The Last Refuge of Scoundrels

What was once considered important and immensely interesting, something everyone knew about and discussed, sooner or later becomes obscure and arcane. Folks were hot and bothered about James Joyce’s Ulysses at one time – the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice in 1921 had the magazine serializing it declared obscene, and thus Joyce’s odd novel was effectively banned in the United States. In the twenties the United States Post Office regularly burned copies of the thing – and then, suddenly, no one cared. Few had actually read the thing. It was hard going. Joyce’s Ulysses became something only academics cared about. No one else ever heard of it.

This happens to books all the time, and at one time, and for decades, James Boswell’s 1791 Life of Johnson was all the rage. It was the first modern biography – intimate and chatty and full of odd anecdotes. It showed us the real Samuel Johnson, the ultimate man of letters, warts and all, as they say now. Everyone read it back then. It was a revelation. This is what a genius is really like – smart as a whip, and quick with a quip, and a real pain in the ass. People still read it for that reason, and to get a sense of the mindset of the British in those years as the American colonies were arguing and then fighting for their independence. Johnson was not amused, but we learn from Boswell that Johnson loved his cat, Hodge – Johnson fed him oysters – and on the evening of April 7, 1775, Johnson muttered to Boswell that “patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels” – somewhat out of the blue. Boswell provides no context. Johnson would often blurt out things like that. Geniuses are like that.

Boswell’s Life of Johnson is now obscure and arcane of course – now no one’s heard of it either – but Johnson, unlike Joyce, could turn a phase. That was one of them. He was quotable, and he was often right, and there was a context for this comment. In THE PATRIOT: ADDRESSED TO THE ELECTORS OF GREAT BRITAIN – in 1774 – he wrote this:

A man sometimes starts up a patriot, only by disseminating discontent, and propagating reports of secret influence, of dangerous counsels, of violated rights, and encroaching usurpation. This practice is no certain note of patriotism. To instigate the populace, with rage beyond the provocation, is to suspend public happiness, if not to destroy it. He is no lover of his country that unnecessarily disturbs its peace. Few errors and few faults of government, can justify an appeal to the rabble; who ought not to judge of what they cannot understand, and whose opinions are not propagated by reason, but caught by contagion.

Johnson wouldn’t have liked Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh or Fox News, or our new Tea Party. Opinions not propagated by reason but caught by contagion didn’t impress him, and he didn’t like the original tea party either, the one in Boston Harbor. He thought we had no right to form our own country over here. We were the rabble, being led around by scoundrels talking about patriotism, scoundrels who were just troublemakers, or worse. Such scoundrels could do systematic evil.

Johnson may have been wrong about that, but there always is a problem with opinions not propagated by reason but caught by contagion. Those cause no end of trouble, and those who call themselves patriots often do propagate and disseminate reports of secret influence and of dangerous counsels that scare the crap out of people, who without reasoning things out, buy it all, and the contagion spreads. That’s how we got into Iraq – Saddam Hussein in a secret alliance with al-Qaeda, even though al-Qaeda had been calling him an apostate and a fool for years – all those weapons of mass destruction that would one day be turned on us, even if the scant evidence that Saddam Hussein had those was questionable at best. None of that mattered. Patriotism was the issue. Fighting him there was fighting for America here, defending our country. We were fighting the bad guys there so we didn’t have to fight them here, which made little sense. We were pissing off everyone in the Middle East by fighting them there, which made it more likely, not less, that they’d drop their regional religious conflicts and head for Cleveland or Houston and blow stuff up, and then get back to their own concerns. But true patriots supported the Iraq war, all eight years of it. Patriotism excuses everything.

Does it excuse torture? We had a national policy of torture, even if we called it something else, and now the question is whether we should excuse it, in the name of patriotism – being proud of it – or just not mention it at all and hope everyone forgets what we did and moves on – or should we admit we did something quite awful and say it’ll never happen again, so half the world won’t be quite as murderously mad at us, wanting us all dead and gone? Those seem to be the options, and none of them is good:

On the eve of a long-awaited Senate report on the use of torture by the United States government – a detailed account that will shed an unsparing light on the Central Intelligence Agency’s darkest practices after the September 2001 terrorist attacks – the Obama administration and its Republican critics clashed on Monday over the wisdom of making it public, and the risk that it will set off a backlash overseas.

While the United States has put diplomatic facilities and military bases on alert for heightened security risks, administration officials said they do not expect the report – or rather the declassified executive summary of it that will be released Tuesday – to ignite the kind of violence that killed four Americans at a diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012. Such violent reprisals, they said, tend to be fueled more by perceived attacks against Islam as a religion than by violence against individual Muslims.

