Friday 28 October 2005

Fewtril #36

An intellectual may not know much about the making of omlettes, but few men can recite more thoroughly than he the necessity of breaking eggs.

Fewtril #35

If we were to reckon solely upon what many a man tells us, we should begin to believe that free will is found only in the good deeds of his friends and the bad of his foes.

Thursday 27 October 2005

An Instance of Linguistic Nihilism

You might think it uncontroversial for me say that, if a man has one leg, he is a one-legged man; and if indeed you were to find it uncontroversial, there is hope for you yet; for of course it should be uncontroversial. But the world is populated by all kinds of ideologues and irrationalists and squarking parrots, and thus not even the most reasonable and sound proposition can be expected to escape some nitwitted objection.
.....Now that the timid man of modern sensitivites recoils from unpleasant realities, as a worm recoils from a lighted match, one can barely expect him to tolerate such a proposition as “he is a one-legged man”; for he is likely to object that it defines the man by a “negative” term, and thus is best eschewed. But this is nonsensical as well as cowardly. The term does not define him, it defines something about him. The predicate (“is a one-legged man”) has no exhaustive force upon the subject, that is to say, it does not say everything that can be said about him. In fact, it is a fallacy to believe that the verb “to be” acts as a sign of equivalence in an equation of subject with predicate. Rather, the predicate tells us something about the subject.
.....It ought to be similarly uncontroversial to say that, if a man has schizophrenia, he is a schizophrenic man, but controversy haunts this too:
To call people schizophrenic, as [the psychologist] Oliver James does most liberally, is to define them, label and name them by their illness. Something that medicine is belatedly trying to eschew.
John Foskett, Letter to The Guardian, 25th October 2005.
One can see the fallacy of predicate-subject equivalence in this; for calling people schizophrenic does not define them except in respect of a distinction between them and those who do not have schizophrenia – in other words, it defines that aspect about them that distinguishes them from non-schizophrenics. Now, if a man has schizophrenia, there are situations in which it is pertinent to communicate the fact of the existence of this mental illness in him, for which communication a label is necessary. Surely, then, if a psychologist is discussing schizophrenia, it is pertinent for him to label those who have schizophrenia as schizophrenic. (There are of course situations in which it is not pertinent to use the label “schizophrenic” as a discriminating term. If a man is schizophrenic, and someone asks, “Is he tall?”, and the answer comes as “No, he’s schizophrenic”, one sees immediately not only the uselessness of the discrimination, but also the absurdity of seeing “schizophrenic” and “tall” as defining the person in toto rather than an aspect of him.)
.....How then would our letter-writer prefer schizophrenics to be labelled? Well, as he makes clear, he would prefer no label at all. In other words, he would choose a neutral and “non-discriminating” label that does not communicate that a person has schizophrenia, one that would cover many or even all persons, a label such as “worthy citizen” or “human being” or some such fluff; and thus communication would be destroyed precisely in terms of what we wished to communicate, namely that the person has schizophrenia. And it is precisely thereby that we begin to glimpse the nihilism that lies behind objections to such discrimination; for in the besetting madness of nihilism is the desire to level and conflate, to make meaningful communication impossible.
.....I might after all label the letter-writer a fool, though this by no means defines everything about him, and does not, for instance, begin to sum up that he might be kind or cruel, humorous or sombre, conscientious or irresponsible. It does not begin to tell us whether he fancies his secretary, has ambitions to pilot an aeroplane, speaks in a deep voice, picks his toenails, or dances the Watusi on a Tuesday night. Rather, it is a label perfectly suited to distinguish him from non-fools.

