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Not Just the Last Refuge of the Scoundrel

What Patriotism Is.


by James Leroy Wilson
August 1, 2001

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Not Just the Last Refuge of the Scoundrel_James Leroy Wilson-What Patriotism Is. Perhaps Samuel Johnson's most famous quotation is "Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel." The point, as I always understood it, is that appealing to loyalty to one's own country is the act of a demagogue, of one who will say and do anything to gain public approval and political power. Primarily, it casts those who disagree as unpatriotic, hostile to the institutions and interests of their own country. Honest disagreement becomes character assassination. Underneath the appeal is the exploitation of bigoted or prejudiced feelings of the masses.

The quote is famous, but I don't know the context in which it was said. I do know that there is nothing wrong with patriotism itself. Your country is, after all, the land you call home. To do what is best for your country is to do what is best for your home.

The disintegration of Yugoslavia over the last decade provides an example. Yugoslavia was a national fiction, its name literally meaning "Land of the southern Slavs" - as if being Slavic means anything - created by foreign diplomats in the aftermath of World War I. The various peoples of its several states - Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia, et al. did not view this new Yugoslavia as their own country. It was therefore easy for many of them to desire secession, just as it was easy for Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia to jump the gun on the Soviet Union's break-up by seceding in 1990.

Patriotism is not loyalty to whichever regime controls the military force that dominates your region, but is rather loyalty to the "homeland," or "nation," a geographic area that is generally identifiable, in which an ethnic group has historically and currently resides. Where such a homeland is not self-governing, patriots are called nationalists and aspire to form a sovereign nation.

Niccolo Machiavelli was perhaps the first modern nationalist. As a bureaucrat and writer in the early sixteenth century, he knew what the Italian nation was and sought to unify it, which would thereby free the Italian people from the supposedly independent feudal states, which were really dominated by foreign and papal intrigue. He understood where Italy was and who Italians were. Italy was Machiavelli's homeland, and his loyalty was to Italy, even though it did not legally exist as a sovereign nation, and would not for over 300 years. Machiavelli's writings, the basis for modern political theory, were not philosophical tomes on an ideal state a' la Plato, but invoked history and recommended courses of action.

Patriotism can be a benign concept, no more than recognizing that there is an "us" and "them" and that this particular geographical area belongs to "us." Superiority - racial, cultural, or moral - is not implied; all patriotism seeks is to outline proper lines of jurisdiction so that a native people is not subjected to the inhospitable government of another.

I'm no Johnson scholar, but I'd doubt that he'd disagree with any of this. It is not scandalous to desire one's own home and family to be secure and free, and no more scandalous to desire the land in which it's located to be secure and free, for the two concepts, home and homeland, are inseparable. Patriotism is not bad at all, but invoking it is like the challenge of a horny teenage boy to his girlfriend, or a manipulative mother to his grown-up child: "If you love me, you would do thus-and-so," meaning "If you don't do this, you don't love me." When intellectual reasoning fails, emotional appeals are used, and only scoundrels, and possibly idiots, need to use them.

The problem with the United States is that it is composed of a free and mobile people who move across state lines all the time. Newcomers change local customs, and the most ethnically homogenous states are among the most rural and economically depressed, often the same ones that lose population. Strong state identity manifests itself quirkily - Nebraska's college football team, Utah's Mormon dominance, Nevada's gambling culture - but national identity overrules. Since the Civil War, a true patriot acted in the best interest of the United States, not his home state.

Many argue that this is for the best - indeed, I do as well. The right to secede from the Union makes for incoherent political theory by making the Union too fragile to do anything effective for its own security. But where patriotism and nationalism - an affection for people in all our states and a commitment to the values we all share - becomes dark, perverse, and counter-productive is when it becomes the excuse to by-pass or overrule local and state action in order to serve the ideals in our national mythology, particularly equality, individualism, and virtue.

For if the people are so economically unequal, the republic cannot survive, right? Well, ours always has, from slavery to Rockefeller's monopoly to Sam Walton to Bill Gates. If the people's individual rights are violated, fascism or theocracy is right behind, right? Well, our republic has survived everything from local flag-burning laws (until our unelected, life-tenured Supreme Court Justices decided we couldn't) to state-mandated prayer in schools (until ditto) to mandatory census questions about the size of one's toilets (and what can be more private than that?). The sad state of America's hypocrisy about its own principles, and/or its immorality will ruin the nation, right? Just as naysayers proclaimed every generation before ours.

I believe in democracy and liberty through multi-layered security established through democratically-ordained states constitutions, a federal Constitution controlled by the people, and the laws enacted through them. The advocates of economic justice, individual rights, and morality do not.

Which is the more patriotic position?

Comments (2)


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Jim from London writes:
August 24, 2007
Hey there, interesting piece. America is a very proud country, and so it should be.

But, alas, some of the most bigoted, cold hearted, sociopathic, racist, cruel, and vicious people I've known have all been true patriots. Authoritarian personalities. I get sick of them in Britain, whinning on and on, moaning about everyone who is not white and English, with their pathological nostalgia for the past, pinning for an England that was all Empire and Gentlemen. Every new minute is worse than the last, as if they are constantly falling into the depths of hell.

Am I being unfair? LOL.

N from Earth from California writes:
October 24, 2008
I have the quote "Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel" where I can see it everyday. When Bush first came into office and and the right-wingers started pointing at everyone who disagreed with them as unpatriotic, this quote made absolute sense. When questioned about any action that was unreasonable, all they did was say they did it for patriotism. Well there is the quote from 1775 matching present history. I am from Earth and extremely patriotic about my planet...and that is where stand.

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