American Culture

How do we earn loyalty? Or lose it?

Should I remain loyal to the men and women in the three branches of that government who have shown more loyalty to self and self-service than to the electorate?

Trump meets Comey at an Oval Office reception (Image Credit: Andrew Harrer / POOL / EPA)

The ousted director of the FBI sat in front of a Senate committee and told the panelists the president of the United States had demanded the director’s loyalty.

Meanwhile, Joseph Kennedy III, a Democratic congressman from Massachusetts, spoke about loyalty for two minutes on the floor of the House of Representatives. Kennedy pondered President Donald’s loyalty to the nation’s citizenry, asking whether the president “put his own personal and political interests above the interests of the American people.”

“Americans,” Kennedy said, “should never have to doubt the loyalty of our commander-in-chief.”

Given that loyalty has again entered the national conversation, I’d like to remind S&R readers of one man’s perspective about assigning — and retracting — loyalty. Here’s the post from February 2014: “A contrarian’s disheartened view of loyalty.”

As I age, I increasingly ponder loyalty. Most of us, I suspect, have an understanding of it. Perhaps it’s a feeling that we’d crawl through burning oil and run across broken glass because the person to whom we are loyal needs it. And that person never asks; we merely give unreservedly.

Lately, however, loyalty I have awarded (given? allowed? presented? What is the word that best presents bestowal of loyalty?) has been strained. Is it because I have come to expect something in return? A little quid pro quo? If that attitude has emerged in me, I am saddened. But I fear it has. I am human: I have done for others without marked compensation or gratitude for so long … but now, am I finally seeking a little sugar for my faithful attention?

I used to advertise my loyalty and I don’t believe there is a single person I loved that I didn’t eventually betray.
― Albert Camus, The Fall

Loyalty for me has always been freely given with no expectation of reciprocity. Either in an instant, or over time, I have become loyal to you. You owe me naught. But 70 years old is no longer a distant horizon. Has the erosion of physical ability or the emergence of emotional and intellectual insecurity altered that equation? Do I now need something, somehow, from an individual or institution that has received unqualified, unquestioned loyalty from me?

Nearly half a century ago, a friend sent me a telegram from half a continent away. “I need help,” it said. I replied: “En route.” I fired up my old LandCruiser and drove through winter’s wrath to get to him. Loyalty? Obligation? Duty? All, perhaps. But if that same friend asked today, would I? No. The loyalty, the obligation, the duty have faded. Why? My friend went his way; I went mine. Connections frayed. Neither of us is to blame; life connects and disconnects.

We have to recognize that there cannot be relationships unless there is commitment, unless there is loyalty, unless there is love, patience, persistence.
― Cornel West, Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life

Usually, when young, we begin life with numerous connections. Friends galore: Hale many fellows, well met. After my discommodious departure from a university eons ago, I returned for a weekend visit the following autumn with a list of 50 names. By the following spring, only three names remained. Today, there is one. When she calls, and she has, I text: “En route.” Without question; without animus; rather, with the compulsion of love.

Loyalty given young can last until … well, death. But loyalty, while deep, can be fragile. Often, it cannot bear the weight of passing time. I have learned that … painfully.

Loyalty might be born in the fire of anger. I find it difficult to hate (but rather easy to be irritated). But two decades ago, I met a man who so frequently angered me I grew to hate him. Time eased that. Today, my loyalty to that person is unshakeable. But I think, unlike the blind award of loyalty by one person to another, this differed. He contributed to the exchange. He made the bestowal of loyalty possible because his award was congruent with mine.

If by my life or death I can protect you, I will.
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

The list of people to whom I am loyal has dwindled. But the ferocity of the loyalty I retain for those remaining few has not dimmed.

Why? I do not know. I have only questions.

Is the bestowal of loyalty a form of received wisdom? Did our teachers, parents, and clerics teach us that loyalty is a virtue and ought to be freely given without question? (Hell, that attitude died when I kissed Charlotte at age 12 and she told all her friends it was awful.)

Should I bestow loyalty to my country without question, even to the point of shouldering arms and killing for it because a leader says I must? Many do. They fight and often die. We honor them when they return, often wounded, often dead.

I don’t care a damn about men who are loyal to the people who pay them, to organizations…I don’t think even my country means all that much. There are many countries in our blood, aren’t there, but only one person. Would the world be in the mess it is if we were loyal to love and not to countries?
― Graham Greene, Our Man in Havana

Should I bestow loyalty to an idea in the weight of overwhelming evidence that the idea is wrong? Pick your poison here: Creationism, intelligent design, a 6,000-year-old Earth, various alleged causes of autism, the claims global climate disruption does not exist, and so on. The reverse is true: How steadfast should the loyalty be for those who believe in anything on that list? Loyalty can be as blind as it is deep.

Should I remain loyal to a president whose deeds belie his words? Nixon, Reagan, either Bush, Clinton, Obama? Men are fallible, particularly political men (and women). I am an American. I remain loyal to a Constitution that determines my rights and responsibilities. I am not compelled to bestow loyalty to those whose fealty to oath of office is flawed.

I would say exploit the stupid, because they’re expendable and loyal, but it’s a fact: politicians are not loyal.
― Jarod Kintz, This Book Has No Title

But should I remain loyal to the men and women in the three branches of that government who have, I believe, shown more loyalty to self and self-service than to the electorate — and me? To be blunt, no fucking way. How little loyalty they have shown me — and the larger us.

Edward Snowden is an American. Many call him a traitor. How should we measure his loyalty? To the rule of law? Or the spirit of the Constitution, which compels citizens to continually question those who govern the governed?

Loyalty, as I age, is fast moving into a tie with love as the most confusing of human values. That the two — loyalty and love — have indistinguishably commingled both comforts and vexes me.

No words of analysis live here, only compounding confusion. I treasure loyalty; I reward it; but I … damn it … increasingly feel the need to be rewarded for it. It is selfish, but is it understandable? And is it forgivable?

It gives me strength to have somebody to fight for; I can never fight for myself, but, for others, I can kill.
― Emilie Autumn, The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls