James Boswell in The Life Of Samuel Johnson, LL. D.writes that Samuel Johnson made his famous adage that “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel” on the evening of April 7, 1775. Without knowing the context of the statement we have repeated the saying millions of times.
It caught a nerve, and rarely in our history has an aphorism carried so much meaning. It is a cliché that when we hear it, we nod to and smile knowingly hardly pausing to think. However, during the Memorial Day Weekend (that is really this weekend and not last), I happened to see a rogues’ gallery of politicians who avoided military service sitting laden with twelve-pound flag pins. The blasphemy made me think about the Johnson quote.
More than that I thought about how our lives have become one big aphorism with us repeating sayings without knowing or really understanding what they mean. In parroting sayings we eliminate the necessity to understand. A gross example is Dick Cheney’s avoiding the draft five times and later advocating that others fight the Afghanistan and Iraq wars; his calling others weak because they won’t send ground troops into every region of the world. With this context, Johnson’s words take on a special meaning.
In order to understand why an event or action or a remark occurred we must understand the context. The circumstances have to be provided as to why it happened. While we don't really know what was on Johnson's mind or anyone’s mind we should form a context so we can better understand what he or she may have been thinking.
In not processing aphorisms we become parrots. The selfish motives of an undesirable person are lost. Does the person have a history of careerist and opportunist behavior? Is the person feathering his or her own nest? As we speak, the image of the politician has already come into our minds as the most obvious sinner.
However, if the image becomes an aphorism that is repeated without understanding the context for the behavior is missed. Thus like everything else in America it comes down to what we want to believe.
Fortunately, in recent years more people have become aware of the contradictions of patriotism, and they have a more sophisticated view of war; aphorisms such as “my country right or wrong” or we are fighting for democracy are less frequent. A growing number have gone beyond Ronald Reagan’s evil empire first applied to the Soviet Union in 1983. A larger number reject the white hats versus the black hats view of the world.
For the most part, Americans do not think in terms of negations, which is simply the act or process of negating. Americans do not look to negate contradictions. They fail to consider a formal argument to learn what is actually true.
In thinking about patriotism, I began considering nationalism. For many years, nationalism that is associated with nations has been considered bad whereas nationalism that fans ethnic pride or nationalism among Latinos, Native Americans, African Americans and Asian Americans is okay.
Like patriotism, scoundrels or even well intentioned minority leaders use it to their advantage. Recently I was reminded of strength of nationalism by the nomination of San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro to be the secretary of HUD (Department of Housing and Urban Development).
Hardly had the nomination been made before the drums began beating for a Latino President with most forgetting that Castro is only 39 years old and his resume is as thin as Barack Obama’s whose notoriety was based on a sole convention speech. This is not unique and the hype reminds me of the euphoria among many Angelinos for a Latino mayor.
As in the case of patriotism, this feeling of entitlement to become president is based on nationalism. The problem is that without context the expectations are based more on identity than a quest for self-determination. And it raises the danger that a lack of context will lead to the selection of a scoundrel such as a Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz or a Raúl Labrador.
All that I have heard about Castro and his family is good but his resume is at this point thin and a lack of seasoning could undermine his potential greatness.
Experience is not the only factor nor is Castro’s case unique. Hillary Clinton is being hyped as the first woman president – she certainly has an extensive resume. However, the more I scrutinize the context the less inclined I am to support her. Like John McCain, she never seems to see a war that she doesn’t like.
There is no doubt that nationalism played a role in building of a Chicana/o Movement, and it plays a role in unifying and keeping Latinos focused on solving contradictions. However, there are abuses and pitfalls that contribute to conflict with other nationalities and encourage the rise of scoundrels. On the negative side in the white, Latino, African American and other communities’ politicos are often shielded and nationalism perpetuates a gang mentality.
Often the criticism as in the case of Miguel Estrada’s nomination to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit is valid. However, in that case some Hondurans wanted a free pass because he was Honduran, although ideologically he was incompatible with the interests of the Latino community. The opposition to Estrada was not because he was Honduran but because of his record.
Recently, there was fallout with two Salvadoran Central American Studies professors over the UNAM (The National Autonomous University of Mexico) deal not because the professors were Salvadoran but because they were going against the interests of students. Like Johnson’s scoundrel, they tried to divert attention away from the context, e.g., diversity, the academic precedent set by the unilateral establishment of a center that potentially threatens Chicana/o studies, and the gross violations of the governance process.
They ignored the fact that the administration opposed the foundation of Central American Studies, which was founded after Chicana/o studies gave up three tenure track positions to establish CAS. Forgetting this, the two muertos de hambre distorted as an attack on CAS.
This same tactic was used by supporters of the North American Free Trade Agreement in the early 1990s. The issues were similar to those of the UNAM deal and it promoted the neoliberal agenda of the United States and Mexico’s super-rich.
During NAFTA debate I was involved with my suit against the University of California Santa Barbara. However, I got urgent calls from some Anglo friends who asked me to actively join the fight against NAFTA. They were getting baited as anti-Mexican by Mexican and Chicana/o politicos. I recognized that the issue was important and the charges absurd.
Today, I continue to criticize Mexico and intensely dislike Enrique Peña Nieto not because he is Mexican but because he is a crony of the United States and is selling the Mexican peoples’ national patrimony and natural resources.
On several occasions I have been asked by Mexican functionaries to accept awards, which I have refused just like I have not put in for a Fulbright. It is all a matter of context.
I choose to align myself with progressive causes because we live in a society. When I do not take a stand it puts pressure on non-Mexican friends, and it is too easy for the scoundrels to red bait them. As long as progressive Mexicans and Latinos are part of the criticism, it is difficult for others to use Mexican Americans to label the criticism anti-Chicana/o or anti-Mexican. The truth be told, some of the criticism of Chicana/o politicos is valid and we must put it into context.
Rodolfo F. Acuña