Unreal Loyalties

Loyalty was not one of the central themes of my Commonplace Book. In the informal study of the collected passages I had assembled through July of 2005, the most common topics were Literature, Romance, Change, Writing and Age. In contrast, I mentioned the concept Loyalty only nine times, all of which were from one document. The End of Loyalty by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in The New Yorker, March 9, 1998.

In his essay Gates considers the concept of loyalty in the context of the Clinton Administration political scandals and his relationship with a White House intern. But Gates’ essay goes far beyond those matters. It is a moral analysis of the general principle of loyalty, especially when it is pitted against an equally valued principle, such as honesty. For example, what is an individual to do when telling the truth conflicts with one’s loyalty to another person?

Gates argues we have forgotten about the simple virtue of loyalty, the “endangered trait of loyalty” as he put it. It is considered old fashioned now, a fairly primitive moral concept. Gates quotes commentators who refer to it as a “character flaw,” “phony,” “pre-modern virtue,” “anachronistic,” etc. He writes:

“Like all values the value of loyalty has its limits…Often loyalty must give way to “principle”—this we know—but aren’t there times, too, when principle must give way to loyalty?”

Like so many others these were some of my thoughts throughout the long, catastrophic period between 2001-2009. I began asking myself questions about the boundaries of loyalty, especially loyalty one has for the country of their birth. At times, I thought I would flee this country. What had happened to it? How could its people, my people, have voted for the leader of our country then? How could they allow him to take our nation down the path he was leading it to?

I remembered Virginia Woolf’s response in 1939 when asked what kind of freedom would advance the fight against fascism. She replied:

Freedom from unreal loyalties. You must rid yourself of pride and those unreal loyalties…You must rid yourself of pride of nationality in the first place; also of religious pride, college pride, family pride, sex pride and those unreal loyalties that spring from them.”

What are the limits to loyalty? Is there a limit, for example, to the bond of loyalty we have toward family? Diana Athill has argued that loyalty to family “…can become foolishness if betrayed by its object. If your brother turns out to be a murderer…standing by him through thick and thin seems to me mindless.”

In July of 2007 Howard Zinn wrote “On this July 4th, we would do well to renounce nationalism and all its symbols: its flags, its pledge of allegiance, its anthems, its insistence in song that God must single out America to be blessed…..We need to refute the idea that our nation is different from, morally superior to, the other imperial powers of world history….We need to assert our allegiance to the human race, and not to any one nation.”

At about the same time, in an essay, Rethinking Patriotism, Lucinda Marshall wrote: “As July 4th approaches, it may well be time to consider whether patriotism and the defense of national borders is in fact and outmoded concept. Instead of Independence Day, perhaps it is time to declare an Interdependence Day and to pledge allegiance as global citizens to build our strength by nurturing our resources rather than plundering them, by nurturing all the world’s citizens, especially the young. Most of all, it is time to pledge to end the wanton destruction of the planet and the politics of hatred and greed that divide us.”

Is this a time now when we can begin to examine more closely the nature of loyalty? The national mood has flipped flopped. A person who clearly loves his country leads us. He is also a person who has not lost his sense of proportion and can readily acknowledge we are no different than or superior to any other country.