"Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel." Said Samuel Johnson to Mr. Boswell, and Mr. Boswell and the world took note and remembered. Yet those who most often and most lovingly remind us of this famous aphorism are almost invariably those of a particular breed of skeptic who consider all national loyalties of any kind to be automatically suspect. However they seldom if ever repeat the second part of that renowned quotation, and by this slippery sin of omission they completely distort the true intent of the original phrase.
"But let it be considered," Mr. Boswell continues, "that he did not mean a real and generous love of our country, but that pretended patriotism which so many, in all ages and countries, have made a cloak of self-interest."
Boswell Life of Samuel Johnson
How then are we to determine what is or is not a "real and generous love of our country", and what is merely "pretended patriotism" and just a "cloak of self-interest."? Who then is a patriot? And who is not? Who is our true friend? And who is our true foe?
The people whom we are fighting against are often some of the nicest people in the world. But they are nonetheless wrong. Very wrong. And they do hurt us. And they don’t even see it. These people, often our friends and relatives and neighbors, often suffer from the worst sort of hubris. The pride of sanctified opinion. The firm belief that their opinions, no matter how grossly uninformed or ill-founded have value just because they are their opinions. They see themselves as superior patriots, honorable but objective physicians who are willing to tell their patient the truth about their serious condition, no matter how distasteful it may be. Telling their patients the awful truth has in point of fact become their sacred role, their primary function. Only in this way do they have a chance of saving their suffering charges. And if the truth is a bitter pill to swallow, then so be it. It must be done. It is to be seen as a painful but necessary catharsis.
However, just beneath the surface of this high-minded rhetoric, one can smell that familiar and unmistakable odor of unbounded pride and self-importance. Above all else, our dubiously sincere critics wish to appear profound and well-informed. The concept of actually becoming profound and well-informed through hard work and diligent study is evidently beyond the scope of their apprehension. They remain utterly content and unmoved by the force of reality. They have learned all that they need to know. And that is all that they need to learn.
How often have we seen some well thought-out essay, an obvious product of a great expenditure of effort and research, casually dismissed out of hand by a one sentence insult, or buy some oh-so-clever quip by one of these self-appointed Guardians of Truth. Yet, remarkably, and invariably, these very same people will without the slightest hesitation describe themselves unabashedly as patriots, true patriots who love their country and only wish to help her through her absolutely essential catharsis. In short, they say, the truth hurts. And their truth is of course the only unquestioned version.
God save us from these 'true patriots'. With patriots like these who needs enemies? If these are, as I propose, our false patriots, who then are our true patriots? What after all is said and done, is a true patriot?
First and foremost a patriot is loyal. He has made an oath and he intends to keep it. A patriot is steadfast, he does not waver in the ever-changing winds of opinion. A patriot loves his country and is supportive of her. He does not look for ways to undermine the moral integrity of his country during a time of her utmost peril, during a time of war.
A patriot’s primary concern is in defending his country against any and all assaults upon her character, whether they come from enemies within or from enemies abroad. A patriot does not exercise his right to free speech in order to slander his own home and nation. He does not hold the delusional conceit that by publicly admonishing his country for her purported past and present blunders and atrocities he is thereby somehow helping her. He will not expend his energies seeking to find some new flaws in the character of his country, but rather does whatever he can do to defend her from the attacks of those who would happily bring her down. A patriot is not ashamed to be a trustworthy and loyal champion of his country. Rather, he is her proud protector and her shield. A patriot is unconcerned that his patriotism may be called simplistic and shallow by those false patriots. A patriot who is willing to sacrifice his very life for his honest love of country is not that easily cowed by these petty and effete naysayers.
A patriot does not mindlessly parrot the borrowed opinions of others merely based upon their current popularity. He is totally unconcerned about whether his patriotism is or is not in fashion this year. A patriot does his own independent research and thinks before he speaks. He will not allow his careless words to be used by his country's enemies as weapons to wound her. Rather, a patriot will use his well-chosen words and his deeds to lift his country up even higher.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, patriots are deeply aware of their value to their community and their country. Patriots love life and they love their families, but are nonetheless willing to sacrifice themselves for their community and their country, not with that blind unthinking obedience of a totalitarian slave or a religious fanatic, but with an open-hearted generosity and love. With that 'real and generous love of country' of which our good Mister Boswell spoke so long ago.