The curious use of the label ‘un-American’

One of the features of being an immigrant (like me) is that one has a natural frame of comparison when observing certain patters of behaviors and language. One that strikes me in the US is how frequently one hears politicians use the term ‘un-American’ when describing a practice or person that they deplore. Take for example this speech recently by Joe Biden castigating the efforts by Republicans around the country to make voting harder, especially for poorer communities and communities of color, under the belief that those people are more likely to vote for Democrats.

Speaking at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Biden called state efforts to curtail voting accessibility “un-American” and “un-democratic” and launched a broadside against his predecessor, Donald Trump, who baselessly alleged misconduct in the 2020 election after his defeat. Biden called passage of congressional proposals to override new state voting restrictions and to restore parts of the Voting Rights Act that were curbed in recent years by the Supreme Court “a national imperative.”

I can understand saying that trying to curtail voting is ‘un-democratic’. That is obvious. But saying it is ‘un-American’ seems to be implying that ensuring and expanding voting rights is a peculiarly American value.

It is not that other countries do not use the ‘un-X’ formulation, where X refers to some nation or nationality. But usually it is used humorously or ironically or self-mockingly in the context of some stereotype of that people involving a relatively minor quirk or foible. For example, one might describe an Italian who is not voluble and does not gesture extravagantly while speaking as being ‘un-Italian’. On the contrary, one might speak of an English person who is not reserved but does speak in that way as being ‘un-English’.

As another example, it is thought that in Homer’s Odyssey, the’Land of the Lotus-eaters’ that he refers to, of people who live on food that comes from a flower is thought to be describing Sri Lanka. Some in Sri Lanka adopted it and used it to imply that we were a somewhat lazy people who lived off the land and whatever was easily available. So someone who was highly industrious and working all the time may be described as being ‘un-Sri Lankan’ for going counter to the stereotype. As with all stereotypes, it is generally false and in the case of Sri Lanka, the country has changed dramatically over time. The demands of modern society, for example, has resulted in Sri Lankans generally being highly industrious and the lotus-eater label is hardly ever heard anymore, as far as I am aware.

But to call someone ‘un-American’ as Biden did is not applying a label in humor or describing a foible. It is a serious charge, that the person is opposed to some deep value that is almost exclusively held by Americans.

While trying to limit voting rights is clearly undemocratic, adding the epithet of un-American to my mind trivializes the seriousness of the charge, taking it from an almost universal value that is being harmed to a merely parochial one.


  1. mikey says

    Mid-fifties native-born Michigander, here, grandchild of immigrants. I used to use ‘un-American’ to describe things like anti-immigration and anti-civil rights activity when I was younger. Eventually, I sadly had to conclude that it is I who is un-American, based on pretty much everything about our history and behavior going back to the founding and before. I think I will adopt the ironic sense you described; maybe it will cause someone to stop and think. (Another un-American thing!)

  2. jrkrideau says

    The term strikes me as strange. I live in Canada and “un-Canadian” is bizzare. Not impossible but bizarre.

    Apparently the US House Un-American Activities Committee was set up before WWII, HUAC was created in 1938 to investigate alleged disloyalty and rebel activities on the part of private citizens, public employees and organizations suspected of having Communist ties. , Shrug.

    I think the term ‘un-American’ is probably an old one. The USA has a long history of believing in crazy conspiracies—Hapsburgs and the Jesuits planning a coup in the 1830’s or 40’s, German invasion in the 1900’s.

    My guess is that earlier European settlers and their descendants used it to separate themselves from later immigrants such as the Irish or the Italians and so on.

  3. cartomancer says

    There are other countries that have used the language in a deadly serious way, but they have all been authoritarian dictatorships. It’s very much a line from the ultra-nationalist playbook, to equate the identity of one’s own nation with moral uprightness and ultimate value. The US is, as far as I know, the only country that isn’t quite a fascist dictatorship yet that uses their language. Perhaps it’s aspirational?

  4. cartomancer says

    As for the linked article about the Odyssey… it’s rather specious really. Some classicists used to posit that perhaps the journey mentioned in the Odyssey was around the Mediterranean, placing the Island of the Lotus Eaters somewhere in North Africa, probably off what is now Libya or Egypt. But, really, the poem points to the locations Odysseus visits after Ismarus as being fantastical, magical places off any map -- he’s sailed into a land of myth and monsters, and every encounter he has has a fairytale quality to it that is very different from his exploits back in the real world of the Greeks. None of the magic and mystery persists when he returns home in book 13 and gets on with the business of reclaiming his rightful place in Ithaca. It is generally agreed nowadays that trying to map the adventures narrated in books 5-12 onto real places is entirely barking up the wrong tree.

