By Paula Martinac
The loaded term “un-American” is in the news again, this time because Teresa Heinz Kerry used it as a critique of the right. For many decades, “un-American” has been a charge leveled almost exclusively at the left. However, there have been numerous recent Republican tactics that do indeed qualify as “un-American.”
Depending on what news sources you rely on, Heinz Kerry rebuked some Republicans for their un-American “traits,” “tactics,” or “tirades.” All of these terms are very different from “un-American activities,” which is how ultra-conservative “Pittsburgh Tribune-Review” editor Colin McNickle – who must have been flabbergasted by a Republican-turned-Democrat using the right’s cherished “U word” – misrepresented her remarks.
It’s no wonder that Heinz Kerry accused McNickle of misquoting her and told him to “shove it.” After all, the phrase “un-American activities” has a very specific historical meaning, referring to the heinous witch-hunts of the 1930s through the early 1950s that destroyed the careers of so many left-leaning people by tarnishing their reputations and depriving them of employment.
Interestingly, when it was founded in 1937, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was intended to investigate both extremes of the political spectrum. However, it quickly zeroed in on the left, because its very first chair, Martin Dies, was a right-winger. (Dies was a staunch supporter of the Ku Klux Klan who deemed a probe of the KKK’s activities unnecessary and turned instead to searching for Commies in the New Deal’s Federal Writers Project.) Most of the people HUAC investigated weren’t “un-American” at all, but had only exercised their very American rights of freedom of speech and association.
In the present day, the charge of “un-American” continues to be leveled incorrectly at an assortment of public figures and private citizens, simply because they disagree with the party in power. This branding began after the Sept. 11 attacks and has only intensified. Documentary filmmaker Michael Moore was deemed “un-American” for “Fahrenheit 9/11,” his powerful indictment of the Bush administration’s foreign policy. Last year, conservative pundits charged that the far-from-radical Hillary Rodham Clinton was “un-American” simply because she criticized the administration’s lack of exit strategy from Iraq. And in what Republicans must have thought was a more “subtle” tactic, Kentucky GOPers recently distributed bumper stickers bearing the slogan “Kerry Is Bin Laden’s Man, Bush Is Mine.”
But what does it really mean to be “un-American”? By definition, it is to be contrary to the principles on which this country was founded, as eloquently stated in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. And who, in fact, has been working against American principles in recent months? The far-right wing of the Republican party, to whom our president is pandering in his bid for re-election. Consider these examples:
1. Most famously, there was the Federal Marriage Amendment (FMA), which in July failed to be brought to the floor of the U.S. Senate. This bill was an unprecedented attempt to write discrimination against one group of citizens – lesbians and gay men – into the U.S. Constitution.
2. In the same month, the Marriage Protection Act (MPA) passed the U.S. House of Representatives. This act attempts to strip the federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, of the power to hear “federal question” cases, specifically those related to the antigay Defense of Marriage Act. Like the FMA, the MPA is without precedent – and may also be unconstitutional, since it seeks to undermine our government’s tripartite (executive, legislative, judicial) balance of power.
3. Also in July, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to send to the floor for a vote a constitutional amendment prohibiting desecration of the flag. No matter how offensive any of us may find flag burning, especially post-9/11, it is an expression of free speech – and the freedom to disagree with the government is the stated core of the Declaration of Independence.
4. Republicans have been zealously guarding the USA Patriot Act, although some provisions infringe on citizens’ civil liberties. A recent attempt by liberals and moderates in Congress to get rid of the act’s egregious Section 215 – which allows the FBI to gather information about Americans’ library loans, bookstore purchases, and video/DVD rentals – failed when moderate Republicans caved in, toed the party line, and voted to retain the provision. In contrast, almost 300 municipalities around the country have passed resolutions against the Patriot Act because they see it as a threat to Americans’ civil liberties.
Given these examples, Heinz Kerry – an immigrant who lived under dictatorship and doesn’t take being American for granted – was correct to cite the “un-American”-ness of some Republican measures. Again and again, the extreme policies of the radical right threaten the framework of liberty and freedom upon which this country was founded and which all Americans, gay and straight, treasure.