Sydney M. Williams
Thought of the Day
June 26, 2017
“Nothing is more noble, nothing more venerable, than fidelity.
Faithfulness and truth are the most sacred excellences and endowments of the human mind.”
Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 BC-43 BC)
“Loyalty to a petrified opinion never broke a chain or freed a human soul.”
Mark Twain (1835-1910)
Loyalty is generally a force for good, as it was in Le Résistance, in 1940-44 France; but it can be a force for discord, as it is in The Resistance, in 2016-17 United States. In 1940s France, loyalty kept spirits high and helped achieve liberation from Nazi occupiers and Vichy collaborators. Today’s partisan advocacy for The Resistance has as its goal the destruction of Mr. Trump’s Presidency. Advocacy, however, should not be confused with loyalty. The latter implies an allegiance, to a nation – we pledge allegiance to our flag – a group, an individual or an idea – our Constitution. On the other hand, one who advocates does so for myriad reasons, perhaps out of loyalty or a desire to help, or possibly for personal gain or even vengeance.
Most of us are loyal in more ways than one. Loyalty is ubiquitous, but oft-changing in terms of to whom or to what to be loyal. Regardless, Webster’s describes loyalty as “unswerving in allegiance.” A soldier is loyal to his comrades, promising to leave no man behind. General George Marshall once said, “I can’t expect loyalty from the army if I do not give it.” “For God, king and country,” is a toast given by loyal officers of the British Empire. Dogs have unconditional loyalty for their masters. School and college homecomings are attended by alums loyal to their alma maters. Loyalty is the faithful allegiance to a nation, leader, cause, group, family or person. It is what prompts donations to schools, colleges, museums, churches and symphony halls. It can be as harmless as rooting for one’s college football team, or as malignant as the loyalty demanded by despots like Hitler, Stalin, Mao Zedong, Kim Jong-un and Fidel Castro.
Literature abounds with examples of loyalty: Virgil’s Aeneas would not leave his father Anchises behind, when he and his son Ascanius left Troy. King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table were loyal to one another. Shakespeare wrote of Desdemona’s loyalty to Othello, a fidelity that killed her. In Anthony Trollope’s “Framley Parsonage,” it was Reverend Mark Robarts’ misplaced loyalty that got him in trouble, Huck Finn was loyal to Jim, which saved the latter from being re-sold into slavery. Bertie Wooster and Jeeves project a dependent and devoted loyalty between a bumbling master and an omniscient servant. E.B. White’s Charlotte, was loyal to the animals in Mr. Arable’s barn, especially to Wilbur.
“Loyalty” in the corporate sector has withered. (I put loyalty in quotes because it was largely dependent on material comforts, not the typical allegiance to family, friends and soldiers.) Nevertheless, it wasn’t uncommon for one hired in the 1950s and ‘60s to expect their first job would be their last. Unions prospered, and health care and defined-benefit pension plans gave security to employees. But, by the mid 1980s things began to change. Corporate raiders, in the form of “green-mailers,” saw bloated companies, inefficiently run, so ripe for picking. Taking large equity positions, they forced managements to take on debt to buy them out, or to pay special dividends. Consequences included: the abandonment of unions, a move away from defined-benefit to defined-contribution pension plans, and an increase in disruptive technologies. Today, government employees have that same sense of self-satisfaction that corporate employees did forty years earlier – well-paying jobs, generous benefits, job security. But, government inefficiencies, burgeoning deficits, and bloated balance sheets will bring a day of reckoning.
Loyalty to the nation had been questioned in the mid 1960s, when television brought the horrors of combat in Vietnam into living rooms. It became impossible to explain and justify long-term foreign policy goals to those watching sons, husbands and fathers being killed on camera. News, which in earlier wars had been censored or filtered, was given raw. Reporters became commentators. Many questioned whether war was ever worth the price paid. Those questions affected our concepts of patriotism and loyalty. Today, we cringe, as we should, when we read that President Trump demanded loyalty of those in his cabinet. But, we should remember that his request wasn’t novel, that most Presidents have asked for and received the same. Nevertheless, in free societies loyalty should be offered, not demanded.
As a nation, we are a work in progress – and always will be. We are fallible, but have learned (and are learning) from past mistakes. British statesman, Edmund Burke once remarked about England, “To make us love our country, our country must be lovely.” That is as it should be. But, like all nations, we have warts. Events in our past do not always fit today’s ideal; however, they are part of the mold from which we were formed. No other country has had a better record of providing its citizens more freedoms and better opportunities. Regardless of what name we carry, what race we are, what religion we practice, or who are parents were and from where we came, success is principally personal. Yet, we also know we cannot rest on the laurels of our forefathers – that history is a continuum, that we are vulnerable to our own prejudices, and susceptible to politicians who promise rewards without work, education without cost, to those who seek power by promising goods and services in return for loyalty at the voting booth.
Loyalty to our country is again under duress. We have become compartmentalized – segregated, if you will. For example, after six decades of integration some colleges now allow students to live in dorms exclusive to specific races, religions, cultures or sexual orientation. Political parties appeal to differences, not commonalities. We have drifted from loyalty to a nation, with all its imperfections, to ardent supporters of narrow, single-focused groups: The Tea Party, Black Lives Matter, LGBT community, the Pussyhat Project, and The Resistance, among others. Devotion to such groups, while not harmful in themselves, accentuate differences. When we tear down statues of Confederate soldiers, refuse to let speak those with whom we disagree, or boycott a President’s Inaugural we weaken the ties that bind. Progressives, in the belief that government is the answer, have hastened the slide toward an administrative state and authoritarianism, with the price being an increase in dependency and a loss of individual liberty. Freedom is not a gift from government, but from nature. Freedom depends on the “Brushfires” Samuel Adams wrote about in 1775 – the kindling that keeps lit the torch of liberty, ensuring the we will have what Lincoln promised: a “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” It is to those goals – not a party or a person – we should be loyal.
Loyalty reflects our interdependence – that we don’t walk alone. We should be loyal to our families and our friends. We should be loyal to those ideals that make our country exceptional. In Stephen Decatur’s oft-criticized toast, “Our country…may she always be in the right…but right or wrong, our country,” the emphasis should be on the first part of the quote. We may differ in terms of our political preferences, but we should not forget that it is liberty and democracy we honor, not the individual. With full awareness of our past, and mindful of our present and future, loyalty to our country is a good thing…but we do want it lovely.