The Last Refuge of Scoundrels

Samuel Johnson’s famous observation that patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels wasn’t intended to be an indictment of national pride itself. Rather, Johnson was condemning the way people use false patriotism to cut off debate. Love of country, like motherhood and justice, is something no one would ever oppose—“Why, you’re not attacking our beloved nation, are you?”—and so it can be a convenient screen for those whose arguments are weak or who see their point of view as the only possible perspective. The problem arises when people begin to define what patriotism (or motherhood or justice) really is. Then, to adopt a phrase of more uncertain provenance, the devil’s in the details.

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