It has been nearly four years since I devoted a blog post primarily to the concept of loyalty. The last time, I wrote about what happens when loyalty is taken too far and begins to swallow up our ability to think and act rationally. We’ve all known people, particularly in high school, who give up their individuality and sometimes a bit of their futures because they are loyal to a misguided group of friends. We also know of people, particularly politicians, who seem to give up the quality of their judgment because they are loyal to an ideology. It is one thing to be principled; that’s all good. But to be deeply ideological without some measure of pragmatism is to become an enemy of common sense, and that is virtually never a good thing.
This time around, I’m in no mood to take on the concept of loyalty. In fact, I’m beginning to think it could tragically become a dying virtue, at least in the most secular subcultures of America and Europe. The more of us who give up our old religious ties, move away from our families, and take root in new cities simply because they offer better career opportunities, the more our values will be centered purely on our own idiosyncratic joys and comforts. Is there a place in that mentality for loyalty? I wonder. It sounds so five minutes ago – or so five centuries ago, to be more specific.
I have loyalty in mind this week for three reasons. First, because I’ve had conversations with young adult friends who are bemoaning the loss of this virtue among their peers and who themselves reflect some of the same manifestations of a post-loyal mentality. If you don’t feel “commanded” by God or at least some transcendent source of morality to stand by your spouse, your faith, or your country, and if your peers similarly reflect a morally relativist ethic, where is the source of loyalty supposed to come from? You can’t count on others, so why should you put yourself out for them? Why not just go from project to project, job to job, friend to friend – and stay loyal only to those old buddies who ask little of you other than the willingness to have a hell of a good time whenever you get together? Personally, I find this approach to life to be mired in meaninglessness. But it also seems to be the wave of the future, at least in cities like my own.
The second and third reason why loyalty is on my mind this week comes from the world of celebrities. One of these celebrities is the basketball player formerly known as “King James.” You don’t hear that moniker used anymore for LeBron James. It went out the window last summer after he announced that he was leaving northeast Ohio for South Beach to win himself some championships with the help of two other superstars. LeBron is all over the sports pages this week because his team recently defeated the Boston Celtics and is now probably the slight favorite to win the Championship. If that happens, his Miami Heat will be the least popular champion in recent memory.
LeBron grew up in Akron, only a bike ride away from Cleveland, the city that drafted him into the NBA several years back. He took the Cavaliers to the NBA finals and to the best regular season record in the NBA, but he couldn’t take them to the NBA Title, and he clearly was reflecting on whether he had the supporting cast up there to reach the Promised Land. Last summer, LeBron became a free agent, and in an effort to bring him to their own cities, a number of teams paid tribute to him like he truly was the King. Loyalty would suggest that he listen to their offers, tell the owner of his hometown Cavs to bring in some other superstar athletes “or else …” and then presumably re-sign with a Cavaliers team that has been stuffed to the brim with talent. It is certainly hard to believe that the Cavs owner wouldn’t have done whatever was in his power to make that happen. In any event, being a modern fellow, LeBron eschewed the path of loyalty and left Ohio for a more temperate climate. He became, in short order, the most hated athlete in America today.
Frankly, I’m not sure that basketball fans would have denied him the right to bolt for Miami if he played his cards properly. It has become an accepted reality in sports that free agent athletes move on -- and do so for all sorts of reason. If LeBron had held a press conference, humbly apologized to his home town fans, and said simply that he has spent all his life in Northeast Ohio and wanted an opportunity in his mid-20s to live in a different place and play for a team that presents a whole new set of challenges, I don’t think anyone would have begrudged him that. Sure, he might get some boos from the Cleveland faithful when he went back home to play, but to everyone outside of Cleveland, he’d be treated like any other ballplayer in a free agent era. Only a slave doesn’t have a right to move to a different city and get a new start there.
