In 1938, the United States House of Representatives authorized the formation of a Special House Committee on Un-American Activities, (HUAC).
The committee was charged with investigating whether there existed communists in positions of power and/or influence, not only in the government, but in American society. The long-term consequences of what has been described as a “witch hunt” have sharply divided many to this day.
In his book Only Victims, author Robert Vaughn (yes, the actor), made a comprehensive study of show business blacklisting. Vaughn explains how an atmosphere of fear and unreason overtook principles of justice and fairness, not to mention the First Amendment, and led many to be convicted by association. “Words such as ‘un-American,’ and ‘subversive’ and phrases such as propaganda that ‘attacks the principles of the form of government as guaranteed by the Constitution’ were used by the committee to label and describe those persons or organizations with whom they disagreed.”
While the wording may have changed, the definition of what is un-American today has expanded. Here are just a few examples of what Republican Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich uses to “inspire” an Us vs. Them mindset.
“I have two grandchildren — Maggie is 11, Robert is 9,” Gingrich said at Cornerstone Church. “I am convinced that if we do not decisively win the struggle over the nature of America, by the time they’re my age they will be in a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists and with no understanding of what it once meant to be an American.” (Mar. 2011)
Speaking about the actions by protesters of Proposition 8, Gingrich stated: “I think there is a gay and secular fascism in this country that wants to impose its will on the rest of us, is prepared to use violence, to use harassment. I think it is prepared to use the government if it can get control of it. I think that it is a very dangerous threat to anybody who believes in traditional religion.” (Nov. 2008)
“The secular socialist machine represents as great a threat to America as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union once did.” (May, 2010)
In a 1996 memo to GOPAC entitled, Language: A Key Mechanism of Control the former Speaker makes clear his intentions in labeling others.
“Often we search hard for words to define our opponents. Sometimes we are hesitant to use contrast. Remember that creating a difference helps you. These are powerful words that can create a clear and easily understood contrast. Apply these to the opponent, their record, proposals and their party.”
Among the words the Speaker believes most effective: “intolerant, corrupt, radical, traitors, decay, destroy…”
The Speaker’s latest un-American label came last Monday at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma when Gingrich called President Obama “the most dangerous president in modern American history.”
In what I can only describe as incomprehensible contrast, at a recent debate, Gingrich was asked to describe himself with one word. What word did the former Speaker use? “Cheerful.”
In Only Victims, Vaughn concludes that “The Special House Committee on Un-American Activities was formed in 1938 after nearly a decade of extreme economic and social unrest in the United States.”
Certainly the extraordinary downturn in the economy, job loss, and housing crisis has created a similar background in which individuals like Gingrich are given voice to blame all manner of the country’s ills on a single individual, party, way of thinking, believing or sexual orientation.
Capitalizing on the fear and unreason in the country, Senator Joseph McCarthy was given to similar hyperbole. The problem was and, sadly still is, that too many Americans, particularly those currently suffering, willingly believe such rhetoric.
Democracy depends on an informed citizenry. When it comes to issues of policy and individuals who may govern, we have a responsibility to read, reflect and decide what is in the best interests of the country based on the facts.
We have a responsibility to treat others – even those we disagree with – with the same level of respect and consideration that we would like for ourselves.
And we have a responsibility to expect nothing less than honorable behavior from leaders in government who have the power to influence thought and decision.
After the Senate began investigating the abuses by McCarthy, HUAC’s power and prestige declined. In 1959 the Committee was denounced by former President Truman as the “most un-American thing in the country today.”
The former Speaker often refers to himself as a history teacher. I would encourage Mr. Gingrich to reflect on the lessons of HUAC and McCarthy when it comes to the language he chooses to use to persuade and influence others.