  5. Ketil Tveiten says

    I think it’s really quite simple. Americans are unusually nationalistic for a western nation, and find the simplification of «American is good, not-American is bad» comforting; describing bad things as «un-American» is just what you get when taking that rule to its extremes (by replacing «is» with «equals»).

  6. mnb0 says

    “adding the epithet of un-American to my mind trivializes …..”
    I think you underestimate this. It’s an appeal to nationalism/’patriottism and quite a sick version of it (I only like nationalism in sports and not even then too much -- Oranje’s play was badly while I enjoyed Italy most; the best football match I’ve ever seen was France-Portugal, semi-finals EUch 1984).
    So I googled a bit. The hit on “Onsurinaams” (un-Surinamese) is a peculiar one: “Criminality un-Surinamese” (having lived in that country from 1989 until 1993 and from 2000 on) I can assure you that criminality is as Surinamese as it is Dutch or American.

    The term “on-Nederlands” is used as a compliment when it refers to landscapes.
    I suspect this is because such language reminds many Europeans of WW-2, when being “un-Aryan” was a crime.

  7. steve oberski says

    I’m remined of one of the earlier episodes of “The Americans” where Arkady Ivanovich Zotov, the KGB’s Rezident at the Soviet embassy says to Stan Beeman, an FBI counterintelligence agent something to the effect:

    You Americans see things in black and white, we Russians see things in shades of gray.

  8. mnb0 says

    @5 KetilT: “Americans are unusually nationalistic for a western nation”
    I’m afraid that’s no longer true and I’m not only thinking of semi-authoritarian nations like Poland and Hungary. Cf–2020_Catalan_protests

    Lots of nationalism was involved, at both sides.
    It’s only a few years ago that this guy

    won Dutch elections by appealing to the supremacy of “boreal culture”.

  9. jrkrideau says

    @ 3 cartomancer
    As an aside I recently learned that the Russian language has two words for Russian: Ethnic Russians (русский “russkiy”) and citizens of the state (российский “rossiyskiy”).

  10. sonofrojblake says

    “Un-American” has pretty specific connotations, to me, a foreigner. Specifically, “un-American” things include:
    1. tolerance of politics of the centre or left
    2. concern for the welfare of the weak or disadvantaged, especially Palestinians, but also anyone who’s poor, ill or lacking physical fitness or intellectual skills
    3. a dislike of violence in life or entertainment
    4. any religious affiliation other than Christian, including and arguably especially atheism
    5. any sexual or gender expression other than cis-het
    6. sports other than the ones America usually wins at, if necessary by being the only ones playing
    7. peace.

    These are things I consider “un-American”, based on the evidence provided by America. Anyone got any more?

  11. sonofrojblake says

    (an addendum to (1) -- the most left-wing politicians in the USA would count as far-right in most civilised countries. That’s not to say those countries don’t have far-right politicians, it’s just that in most countries they’re a distressingly prominent lunatic fringe, not the party of government AND opposition)

  12. says

    The word seems to have been used for a very long time. I found a use of “unamerican” in the Fourth of July address of John T. Tarbell in 1939:

    “Who is so blind as not to see a most wonderful analogy, both in doctrine and precept, between these modern whigs and the ancient Federalists. The Federal party then as now had been furious and bitter, factious and unpatriotic, illiberal and unamerican; exulting and rejoicing in the hour of national distress and disaster, hoping thereby to overthrow the government; uniformly inclining their sympathies with the country’s enemies, . . .”

  13. fentex says

    I think it’s an easy to use short hand because of the ease of saying ‘Un’ and ‘A-‘ and the idea exists probably everywhere but different names don’t lend themselves to such appealing shorthand.

  14. springa73 says

    sonofrojblake @10

    Those are “un-American” only if you accept the farthest right’s definition of what it means to be American, which is a big mistake.

    To me, “un-American” is just a political rhetorical device in which one tries to paint one’s opponents as holding beliefs inconsistent with core national values. It doesn’t really have much meaning, in my opinion, because there are so many different ideas about what “American values” actually are.

    I’ve also heard the term used ironically and jokingly.

  15. John Morales says

    It’s fractal, ain’t it?

    I mean, America is a continent — composed of North and South America.

    And, in North America, there’s a nation-state called the USA — the which arrogates the demonym of ‘American’.

  16. prl says

    John Morales:

    Nah, it’s used here in Oz, has been for ages.

    In my observation, in Australia it can be usually translated as “I don’t like whatever it is, but I can’t be bothered to justify why.” “Politically correct” can usually be translated in much the same way.

  17. sonofrojblake says

    “Those are “un-American” only if you accept the farthest right’s definition of what it means to be American, which is a big mistake”

    Only those on the farthest right have any use for the term, so they get to define it.

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