Monday, July 13, 2009

Some Words On (And From) Samuel Johnson



Last night while TWITTERING my life away I saw a TWEET from one of the anchors at MSNBC, who said that a certain ultra conservative website (I won't mention them by name- they're rather thin skinned over there) had added homophobia to their resume. This site had some "web-art" depicting several of the male MSNBC anchors dressed in pink (photo-shopped), with captions that frankly exemplified their rather twisted sense of values; that these supposed left leaning MSNBC anchors were also gay, as if that made them even more dangerous to the fabric of American life.

I saw the conservative web page, and looked at its contributors. It was the usual rogues gallery, not to mention any names.

So I TWEETED back to the anchor who alerted us to the post this quote from the 18th century English author, philosopher, and intellect Samuel Johnson.

"'Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.'
from Boswell's Life of Johnson"


Then I went to bed.

And then I felt uneasy about the quote I had just TWEETED...not because I disagreed with it, but because of how it could be misinterpreted or even twisted into having a different meaning than what was intended.

But I'll back track a bit. Samuel Johnson was born in poverty in England in 1709. As a child he had many physical ailments, among them blindness in one eye. He attended Oxford for one year as a young man, but had to drop out because of his poverty. He married a much older woman, and after failing in some career choices he became a journalist, often reporting on Parliament, and later he became one of the most noted authors of his time. For a more in depth biography on Johnson, click here

Now from what I gather, there is no consensus as to the circumstances of why Johnson made his quote on patriotism. But it is generally agreed that the following was his meaning; that all too often opportunistic and unscrupulous individuals wrap themselves in a cloak of patriotism for their own gain, and not for love of country.

Johnson was not saying that all patriots are scoundrels; he was warning us that there are those who would have us BELIEVE they are patriots in order to get what they want regardless how harmful it could be to the majority.

Rather than single out individuals in the real world, let's take a character from the "reel world" to illustrate this. In the Star Wars trilogies, particularly in Episodes One, Two, and Three we saw the rise of Senator Palpatine from obscure senator from Naboo, to Chancellor of The Gallactic Republic, to ruthless dictator and Emperor of the Gallactic Empire. This fictional villain was the best example I've ever seen in explaining how dictators like Adolf Hitler were able to rise to power. Palpatine, who in reality was the Sith Lord Darth Sidious, set off on an agenda of creating crises by playing both sides, and then having himself ride to the rescue to save the day. That is, until the time came when he seized control of the established order and made himself emperor, and had most of his most opposition, the Jedi Knights, slaughtered. In this case, patriotism was only a mask that he wore to do evil to others.

We human beings are unique because we can turn the most virtuous of attributes, like patriotism and love of country, and twist it into something that it is not. Its easy to paint broad brush caricatures of people we don't like or agree with, and often I do that myself; if you wish, you can find examples on these pages.

In the meantime, just be careful about who you chose to follow or who you'd like as a leader. Sometimes its best to take a deep breath and read a book from an old master.

Maybe one written by old Samuel Johnson.

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