It was Samuel Johnson who in 1775 said, “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” That’s true as far as it goes, because an act that’s morally unjustifiable is still morally unjustifiable if it’s committed for the nation. And that’s the case whether the nation in question is the United States, Russia, China or Iran.
Right is right. Wrong is wrong. Doing wrong to further one’s nation is still immoral.
But the 18th century British writer, with his selection of the word “patriotism,” might have chosen too narrow a term to encompass all the ways in which scoundrels justify their bad acts. Maybe it’s loyalty in all its forms that is the last refuge of scoundrels, along with the demands for loyalty that they impose on others.
At the heart of the dispute between President Donald Trump and the FBI director he fired, James Comey, lies the assertion that Trump asked Comey for personal loyalty in a private meeting. While it’s been reported that Trump asked for this pledge, the president says he did not, and Comey has not commented. We may never know the truth about that. And even if Trump did ask for Comey’s loyalty, it would still be a nonpartisan issue, because Bill and Hillary Clinton are legendary in their demands for unconditional support, too.
What’s worth thinking about is exactly what it means when we ask for loyalty, or give it, whether to a leader, a nation, a partner, a military unit, a religion, or even a family. It seems to mean a willingness to do the wrong thing, with the justification that one is part of a group that should stick together no matter what. We don’t need to be loyal to do the right thing, we need to be moral.
And loyalty is not the same as sacrifice. In many cases, it is the opposite. Sacrifice is the willingness to die for a loved one, a partner, a squadron or a nation. Loyalty is the willingness to kill for them. Sacrifice is the willingness to tell the truth, even when it costs us personally. Loyalty is the willingness to lie, because we care more about preventing a bad outcome for our affinity group than about the truth.
Whether to show loyalty can be a difficult decision. When it’s an obnoxious buddy who’s starting the bar fight, you have to have his back, right? When it’s your partner, drunk and off-duty, shooting an unarmed cabbie, you have to back up his story, right? Any governor or president who appoints you to a big job can expect fealty in return, right? And allegiance to your religion justifies any act to further that ideology, right?
You need to tell your obnoxious buddy to back off because he’s being a jerk. You need to buck up and tell the investigators what happened after your partner got loose with a sidearm. You need to side with the law, not the leader, when push comes to shove.
And when your ideology or its leaders say to blow up kids at a concert in Manchester, you have to walk away from loyalty.
It is often loyalty that enables bad behavior. Buddies pick fights knowing you have each others’ backs. The idea that cops will always protect each other may encourage the few bad ones to be worse. Political leaders who believe in the unshakable loyalty of their appointees are more likely to do wrong. And ideological leaders make the unthinkable seem meritorious.
Morality is mostly clear. An act is moral if it’s as reasonable to do to a friend, a member of your religion or a favored political leader as it is to do it to an enemy, a member of another religion or a hated politician. A moral act is as acceptable when they do it to you with a certain justification as when you do it to them with the same justification.
Everything else is pretty much scoundrels taking refuge.
Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.