"[Mistreatment of Iraqis by US armed forces] was certainly fundamentally un-American" - Donald Rumsfeld, May 7, 2004
A terribly un-American write-up
It's a common word these days. We are repeatedly told that the crimes of which American service personnel are accused are not American. It's a turn of phrase with a long and not terribly distinguished history. It seems to represent a world view in which, to paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr, people are to be judged not by the content of their character, but by the colour of their flag. This world view is not peculiarly American itself. For a long time, during the height of the British Empire, a specific model of Britishness was promoted, with distinctive moral and social values. These values were in the main part ones with which few would disagree: honour, integrity, courage, and self-control. More equivocal concepts of national pride, repression of emotion, and belief in European-driven social progress were also part of the mix. Accompanying this idea of British national character was the projected opposite; that which is un-British. A fellow who was un-British was necessarily a bounder, cad, and all-round bad hat. If applied with sufficiently little intelligence, this principle leads to the idea that all foreigners are untrustworthy cowards. The current debate in France over the wearing of Islamic headscarves has at its root a conflict over what defines Frenchness. Regrettably, in that case, there is no clear indication of a moral character to the debate. There seems to be a hardened conviction in certain quarters that any overt show of Islam is un-French. No values have been held up as especially French in defence of this view, which might be difficult in any event, as the headscarf is the traditional dress of countless generations of European peasant women. Nevertheless, the debate is overtly about national characteristics.
Most readers will be aware of a famous usage of 'un-American', namely Senator Joseph McCarthy's House un-American Activities Committee. It should be noted that such an approach to national moral identity seems very alien to the British. In spite of what has been said in the previous paragraph, I think most Britons would recoil from the idea of a 'Parliamentary Enquiry into un-British Behaviour'. McCarthy's approach to the theme moved the emphasis in an ugly new direction. Now, the view was being promoted that if you disagreed with the prevailing political orthodoxy, you were effectively anti-American. Belief in or affiliation with Communism was defined to be un-American, simply because it was the notional political creed of the United States' rivals. Accordingly, anyone who dissented was implicitly a threat to national security. Blacklisting and the proverbial witch-hunts ensued. High Noon was condemned simply because it did not depict Americans as being unwavering moral paragons. Arthur Miller's play The Crucible, apart from being a call to sanity, also illustrated that such paranoid behaviour was a fundamental part of American history. Eventually the HUAC was seen for what it was: an ugly attempt to ruin law-abiding Americans by baseless innuendo and unjust discrimination. But when the dust settled after McCarthy's demise, 'un-American' was still part of the political vocabulary. Blacklisted cinema personalities were not instantly rehabilitated, and controversy over the roles of specific individuals such as Elia Kazan remains to this day. Somehow, in all the furore, the concept of un-American activities did not get thoroughly dismantled.
It is not immediately clear what the American values endorsed by such usage are. American history, like that of any nation, is a mix of the good and the bad. Modern America has been shaped no less by McCarthy, manifest destiny, the Trail of Tears, segregation, the Kent State shootings, or the Columbine High School massacre than by the Emancipation Proclamation, lend-lease, American heroism on 9-11, Malcolm X or the Apollo moon landings. This heritage does not make its inheritors naturally good, or protect the nation from harm. Lynndie England and Charles Graner, two of those accused of torture at Abu Ghraib, grew up as citizens of the same Union as George W Bush, John Kerry, Donald Rumsfeld, and Hilary Rodham Clinton. What can we say that these people, collectively, have gained from their homeland? All would no doubt claim to love their country. All have served it professionally. All are American citizens. So why is Ms England 'un-American'? And if contempt for human rights is un-American, how do we account for super-max prisons, the detention without trial of so-called 'illegal combatants' at Guantanamo Bay, or the existence of segregated institutions such as Bob Jones University?
