Saturday, March 27, 2021

Patriotism is the Last Refuge of the Scoundral

Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.

Boswell tells us that Samuel Johnson made this famous pronouncement that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel on the evening of April 7, 1775. He doesn't provide any context for how the remark arose, so we don't really know for sure what was on Johnson's mind at the time.

However, Boswell assures us that Johnson was not indicting patriotism in general, only false patriotism.
The term "Patriot" has an interesting meaning here.  After all, in 1775, in America, if you were a "Patriot" as we define it today, you would be loyal to King and Country - your Country being Great Britain and the British Empire.  Those trying to form a new country in America, well, they were called Rebels.

And perhaps after the Civil War, the term "Rebel" took on a more negative meaning, and thus today, we use "Patriot" to describe the folks who fought in the Revolution, which by definition, should be Rebels, or at least, Revolutionaries.  But once again, we see that if you can control the language of the debate, you control the debate.   And today, the term "Patriot" as used by most, means someone who is defending the United States, and particular, the Constitution - and not trying to tear it down.

Yet, people who stormed the Capitol claimed to be "Patriots" who were defending the Constitution by disrupting the very Constitutional process going on.   And no, Trump didn't win.  People don't like him.  Get over that.

But as I noted before, Trump isn't some sort of American anomaly.  Look across the world today - in nearly every country on the map, some strong-man "Patriot" dictator or populist has taken power, and promised to "Make [insert your country name here] First!"  Whether it is Modi in India, or Erdo─čan in Turkey, or Jinping in China, and of course, Putin in Russia, Johnson in the UK, Netanyahu in Israel, Obrador in Mexico, or the various military juntas who are running other countries such as Egypt and Myanmar.  The list goes on and on, and there are too many to list here.

Patriotism and Nationalism are sort of intertwined today.  When all else fails, you can rely on Nationalism to carry you through to the next election.  The invasion of the Falkland Islands riled up nationalistic fervor in both the Argentine and UK.  When in doubt, declare a war - no one votes a war President out of office.  Trump seemed to forget that.  A little invasion of Iran, and he'd still be in the White House - and his followers would have quickly forgotten about promises to disengage from foreign wars.

The question to me isn't why Trump happened in America, but why these nationalistic urges seem to be happening all over the world, all at once.  It is like the "migration crises" - which is worldwide, not just at the USA-Mexico border.  By the way, Mexico is another "United States" but no one seems to realize that.

Migrants travel across the Mediterranean in flimsy, overloaded boats, and drown by the dozens - risking life and limb to get somewhere where no one is trying to shoot them, or people aren't starving to death.  Migrants are even trying to get to Australia, which has own little offshore detention camp and is the subject of as much controversy as detention camps in Europe, Asia, and America.

Again, a worldwide phenomenon, not just limited to the United States.  And the two are related.   Patriotism, as it is known today - which is more a form of Nationalism - is a natural reaction to perceived threats to a person's way of life.  Brexit, we are told by some sources, is a natural reaction to sudden changes in society - and a migration, legal this time, of people from other EU States, including Poland, looking for a better life in the UK.  And speaking of authoritarian, nationalistic governments... Poland.   Such a shame, too, as the Polish people have a heart of gold and after being invaded by both Germany and Russian (both promoting Nationalist causes) you would think they would know better.

So maybe this is just human nature - something driving us all insane worldwide, all at once.  You can try to pin "causes" to these various things, but I think those are more the symptoms of the underlying illness than the cause of them. Nationalism, Patriotism, and a knee-jerk reaction to change is the cause, the symptoms of various international incidents are just the predictable outcome.

And sadly, this predictable outcome can be measured in terms of riots and brutal suppression of protests - in mass shootings and vandalism of ethnic enclaves. The painting of swastikas in a Jewish cemetery, or the arson of a "gay" lifeguard stand in California.  People feel emboldened to strike out at what they perceive as to be new, different, or threatening.  And yes, part of this is lashing out against people of Asian descent, which puzzles me to no end, but has a long history in the United States.

So what is the answer?  Again, beats me.  Only that I don't want to be the Jew who thinks that "This Hitler nonsense will blow over!" and not leave Germany when the getting was good (and before it was too late). If this worldwide nationalist fervor continues, it is only a matter of time before borders are closed, people are not allowed to leave, currency is not allowed to leave the country, and human rights are suppressed.  You know.... Venezuela.  Or today, China.

The Chinese who have money have tried to establish a foothold in the United States, or preferably, Canada, which as a "Commonwealth" nation had allowed residents of the former Hong Kong to emigrate pretty freely, provided they brought cash with them.   This distorted the price of real estate in places like Vancouver, and no doubt some locals were alarmed to find they could no longer afford to own a home in their own hometown - and billboards were appearing in Chinese, with no English translation. Our Canadian friends, though, always polite to a fault, have not engaged in much anti-Asian hate. although apparently some.

But these Chinese ex-pats are discovering that a mansion in Calgary isn't necessarily the protection they thought it was. The Chinese government has been holding relatives hostage back home, until ex-pats return and disgorge their wealth.  Students in Canada and America find they are under observation, much as Iranian students were kept under surveillance during the reign of the Shah (and later, the Ayatollah).

The Chinese government is forcing movie stars and pop stars to cancel endorsement deals with "foreign" companies who dare to claim "concern" over issues of human rights.  And the Chinese people are exhorted to praise and defend "the Motherland".   I said it years ago - how long will GM stay solvent when half its profits are made in China?  If the Chinese decide that buying a Buick is unpatriotic, then business could go South in a hurry.  Also, I think even if there isn't a cultural taboo involved, the Chinese will stop sending profits overseas, once they have the technology in place to go it alone - which is happening rapidly.  Or has already happened.

Any smart businessperson should have a post-China strategy in mind, if they do business in China or manufacture products there.  It could all come crashing down in a real hurry, if the Chinese carry through on their Nationalistic threats.  All it would take is an incident in the Taiwan Strait, which the Chinese military seems eager to see happen.  Of course, this could mean the Chinese are killing off the goose that laid the golden egg - and a quick return to the isolation and poverty of the Mao era.  It was increased freedoms and capitalism, not Communist ideology - that built China into the world power it is today.  It is sad to see this come apart.

The irony, of course, is that the Taiwanese (oh, boy, I just got censored on Weibo!) are descendents of folks who fled Communism and followed the Nationalist, Chiang Kai-Shek, who of course, drove a Buick.  It's not that the Taiwanese don't consider themselves to be Chinese - far from it.   And I am sure, under the right conditions, they would like to be reunited with their former countrymen (many businesses on mainland China are run by Taiwanese concerns - and there are frequent flights between the two countries daily).   But after seeing what happened to Hong Kong, I doubt they will be in any hurry to embrace the mainland again.

That is the funny thing.  If you make your country hospitable enough, people will want to join it - or come there.  Not many people are trying to swim to China these days, unless they are defecting from North Korea, which says a lot.   On the other hand, people are lined up - literally - to get into the United States.  And Puerto Rico, after sitting on the fence for so many years, is now coming to the realization that being part of the United States is better than not being.   Of course, that Statehood ship may have sailed already - not much attractive about bringing a corrupt and mismanaged territory into Statehood.  Maybe if they discovered oil there or something....

But as depressing as it sounds, I don't see this getting better before it gets far worse.  The last time Nationalism was in vogue, was, well, before World War II.  How did that work out?  Not well. Will all this chest-thumping and saber-rattling and racist and anti-immigrant demagoguery lead us to another war?  I would hope not, because the next "World War" would be awfully short - and final.