THE LAST (OR FIRST) REFUGE OF A SCOUNDREL: Patriotism Often Invoked to Excuse World's Worst Atrocities

By Blum, William | CCPA Monitor, September 2008 | Go to article overview

THE LAST (OR FIRST) REFUGE OF A SCOUNDREL: Patriotism Often Invoked to Excuse World's Worst Atrocities


Blum, William, CCPA Monitor


I'm sick and tired of this thing called "patriotism."

The Japanese pilots who bombed Pearl Harbour were being patriotic. The German people who supported Hitler and his conquests were being patriotic, fighting for the Fatherland. All the Latin American military dictators who overthrew democratically-elected governments and routinely tortured people were being patriotic-saving their beloved country from "communism."

General Augusto Pinochet of Chile: "I would like to be remembered as a man who served his country."

P.W. Botha, former president of apartheid South Africa: "I am not going to repent. I am not going to ask for favours. What I did, I did for my country."

Pol Pot, mass murderer of Cambodia: "I want you to know that everything I did, I did for my country."

Tony Blair, former British prime minister, defending his role in the invasion and occupation of Iraq: "I did what I thought was right for our country."

I won't bore you with what George W. Bush has said.

At the end of World War II, the United States gave moral lectures to the German prisoners and to the German people on the inadmissibility of pleading that their participation in the holocaust was in obedience to their legitimate government. To prove to them how legally inadmissible this defense was, the World War II allies hanged the leading examples of such patriotic loyalty.

I was once asked after a talk: "Do you love America?" I answered: "No."

After pausing for a few seconds to let that sink in amidst several nervous giggles in the audience, I continued with: "I don't love any country. I'm a citizen of the world. I love certain principles, like human rights, civil liberties, democracy, an economy that puts people before profits."

I don't make much of a distinction between patriotism and nationalism.

Some writers equate patriotism with allegiance to one's country and government, while defining nationalism as sentiments of ethno-national superiority. However defined, in practice the psychological and behavioural manifestations of nationalism and patriotism-and the impact of such sentiments on actual policies-are not easily distinguishable.

Howard Zinn has called nationalism "a set of beliefs taught to each generation in which the Motherland or the Fatherland is an object of veneration and becomes a burning cause for which one becomes willing to kill the children of other Motherlands or Fatherlands."

Patriotism is used to create the illusion of a common interest that everybody in the country has. Strong feelings of patriotism lie near the surface in the great majority of Americans. They're buried deeper in the more "liberal" and "sophisticated," but are almost always reachable, and ignitable.

Alexis de Tocqueville, the mid-19th century French historian, commented about his long stay in the United States: "It is impossible to conceive a more troublesome or more garrulous patriotism; it wearies even those who are disposed to respect it."

George Bush Sr., pardoning former Defense secretary Caspar Weinberger and five others in connection with the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages scandal: "First, the common denominator of their motivation-whether their actions were right or wrong-was patriotism."

What a primitive underbelly there is to this rational society. The U.S. is the most patriotic, as well as the most religious, country of the socalled developed world. The entire American patriotism thing may be best understood as the biggest case of mass hysteria in history, whereby the crowd adores its own power as troopers of the world's only superpower, a substitute for the lack of power in the rest of their lives. Patriotism, like religion, meets people's need for something greater to which their individual lives can be anchored.

"Patriotism," Dr. Samuel Johnson famously said, "is the last refuge of a scoundrel."

Ambrose Bierce begged to differ: "Patriotism," he said, "is the first refuge of a scoundrel. …

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THE LAST (OR FIRST) REFUGE OF A SCOUNDREL: Patriotism Often Invoked to Excuse World's Worst Atrocities
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