A Country to Die For

Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post, May 17, 2001.


This slender but closely argued explication and defense of patriotism is in most respects admirable and welcome, but it proceeds from a somewhat shaky premise. In the academic precincts where Walter Berns has spent his long, distinguished career, it became fashionable during the 1960s to quote Dr. Johnson’s famous aphorism “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel,” and it has remained so ever since. In substantial measure it is Berns’s purpose to refute that claim, yet like too many others he quotes it out of context. James Boswell, in whose immortal biography of Johnson the aphorism first appeared, provided that context:

“Patriotism having become one of our topics, Johnson suddenly uttered, in a strong, determined tone, an apothegm, at which many will start: ‘Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.’ But let it be considered, 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 for self-interest. I maintained that certainly all patriots were not scoundrels.”

Whether Boswell was putting words in Johnson’s mouth is for scholars to decide, but there can be no question that he was drawing precisely the distinction that Berns draws herein at considerably greater length; had Berns acknowledged as much, it would have lent still further weight to the strong case he makes for patriotism — American patriotism most specifically — as a necessary and desirable requisite of citizenship. But his argument is indeed strong, and it deserves careful, respectful scrutiny, not merely among the intelligentsia who reflexively recoil from expressing love of country but also among those for whom patriotism is a synonym for jingoism, imperialism and similar forms of arrogance.