Monday 24 October 2005

Radical Pedagogues and Malaprops

One ought to be charitable enough in one’s interpretations of the sayings of any man, such that, when he says he slept like a baby last night, one does not construe it to mean that he cried and wet the bed; for to interpret a saying against the meaning which a person has obviously imputed thereto shows a meanness of spirit and a perversity of will that is becoming to the scoundrel but not to any man who would fain hold some sense of decency.
It is by a similar criterion of charity, that, when two radical pedagogues opine that “Social inequities in the forms of sexism, racism, and classicism [sic] become means to insure inequity”, one presumes they are not railing in part against classical scholarship. Rather, one takes it that they have made a mistake in their choice of word, and that what they really mean is classism.
The opportunity to enjoy the simple pleasure of this malaprop we owe to Dr Stacey Gray Akyea and Dr Pamela Sandoval in their turgidly titled paper “A Feminist Perspective on Student Assessment: An Epistemology of Caring and Concern” (Radical Pedagogy, Vol 6:2, Winter 2005.), in which one finds the usual stock phrases, excuses and obsessions of egalitarian radicalism. The following quote from the paper contains another instance of the malaprop, but it contains also a statement that clearly reveals the kind of society that these fighters for social justice would like to see created:
While discussion of innate abilities and personal development appear to be on opposite sides of establishing a literate democratic society, there are other issues, which equally present undue challenges to teaching such as social inequalities in the form of sexism, racism and classicism [sic].
Here the authors are verbally rich enough to be explicit in partly defining what they mean by the phrase “literate democratic society”, and thus no charity need be extended to them; for by their own words they make it quite plain that they feel that a “literate democratic society” would require for its establishment – and thus presumably for its maintenance – an intolerance against discussion of innate abilities and personal development. If I find the prospect of this “literate democratic society” of theirs rather a bleak one, I am at least consoled with the hope that what they mean by “literate” connotes at the very least that the professors and the pedagogues will be able to consult dictionaries and learn to distinguish between words, though for the benefit of your consideration, I must confess that I entertain many hopes for many unlikely happenings.

Friday 21 October 2005

Fleshly Matters

“Hope springs eternal in the human breast” – so wrote Alexander Pope; though, if he had ever read the personal classifieds in the London Review of Books, he might have added that at the distant prospect of fleshly matters, desperation is not shy in springing forth either:
I have a recipe for space cakes. My theory is that, when eaten, the human body no longer needs oxygen to survive for as long as the cakes are being digested. The key ingredient is a derivative of a plant used by inhabitants of the Pacific islands thousands of years ago that enabled them to dive for extended periods whilst fishing. Once made stable, this ingredient lasts longer in the human body, making longer, less cumbersome space-walks possible. What I currently lack, however, is the money to make this venture happen. That’s where you come in: big-chested 21-year old rich totty with fondness for 62-year old loons. Write quickly – time, and the nurses, are against me. Box no. 20/06.
(London Review of Books, (Classified: Personals) Vol. 27, No. 20: 20th October 2005)
It warms the cockles, does it not?

Tuesday 18 October 2005

Fewtril #34

One ought to learn to appreciate well the comedic value of a world that puts us in sight of the narcissistic ignoramus who opines that education is the solution to every opinion that does not tally with his.

An Education in Fakery

Zoë Williams of The Guardian rues that many of us do not appreciate modern art, and believes that the reason for this disinclination lies in education: “Many of us think modern art is rubbish because our visual education ended at the age of about seven”. (Zoë Williams, “When a shed is not a shedThe Guardian, 18th October 2005.)
Ah, so that’s it! There was I thinking that my opinions of modern art were determined by my aesthetic faculties’ having not yet degraded into a thick slime of pretension which oozes through to disingenuous appreciation; and now I am told that these faculties have not yet been sufficiently formed! I shall get me away to a night-school for a class in special pleading; for though it seems that an appreciation for a Rubens or a Michelangelo requires no education, an appreciation for a bog-roll in a gallery does. Doubtlessly I should need to be taught to appreciate ugly tat; for I am yet to learn to appreciate that a turd on a doll’s house could express the patriarcho-fascistic nature of domestic life; or that a Peruvian peasant’s toothbrush stuck up a rabbit’s arse does indeed bring into question the whole legitimacy of Western Civilisation. Should I learn also that all those mumbling half-wits who produce such things, and all those rapacious merchants who sell them, and all those tasteless posers who buy them, have sensibilities beyond my scrutiny?
Of course not. These people do not love or appreciate art; they are philistines, and as such, art for them has value only in its utility. To the poser – the defender of such things – modern art has utility in its allowing him to pretend that he has aesthetic faculties that reach beyond common appreciation. After all, the aesthetic qualities of a Rembrandt or a Raphael are obvious enough that even the dulled faculties of the lower classes might appreciate them, even if not quite as highly as indiscriminate breeding or stone-cladding. And the staunchly conservative Colonel and the bourgeois housewife – they too might appreciate a Hogarth or a Holbein. Now, it would never do – would it, darling? – to admit that one shares the same faculties as they possess. Never at all. One must instead pretend to appreciate something that isn’t there – to pretend to find in artless rubbish a beauty, a form, a harmony and a meaning – for fear of appearing insufficiently progressive in one’s tastes and understanding.

