Loyalty and leadership
0 comment Wednesday, December 3, 2014 |
Too much loyalty, or too little?
It seems that loyalty is at the core of much of what is wrong with America today. In some ways we have far too much of it and in some ways we are lacking in it. Or we have the wrong kind of loyalty, to the wrong people, and are deficient in it where it is most needed.
I have been thinking of this in connection with the current political situation, and the woeful choices being presented to us in this election, but this problem is widespread and has a bearing on many aspects of our lives.
The most pressing misapplication of loyalty is of the 'vertical loyalty' in which people seem to look for some kind of charismatic man on a horse to put the world to rights for them. We need only look at the example of Barack Obama and the bizarre cult surrounding him: women swooning at his public appearances, and people reacting as they would at a fervid prayer-meeting or revival instead of at a political rally.
A disturbing number of Republicans are also showing signs of being drawn into the Obama admiration society. Any perceptive and honest person can guess at the reasons for this.
The more common problem among 'conservatives' at this time is not the unthinking 'vertical loyalty' to a slick leader, but to the Republican Party, coupled with the flip side, a rather exaggerated fear of the opposing party. Is this a 'horizontal loyalty', loyalty to a group of people or is it just a loyalty to the brand name of the GOP and what it purports to stand for? I would say it's more the latter.
Lacking on both sides of the political aisle is sufficient horizontal loyalty towards one's people, and I would say our loyalty to our own stretches not just laterally to our contemporaries but backward and forward in time, encompassing our ancestors and our future progeny. We see far too little concern for this; there is too much orientation to the present with little thought for the future. Since we have become a materialistic people with a dwindling belief in things eternal, in the old verities, we naturally tend to neglect the long-range prospects for our people.
Why have we come to have so little 'horizontal loyalty' to our own? There is no simple one-sentence answer but obviously there has been a long-term effort to undermine this natural feeling of kinship. Divide and rule has been an effective strategy and our country with its tradition of welcoming in people from far-flung countries was susceptible to having its very core identity and essence assailed by means of immigration from incompatible peoples.
I think it's too easy to blame 'the liberals' for much of this; in so doing, many Republicans and conservatives absolve themselves of any complicity in it, when in fact they have acquiesced if not actively participated in the divide-and-rule process.
As it stands, we are now divided many ways, based, most obviously, on race and ancestry, then along religious lines (atheists vs. Christians, other religions vs. Christians, Christians among themselves), as well as sex/gender lines, class lines, regional loyalties, and of course politics. The first and the last categories seem to engender the most bitter and intractable conflicts.
Al Gore appears to have been unwittingly accurate when he mistranslated 'E Pluribus Unum' as 'out of one, many.'
So, lacking the normal and healthy quantum of lateral or horizontal loyalty among ourselves, we substitute vertical loyalty, and tend to submit to the powerful at the top, whether a charismatic individual in whom we invest our allegiance, or whether we make The Party the be-all and the end-all and bow our knee to the party powers-that-be.
Some people, of course, devote most of their loyalty to a religious system or hierarchy, with some systems being more authoritarian than others.
As a Christian I believe that God alone merits that kind of total submission, not any human being or system. Any absolute faith in or devotion to a human being or a man-made philosophy or institution is just misplaced and will lead to grief at some point. Patriotism can become a false religion when it crosses the line to unquestioning, blind faith in one's country.
Patriotism, party loyalty, loyalty to a religious system or ideology, all these have to be taught; they are not natural and innate in us, as is the bond to those close to us, to kin and kind.
It becomes a perplexing question: how is it that so many of us are willing or able to forego their "natural affections" in order to follow a leader or a political party or system which is actually inimical and destructive to their kin and kind? What is short-circuiting our natural affections and loyalties that enables this to happen?
Human beings do possess innate instincts for group loyalty and affinity; I am convinced of that. But human beings, being flawed as we are, can circumvent or bypass the natural inclinations in many ways. Maybe part of our fallen condition, in Christian terminology, is that we are malleable and suggestible. That's the whole story of Genesis 3, isn't it? The persuasive serpent in the garden, leading Eve astray -- aided by her cooperation.
We seem to have lost the discernment and the ability to distinguish truth from falsehood, genuine from counterfeit, and when discernment is lacking, people look for a leader they trust and like. This might also be blamed on moral laziness; people seem to find it too demanding these days to discern right and wrong, good and bad, for themselves, so it's tempting to look either for a ready-made guide, some system of thought or ideology, to decide for us what is good or bad, right or wrong. And some declare that there is no wrong or right, merely different 'narratives' and preferences.
But following a charismatic leader is tempting for some people, perhaps the people who are the most emotionally immature, and the people who have nothing else in which they have faith. The leader then becomes their guide and their authority; they need only follow, and follow blindly in too many cases. Then it seems that when a cult develops around an individual, that in-group satisfies their natural need for group identity and belonging, a need which in a normal society would be met by the natural bond of the group one is born into.
In a society which is becoming more fragmented by the day, more lacking in normal attachments, we are on a path to becoming more susceptible to charismatic seducers who then provide the sense of belonging, and the sense of purpose that is lacking.
Thomas Carlyle, who wrote so much about heroes and great men, wrote about the different kinds of heroes or 'great men', including the prophet, the poet, and the 'commander over men.'
Carlyle said of the last type, the King, that "He is practically the summary for us of all the various figures of heroism: Priest, Teacher, whatsoever of earthly or spiritual dignity we can fancy to reside in a man, embodies itself here, to command over us, to furnish us with constant practical teaching to tell us for the day and hour what we are to do."
Is it true of all of us that we need this kind of authoritarian figure to 'command over us' and 'tell us for the day and hour what we are to do'? I like to think this tendency to submit blindly to flesh and blood is a weakness and a flaw that is not common to all human beings, but there may be that tendency in all of us. However it seems to me that Americans are more prone to this kind of submissive followership now than in past eras. Our founding ancestors did not approve of this kind of cravenness in human nature. George Washington (whose birthday just passed, without the honor due) refused the offer to make him a king instead of our first President.
In the past I've lamented the lack of leadership in our day; we seem to live in an age of pygmies and eunuchs who nonetheless have courtiers bowing to them. But in the end maybe it's true that each age gets the leaders it deserves.
If we could rediscover our history and our sense of unity we might be better able to raise up leaders, competent and decent men among us, and above all, to have the discernment to recognize those who are truly fit for leadership. As it is, we are at risk to be exploited by the manipulators and demagogues who dominate our age.

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