Once Upon a Time in America
The equation of morality with patriotism which the use of the word 'un-American' implies gives rise to many questions. The United States is famous as a nation of immigrants, more so even than the United Kingdom. In a democracy, national policy and national character might reasonably be expected to be created by the people, as a continuing process of change and adjustment. To hold up some set of values, even those of a constitution, and tell the people that to be American is to accept and obey those values, is to undermine their right to self-determination. The fact that the Constitution is not an adequate measure of national values may be seen from the example of prohibition. If we accept the idea that there is a definitive set of 'American' values, then either total abstinence from alcohol is one of those values or it is not. Yet at different times in history, the Constitution has explicitly said different things on the subject. For a long time the Monroe Doctrine was considered distinctively American, and America's subsequent isolationism is often thoguht to date from that point. How does that American value strike more recent administrations? Perhaps, then, the national character, if it exists, does not rest in doctrines. If America is the land of the free, it must be free to be what its people make it. No Committee, no panel of judges, can truly create a nation; only the people. Yet perversely, thanks to anti-Communist hysteria, the language of 'the People' employed so eloquently by the founding fathers, and by Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address, has become unacceptable in many circles. It is viewed as un-American.
Other proposed amendments give rise to further questions about the concept of a national moral character. A flag burning amendment would be an obvious infringement of the (constitutionally assured) right to free speech. Not that America has a shortage of flags. Everywhere, even in a liberal state like California, the stars and stripes is everywhere. Hundreds of miles from the nearest international border, American flags fly in their hundreds to remind people what country they're in. Behind school principals' desks and on the sides of BART trains, on banks and outside private homes, the flag is there. Burning national flags is a traditional form of peaceful protest, and it is hard for an Englishman like me to see how one American's patriotic demonstration is endangered by another's less patriotic one. Most proposals for an amendment on this subject introduce religious language like 'desecrate' into the debate, elevating the state to the level of godhead. This is not the only area in which nationalist tendencies intrude into the area of human rights. In the United Kingdom, the Disability Discrimination Act was passed to make sure people with disabilities are not discriminated against, and are able to exercise their rights without undue hindrance. The equivalent United States legislation is called the Americans with Disabilities Act. I am not sure what becomes of, for example, an Armenian with disabilities if he or she wishes to avoid discrimination in the US. The same national labelling applies to popular culture, too, with the UK TV show Pop Idol becoming American Idol, and a projected remake of The Office named The American Workplace.
Another affront to free speech comes from the Pledge of Allegiance. No British schoolchild is even asked to make such a declaration. What, I wonder, does a flag want with my allegiance? Is it an American value to require people to say this nonsense? The phrase 'one nation under God', recently condemned by a circuit court ruling, is rich in contradictions, too. As has been observed, the 'republic for which [the flag] stands' is supposed to guarantee religious freedom, not insist that people acknowledge the existence of a god. The 'one nation' is an amalgam of different states with different constitutions, different populations and different histories. 'Indivisible' it surely isn't. 'Under God' poses another problem, when we return to the use of religious language in connection with the flag and other national symbols. If the flag is sacred, has the state not set itself up as an idol, in place of the god it professes to speak for? Upon arrival at San Francisco Airport last year, I encountered ranks of monitors on which the US Customs Service, a federal agency, wishes that 'God bless America'. What now for the separation of church and state? This principle, again often cited as a long-standing American value, seems to have been rejected in favour of a nationalist pan-Christianity.
So what are these American values that Donald Rumsfeld claims to be so keen to protect? If all that is meant is not to torture and murder people, then these are the values and laws of many countries. No positive aim has been held up as 'American' to contrast these un-American activities with. And if virtues like honesty, compassion, philanthropy, resilience, and community are said to define America, they define many other countries no less. Most, if not all, nations would aspire to these things, and America does not achieve them noticeably better than some others. Are these countries and their people thus trespassing on America's moral high ground? Are only Americans to be expected to desire and respect these things? Perhaps some Americans wish to instil a sense of morals in their fellow-countrymen by associating moral behaviour with a simplistic motherhood and apple pie nationalism. But people of other nations have mothers and eat pie, even more than they reject torture, give to charity, stand up to oppression, or pull together in a crisis. If America, or any other nation, has a national character, it is not some idol of nationalistic perfection, but an agglomeration of historical precedents, accidents, unions, secessions, wars fought fiercely, peace made grudgingly, inventions for weal or woe, and a thousand other things: the distillation of the social history of all the peoples that make it up. To condemn a citizen solely for not matching this randomly-assembled pattern is preposterous and clearly unjust. If those who have offended a nation are condemned, it must be on the basis of its laws, not the preconceptions of its leaders about who and what the citizens are.