What does it mean to be un-American?
We are pleased to announce the publication of the “Un-America” Special issue of of Journal of American Studies. As an introduction to the topic of Un-Americanism, Dr George Lewis, Guest Editor of the Special Issue examines the topic and asks what un-Americanism is and whether it is still a relevant term today. You can enjoy complimentary access to three articles, plus the introduction to the Special Issue until the 31st December 2013 here.
What are un-American activities?
There has never been a single, objectively agreed definition of “un-American activities” or “un-Americanism,” which is in part why they provide such beguiling topics of study. Because the idea of being American is ideological as well as geographical, and because there have always been rewards associated with American citizenship, there have in turn always been occasions on which certain American citizens have sought to exclude certain of their ideological enemies by labelling them as “un-American.” What makes the term particularly interesting is that those enemies have often fought back, for example by using the US Constitution’s protections of political association to argue that what is truly un-American is not a particular political position per se, but rather the attempts to exclude or target certain groups or individuals on political grounds. The meaning of un-American, in other words, has always been richly contested.
Why is the topic particularly suited to the Special Issue of a journal?
Because the only way to understand how un-Americanism has been used in the past is to immerse it in its contemporary contexts and into the debates that surrounded its contestation. The articles collected in this Special Issue therefore offer a series of case studies offering insights into that process across 230 years of US history, and seek to understand un-Americanism through prisms of gender, race, politics, class, sexuality, citizenship, intellectual history, religion and law.
Have there been any previous studies of un-Americanism?
None that have sought to understand its long history. Too often, historians have tied un-Americanism to McCarthyism and a particular Cold War epoch. As the studies in the Special Issue show, Americans have been labelling each other “un-American” across three centuries, while McCarthy’s crusade lasted for only four years.
Do other countries boast similar traditions?
There have been glimpses of parallel traditions in other countries, such as un-Australian, un-British and unDeutsch activities, but none have had the longevity or depth of un-Americanism.
Is it still a relevant term in the contemporary United States?
Schisms in the current US conservative movement, allied to the assumed alterity of Barack Hussein Obama, have revivified un-Americanism. No Tea Party rally is complete, it seems, without reference to the Commander-in-Chief’s un-American plans for a Socialist United States…