But some leading Republican lawmakers have warned against releasing the report, saying that domestic and foreign intelligence reports indicate that a detailed account of the brutal interrogation methods used by the CIA during the George W. Bush administration could incite unrest and violence, even resulting in the deaths of Americans.

Those are the practical concerns, which only mask the deeper concerns:

Former Vice President Dick Cheney added his voice to those of other Bush administration officials defending the CIA, declaring in an interview Monday that its harsh interrogations a decade ago were “absolutely, totally justified,” and dismissing allegations that the agency withheld information from the White House or inflated the value of its methods.

Of course he’d say that. He’s the patriot, no one else is, or he’s the leading patriot of this crew:

A long-awaited Senate report condemning torture by the Central Intelligence Agency has not even been made public yet, but former President George W. Bush’s team has decided to link arms with former intelligence officials and challenge its conclusions.

The report is said to assert that the CIA misled Mr. Bush and his White House about the nature, extent and results of brutal techniques like waterboarding, and some of his former administration officials privately suggested seizing on that to distance themselves from the controversial program, according to people involved in the discussion. But Mr. Bush and his closest advisers decided that “we’re going to want to stand behind these guys,” as one former official put it.

Mr. Bush made that clear in an interview broadcast on Sunday. “We’re fortunate to have men and women who work hard at the CIA serving on our behalf,” he told CNN’s Candy Crowley. “These are patriots and whatever the report says, if it diminishes their contributions to our country, it is way off base.”

Whatever the report says, they’re still patriots, but the patriots are circling the wagons:

Former intelligence officials, seeking allies against the potentially damaging report, have privately reassured the Bush team in recent days that they did not deceive them and have lobbied the former president’s advisers to speak out publicly on their behalf. The defense of the program has been organized by former CIA leaders like George J. Tenet and Gen. Michael V. Hayden, two former directors, and John E. McLaughlin, a former deputy CIA. director who also served as acting director.

In short, we have to stick together on this, and Andrew Sullivan finds this appalling:

The US did torture many, many people with techniques devised by Nazis and Communists, sometimes in former KGB facilities. The CIA itself admits in its internal documents that none of it worked or gave us any actionable intelligence that wasn’t discovered through legal means. The torture techniques were not implemented by highly-trained professionals, but by goonish amateurs who concealed what they were doing and lied about it to superiors. All the techniques were and are clearly illegal under US and international law.

And we’re told there is some exculpatory evidence in the report, suggesting that Bush and Cheney and even Addington were misled as well – giving the former president some leeway to explain how he came to create a torture program that will forever taint this country and has already done so much to damage its soft power. Maybe he could tell the truth and say that the extent and nature of the torture was kept from him and that he can now see what went so horribly wrong.

That’s not going to happen:

Some former administration officials privately encouraged the president and his top advisers to use the report to disclaim responsibility for the interrogation program on the grounds that they were not kept fully informed. But Mr. Bush and his inner circle rejected that suggestion. “Even if some officials privately believe they were not given all the facts, they feel it would be immoral and disloyal to throw the CIA to the wolves at this point,” said one former official, who like others did not want to be identified speaking about the report before its release.


In his own book, Bush owned the torture and took full responsibility for it. Now, he has decided he will not allow a sliver of daylight to come between him and war crimes. You can chalk this up to admirable loyalty, even to those who lied to him. Or you can simply reflect on a president who cannot admit to being the first in that office to authorize such an assault on core American values and decency – which means to say he does not have the fortitude or character to deal with reality.

And now, we’re seeing a full-court press for those Bush loyalists who want to permanently suppress the evidence of war crimes under the program. If you want to get a clue about how devastating the forthcoming report might be, just observe the pre-emptive strikes.

Those would be these:

The defense of the program has been organized by former CIA leaders like George J. Tenet and Gen. Michael V. Hayden, two former directors, and John E. McLaughlin, a former deputy CIA director who also served as acting director … General Hayden added that the former CIA team objected to the Senate’s characterization of their efforts. “We’re not here to defend torture,” he said by email on Sunday. “We’re here to defend history.” General Hayden appeared earlier on Sunday on “Face the Nation” on CBS News to say that any assertion that the CIA “lied to everyone about a program that wasn’t doing any good, that beggars the imagination.”

Jose A. Rodriguez Jr., who ran the CIA interrogation program, said Sunday that critics now assailing the agency were pressing it after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to do whatever it took to prevent a recurrence. “We did what we were asked to do, we did what we were assured was legal, and we know our actions were effective,” Mr. Rodriguez wrote in The Washington Post.


