Refuge of Scoundrels

Samuel Johnson famously said that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. During the Viet Nam war we learned what he meant when the “true patriots” of the “my country right-or-wrong” variety were telling critics to love their country or leave it. But unqualified love, blind love, is the sign of a bigot and a zealot, not of a true lover. One who loves his or her country is aware of its faults, but loves it just the same — much like the couple who have stayed together for 50 years and plan to stay together for the rest of their lives.

When traveling abroad in years past I was proud to carry an American passport. I have always thought this was a remarkable country, one that provides an opportunity for all to achieve their dreams. This is the country that rebuilt Europe after the Second World War, a war we entered in our own small way on behalf of Britain even before Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese. But this was the country that also locked up Japanese citizens in concentration camps during the war, so one had to maintain some sense of balance and perspective. Still, we seemed to be on the right track, concerned about the moral high ground and doing the right thing by the rest of the world. After writing a Constitution that protected slavery, for example, this country eventually managed to free the slaves and years later struggled against Southern bigotry to guarantee those former slaves the right to marry, vote, ride on buses, and eat in restaurants. We even came to realize that women ought to be able to vote! We seemed to be on the right track.

This is the country, after all, that managed to put a bridle on the unfettered greed of capitalists like John D. Rockefeller and J.P, Morgan and bring them to heel, softening somewhat the blows of the predatory rich against those who worked in their dark mines or stifling tenement sweat shops for pennies a day.  This is a country that seemed, not long ago, to still know where the moral high ground was located even if we weren’t holding it quite so tight.

But then something happened to turn the country away from the moral high ground and it seemed to be slowly disappearing in the distance. While our education system began to fall toward the bottom of the heap, we learned that our country was engaged in torturing prisoners, spying on its own citizens, incarcerating people for years on end without the fundamental right of trial by jury, killing suspected (I stress suspected) terrorists living half-way around the world with unmanned aircraft, breeding hatred in those we suspected might be our enemies. All in the name of  Homeland Security. Moreover, as we know, America leads the so-called “civilized” world in the number of shooting deaths and gun control is not seriously discussed. Somehow, the moral high ground that folks like Martin Luther King so eloquently urged us to seek and find not so very long ago was becoming an empty phrase. We had lost our way as the corporations once again grabbed the reins of power and filled out the dance card of the puppet politicians they bought and paid for, the military increasingly determined foreign policy, and the middle class began to slip into the gap between the very rich and the very poor. Soon less than 1% of the people in this country were contributing nearly half of the money needed to elect a politician who would be beholden to that money interest, money that might better have been spent on maintaining a tottering infrastructure or, perhaps, helping those in need, those living in cardboard boxes and eating out of trash cans. We seem to have become a nation of “ugly Americans.”

So, how far does patriotism go? At what point does one cease to love his or her country when aware of the sins of omission and commission it is committing on a daily basis? As suggested, I answer that true patriotism consists in an awareness of those sins coupled with the determination to point them out and do whatever can be done to mitigate them somehow. Criticism and rebellion were the forces that created this country, after all. To pretend the sins don’t exist, to rewrite history, to curse those who insist that they do exist, is not the mark of a true patriot. It is the refuge of a scoundrel. The true patriot, if there are any left, continues to love his country in the hope that it will once again turn toward the moral high ground and do whatever it takes to hold it and not let go. The only worry is that some day, after hope has died, the love will also die.