Samuel Johnson famously wrote in 1775 that “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” In The Devil’s Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce made the appropriate correction: “With all due respect to an enlightened but inferior lexicographer I beg to submit that it is the first.”
To be fair, Bierce had a 135-year advantage over Johnson. He could look back at the history of a particular brand of patriotism—the American kind—which, like everything else American, our modern flag-wavers will explain, is exceptional. Unlike European patriotism, which to them is a lesser and ignoble kind.
They make this claim as if—besides giving us impressive and justifiably revered notions of liberty and justice—our Founders and their successors did not expand the nation from sea to shining sea (and beyond) with a century of mass murder and grand larceny against indigenous peoples, a ginned-up war to grab more than half of Mexico, another to snag Puerto Rico and the Philippines, and a few lesser skirmishes by which places such as Maui became territory where the Stars and Stripes now flies.
The pretend patriots are mortal enemies of us citizens who deeply love our country, but who recognize that, historically and now, it is a composite of the good, the bad and the ugly. We who refuse to reiterate the latest version of my-country-right-or-wrong should be cast out. They deplore us who acknowledge with condemnation that a jingoistic, exclusionary, authoritarian patriotism was in large part what helped make the United States “great” in the worst sense of the word. We who object to the idolatrous intermingling of militaristic nationalism with patriotism might as well be terrorists in their view.
In the words of George Washington, those who practice these “impostures of pretend patriotism” try at every opportunity to stifle dissent and fill the silence with propaganda. This week we commemorate the Fourth of July! How dare I disrespect patriotism on the very anniversary of the day 56 men signed what could have been their death warrant, the Declaration of Independence. Can’t there be just one day when we critics shut up, stand up and salute? Thus do pretend patriots do as they have done throughout American history—confuse dissent with disrespect, critics with renegades, patriotism with obedience.
All too many know-nothings scarf up the red-white-and blue propaganda turds of our right-wing punditocracy as if they slid directly off the parchment signed by the Founders. Our nation is awash in purveyors of what makes a true patriot and what does not in terms Mussolini would have loved. They equate aggressive nationalism with patriotism, dissidence with treason, love of country with love of leaders. Such upsidedownism is a hallmark of right-think. For three and a half years, a boatload of pretend patriots have been fabulously well-paid to spread their poison about liberals, in general, and Barack Obama, in particular. Unlike the purveyors of Manifest Destiny who had no need to hide their desires for a white man's America, today's pretenders, all too many of them grifters, wink, nod and dog-whistle their way through the script.
But we cannot ignore the fact that pretend patriots are not confined solely to one political party. We have the bipartisan-passed Patriot Act, which should have been named the Pretend Patriot Act, as proof of that.
Four years ago, Larisa Alexandrovna pointed out how one of these right-wing "intellectuals," Jonah Goldberg, demanded adherence from us all to Big Brother’s brand of patriotism, complete with a shiny polished version of the Two Minutes Hate:
Make no mistake, this is a coordinated effort to deliberately replace substance with its symbol, meaning with an emblem, and essentially strip language down to nothing but trinkets. ...
For a people to be controlled, they must first be robbed of honest discourse and open debate. Distorting language and stripping it of real and honest meaning is the first tool and the best mechanism for transforming a democracy into an authoritarian state. An informed populace is a dangerous populace.
Symbols, however, and false-definitions can provide the appearance of information without the truth of it. Ideas, substance and meaning—all things for which a symbol is simply a representation and a word simply a type of symbol—are far more difficult to control. There is nuance in individual ideas. There are shades of agreement and disagreement and a whole spectrum of understanding and believing. Such a complex system cannot be controlled, and therefore, must be reduced to only its symbol and then distorted.
Symbols and words-as-slogans can be mass produced, mass delivered, and altered from their original meaning, until the symbol becomes its own thing and the substance on which it is based is entirely lost. ...
Patriotism is the word that authoritarians most like to distort ...
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