Rodriguez was so sure that he did nothing wrong that he destroyed the tapes recording the torture sessions! Nothing to see here… so move along…

And as for Bush saying that these guys are patriots, whatever the report says:

Denial doesn’t get much clearer than that – and it is of a piece with the reckless disengagement, sickening indifference and grotesque negligence that marked his catastrophic time in the Oval Office. In the wake of the shock of Abu Ghraib, Bush disavowed the atrocities, insisting that they did not represent America, that they were counter to American values, and that he was shocked and disgusted by them. And yet, when a report is imminent outlining acts of torture and abuse far worse than Abu Ghraib, and directly under his own authority, he insists that whatever is detailed in the report, the culprits are heroes and patriots, and “we’re lucky as a nation to have them.”

How does one begin to square that cognitive dissonance? How to explain how a believing Christian can describe brutal torture sessions as things to defend and be proud of? And how can the torture of human beings – and the cover-up of the same – be part of American “patriotism”?

This is a man not just without a conscience, but a man proud of it. He had a chance to reflect on what his fateful decision to waive the Geneva Conventions after 9/11 produced; and he has decided to own all of it. And we shall soon see what exactly that is.

Samuel Johnson was British. Andrew Sullivan is British. They both see patriotism as the last refuge of scoundrels, and as for former CIA director Michael Hayden claiming that the torture report “will be used by our enemies to motivate people to attack Americans and American facilities overseas,” Daniel Drezner just doesn’t buy it:

There is no shortage of US foreign policy actions and inactions in the region to inflame enemies. The Senate report is small potatoes compared to that.

Daniel Larison puts it this way:

It is extremely convenient for these people to discover the possibility that a report about past U.S. abuses might inspire outrage and even violence in response. There was no such concern among hawks about the foreign policy implications of torturing people when it was being done, and they expressed no similar worries that other U.S. actions would provoke violent responses. If one raises the possibility that aggressive U.S. actions in other parts of the world could have dangerous consequences for Americans later on… that is normally denounced as “blaming” America. Strangely enough, that doesn’t seem to apply when there is a chance of exposing our government’s egregious abuses to public scrutiny and some small measure of accountability for those abuses.

And they want to keep Guantanamo open too. Go figure.

Paul Waldman has more:

So what we’ll see in the next few days is a parade of intelligence officials, former Bush aides, congressional Republicans, and conservative pundits rushing to the media to decry the release of this report. They have old, familiar arguments about the torture program – it wasn’t really torture, it was all constitutional, we only tortured because that’s what everyone wanted – and one new one specifically tied to the Intelligence Committee’s report. They’re now arguing that the public can’t be shown the truth because doing so will spur a backlash that could include violent protests or the deaths of American hostages. …

The problem is that that fear will never disappear. Just as thirteen years ago they used the public’s fear to justify the use of torture in the first place, today they try to create fear as a justification for keeping the truth secret. But whether we learn the full extent of the torture program this week, this year, or this decade, there will probably be a price to pay. Those who argue for delay ought to have the courage to admit that by their logic, the report should be quashed forever.

That means we must weigh things out:

Might there be some violence in response to the information contained in the report? Yes, there might. When the truth is ugly, revealing it has a cost.

If and when that violence occurs, the torture advocates will blame it on those who sought the information’s release, not on the underlying fact of the torture program. But there is no doubt where the responsibility will lie. In an atmosphere of panic and fear, our government appears to have done some abominable things. Nearly as horrifying is the fact that even now, so many people who either used to be in positions of power or are still in those positions will defend the program, so thoroughly were they infected by the moral rot that spread through the Bush administration.

It’s time to deal with that:

The darkest chapters in our history and the most outrageous government decisions and programs eventually move from a place of contestation to a place of consensus in public debate. Outside of a few fringe extremists, no one today holds the position that slavery, the Trail of Tears, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, Jim Crow, or the witch hunts of McCarthyism were the right and proper thing for America to do. The Bush torture program may not be even remotely close in scale to those atrocities. But just as there is now consensus that all of those things are moral blots on the country’s history, if the full truth about torture comes out, a consensus could eventually emerge that this, too, is an unambiguous stain.

Waldman seems to see this sort of assessment as patriotic:

The cynicism necessary to attempt to blame the blowback from their torture program on those who want it exposed is truly a wonder. On one hand, they insist that they did nothing wrong and the program was humane, professional, and legal. On the other they implicitly accept that the truth is so ghastly that if it is released there will be an explosive backlash against America. Then the same officials who said “Freedom isn’t free!” as they sent other people’s children to fight in needless wars claim that the risk of violence against American embassies is too high a price to pay, so the details of what they did must be kept hidden.