Fewtril #33

Some of our uneducated are qualified enough to mistake a qualification for an education.

Saturday 15 October 2005

An Anti-Capital Idea

The kernel of the idea that capital is not exclusively an economic concept, but also a social and a cultural one, has probably been around since Man first began not only to covet his neighbour’s ox, but also to fancy his wife, begrudge him his friends, and envy his whittling-skills; but its theoretical expression has had to wait until society had advanced far enough to sustain the dead-weight of French sociologists, and only then did the idea find full bloom under the care of Pierre Bourdieu:
It is in fact impossible to account for the structure and functioning of the social world unless one reintroduces capital in all its forms and not solely in the one form recognized by economic theory. . . . [C]apital can present itself in three fundamental guises: as economic capital, . . . as cultural capital, . . . and as social capital, . . . [though] it has to be posited simultaneously that economic capital is at the root of all the other types of capital and that these transformed, disguised forms of economic capital, never entirely reducible to that definition, produce their most specific effects only to the extent that they conceal (not least from their possessors) the fact that economic capital is at their root, in other words ― but only in the last analysis ― at the root of their effects.
Pierre Bourdieu, “The Forms of Capital” (Originally published as “Ökonomisches Kapital, kulturelles Kapital, soziales Kapital”. in Soziale Ungleichheiten (Soziale Welt, Sonderheft 2), edited by Reinhard Kreckel. Otto Schartz & Co., Goettingen, 1983.) p. 242-252 (original emphasis). Translated by Richard Nice.
Cultural capital includes knowledge, skills, talents, and aspects of behaviour such as manners and accent; and it may be seen that possession of a cultural resource that most others do not have (for example, literacy in a largely illiterate society) can bestow high cultural capital. Social capital involves human relationships and group memberships, and it may be seen that possession of a social resource that most others do not have (for example, knowing people in high places), can bestow high social capital.
Now, this is all very well, as sociological ideas go, but the chatter of our intellectuals cannot go for long without broaching the subject of the unequal distribution of capital; and since to them it is a given that inequality is a bad thing, talk soon turns to redistribution. Yet where once – at least since Marx and Engels – redistribution of capital from the haves to the have-nots was thought of almost exclusively in economic terms, it is now increasingly thought of in these social and cultural terms too.
In economic, social and cultural terms, everyone belongs in manifold different ways to both the haves and the have-nots. One may, for instance, have great charm but not a high degree of intelligence; one may have great wealth but no understanding of local government; one may have a decent knowledge of physics but not of diesel engines; one may have a talent for sport but not for writing; and so on. That is to say, one’s possessions are not just physical objects; and it is thus that social and cultural capital includes all those things that you possess that can have some value in society: ideas, intelligence, knowledge, talent, friendships, number of siblings, location, accents, and so forth.
Now, if it happens that an idea prescribes that each person should be equal in all these forms of capital, and thus that the relations to the means of production for these forms of capital must be regulated to this effect – or in other words, that all things, including the making of friendships, the development of abilities, the acquisition of knowledge, and the formation of ideas, must be controlled – then what we have is a prescription for totalitarianism. It does not matter that French sociologists of the calibre of Bourdieu dress it up with talk about freedom from oppression and justice for the oppressed. This talk is just what it always is with French intellectuals: bollix.
We should find rather that the future of anti-capitalism in this extended sense means nothing less than the attempted destruction of life worth living; for just as economic levelling means in practice not the elevation of the wealth of Man, but rather an impoverishment, so cultural and social levelling means a benumbing and a benighting and a bedevilling of his life.

Friday 14 October 2005

Fewtril #32

It is considered the height of intellectual sophistication amongst our sophisticated flatheads to entertain equally a plethora of interpretations that are widely unequal in their reasonableness, and then to come down on the side of the one that best fits their political views. In other words, it is the height of intellectual sophistication to be unreasonable and arbitrary.

Thursday 13 October 2005

Fewtril #31

We usually deplore a man for his lack of reason, but given that he holds a set of self-righteous and false premises, one ought to be thankful that at least he cannot find his way to a logical conclusion.

