When I drive alone, I think too much. Train’s “Drops of Jupiter” – though an inoffensive song – doesn’t warrant anywhere near the amount of mental energy I spent on it some weeks ago when, with three hours of drive time yet ahead of me, it popped up on the radio. Specifically I fixated on the following snippet of lyrics:
best friend always sticking up for you
Even when I know you’re wrong
Is that the kind of friend most of us really want? Enablers?
I suspect I’m not the easiest person in the world to convince I’m wrong, but I value friends and colleagues who are willing to do so. In the heat of the moment I may not seem grateful, but I respect people who respect me enough to offer constructive correction. And if I respect you, I’m willing to do the same: “Hey, maybe don’t squirt that lighter-fluid onto already-burning coals. That’s a nice shirt and you’d hate to have it cut off you.”
Shortly afterward on that same radio (eventually I always return to NPR) I heard story after story – political, social, cultural – influenced by misplaced (or maybe mismanaged?) loyalties of varying degrees.
So mulling all that over I slipped into my mental Carried Bradshaw voice and asked myself:
“In a world divided over seemingly every issue, does loyalty ruin everything?”
WHAT KIND OF LOYALTY IS BAD?
I’m not talking about the kind of loyalty one has to a spouse – though I’d argue that is more properly classified as fidelity. No, the kind of loyalty I’m talking about is more like team loyalty that’s turned the corner into bad sportsmanship: the kind that excuses our bad behavior while disproportionately focusing on, exaggerating, and sometimes even inventing their every flaw. Think DeflateGate, post-championship rioting (win or lose), and the doxing of writer Justine Gubar just for pointing out such behavior. Apply that same mindset to a political party, an economic ideology, a religion, or a nation and the real-world consequences are bad for everyone on all sides. Loyalty, embraced too quickly and applied too lazily, quickly degenerates into a fetish – not the sexual kind of course, but the kind that says the groups and ideas with which we identify are beyond criticism and the ones with which others identify are irredeemable.
LOYALTY SNAPS THE NEEDLE OFF OUR MORAL COMPASS
Let’s wade gently into examples of mismanaged loyalty with a topic everyone agrees on: the 2016 presidential election.
OK, obviously we don’t all agree on it. But this isn’t a partisan take. Just to prove it, even though I unapologetically lean toward liberal, we’ll start with some critique of the Hillary Clinton fandom.
Before Trump was the nominee, I knew many Democrats who were quite critical of Clinton, to the point where they were considering voting for the Republican. However, once Trump became the nominee, many of those same Democrats metamorphosed into Clinton zealots, eager to testify she was the most qualified person to run for any office in the history of the world. Meanwhile Clinton’s public persona metamorphosed weekly at the whim of her campaign advisors – one of the very traits new supporters had claimed made them uneasy before the Republican nomination was clinched.
On the other hand, many other people who saw the election as a contest of the lesser of two evils claimed to “hold their noses” and settle for Donald Trump. Yes, he (like Clinton) always had an enthusiastic base, but they weren’t enough to put him over the top; the nose-holders got him elected. Except, once he was elected, they seemed to forget there was any stench to begin with. Rather than hold him accountable for actions which would have been inexcusable to them under a president from a different party, they said not to take his promises, threats, and tweets literally. So if all those were meaningless … why was it again they voted for him?
And I have a really strong suspicion that had the election gone the other way, Hillary’s own party wouldn’t have been holding her feet to the fire either.
Regardless of whether a candidate or winner is our first choice, we should have the same basic moral expectations. For the most part, we’re more concerned with winning, then become indignant that the “other” side can’t see our choices the same way we do.
LOYALTY CREATES DOUBLE STANDARDS WHICH UNDERMINE OUR CAUSES AND INSTITUTIONS
Beyond candidate loyalty, there’s often an even stronger party loyalty – which these days seems to involve (depending on whom you ask) the parties of libtards and deplorables.
Party loyalty has the same tendency to overlook its own sins and focus on the other side’s often identical sins. For example, both sides complain about a petty and biased media, but eat it up when their preferred media outlet turns molehills into mountains. Melania rebuffing Donald’s attempts to hold hands doesn’t deserve any more attention than do Michelle Obama’s bare arms (and didn’t we drop that indignation in a hot minute given the current First Lady’s naked modeling past?).
