Un-American!” makes a resurgence – often with an election coming – it’s worth figuring out what it says about the person who wields it before looking at who they’re attacking.

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