Saturday, June 9, 2012

Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel

June 30, 2002:
"Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel."
-- Samuel Johnson (Boswell's Life of Johnson)

Since September 11, we've seen a huge increase in patriotic expressions here in the United States. As a result, this has probably become the most widely used Samuel Johnson quotation since that date. Perhaps not in mainstream media, but certainly in usenet postings. Many would say it's become the Samuel Johnson quotation most widely misused, too.

It would have been nice if Boswell provided more details about what was being discussed when Johnson leveled this complaint, but he doesn't. The barb comes out of nowhere. (Please see the update below.) But Boswell makes up for this lack of context by making it clear that Johnson was not indicting all patriotism, merely false patriotism. Beyond that, all Boswell tells us is that it was part of a discussion on patriotism which occurred on April 7, 1775.

What were the political issues of the day, and what were Johnson's thoughts around that point in time? Well, by that time he had already published his famous political pamphlets of the 1770's, including The False Alarm (1770) and The Patriot (1774). He had also published the fourth edition of his Dictionary, wherein he'd added an explanatory remark to his definition of "patriotism". In both the first and fourth editions, he'd defined "patriot" as "One whose ruling passion is the love of his country." In the fourth edition, Johnson added: "It is sometimes used for a factious disturber of the government." From the original 1755 definition, repeated in 1773, as well as comments in Johnson's various pamphlets, it's clear that Johnson felt that patriotism was a valuable feeling, one which shouldn't be taken lightly. All scoundrels may resort to patriotism, but this doesn't mean that everyone who expresses patriotic sympathies are automatically scoundrels.

All in all, it's a pretty dangerous slur to throw around, and one has to have their evidence in advance if in order to accuse someone of being a scoundrel. I've seen it applied to both Senator Clinton and President Bush, without any supporting arguments beyond political philosophy. I saw it applied to both the Gore and Bush camps during the fallout in Florida over the 2000 election. (I myself directed it at the Bush camp, here, but of course I provided good arguments, irrefutable reasoning, and was completely correct in doing so.)

The degree of the subjectivity becomes all the more apparent if we stop and think that Johnson considered Edmund Burke and his party just the sort of manipulative politician deserving of this petard. Johnson talks about false patriots as appealing to the rabble and circulating pointless petitions, all of which was done by the party Burke belonged to. (You might take a look at F. P. Lock's excellent biography of Burke for further evidence.) In addition, Burke frequently spoke late in Parliamentary debates, and there was little new ground for him to cover on an issue beyond abstruse, theoretical patriotic arguments; and, Lock notes that Burke worked within the mindset of an intricate conspiracy theory within the court.

A further argument that Johnson felt Burke a manipulative scoundrel comes from Boswell. Burke is a topic of discussion following the "last refuge" remark, and about Burke, Johnson says, "Sir, I do not say that he is not honest; but we have no reason to conclude from his political conduct that he is honest." And on another occasion, Johnson said of him, "In private life he is a very honest gentleman; but I will not allow him to be so in publick life. People may be honest, though they are doing wrong; that is between their Maker and them. But we, who are suffering by their pernicious conduct, are to destroy them. We are sure that [Burke] acts from interest. We know what his genuine principles were. They who allow their passions to confound the distinctions between right and wrong, are criminal. They may be convinced; but they have not come honestly by their conviction."

Edmund Burke is of course one of the most revered politicians in British history, someone nobody takes lightly. And practically no one would say Burke wasn't a patriotic politician. Anyone who misuses the Johnson complaint about false patriotism should be prepared for a retort along the lines of "such as Edmund Burke?" Watch them sputter while you lay these details on them.

UPDATE: The order of the topics of discussion that night as represented in the Life Of Johnson are different from what Boswell's journals suggest. In his journals (written first), discussions of Burke as a politician happen before Johnson's famous remark, not after. Thus, it's even more likely that Johnson had Burke and his party in mind when he made the remark. Boswell may have rearranged the order out of sensitivity to its implications.

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