‘Un-American’: Hyperbole and Hypocrisy in Politics
By Sean Ferrell-Wyman
The insult ‘un-American’ has been plaguing politics for nearly a century. Its first prominent usage was in the House Un-American Activities Committee, founded in 1938. The Red Scare–era witch hunt that destroyed the credibility of many innocents incurred heavy criticism in its later years. In 1959, then–former president Harry Truman called the House Un-American Activities Committee the, “most un-American thing in the country today,” highlighting the absurdity of its name. Truman chastised the committee’s usage of ‘un-American’ because he recognized that defining the default citizen in a country that represents diversity and freedom of thought is inherently hypocritical.
The problem with ‘un-American’ is that Americans have yet to unanimously agree on any given issue. Therefore, no political views can be defined as ‘American’ or ‘un-American.’ This belief in freedom of thought is the only truly defining American belief, and insisting upon a homogeneous society is counter to this value. Those that call out people they disagree with as ‘un-American’ discard the benefits of a society that encourages diversity and varied viewpoints. The capitalistic system itself is founded on a wide variety of products and business models, with others waiting for their chance to succeed when established outlets are not satisfying customers. Throwing that away leads to a system of stagnation where monopolies reign without providing reasonable goods and services. Perhaps even more important is the principal of being open to the arguments of those one disagrees with. The unwillingness to be convinced by even reasonable proposals due to a tribal psychology is what has lowered the current Congress’ approval rating to the single digits. Tribal thinking, and the tendency to demonize one’s opponent as ‘un-American’ rather than find common ground, is what has Americans more polarized than any time since the Civil War. Regardless of what political views one holds, it is always more beneficial to come together than to succumb to infighting and posturing.
In recent years the usage of ‘un-American’ has only increased. At a Delaware town hall event last August, former Senator Jim DeMint said, “I cannot think of anything that’s more un-American than national government–run health care.” Healthcare is certainly a debatable issue, however dismissing the Affordable Care Act simply because it is different than the current system is no way to go about that debate. Again, a more productive discourse could be held if absolute terms were withheld in favor of the proposal’s specific merits.
In response to Nevada representative Joe Heck’s criticism of her fundraising mailer, Democratic Congressional candidate Erin Bilbray said, “I think he was wrong, and I think it discourages people from participating in the process, and that is wrong, and that is un-American.” All of this is typical of the indirect nitpicking that opposing candidates participate in before election season, but the term ‘un-American’ once again exaggerates things to the point of meaningless.
In both of these instances, political figures on either side of the aisle are calling laws and comments ‘un-American’ simply because they disagree with them. When people criticize the “Twilight” books or “Duck Dynasty,” insults are often exchanged with fans. However, neither side calls the other ‘un-American,’ as that is like calling someone a traitor or an enemy. That type of ridiculous insult only happens in politics – supposedly the highest echelon of American civil discourse. Politicians can do better by discussing issues based on their merits, not an arbitrary level of how ‘American’ they are. Both parties eventually overcame the House Un-American Activities Committee reign, and with effort they can surpass its namesake as well.