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The limits of loyalty


When James Carville called Bill Richardson a “Judas” figure for finally deciding to support the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama, he reopened a centuries old argument over the purpose and limits of loyalty.  Carville’s argument was that Richardson “owed” the Clintons for their years of providing important career-advancing opportunities.  Bill Clinton is supposedly especially exorcised because he says Richardson on at least five different occasions told him “to my face” that he would not endorse against Hillary.  Richardson, meanwhile, says he is loyal but to a higher principle which presumably is his idea of what is best for the country.  There, in a nutshell, you have three of the dominant themes of public arguments about loyalty:  summarized into the language of honor, hypocrisy, and higher purpose.

That so sharp a denunciation should have come from James Carville is no surprise, of course – this is, after all, the guy who wrote a book in defense of loyalty (Stickin’).  It likely came as something of a greater surprise when Peggy Noonan editorialized last year against loyalty, or at least against personal loyalty as the starting point of presidential selection:  “Better to be faithful to the cause than to individuals with whom you merely have a history.  Better to have fidelity to principles, and not to political figures, no matter how interesting or compelling they are.”  Perhaps the purest examples of this commitment to cause, although Noonan cites neither, are the Old Testament’s Abraham (passing God’s loyalty test that he risk sacrificing his son Isaac) and the philosopher Socrates, who passed up the option that a jury might acquit in exchange for Socrates’ abandonment of his students.  To such an offer Socrates demurs, citing his higher responsibility to God, to his mission.  And in Plato these ideas receive further expression, as when he implicitly founds his Republic upon a loyal fidelity to the polis and the sort of traditions that will keep lesser mortals happily in position in the larger social hierarchy.

The philosopher Josiah Royce (arguably the only famous philosopher to give loyalty its conceptual due) once said that “unless you can find some sort of loyalty, you cannot find unity and peace in your active living,” by which I take him to be treating loyalty as the equivalent of fidelity to principle.  That is, one cannot claim to have found any intellectual center or coherence without committing to certain ideas.  In this light, one might say that disloyalty is an act of irrationality.  But loyalty can also be thought of as the giving of one’s emotional commitment to a nation (thus, patriotism), a creed (thus, a faith), or a person (thus, love) – and one can easily extend the list – but more than the simple extension of one’s commitment, loyalty also implies a commitment to prioritize such feelings over the admittedly attractive advances made by other competing suitors.  In the context of such emotional vernaculars, the abandonment of such commitments – treason, heresy, infidelity – constitute unforgivable sins.

In the political context, of course, there is a powerful flip side to this.  No more telling testimony can be given than that offered by the insider-turned-whistleblower.  One might say that the real threat to Jesus came not from Judas (who has been recently defended by some scholars as simply the one who had to play out his predetermined historical role; the so-called Gospel of Judas implies that Jesus even encouraged Judas to his task) but to the doubting brothers who not only at first disbelieved him (John 7:5) but actually thought he was nuts (Mark 3:21), for they were the ones who could laughingly dismiss his claims to divinity (“Ha!  You think he’s the Son of God – wait until I tell you about the time he…”).  This is the reason prophets have no honor in their own country – for the neighbors and childhood friends know the history all too well.

The affective dimension of loyalty has been given serious attention by George Fletcher, who argues that in an age where capitalism is often understood as actively discouraging loyalty (he is simply referring to the fact that workers can no longer assume that their fidelity to a lifelong employer will be reciprocated), the dynamics of interpersonal loyalty should actually be valorized and protected by law.  His claim is that the law should defer to loyalty-based relationships, a concept already at work in the idea of spousal privilege, is more expansively defended as also protecting the right of the individual to act consistent with her conscience.  Simon Keller’s account, by contrast, is more attentive to the downsides of loyalty and to the awful consequences that can follow when one blindly adheres to one’s commitments and elective affinities.

Several recent episodes illustrate the difficulties in sorting through the rightful limits of loyalty.

Exhibit A, continuing the Bill Richardson theme:  The New York Times reported this weekend that the Clintons, eagerly courting super-delegates, have implemented something of a hierarchy of loyalty.  If someone leans to Obama but out of deference to a historical tie to Hillary Clinton does not go public with the ambivalence, that’s OK.  If a super-delegate stranger goes with Obama, they’re not happy but they don’t get mad.  If a former administration official abandons the Clinton candidacy, then they get furious, we’re told.  The lowest circle of hell is reserved for former colleagues who not only endorse Senator Obama but criticize Senator Clinton while doing so (think Greg Craig).

Exhibit B, again from the New York Times, which has recently reported on the fact that a large group of former military officials now working as commentators on talk TV have actually been part of what one might call a Pentagon propaganda operation, motivated both by their essential agreement with Pentagon policy and (perhaps more darkly) by the continued access guaranteed when they said supportive things about Bush/Rumsfeld on Fox and CNN and MSNBC.  The expression of opinion coming from military officers, active or former, has of course provoked a lot of commentary.  Setting aside the frequently made point that one’s service to the United States Armed Forces brings a certain credibility that should not be shilled, as well as the idea that certain dangers attach when the military class argues in ways that might be seen as subverting the final authority of civilian command (and thus the injunction to keep the argument in-house), there is also a loyalty issue:  can one see post-service dissent as active disloyalty, especially when the nation is at war?  The sinister insinuation of treason lurks right beneath the service.

In the case of the commanders-turned-commentators the loyalty argument is strenuously engaged, mainly by the point that talking heads supportive of the government and historically hostile to the media have every right to collaborate with Pentagon briefers in the name of their higher loyalty to the national campaign in Iraq.

Loyalty arguments are finally, in my view, irresolvable.  Claims made to local or higher purpose can be made invariably plausible, but only rarely so in ways that can trump the raw emotion connected to commitment and its absence.  What emerges instead is the narrower discussion of the finer points of Loyalty Law – in the case of the Washington hacks, for instance, the question now turns on the technical point of whether they legally declared their “loyalty” to their media employers, and in the case of the Bills (Clinton and Richardson) whether Richardson did or did not come clean at the Super Bowl party.

SOURCES:  Josiah Royce, The Philosophy of Loyalty (New York:  Kessenger, 2004l; first published 1908); George Fletcher, Loyalty: An Essay on the Morality of Relationships (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995); Simon Keller, The Limits of Loyalty (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2007); Peggy Noonan, “The Trouble With Loyalty,” Wall Street Journal, 16 March 2007; Harold Attridge, “The Case for Judas, Continued,” New York Review of Books, 1 May 2008, pgs. 37-39 – the essay is not so much a defense of Judas the Betrayer as an exploration of the themes dominating in the Gospel of Judas, including its spirit mysticism and related renunciation of martyrdom as privileged action; Mark Leibovich, “For Clinton, a Time to Find Truest Friends,” New York Times, 20 April 2008; David Barstow, “Behind TV Analysts, Pentagon’s Hidden Hand,” New York Times, 20 April 2008.

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