Unfortunately there are also far more serious examples. Mitch McConnell looked positively giddy when he said he would fill Supreme Court vacancies in the last year of Trump’s term … when we all remember his claim to the “tradition” of exactly the opposite during Obama’s last term. Is it a principle or not? We all know the answer.
Of course this might not have been a problem had the Democrats not gone “nuclear” on Senate filibuster rules for everything but Supreme Court nominees … creating an opening for Republicans to later remove the remaining restriction. What should be a decision made on good governing principles is alternately hailed or maligned by both parties depending on who happens to be making SCOTUS picks.
As a left-of-center guy, much of my post-election disappointment has been elicited by the left, who seems to be employing the very language and tactics they claimed to despise when they held the reins of power. Neither party has clean hands, and both seem to think it’s OK to play dirty because the other team does. How a party achieves its goals matters. Republicans and Democrats are both increasingly identified with and represented by the extreme ends of their parties, to the point that both have trouble seeing the other side as a group of three-dimensional human beings.
All of this alienates observers by exposing the lack of integrity behind our positions.
If we think everyone on the other side unfairly stereotypes us, all the while painting them with the other side of the same broad brush (but we’re justified in doing it) … rubber, glue, something something…
LOYALTY CREATES DIVISIONS WHERE THEY DON’T NEED TO BE
Can you think of an idea that’s non-partisan? I’ll wait…
From claiming Michelle Obama’s healthy-eating initiative was an assault on individual rights (should she have been pro-unhealthy eating?) to the SJW takedown of Samurai Jack (no, the robot-samurai wasn’t an offensive gay stereotype … because it was robot), we can’t seem to look at anything through a non-partisan lens. Liberals are quick to point out conservatives’ resistance to data and facts (yes, the global temperature is rising and farmers whose yield depends upon an understanding of climate know this), yet ignore or gloss over data and facts inconvenient to their cause (Obama has his own disturbing record on abusing the rights of journalists).
When a libtard says something, a MAGAT must disagree, and vice-versa. Acknowledgement or (God forbid!) compromise is an act of treason.
This immediate leap toward polarization prevents us from considering ideas and policies that would be perfectly acceptable … had they only come from our side. And since we don’t have to consider each other’s actual ideas, we’re free to fill that space with nonsense like “Democrats all want open borders to undermine capitalism” and “Republicans all want to turn America into the Christian Taliban.” It doesn’t help that the most prominent members of each party loudly reinforce these ideas … or that we don’t effectively address the fringe elements of our parties who DO believe these things.
We may disagree with each other, but we disagree far more with the straw men and caricatures we’ve created of each other.
LOYALTY VALUES IDEOLOGY ABOVE REAL HUMAN CONSEQUENCES
In The Handmaid’s Tale, one otherwise despicable character sagely notes: “Better never means better for everyone… It always means worse, for some.” Even when we have no doubt we are on the “right” side of an argument, we’d be wise to remember that.
Somehow, though, many of us manage to cling to the ideology of capitalism as though “the market” is inherently moral and the cure for all social ills. Conversely, some of us advocate socialism as though it’s never been an abject failure anywhere. Arguably capitalism has raised more of the global population out of poverty than any other economic system, but it has also put many people into poverty. “Globalization” has been going on for decades, but for most of that time it almost exclusively favored the United States so we didn’t stress about it; it’s only become a dirty word in some circles since jobs and markets started flowing in the other direction.
And most people talk about both “isms” – particularly the one they’re opposed to – as though they are unadulterated, monolithic sets of ideas when both have a large number of variants we ignore to support our arguments.
Realistically, the United States is a primarily capitalist system with a significant battery of socialist programs. Many of these programs, such as public schools, Medicare, and even the military (as a citizen you’re still protected by it even if you don’t pay taxes) are integral (if sometimes contentious) institutions which most of us might like to see improved, but very few would outright eliminate. They elevate the general welfare of the nation in a way that capitalism alone could not. And without capitalism, they would not be sustainable. The construction of federal highways was decried as a socialist program, but it revolutionized life and business for everyone, capitalists most of all.
