Why, I wonder, does Norman Podhoretz subtitle the latest installment of his impresssive emotional and intellectual autobiography a “cautionary tale”? Against what are we cautioned? Why should we be warned, like Belloc’s naughty children, by a touching account of the education in “Americanism” of a son of Jewish-Galician immigrants, or by the unabashed celebration of American patriotism it gave rise to? Is there a slight ironic joke here? Be careful, or you might find yourself becoming a patriot?

The real story of the book is not so much that of how patriotism was produced by Mr. Podhoretz’s experience of this country but of how that experience, or something pretty close to it, engendered both patriotism in him and its opposite in so many of his near-contemporaries. It wasn’t long ago that writing a book in praise of patriotism would have been thought an exercise in a class with preaching a sermon, as in the famous anecdote of Calvin Coolidge, against sin. This began to change during the youth of Norman Podhoretz, who, having been born the year after Coolidge left office, was not old enough to have been among the young men who heard the siren song of the Communist left in the 1930s. By the time he came intellectually of age, the Cold War was beginning and patriotism, as earlier generations would have understood it, was having an Indian Summer before the killing frosts of the ideological Sixties made it what it has since become: namely, a partisan sentiment.

There is always some danger to anti-Communists of becoming merely the mirror images of their opponents. If the Communists are against patriotism, then we are for it. But both make the same assumption that it is something you can be for or against, like a rise in interest rates or more money for defense spending, rather than something you are born with, like blue eyes or left-handedness. In the course of Mr. Podhoretz’s useful and concise summing-up of the ideological wars of which he is so doughty a veteran, it is not always entirely clear that he escapes from this trap. It is a fine thing, to be sure, that he thinks so highly of the bounty and the security that the United States of America has afforded him, particularly when so many others have been so ungrateful for the same things. But if an even more bountiful and welcoming polity were to rise up out of the sea, would he then transfer his loyalties to it?

The book begins with one of the most famous of the many famous quotations from Dr. Samuel Johnson—the one about patriotism’s being the last refuge of a scoundrel—but one that is curiously misunderstood as a lapse in Johnson’s usually sound judgment, as several correspondents of The Wall Street Journal pointed out when the confusion was repeated there. Here is the quotation from Boswell, for 7 April 1775:

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.
Boswell’s surprise shows that patriotism understood as “a real and generous love of our country” was even then the primary meaning of the word, but his gloss on what he imagines Johnson really meant does not tell the whole story either. As The Oxford English Dictionary tells us, “patriot,” for the first century or so after its first appearance in English (in 1605), was generally accompanied “with ‘good,’ ‘true,’ ‘worthy,’ or other commendatory adjective” because the word was “often applied to one who supported the rights of the country against the King and court.”

In other words, in Johnson’s time it would still have retained some of its connotations as the sophistry of choice for those—many of whom were at that very moment beginning a revolution in North America—who insisted that their hatred of the sovereign was motivated by their love of the country over which his sovereignty was exercised. The fourth edition of Johnson’s dictionary, perhaps influenced by the American rebellion, which he opposed, noted that the word was “sometimes used for a factious disturber of the government” —a use which must have been more than occasional, since, as Macaulay tells us, “Horace Walpole scarcely exaggerated when he said that,” in the mid-eighteenth century, “the most popular declaration which a candidate could make on the hustings was that he had never been and never would be a patriot.”

In this respect, therefore, the Johnsonian patriotic scoundrel could be regarded as the direct ancestor of the Communists and fellow-travelers to whose discomfiture Mr. Podhoretz devotes so much of his memoir, men and women who would defend their betrayal of America by pleading a higher, nobler loyalty—originally to the international proletariat and subsequently to mere humanity. Perhaps it should not be surprising that, in America at least, the patriot of the 1770s could be seen as having elided into the anti-patriot of the 1930s. But if Mr. Podhoretz’s book has a fault it is that in loudly and commendably hymning the author’s sense of his country’s virtues, won in the teeth of intellectual fashion, it does not look more deeply into the case of Johnson’s scoundrel, who is not really the patriot as such but the man who sets himself up as the only judge of where his loyalties lie.

Nor is this by any means an academic question, as Mr. Podhoretz himself recognizes in his discussion of a controversy sparked by the monthly magazine First Things in 1996. When several contributors to that magazine’s symposium entitled “The End of Democracy?” allowed themselves to be construed as suggesting that they no longer owed any obedience to their country’s judiciary, which had proved itself adamant in condoning abortion (among other things), Mr. Podhoretz rightly saw it as exactly the sort of thing that the Left had got up to in the 1960s. He wrote to the magazine’s editor, his friend Richard John Neuhaus, that “I did not become a conservative in order to become a radical, let alone to support the preaching of revolution against this country.” In this as in other cases where his fellow conservatives have been tempted to despair about the country’s moral decline, he has remained resolutely and reassuringly optimistic—which is a sign both of patriotism and of Americanism.

Perhaps, after all, there is more in him than Mr. Podhoretz realizes of his grandmother Esther Malkah whose sense of elemental loyalties was somewhat more primitive. When her son, the author’s uncle, was drafted into Uncle Sam’s army in the Second World War, her reaction was one of utter fury: Ver iz er, der Uncle Sam? Im bob ikh extra in dr’erd! “Who is this Uncle Sam? Him I would especially like to see six feet under.” Mr. Podhoretz comments that, even had she known what the fate of the Jews in Europe was,

she was altogether incapable of minding anyone’s business but her own, which extended to her children and grandchildren and not a micromillimeter farther than that. Compared to their welfare, nothing was of any importance; and anything that harmed them (a category that self-evidently included being drafted into the army) was bad, period, with no discussion or elaboration needed or even allowed.

Like other forms of unreflective organic attachment, Esther’s devotion to her family seems morally rather dubious these days. Its patriotic equivalent is in Stephen Decatur’s famous toast at Norfolk, Virginia, in 1816. “Our Country! In her intercourse with foreign nations, may she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong.” No one nowadays holds up such patriotism as any kind of a model to follow. That way, we think, lies “ethnic cleansing” and the ovens of Auschwitz. (Though it would be interesting to know how far, in fact, “Hitler’s willing executioners” were motivated by their love of country.) But Norman Podhoretz’s charming and readable book implicitly suggests that the patriotism of the heart, for the most part overshadowed in it by that of the head, is not so unlike Stephen Decatur’s as we have all grown used to thinking.