Again, go figure, or consider this:

But either we’re a free society, or we aren’t. Either Americans have a right to know the full extent of what their government did in those dark days, or they don’t. We have to choose.

Which is the patriotic choice? There seem to be two sets of opinions here, and Kevin Drum argues an odd but rather obvious thing, that the release of the torture report will actually save lives:

Our conduct during the early years of the war on terror almost certainly inflamed our enemies, bolstered their recruitment, and prolonged the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. This cost thousands of American lives.

President Obama may have banned torture during his administration, but is there any reason to think we’ve now given up torture for good? Not that I can tell, and it will cost many more thousands of American lives if it happens again. So for our own safety, even if for no other reason, we need to do everything we can to reduce the odds of America going on another torture spree.

Forget patriotism. Think safety. Be practical. And save American lives, which is the patriotic thing to do. Only scoundrels think otherwise. To instigate the populace, with rage beyond the provocation, is to suspend public happiness, if not to destroy it, after all – and we did that already. On the evening of April 7, 1775, Johnson muttered to Boswell that “patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels” – and no one remembers either of them. Oh well.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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1 Response to The Last Refuge of Scoundrels

  1. Rick says:

    I’ve often thought, since he left office, that George Bush junior improved somewhat in the final years of his presidency — he jettisoned Don Rumsfeld, and more importantly, stopped paying so much heed to the likes of Dick Cheney.

    And as I watched Candy Crowley’s interview with him on Sunday, I was once again reminded that the guy could actually sometimes be capable of charm. He refused to criticize Obama, and in fact said some supportive things about him, and said many other things I just couldn’t disagree with. He also mentioned something I personally find useful, about what he tells people seeking advice on how to deal with a sometimes exasperating teenage daughter:

    “I say, ‘I love you. There’s nothing you can do to make me not love you. So stop trying.’ “

    But then, there’s him talking about this torture report about to come out.

    I used to work with a guy who, in situations such as this, would say, “Just when you think the puppy is finally housebroken, he ups and poops on the living room rug.”

    Admittedly, Bush and his pals are defending and labeling as patriots these torturers who are cited in a report they haven’t yet seen, but I am curious to see if, after the report is released, these guys are able to dispute the findings with actual facts to the contrary — that is, despite the conclusions of the Senate Intelligence to the contrary, “enhanced interrogation” (i.e., torture) did INDEED produce “actionable intelligence” that had not been, and could not possibly have been, brought forward in other, less inhumane ways.

    And if what all these guys are saying is, no, we know for a fact that we were neither misled nor duped by the CIA about those activities, and that we proudly stand by and take responsibility for them, then it follows that (a) they should all, collectively and individually, have no problem surrendering to the world court when and if it comes asking questions about war crimes, but at least, (b) they should have no problem with allowing the details be brought out into the open.

    And I know the problem with “b” — that while they might not have a personal problem with anything becoming public, it might actually put at risk the lives of others who were involved. But here’s the thing about that — actually, two things:

    * If those people, before they did it, didn’t think that either inflicting all that pain or facilitating the torture of others would put their lives in peril, maybe they should have.

    * America, as a nation, should not be forced to abandon the ideals it was founded upon just because some lazy teenagers, on the day those ideals were being taught, were snoozing in the back of the classroom, and then grew up to be their country’s leaders.

    And one of those American ideals has to do with “sunshine” — because America is not a third-world dictatorship where outrageous rumors and suspicions run rampant, we air our public laundry out in the open (although there are a few necessary exceptions, of course). This is why Edward Snowden should be seen as a hero, rather than traitor. We Americans have always felt we had a “right to know” — and, in fact, to determine — the kind of country we are.

    In fact, these same leaders, in times more peaceful and less crippled with fear, might themselves have been heard agreeing with the idea that “torturing people is evil” — yet when it was put to the test, will instead be heard saying, “Okay, maybe so … but it works!”

    And where will they be when it’s being demonstrated that it doesn’t? Probably snoozing, now in front of the flatscreen.

    In fact, I still find it slightly puzzling that these guys aren’t taking the out offered them by the report, that they instead seem to see themselves as heroic rather than being complicit, if not just plain guilty, of war crimes. I guess in the hard-nosed, wannabe-tough-guy world of conservatives, it’s worse to be seen as being “duped” by subordinates than it is being caught committing outright evil.


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