Photo by Amber Kipp on UnsplashIrish poet, playwright, novelist, and celebrated wit Oscar Wilde (1854–1900) was a master of the bon mot. One hundred and twenty years after his death, his witty sayings are still being repeated and retweeted. Memes of his quotes litter social media.
Đang xem: Patriotism is the virtue of the vicious
Portrait of Oscar Wilde by Napoleon Sarony, 1882 (public domain)
I’ve been a fan of Wilde’s for decades, read his work, as well as books and articles about his life. So, it surprised me when I stumbled across this quote of his that I’d never seen before: “Patriotism is the virtue of the vicious.”
I got to wondering what Wilde meant by this, and what significance it might have for us today.
As I do with most quotes I see on social media, I checked to make sure the attribution was accurate. It doesn’t appear in any of his written works, but his acquaintance A. H. Cooper-Prichard, author of the book Conversations with Oscar Wilde reports having heard Wilde say it.
The quote also appears in the book The Epigrams Of Oscar Wilde, which boasts an introduction by Wilde’s son Vyvyan Holland, so I’m pretty sure it’s his.
British recruitment poster (public domain)
Although Wilde didn’t live to witness the fierce and often brutal things done in the name of patriotism by the leaders like Vladimir Lenin, Adolph Hitler, or Mao Zedong, as an Irishman, he was all too familiar with the British Empire’s mistreatment of the citizens of the countries it conquered and controlled.
Wilde is also quoted by Cooper-Pritchard as saying that patriotism is the “most insincere form of self-conceit.” This is a little easier to understand.
“Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.”― Oscar Wilde, De Profundis
Wilde was a keen observer of human nature. The tendency for people to fool themselves into believing things about themselves or others that are patently untrue is a theme that occurs often in his work. He recognized that many people hide their true selves behind false identities. He would have understood avatars and catfishing very well.
Post from Lou Dobbs’ Twitter feed (fair use)
Fox Business Network commentator Lou Dobbs tweeted a photo of a Trump rally of boaters and labeled them “patriots,” the implication being that Trump supporters are defacto patriots, even though he has no idea whether these particular people love their country or not.
Assigning the term patriot to someone based entirely on which candidate for office they support implies that those who don’t support the same candidate are not patriots.
Post from Democratic candidate Kim Mangone’s Twitter feed (fair use)
When people proclaim themselves to be “patriots” they do so in order to elevate themselves above those who are not. In that sense, they are being conceited.
The insincerity lies in the fact that many who call themselves patriots have put very little thought behind what might qualify them to adopt this label. In this year’s presidential election, each side is staking its claim to the patriot crown. But if Wilde is right and patriotism is the virtue of the vicious, should people be so quick to put on that mantle?
Opposing groups clash in Portland, Oregon, July 26, 2020.( Image via Chris Pietsch, The Register-Guard via AP-fair use)
Here’s how the Merrium-Webster dictionary defines the elements of Wilde’s quote:
patriotism: “love for or devotion to one’s country”virtue: “conformity to a standard of right”vicious: “dangerously aggressive”
In scanning the comments on social media and responses to published articles lately, one can’t deny that there seems to be a lot of aggression out there. The knives can come out even when the subject doesn’t start off being about politics.
Some of the people who call themselves patriots have become violent and injured or killed other people. This indicates that there’s something deeper going on than red team vs. blue team. When you overlay racial injustice, raging wildfires due to climate change, and a pandemic, the pressure blows the lid off America and all hell breaks loose.
The current political climate has emboldened people to do things they’d never have dreamed of doing ten years ago: unfriending old friends or family members on Facebook, stealing or defacing someone else’s campaign yard sign, brandishing weapons in public, and even using them against law enforcement or their fellow citizens. Are people doing these things because they love their country, or because they need an outlet for their aggression and patriotism is just a convenient excuse?
But perhaps when Wilde said that patriotism is the virtue of the vicious, he wasn’t talking about people in general but about their leaders.
Throughout history, governments have rallied people to get behind causes in the name of patriotism when, in fact, there is a much baser, hidden agenda.
Sending young people out to kill and be killed in order to line someone’s pockets or to subjugate others is certainly vicious. But you’d have a hard time getting people to lay down their lives to help the rich can get richer. So they tell them going to war is a good thing. “It’s your patriotic duty,” they say, making a bad thing sound like a good one. It’s a form of marketing.
The Nazi party recruitment poster shown above depicts a cozy, loving family. It’s unlikely that German citizens were aware at first what kind of “advice and help” they would be required to provide their fellow comrades, or how many of their neighbors would be hauled off to concentration camps as a result of their actions. Anne Frank might still be alive if it weren’t for the “help” of her neighbors doing their patriotic duty.
Photograph by Thomas E. Franklin (via wikipedia.org)
Is patriotism inherently bad? No, there’s nothing wrong with loving your country. But it is wrong, in my opinion, to limit your care and concern to one country, one race, one religion, or one political party. We must listen to each other and work together to solve our common problems, or society breaks down and things only get worse.
We have bigger fish to fry than Confederate statues or the right to bear arms, or what pronouns to use. The world is under attack from COVID-19 and catastrophic events linked to climate change. Until Americans see themselves as citizens of the world, we’re doomed to miss the opportunity for a better, healthier future for everyone. Bubbles are incredibly fragile. To try to live in one is to court disaster.
Oscar Wilde was a smart guy. Some of the things he said make us laugh, but his patriotism quote should make us think. We should never allow our patriotism to be a cover for ill will, exclusion, or violence. If we allow it to distract us from the greater concern of our survival, we do so at our peril.
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