Wednesday 12 October 2005

Magic Ali

If there is such a thing as a Journalistic Code of Practice, it should include a protocol that states, When you tell a lie, at least make it remotely believable. This would be of some benefit to so witless a blackguard as Tariq Ali:
A few miles to the north of the disaster zone there is a large fleet of helicopters belonging to the Western armies occupying parts of Afghanistan. Why could the US, German and British commanders not dispatch these to save lives? Is the war so fierce that these were needed every single day? Five days after the earthquake, the US released 8 helicopters from war duty to help transport food and water to isolated villages. Too little, too late.
Tariq Ali, “Things are Bad and Getting Worse: Pakistan Will Never Forget This Horror”, CounterPunch, 11th October 2005.
Quite how Mr Ali expects us to believe him, when he tells us three days after the earthquake, that the Americans released eight helicopters five days after the earthquake, is beyond me. Perhaps he should be called upon to update the Journalistic Style Guide, detailing the use of a new tense: Prognosticated Future Past.
One may wonder if the development of this new tense has interfered with Mr Ali’s ability to heed the numerous reports and pictures from the past few days that testify to the arrival of US helicopters. For instance, late on Monday 10th October, less than three days after the earthquake, Sadaqat Jan of the Associated Press reported the arrival of eight US helicopters:
Eight U.S. helicopters were diverted from the war in neighboring Afghanistan. They carried supplies, tarpaulins and high-tech equipment.
Three military cargo planes with blankets, tents, meals and water also arrived.
Sadaqat Jan, “Pakistan: Desperation sweeps through the rubble”, (AP),, 10th October 2005.
It is only Mr Ali’s report, however, that tells us that these helicopters will arrived in the next day or so.
(Update: I see that Mr Ali's report has appeared in The Guardian ("Pakistan will not Forget", 12th October 2005.), one day after it appeared at CounterPunch, with one noticeable change: five days has become three days. Perhaps his powers have failed him.)

Tuesday 11 October 2005

Distant Correlations

When one learns that George Monbiot has murder, venereal disease and marital breakdown in mind, one would be well advised to lock up daughters, cats, dogs, ferrets and other domesticated animals, and hope for the best. When one learns, however, that he has these things in mind only in abstract consideration of their connection to religion, one may relax a little, though one might want to have a word with the local vicar, lest he become excited; for Mr Monbiot is in bold mood: “The evidence is clear that murder, venereal disease and marital breakdown are all more common in religious cultures”. (George Monbiot, “My heroes are driven by God, but I'm glad my society isn'tThe Guardian, 11th October 2005.)
The evidence that Mr Monbiot finds so clear comes from a statistical research paper published in the Journal of Religion & Society, wherein a Mr Gregory S. Paul writes,
In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion in the prosperous democracies. The most theistic prosperous democracy, the U.S., is exceptional, but not in the manner Franklin predicted. The United States is almost always the most dysfunctional of the developed democracies, sometimes spectacularly so, and almost always scores poorly.
Now, as anyone who has ever been able to tell the difference between a scattergraph and a blunderbuss should know, correlation is a measure of association, not causation; and Mr Paul, unlike Mr Monbiot, is careful to stress this. (If we were to take associations further, in order that we might begin to estimate casual relationships, ultimately we would have to seek explanations outside statistical analyses.) For associations themselves to be meaningful within statistical analyses, it is necessary to take into account the manifold factors that could plausibly impinge on the data; otherwise the associations may be meaningless. Mr Paul, however, though he has been careful to stress only association and not causation, has singularly failed to consider other factors that might plausibly affect his data, as statistician Scott Gilbreath makes clear:

There are many socio-economic data series that vary widely across the eighteen countries [in Mr Paul’s data-set] and that plausibly have a significant impact on social conditions, e.g., income distribution, proportion of GDP spent through government, social and cultural cohesion, fertility and mortality rates, age structure of the population, etc., etc. Failure to look at these and other exogenous data would introduce bias into the results, further calling them into question.
Scott Gilbreath, “From Our Bulging How Not to Do Statistics File”, Weblog: Magic Statistics, 27th September 2005.
Worse still, however, is that Mr Paul has not subjected his data to statistical techniques such as regression analysis, which ought to be used in order to determine correlation coefficients and goodness-to-fit. As Mr Gilbreath points out:

