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Calling Foes "Un-American" Is Nothing New

Town hall tempers were already rising before Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer wrote in USA Today on Monday that "drowning out opposing views is simply un-American."

That follows a fellow Democrat, Rep. Baron Hill, labeling health care protesters as "political terrorists." Rep. Dave Obey invoked words like "thuggery" and "disgraceful," and Sen. Blanche Lincoln also invoked the "un-American" epithet, before retracting it a short while later.

Calling someone "un-American" is political argument's equivalent of heavy artillery, if not a battlefield nuke: it's designed to put your opponents on the defensive, forcing them to rebut the nearly-unrebuttable, and verges on questioning their patriotism.

Yet the tactic has been around for so long -- since at least the 1800s -- that employing it is a tradition that's practically, well, American.

Protestants in 1893 viewed a school bill as "un-American"; an editor of a Syrian newspaper in New York City protested in 1899 that neither he nor his paper were un-American; some murders around the same time were dubbed "un-American."

In 1905, no less an authority than the New York Times labeled the not-yet-a-state of New Mexico the "most un-American part of the United States," on the grounds that its culture and traditions were too different, and in some cases simply too primitive.

This time around, conservatives wasted no time in denouncing Pelosi's choice of words. Charged the National Republican Congressional Committee: "According to the Democratic leadership, if you oppose an increase in healthcare costs, massive deficits, and higher taxes, you are 'un-American.'" RedState.com said that in 2005, "dissent was patriotic and the activists were funded by Hungarian billionaires. In 2009, dissent is Nazism and protestors are not authentic since they show up on their own dime without subsidy."

Michelle Malkin's excavations into recent political history turned up Hillary Clinton saying in 2003: "I am sick and tired of people who say that if you debate and you disagree with this administration somehow you're not patriotic. We should stand up and say we are Americans and we have a right to debate and disagree with any administration."

Of course, as you can probably imagine, conservative and Republican commentators have employed the same language as Pelosi, Hoyer, Obey, and Hill did.

Our archives here at CBSNews.com include this article from October 2008 about Rep. Michele Bachmann, a Republican, who wanted the news to conduct a "penetrating exposé" to determine whether members of Congress are "pro-America or anti-America."

Rush Limbaugh charged in February 2009 that Democrats "are using government to advance a cause that is un-American." And on Fox News, Bill O'Reilly described an anti-war newspaper advertisement in 2003 as: "An absolute outrage and demonstrates not only muddled thinking but an anti-American point of view that is staggering in its implications." Liz Cheney thinks, when it comes to releasing information about torture, that President Obama is "un-American."

When it comes to the health care debate, not only are the Democrats proposing sweeping changes that could affect every American, but they're trying to rush them through the U.S. Congress at incredible speed. (Republicans did this as well -- remember the Patriot Act's turbocharged trip through the legislature? -- when they were in charge. New boss, meet the old boss.)

What congressional leaders and the White House, which wants like-minded souls to report "fishy" blog posts to the authorities in Washington, D.C., may have lost sight of is that a rollicking good protest is the American way. It may not be entirely polite. It may not follow Robert's Rules of Order. Yet it's as just American as claiming that your opponents aren't.


Declan McCullagh is a correspondent for CBSNews.com. He can be reached at declan@cbsnews.com.

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