Saturday, May 28, 2011


What are the limits of loyalty?

It’s a vexing question, and one that troubles me particularly in the light of everything that’s happening in our political life today. On one side of the spectrum, I see an excess of loyalty to right-wing ideology and those who are attempting to implement it; on the other, an absence of loyalty that make progress toward goals I believe in difficult if not impossible. On the one side, intransigence; on the other, a contentiousness and a lack of solidarity that makes progress difficult, if not impossible.

I was reminded by this excellent op-ed piece in yesterday’s New York Times about the Democratic disarray which opened the door to Reaganism and the rise of right-wing power. The prime concerns of Hubert H. Humphrey (the centennial of whose birth is celebrated in the article) were social justice and a fair economic playing field. Had the party honored his leadership at the time, we might be living in a different America at the start of the 21st century. Instead, fired by a well-justified but narrowly-focused rage against the Vietnam war, the party fled from Humphrey in droves, and stood by as Nixon trounced the anti-war McGovern. (I was, I confess, amongst them. Remember, "Dump the Hump"?)

We find ourselves today in a situation with Barack Obama that is in some ways a similar. There are those on the left who are willing to make the war(s) their primary, if not single issue. I, too, am deeply troubled by these endless, quite possibly irresolvable conflicts. And there are those with genuine, multiple, principled disagreements with the President's leadership on the economy and other fronts. I am personally just as greatly troubled, though, by the resultant, dangerous absence of solidarity and support among liberals and progressives, which leaves our side at once enfeebled and demonstrably vulnerable to the lock-step loyalty of Republicans. In our seemingly unshakable insistence on our individual rectitude on any given issue, we risk losing sight of the greater goals.

So what are the proper limits of loyalty? At what point are we compelled to stand on our own principles and mutiny against our leadership—at the risk of causing our ship to founder on the rocks? This is something that we did with extraordinary success last November, withdrawing our support from Democratic candidates in anger or disappointment, or simply abstaining because of our deflated enthusiasm.

We all have beliefs and principles at stake. Should we be prepared to sacrifice any of them—or none?

My thinking is that beliefs and principles are all very fine and may feel very good, but they don’t get us very far. I’m much aware that for every belief that I hold dear, there is someone who holds an opposite, quite possibly incompatible belief. (I may even have a few contradictions in my own thinking!) And rigid adherence to my principles—that is, ideology—can be as destructive as willingness to compromise them. The question is, when does it serve me better to bend, like the proverbial willow in the wind, rather than risk being blasted into oblivion like the oak?

Loyalty, it seems to me, must be a matter for negotiation—between me and my conscience as well as between me and my opponent. Blind loyalty is no better than its absence, and can be very much worse. We saw the effects of it in Nazi Germany. We also, sadly, see the results of intransigence in the never-ending (never-starting!) “peace talks” between the Israelis and the Palestinians. No matter how much “right” there is on either side, there can be no resolution before both sides are ready for some serious give-and-take. Mindless loyalty to the cause on either side will not lead to the peace from which both would surely benefit.

Still, a leader should not be called upon to do constant, paralyzing battle with those on his own side. The useful yardstick, for me, is the greater or the lesser harm: will his efforts lead to a better or worse result? Which might be different from, and lesser than what I myself deem to be the optimum result.

If by loyalty we mean being able to count on backing and support in tough circumstances, it seems to me that we on the left would do more to further our cause by lending that support than angrily withdrawing it when the optimal goal is not more immediately in sight, or when we happen to disagree. Barack Obama is not—at least in my view—the great betrayer of all principle and breaker of promises that he’s made out to be by those who are disappointed in the slow—they might say, non-existent—pace of change. I say rather that he has his eyes on the same prize as myself: social and economic justice, an end to oppression of all kinds, peace in the world and shared prosperity, a proper balance between humankind and nature. But these results do not come easy in today’s contentious political environment, and I personally don’t have the responsibility, nor the skills--as he does, with our support and that of his political allies--to make those things happen.

My own contention is that Obama is (in what has become a tritely popular construction in the political rhetoric of the day) on "the right side of history"; that he has both the vision and the patience to persist; and that he deserves the solid backing of our support. He has mine. I hope he has yours.

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