LeBron’s problem was not his decision to go to Miami. It was the unbelievably insensitive and narcissistic way that he announced the decision … and then subsequently celebrated the announcement. It began with an hour long ESPN show, in which he essentially held himself out as more valuable than the Hope Diamond. In the solipsistic world of LeBron, it was as if all the universe was waiting to hear which planet the good Lord would endow with intelligent life … only in this case, LeBron played the role of the good Lord, and Miami played the role of our beloved Earth. He manifested no apparent concern for the city and fans of northeast Ohio. It’s as if a man left a fiancée without even leaving a goodbye letter. In fact, it came across more as a goodbye middle finger when LeBron showed up in Miami, stood on the stage with the two other superstars he would be joining, and strutted about like Gulliver in Lilliputia. Strike that – it wasn’t Miami that LeBron was treating like Lilliputia, but Cleveland. Truly, that was LeBron’s message to the folks back home: he enjoyed his time in Lilliputia, but he and his superstar buddies needed to get on with their lives. If ever you needed to see what disloyalty tasted like, this was it.
Fast forward to this past week, and you will have heard LeBron, for the first time, utter the words “I apologize” in reference to “the decision.” Clearly, he wasn’t apologizing for choosing the Heat but for the way he did it. To be sure, his apology lasted perhaps ten seconds, if not less, but you could feel that LeBron may now actually recognize what he had done. It’s one thing to be disloyal. It’s another to pee all over the concept of loyalty. Even in the modern world, that concept still means something.
Which brings me to yet another celebrity, the one and only Newt Gingrich.
Readers of this blog realize that I devote very little time to lambasting prominent Republicans. I leave that to the more moderate Republicans to clean up their own Party. My concern is primarily with fellow Democrats who don’t seem to live up to my own Party’s standards, at least as I would define them.
When it comes to Newt, however, I find it irresistible to point out the extent of his chutzpah. Here’s a serial philanderer who was attempting to remove a President from office for … philandering. He famously came to his first wife’s hospital room after she was recovering from surgery in an attempt to procure her consent to a divorce. Then, he reportedly left his second wife … for his third. And yet, he never stopped talking about his commitment to “Judeo-Christian” ethics. Newt is a man who has treated women like tomatoes in a grocery store and treated the Bible like a joke book. And now, despite all that, he is seeking the opportunity to serve as the world’s most powerful person. Is anyone crazy enough to take this guy seriously?
A day or two after Newt announced his candidacy for President, Peggy Noonan, the old Reagan speech writer, appeared on Morning Joe. Unlike Newt, Noonan apparently knows her Biblical commandments. And like a good disciple of the Gipper, Noonan honors what Reagan termed the 11th Commandment: “Thou Shalt Not Criticize Thy Fellow Republican.” So when Noonan was asked to comment on Newt’s candidacy, she waxed eloquent about how America just might be able to get past its obsession with politicians’ private lives and elect people who have the most to offer in their public capacities.
Excuse me? Does anyone think that Newt’s character is being attacked because of his private life? All I know is that if you look up “hypocrisy” in the dictionary, you’ll see Newt’s picture, and if you look up “salamander” in the dictionary, you see a newt’s picture … and gradually, these two pictures and these two words begin to blend together. At least they do for me. The insane thing is that Newt apparently doesn’t get it. He doesn’t understand that he has been disloyal in two very different ways – first, to his multiple ex-wives, and more importantly, to his moral obligation to practice what he preaches … if he wants to represent the United States of America as its President.
Noonan is correct that we as a nation indeed may be able to handle a philandering President – particularly given how many of us are growing tolerant with philandering. What we can’t handle is an anti-philandering crusader who is also a philanderer. We expect those among us who are disloyal like us to be humble and quiet about their disloyalties. That’s why we dislike LeBron – he forgot that loyalty was even an issue any more.
Oh, it’s an issue. And the more that we as a society forget about it, the more we surely will realize that we are giving up something quite profound in our ongoing pursuit of absolute autonomy. Personally, I think of loyalty much like the other classical virtues that Aristotle discussed so powerfully in his Ethics. Like courage and temperance, we think of loyalty as a virtue because generally, we would like to see more of it than we do. But like the other virtues, it is possible to have too much of it. With too much courage, you get foolhardiness. With too much temperance, you get asceticism. With too much loyalty, you get stubbornness, closed-mindedness, and antiquated thought. But at least you don’t get moral relativism. Or absolute narcissism. Trust me – they are no bargain either.