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Patriotism, Hypocrisy, and Cowardice in Our Societies


All of us at some point in our life have known a person who washes his or her hands all day long, or one who hoards garbage. It is estimated that in any given population about 2 percent of its members behave in this or similar ways.Such persons are said to have an “Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder” [OCD], a biological condition in the chemistry of the brain. Men and women that have OCD are typically very intelligent, kind, and definitely not violent. For example the behavior of one of them was described as follows:

As he was passing any door “[h]e whirled and twisted about to perform his gesticulations; and as soon as he had finish’d, he would give a sudden spring and make such an extensive stride over the threshold, as if he were trying for a wager how far he could stride…”This man who was born in 1709 and died in 1784 in England, was named Samuel Johnson, and is considered today as one of the most important figures in the intellectual history of the last three centuries. At that time his behavior was explained as due to “convulsions”. Later, inevitably, it was treated as a Freudian problem. It was only in the 1980s that the experts understood better what was going on in Johnson’s brain.

Samuel Johnson was a champion of the poor and fervently against war. He fought for the rights of the blacks and indigenous peoples. He detested hypocrisy, understood the frailty of man, and considered participation and struggle necessities in life. And this was all in the 1700s.On April 7, 1775, Samuel Johnson dined with his friends at a tavern in London. Present in the tavern was James Boswell, the famous biographer of Samuel Johnson. Boswell writes: “Patriotism having become one of our topics, Johnson suddenly uttered in a strong determined tone, an apo[f]thegm, 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 the 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. Being urged (not by Johnson) to name one exception, I mentioned an eminent person, whom we all greatly admired [Burke].” [James Boswell, “The Life of Samuel Johnson”, the Folio Society, 1968, Vol. I, p. 526, 527]

It is revealing that Boswell tried to soften the words of Johnson and that he [Boswell] was urged to name one exception. However, Boswell’s remarks about pretended patriotism and cloak for self-interest are a quite accurate analysis of the problem of patriotism.The root for the word patriot, patriotism, etc. goes back to the ancient Greeks and is the word patir [pronounced “pateer”, accent on “ee”] which means “father”. Then came the Greek word patrios [accent on “a”] which means “belonging to the father”. The feminine for patrios is patris [accent on “I”]which means “fatherland”, “country”. Lastly, the Greeks had the word patriotis [accent on “o”] which meant “fellow-countryman” and was used for the barbarians [that is the non-Greeks] who had only a common fatherland, while for the Greeks the weird used was polites, that is “citizens”. The ancient Greeks had not the word patriotism! The word patriotism was coined around the end of the 16th and the beginning of the 17th century.

As the famous lexicographer Samuel Johnson defines patriotism as “love for one’s country; zeal for one’s country” and scoundrel as “a mean rascal; a low petty villain”, while for the Americans scoundrel is a “disreputable person” and for the English a scoundrel is a person, especially a man, who treats other people very badly and has no moral principles, a few remarks are in order:- Is it not a bit silly to put in our human societies the male (the father, the patir of the Greeks) on a pedestal, whose contribution for the propagation of the species are secondary, while the female puts even her life in danger to give life to a child?

– Are there degrees in the intensity of the zeal (the passion!), that is, the hypocrisy of the scoundrel?It is worthwhile to try to examine what is the situation with patriotism in our time.

– Let us start at the top: The Nazis. The patriotism of the Nazi is not simply a grossly vulgar pretension; it is a tool for using violence against anyone that is not as patriotic as the Nazis.- The next step below is occupied by the politicians and the military. No need to elaborate. Yet the case of the “USA/Patriot Act” is tragically amusing. “Dubya” [also known as George W. Bush] and John Ashcroft chose the word patriot to “beautify” their rather crazy creation. So, the world acquired the “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act”. It seems that no one of their educated underlings told them that the word patriot referred to barbarians, in olden times.

– Then follows the upper middle-class professional patriot. These, highly educated persons make a living in comfort by associating themselves with the ruling elites, the “patriots” par excellence.- The next step below is occupied by the lower middle class and the working class, also known as the “unwashed masses”. Here there is a very sad situation. The best way to describe it is through a “mental” example. Suppose that a tourist enters nonchalantly an area where the local Mayor is laying a wreath to honor a local hero, and as it is customary the national anthem is played and the crowd is standing stiffly at attention. The tourist does not know the local national anthem, the local language, the local history and he is not immediately aware what is going on. My experience tells me that these otherwise normal and “unwashed” people will react violently against the “disrespectful” intruder. The reason for that: the vulgar and dangerous “patriotic” indoctrination in the family, elementary school, etc.

– The lowest step is occupied by the usual cowardly persons who feel that a “patriot” has the “respect” and “protection” of the “officers” [!] of the local police station.For Greece to the above list should be added a special and incredible category: the right-wingers, or conservatives, or crypto-Nazis, or Nazi-fellow-travelers, the ultimate patriots, who openly express their hope for SYRIZA to fail so that Greece shall have a Right-wing government once more and who do not give a shit for the ten thousand Greeks who committed suicide for economic reasons, or that for almost 30 percent of the Greeks the expression “below the poverty limit” has no meaning. They are in danger.

Finally, is there no such thing as patriotism? Of course there is: it is the healthy nostalgia that a human feels for the language, music and dance of the Geographical locality he was born in, by chance, when he or she finds himself or herself in a different geographical locality.

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