On Loyalty

The bright-and-shiny, widely-accepted-as-purely-virtuous word “loyalty” has featured prominently in the news lately. The new man in the White House demands it; and his faithful staff and loyal followers provide it, seemingly unblinkingly.

Just this morning I read an editorial in the New York Times headed “President Trump Craves Loyalty, but Offers None,” which states in part: “…Rather than cultivate experienced, strong-minded advisers who might challenge his views, Mr. Trump prefers to govern by impulse and edict, demanding absurd pledges of ‘loyalty’” (www.nytimes.com).

After Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey this past week, it emerged that Trump had asked Comey for “a personal pledge of loyalty” at their private dinner at the White House last January, shortly after Trump’s Inauguration. But Comey, perhaps at that moment sealing his own fate, is said to have pledged only honesty.

I’ve been scratching my head and questioning for days: What, exactly, is “loyalty”? One dictionary definition for this complicated concept reads: “faithful adherence to a sovereign, government, leader, cause, etc.” And just how “virtuous” is it? I wanted to know. Those who cling to it unquestioningly, it seems to me, do so self-righteously, as if loyalty were something unassailable, as pure and white as freshly fallen snow. But is it always so?

In doing some digging (like a dog for a deeply buried bone) on the subject, I came across an excellent book, published by Simon & Schuster in 2012, by prizewinning Wall Street Journal columnist Eric Felten, titled Loyalty: The Vexing Virtue, which I’ve begun avidly reading.

Early in his Introduction, Felten highlights loyalty’s shiny side: “Without loyalty there can be no love. Without loyalty there can be no family. Without loyalty there can be no friendship. Without loyalty there can be no commitment to community or country. And without those things, there can be no society.”

But as the subtitle of his book suggests, loyalty is not always so straightforward or one-sided; it can be vexing: “The messy reality of life has always plagued moral judgments,” he writes, “and this is especially true when it comes to questions of loyalty.”

One example of the dark underside of loyalty and how it can be employed in the service of evil, of course, is Adolf Hitler. Says Felten: “Adolf Hitler, after all, was a great advocate of loyalty, demanding that one and all swear oaths of allegiance to him. His personal army, the SS, wore the slogan ‘My Honor Is Loyalty’ on their belt buckles.”

Felten then offers a chilling quote from Heinrich Himmler, one of Hitler’s henchmen: “‘We teach our SS men that there are many things which can be forgiven on this earth, no matter how evil they be, but one thing never: disloyalty to the Führer.’”

In my personal quest for understanding, I found quotes from other outstanding authors helpful too. Here’s one that particularly resonates for me, from environmental writer and essayist Edward Abbey:

“My loyalties will not be bound by national borders, or confined in time by one nation’s history, or limited in the spiritual dimension by one language and culture. I pledge my allegiance to the damned human race, and my everlasting love to the green hills of Earth, and my intimations of glory to the singing stars, to the very end of space and time.”

a statue on the grounds of the apartment complex where I now live in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

One way to view loyalty, it seems to me, is as a two-edged sword. Blind, unthinking loyalty toward the wrong cause can lead to irreparable damage: breaking laws, breaking trust, breaking bonds, breaking hearts. Loyalty toward an autocratic leader – or even a plain, everyday pathological liar – can leave a person feeling betrayed forever.

Loyalty, like trust, I believe, must be earned, not slavishly, thoughtlessly proffered. As Mark Twain is said to have said: “Loyalty to the country always. Loyalty to the government when it deserves it.” Trump and his administration simply don’t deserve it.