This is simply inexcusable in a research project involving statistical analysis. I have never seen anything like this--either in my professional career or in my university studies of statistics and econometrics.
The three reasons listed [by Mr Paul in his paper] for skipping the regression analysis are all bogus. High variability of degree of correlation is precisely why goodness-of-fit is estimated. If high variability appears to be an issue, that’s all the more reason to run regressions. The second reason, potential causal factors for rates of societal function are complex, is another reason why regression analysis needs to be conducted: to assess the impact of the unspecified correlated (not necessarily causal) factors. Furthermore, this reason seems to contradict what Mr Paul said earlier: The cultural and economic similarity of the developing democracies minimizes the variability of factors outside those being examined. The third reason, that the purpose of the study is not to establish causal relationships, is a red herring. Regression can be used to estimate supposed causal relationships, but it can also be used to calculate correlation coefficients without any implication of causality. In any case, if Mr Paul is worried to avoid causal inferences, there are other equally valid techniques of calculating precise correlation estimates. (ibid.)
Without a proper statistical analysis of the data, an association can be found between almost any two variables. It is in the understanding of this meaninglessness, that Sean Gleeson at the Gleeson Blogomerate has written a fine parody of Mr Paul’s research, happily finding that,
a higher proportion of visits to the Gleeson Bloglomerate seems almost to guarantee the elimination of malaria . . . [and] that in every single country beginning with U plus Colombia, those societies with higher degrees of Gleeson-visiting enjoy more gooder goodness in every single quantifiable basic measure to be studied. These findings suggest avenues of further research.
If Mr Paul cannot subject his data to the statistical analyses necessary for an understanding of the strength of correlation between religious belief and social dysfunction, what then is the point of his research? He claims that it is “not an attempt to present a definitive study that establishes cause versus effect between religiosity, secularism and societal health”, but since he has made no serious attempt to demonstrate an association between these things, we are left with the suspicion that it is little but fodder for the causal ruminations of newspaper columnists.
And so we come back to George Monbiot, who on the basis of this bogus study is in no doubt that the “evidence is clear that murder, venereal disease and marital breakdown are all more common in religious cultures”. Now, if the degree to which a culture is religious can be said to be a function of the numbers of the population that adhere to religion, then Mr Monbiot’s proposition is easily refutable. Britain, for instance, has become less of a religious culture since the 1960s, and yet at least one factor – namely, the murder rate –, which Mr Monbiot cites as positively correlated with religious culture, has risen. The number of homicides per million has more than doubled since the 1960s, from 6.8 homicides per million in 1965 to 14.1 in 1997 (Joe Hicks & Grahame Allen, “A Century of Change: Trends in UK Statistics since 1900”, Houses of Parliament Research Paper 99/111, 21st December 1999.), and yet belief in God – which for most people is affixed to religion, and thus is some overall indication of religious belief – has nearly halved, from 77% in 1968 to 44% in 2004 (YouGov poll for The Telegraph, 27th December 2004). I do not suggest a causal link, only that the facts are at odds with Mr Monbiot’s statement.
I am not surprised, however, that Mr Monbiot finds the evidence clear; for we should all know by now that Mr Monbiot views evidence through the ogle-piece of credulity, in whose confident sights the world is shrunk to fit. We might concur with him, however, when he says, “self-doubt is more likely to be absent from the mind of the believer than the infidel”. The shame is all the greater, therefore, that he cannot see the truth of this in himself.
(This post can also be found at The Sharpener)

Friday 7 October 2005

Fewtril #30

In the shameless world of radical-intellectual chicanery, one tries not only to have one’s cake and eat it, but also to establish that “cake” is an illegitimate ontological postulation, rendering void any talk of having or eating cakes.

Wednesday 5 October 2005

Blame for Cause

Blame entails moral responsibility, and the word requires of its legitimate use that the guilty party is not only part of the causal conditions of an act but also that he acts wrongly. If one were to remove the element of moral responsibility from the definition of blame, it would entail only the causal conditions of an act. It would be absurd to use as a term of moral condemnation the word “blame” in this new sense, as a consideration of the following should elucidate:
(1) I try to kill a man for no good reason, and in defence he kills me.
(2) I slight a man for no good reason, and in reaction he kills me.
(3) I happen to stand near a man, and for no good reason he kills me.
In all three propositions, I am to differing extents part of the causal conditions of the man’s killing of me. Even in (3), the causal conditions include also my presence, and I could not legitimately deny that my presence near the man is part of the causal conditions of my death; but it would take a perverse mind indeed to hold that I am to blame – that is, morally responsible – for my death in that my presence was part of its causal conditions. As I have said, cause alone is not enough to fulfil the concept of blame; an element of moral responsibility is also required. Thus, in the case of (3), blame – that is, moral condemnation – for my death is directed towards the man who killed me. In (2) I am again part of the causal conditions of my death, but though I have committed a wrong in slighting the man, his wrong is disproportionate to mine, and thus he takes the greater part of the blame; for he has committed the greater wrong. In (1), however, it is my wrong that precipitated my death at his hands, and though his action is a major cause of my death, one should have no trouble in saying that I am to blame.
I use these three stark examples only to establish that cause and blame are not coterminous. This should be obvious enough, but as George Orwell pointed out, a restatement of the obvious becomes a duty in such times as these, when ideological struggles kick up such a dust that the obvious becomes difficult to see. Recently, for instance, there has been a tendency, especially in connection with the war in Iraq, to fail to distinguish between cause and blame, in order that the one might be construed to imply the other. Consider the following example from Soumaya Ghannoushi in The Guardian:
Whether political Islam develops in a more peaceful or violent way is in the hands of the west. . . .
. . . London and Washington must decide which Islam they want: a peaceful, democratic Islam, crucial to any pursuit of global stability, or the anarchical and destructive Islam of al-Qaida and its ilk. The shape of contemporary Islam will largely be determined by the environment within which it is forced to operate.
Soumaya Ghannoushi, “Many faces of Islamism”, The Guardian, 5th October 2005.
I shall not here attempt to answer the question of the extent to which the West is the cause of the development of contemporary Islam, except to say that positing the West as the main casual factor is misleading insofar as it leads us away from consideration of the main attributes and conditions that inhere in the Muslim world. If we were to assay an answer, however, we might wish to start with a quick mention of the Koran, just to get things rolling; but this is only a suggestion. Nor shall I say anything about the extent to which the West is to blame, if at all, for the ills of contemporary Islam. These things I shall leave aside.
Given that there is an advantage-seeking propensity on the part of ideological types to make the meaning of blame coterminous with that of cause, I should like rather to make plain some suspicions of mine; for I do not believe that I am being too cynical in suspecting that Ms Ghannoushi and her ilk would like us to assume that the West is not only largely the cause of but also largely to blame for the development of violent forms of Islam. Nor do I think that I sit alongside old Diogenes when I suspect that there is no wrong in contemporary Islam that she could not blame on the West, even on its very existence; for the import of Ms Ghannoushi’s words is plain enough: namely, that moral responsibility for the fate of contemporary Islam lies largely in the hands of the West, whereas in its own hands lies very little.
Ms Ghannoushi has no monopoly on this moral irresponsibility, however, and we could, if we wished, turn the whole thing round and say that whether the West develops in a more peaceful or violent way is in the hands of political Islam, with the consequence that we in the West might blame Islam for our wrongs, including those committed against Islam! Moral scruple, however, might prevent us from stooping so low. Ms Ghannoushi, on the other hand, has no such qualms about sinking for the sake of her own argument; but I wonder what her argument would look like if contemporary Islam were to develop into a unified doctrine of peace, productive of cultural and scientific wonders. If that happened, should we be surprised to find that Ms Ghannoushi would forget her words about Islam’s development being largely determined by the West, and hear her talking instead about the self-determining triumph of contemporary Islam?
I’d bet Mohammed’s beard and my flying pig on it.

Monday 3 October 2005

Shelter for Scoundrels

One of the most widely misunderstood quotes is Samuel Johnson’s “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel”, a presentment that many a journalist or flapping ignoramus takes to be an indictment of patriotism itself. Dr Johnson meant no such thing, however, as James Boswell was careful to tell:
Patriotism having become one of our topicks, Johnson suddenly uttered, in a strong determined tone, an apophthegm, 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 that pretended patriotism which so many, in all ages and countries, have made a cloak for self-interest.
(James Boswell, Life of Johnson, entry for Friday, 7th April 1775.)
Elsewhere in his Life, Boswell tells us that Dr Johnson “was at all times indignant against that false patriotism, that pretended love of freedom, that unruly restlessness which is inconsistent with the stable authority of any good government” (ibid., entry for Wednesday, 6th July 1763).
Now that patriotism is broadly thought to be a vice – and it is gainful to one’s sense of irony to contemplate the small part that Dr Johnson’s misconstrued quote has played in effecting that change – one will find hardly a scoundrel in sight of it; for scoundrels scurry whither virtues cast deep shadows, whither they might find some finery behind which to hide, and thus we may take Dr Johnson’s cue as pointing us towards the understanding that behind every widely acknowledged virtue lurks a multitude of scoundrels, like an infestation of woodlice behind fine panelling.