Bozo Sapiens

Exploring how our cognitive, logical, and romantic failures are a fair price for our extraordinary success as a species.

!00% Unamerican!

What does it mean to be American? Let's ask Congress!

"Honey, I'm bored. There's nothing to do tonight." "I know! Why don't we try some un-American activities?" What actually is un-American activity? I've had someone accuse me of it for disparaging pro wrestling, but I'm not sure that qualifies. If we were being strictly constructionist about this, we might say that "making laws respecting an establishment of religion" was un-American; or taking the militia's cannon away. Or taxing tea: that's definitely un-American.

"Un-American" implies a body of Americanness that we can isolate from its opposite - but this raises a fundamental problem: America is only a political contract; it has never been a nation in the conventional sense of the term, where ancestry, culture and politics help to mutually define each other. The Germans still legally recognize "blood nationality," which automatically confers a devotion to precision engineering, currywurst, and the songs of David Hasselhoff. France gives its citizens an entire culture and history in flat-pack form which, when assembled, provides them with limitless savoir vivre - and Gaulish ancestors, even if their parents came from Senegal. We have only the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Super Bowl. On that basis, almost everything is un-American.

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The question arises because this week in 1948 marks the first appearance on America's television screens of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, now known by its dyslexic acronym, HUAC. Initially proposed by a Vilnius-born Jewish congressman (himself, remarkably, on the Soviets' NKVD payroll) as part of the fight against fascism, its job was to investigate Nazi infiltration of bodies like the KKK (although not to investigate the KKK itself; that, according to a committee member, was "an old American institution.") When the war ended and the Cold War began, HUAC was ready and eager to expose the Communist menace in our midst.

Was there such a menace? Well, yes, actually - or at least there had been. Soviet intelligence had been remarkably successful in cultivating idealistic young Americans during the 1930s, when the Great Depression seemed to prove the failure of capitalist institutions. In the face of America-First isolationism, only the Communists openly opposed the rise of the Nazis. Many recruits were children of Russian immigrants, retaining a romantic notion of the old country's youthful revolutionary ardor; others liked the excitement of joining something clandestine - and, of course, there were always the pleasures of sleeping with new and exotic people in a good cause. The result was that significant intelligence, from atom-bomb details to plans for postwar Europe, reached Moscow from spies in U.S. government departments. Sadly for the many honest Americans who supported them, it now seems clear that Alger Hiss, Julius Rosenberg, and Harry Dexter White really did what they were accused of. The State Department, Treasury, OSS, and other agencies did employ people who passed secrets to the Soviets - until 1946, that is, when the defection to the FBI of Elizabeth Bentley, reported to Moscow by the British traitor Kim Philby, effectively shut down most of the network.

The disappearance of this genuine threat left HUAC with little to talk about - never a pleasant position for a congressman - so it turned its attention to an easier target: Hollywood. The hunt after "subversive elements" and "Red propagandists" drew on such good old (though not uniquely American) traditions as distrust of the alien, anti-semitism, hatred of smart-alecks, and belief that the people need to be protected from dangerous ideas. As this involved the entertainment industry, we all have heard a lot about this phase of the affair: the blacklisting, the finger-pointing; Lillian Hellman's bravery and Elia Kazan's cravenness; the damage to Arthur Miller's career and the boost to John Wayne's. Hundreds of people lost their jobs; the American Legion and private communist-hunting consultants told the studios whom to shun. It was appalling and embarrassing - in part because it was so trivial compared to the real damage done. Stalin, ever a keen follower of the arts, must have been chuckling into his mustache.

Through its ham-fisted attempts to confine a great country into a narrow ideological compass, HUAC eventually made itself contemptible and irrelevant. But some of the disgraceful practices it pursued in the name of patriotism still survive. Cynically magnifying trivialities; bluster and innuendo; guilt by association; shameless grandstanding... wouldn't it be nice if these were considered un-American activities?

 

If you enjoy such tales of human fallibility, you can find a new one every day on my sister site (http://bozosapiens.blogspot.com). See you there.

Michael Kaplan writes about chance, fate, probability and error. He is the author of Bozo Sapiens: Why to Err is Human.

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