Patriotism: Rationality's Worst Enemy


The great Eighteenth Century English writer Samuel Johnson once called patriotism 'the last refuge of a scoundrel,' and his words have withstood the test of time. Scoundrels in Washington and their defenders utilize patriotism to silence their critics and discourage rational debate. For example, David Frum of the National Review wrote a piece in 2003 that dismissed antiwar libertarians and other conservatives as 'Unpatriotic Conservatives.' Other propagandistic phrases, like 'war against America ,' 'hating their country,' and 'turned their backs on their country,' permeate the article. Frum, like most war supporters, spends more time attacking our patriotism than addressing our arguments. This strategy has succeeded; most of the general public responds more positively to patriotic rhetoric than rational discussion. Therefore, they support policies that harm their interests. The current war in Iraq serves as a prime example. All of the pretexts for war have collapsed, and war supporters now rely on patriotic fears of 'losing a war' or ruining our 'national reputation' to justify it.

An incident during a recent panel at my college helps prove that politicians have successfully persuaded the public to favor patriotism over rationality and their own interests. During my presentation, I criticized the war in Iraq , arguing that it has increased the threat of terrorism and led to thousands of civilian casualties. One student repeatedly attacked my position, but instead of criticizing the substance of my arguments, he questioned the validity of my sources. This failed, so he waited until the panel concluded to present me with a copy of the morning's newspaper. The top story read 'Troops Battle Insurgents' (this was the day after the US began its assault on Fallujah). Apparently, he wanted me to patriotically stop criticizing the war while American soldiers were still fighting. I found out later that his brother is currently serving in Iraq .

This young man's unsuccessful efforts to persuade me to patriotically shut up reveal two absurd aspects of patriotism. First, since his brother is fighting in an unwinnable war, it would be in his interest to encourage people to speak against it; if more people turn against the war, the troops will return earlier. However, his patriotism motivated him to advocate a position that runs counter to his own interests. Second, because of his patriotism, he saw no reason to offer a rational critique of my stance. When questioning my sources failed, he resorted to shaming me with patriotic sentiment. This incident provides a case in point of patriotism stifling rational thought.

In the weeks before the Iraq War, patriotic fervor sparked a wave of hypocritical, mob-like, counterproductive, and childish behavior. With encouragement from House Speaker Dennis Hastert, many Americans called for boycotts of French goods as punishment for France 's refusal to endorse America 's invasion of Iraq . Ironically, some French companies employ American workers'many of whom undoubtedly supported the war. Congress attempted to insult the French by renaming 'french fries' on its menu, instead calling them 'freedom fries.' After the Dixie Chicks criticized President Bush, several radio stations banned their music, and one station used a tractor to crush Dixie Chicks CDs. All this occurred in America , the supposed 'land of the free.'

Many parents try to discourage violence by shielding their children from violent video games and movies. However, they indoctrinate their children with patriotism, which is far more likely to lead to violent behavior; it motivates young men to enthusiastically kill other young men they would befriend under different circumstances. At best, patriotism provokes blind support for politicians who start wars. At worst, it encourages participation in organized killing. If parents want to raise children who respect human life, they should teach them to think critically and form their own opinions.

Some argue that we should not discard patriotism altogether. Instead, we should practice 'good' patriotism and eliminate 'bad' patriotism. The great Russian author Leo Tolstoy, in his essay 'Patriotism and Government,' addressed this notion. Though written about a century ago, his reflections on 'good' patriotism are still valid today:

'What this real, good patriotism consists in, we are never told; or, if anything is said about it, instead of explanation we get declamatory, inflated phrases, or, finally, some other conception is substituted for patriotism-- something which has nothing in common with the patriotism we all know, and from the results of which we all suffer so severely.'

Moreover, if, as Samuel Johnson said, 'Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel,' then it only makes sense to abandon it and deny the scoundrels in Washington their last refuge.

Patriotism represents everything most Americans abhor. It justifies continued prosecution of unwinnable wars, stifles rational discussion of war-peace issues, and encourages mob-like behavior that tramples free speech and individual liberty. It is time for America to deny refuge to Washington 's scoundrels.

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Andrew Young is a senior history major at Kentucky Wesleyan College in Owensboro, Kentucky, where he won the Powell Peace Award in 2004.