Defense of an ideology generally needs to assume the best in human nature to make its case, and assume the worst to discredit opposing ideologies. If we won’t admit our version of “better” also always means “worse for some,” we can’t begin to manage the social consequences that erode human dignity and well-being. Jonas Salk had every “right” to better himself by privatizing the manufacture and sale of the polio vaccine, but he realized sometimes decency should trump profit (though they are hardly mutually exclusive under less dire circumstances) and turned his research over to the government for distribution. He could afford to be decent because capitalism had already provided him basic comforts. Compare that to recent scandals around the dramatically increased costs of insulin and malaria treatments.
“Wait!” one might say, “aren’t you just advocating voluntarism?” Nope. Because nothing has stopped us from trying it and so far it’s not exactly a craze. I assume the worst about human nature for all “isms.”
LOYALTY TEMPTS US TO EXCUSE THE INEXCUSABLE
“Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” – Samuel Johnson
You can love the United States of America and still call out its flaws. The whole “love it or leave it” mentality isn’t patriotism – it’s nationalism, and a juvenile one at that. I would argue you can’t actually be patriotic by being an enabler or denier. Just like a parent shirks their duty if they neglect to correct their children, citizens – especially citizens in a government by, for, and of the people – shirk their duty when they refuse to call the United States to accountability.
A good parent teaches consequences. A wise grandparent sees how events of the past still echo in the present. Both know simply sweeping histories of abuse, addiction, and trauma under the rug only serves to perpetuate the problems as new, exciting forms of dysfunction which become increasingly difficult to identify and treat. Declaring “well, he doesn’t beat you any more” as the end of the problem addresses nothing and complicates everything.
Bad parents, though – they want to make sure the family appears bright and shiny to the outside world, and even work to maintain the illusion internal to the family. They inflict retaliation to silence truth-tellers who claim otherwise. Conversely, they reward those who feed the illusion.
Giving into our nationalistic tendencies make us bad parents of our Republic.
Let’s jump ahead from the 2016 election to the present day at the US/Mexican border, specifically the condition of undocumented children kept in crowded, unsanitary detention centers. This situation is a flashpoint of finger-pointing and dismissal along party lines, while both parties claim to have a monopoly on the soul of America.
As Democrats point out the horrible conditions, many Republicans respond with: “Obama detained children; why didn’t you care then?” For the moment, I’m willing to concede any arguments that child detention under the Obama administration was far less prevalent and done under a different set of effective policies. As a matter of fact, it only makes my case stronger if the Obama administration was just as culpable.
To such Republicans I would ask, “If this was just as bad under Obama, why weren’t you concerned about it then either?”
To such Democrats I would ask, “Were you paying attention to undocumented children when Obama was president?”
And to both (and to myself!) I would ask: “How much of your perspective on this is colored by partisan politics and media?”
CASA workers will tell you the mistreatment of children crossing the border is not a new situation under Trump. Whether the increase in scale is due to a surge at the border or a change in policy (and isn’t it really both?) how we treat children trapped in terrible circumstances shouldn’t be a partisan issue.
When children end up in our custody, regardless of how they got there, we should care about their well-being. How we treat the vulnerable under our care is not just about what we feel they deserve, or a reflection on our views on immigration, it is a statement on whether we actually value human life and dignity. It’s not worse when the “other side” does it, and it’s not excusable when “our side” does it. Even if we believe suffering is an effective deterrent, inflicting trauma on children is not ok.
It is entirely possible to allocate the resources to humanely process asylum seekers (and if this was happening anywhere else in the world we’d be calling it a refugee crisis) without throwing the borders wide open and/or shutting them entirely. Yet we can’t seem to do it because we can’t stop arguing over caricatures of each other that insist these are the only alternatives. I mean, we can move entire armies across oceans and not balk at the cost and logistics … we could manage not to further traumatize kids.
The human cost of partisanship – of loyalty to the wrong things – is being paid by children.
SHOULD WE BE LOYAL AT ALL?
Seriously – should we?
