In 1775, in the year just prior to the American Revolution, Samuel Johnson famously quipped that:
Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.
And this morning, thinking about this truism, I asked myself this question:
What is it about patriotism that makes it amenable to usage by scoundrels?
And it occurred to me that the answer is surprisingly straightforward: patriotism makes something other than reason—in this case, nationalism—the last court of human appeal: my country, right or wrong. In other words, patriotism short circuits reason and puts in its place a form of submission: loyalty to a fatherland or motherland above all else. And so patriotism, being pre-rational, is a form of mystification readily exploited by scoundrels. The American and French Revolutions, being assertions of reason and individual liberty against the mystifications of kings, would not have happened if the scoundrel appeals to loyal submission to king and country were heeded.
And so this seemed to me a tidy summing up (at least to my own mind) of why patriotism is, indeed, the last refuge of the scoundrel. Nationalism trumps reason.
But then another question occurred to me:
What props up nationalism?
And once again, the answer seemed blindingly obvious: religion. The American and French Revolutions—the fruits of the Anglo-French Enlightenment—were not just in a fight against kings and patriots (defined by loyalty to a king ruling territory). Instead, they were in a fight against the divine right of kings over a territory. Religion and nationalism, in other words, are the two pillars of the anti-Enlightenment tradition—the tradition that sets faith and cultural conformity over universal human reason and individual liberty.
And so it is that faith and patriotism function as the last refuges—against the universalist Anglo-French Enlightenment tradition—of scoundrels.