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.