Yes – we should be loyal to principles. Specifically, principles as separate from political parties and economic ideologies. The platforms – and perhaps more importantly the real-world practices – of both the Democratic and Republican parties have shifted significantly over the last several decades. For all practical purposes, conservative and liberal don’t mean what they did fifty years ago. These shifts have been politically driven, and have left many members of both parties disenfranchised.
How can we demonstrate loyalty in a healthy manner?
Be critical of your own party or community first. That’s the party or community you can actually affect. Criticism is not the same as in-fighting. The first promotes growth, while the second is concerned with dominance. Also, first does not mean only, but no one will listen to you criticize their speck until you’ve taken care of that plank you’ve been sporting.
But won’t that just give our enemies the advantage?
Stop looking at the opposition as the enemy. Enemies are humans we give ourselves permission to de-humanize. When we try to convince ourselves (or others) all Democrats or Republicans are of a single abhorrent stripe, we aren’t being loyal, we’re being willfully ignorant – and maybe more importantly we’re making ourselves vulnerable to be exploited by the worst members of our own side. Those people who want you to believe all Democrats are anarchist Antifa communists? And those people trying to convince you all Republicans are tiki-torch wielding plutocrat fascists? Those people are the ones we really need to be worrying about. Those types of people can be very persuasive, because they know how to play to our confirmation bias. Don’t confuse charisma with character. People who tell us what we want to hear get elected, but they don’t actually care about our welfare. Maybe that’s why character and political success seem like such strange bedfellows.
And for Pete’s sake, quit equating Democrat with Antifa and Republican with White Nationalist (or whatever extremist factions you use to short-hand your opposition). Yes the media has convinced us they are somehow related because by some definitions they fall into the same end of the left-right spectrum, but Antifa thinks liberals are weak-ass pansies and actual White Nationalists would just as soon spit on a classical conservative as look at them. Sure they show up at Democratic and Republican events, and they are too easily tolerated, but based on protests I’ve been to I can tell you most of the troublemakers aren’t there for the main event – they’re there for the trouble.
AND FINALLY THE END
We started with a pop culture reference, and we’re going to end with another. Two actually.
I reflected on this piece and thought it was way too long and didn’t have anything original or urgent to say. Then yesterday I ran across a post on Facebook that claimed the same Democrats who loved to laugh at Alec Baldwin’s Trump impersonation on SNL were also the people who doxxed and sent death threats to Li’l AOC and her family for their political satire and-don’t-you-see-who-we’re-dealing-with?!
Oy. Doesn’t that just encapsulate the whole problem of loyalty-turned-toxic?
- Death threats are always wrong. Normal people of any political stripe think so.
- Death threats are not exclusive to the left or the right. Ask Actual AOC, or Tomi Lahren, or any woman who has been online, how common rape and death threats actually are. Assholes and dangerous people are everywhere and people of good will, regardless of whether we agree with their politics, always oppose them.
- If you think the Actual AOC threats come from typical Republicans but the threats to Li’l AOC are only propaganda or Russian bots, or vice versa … you know better. Stop it.
Death threats are an extreme example, but the basic problem saturates all levels of political discourse.
Our worst enemies are the people telling us what we want to hear in order to divide us for the purpose of exploiting us. People who value partisan loyalty over truth and principle will fall for it every time. The truth is our country, our parties, and our institutions have been all over the map politically and morally.
Every human institution contains corruption, and if a corrupt institution is to be saved it must be by members of that church, party, union, profession, or nation who are willing to police themselves. We can’t just blame or dismiss the bad actors and the weak or ignorant members, because the leaders and intellectuals of an institution are adept at self-justification and no less prone to responding to emotion before reason – though they are probably far less likely to recognize that! Good cops and teachers must police bad cops and teachers. Good clergy must police bad clergy. Non-violent party members must police violent party members. It’s not comfortable and not common, but if we don’t … we’re not good.
Fidelity, integrity, compassion … these all require more conviction, honor, and humanity than mere loyalty. Terrible people can still be the most loyal.
Let us turn our most critical eye toward the thing we love, or we may never see clearly whether it is swimming or drowning.