Loyalty, How Quaint

The timeless importance of an old quality

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review

Vol. 55, Iss. 22

Even in our postmodern age 19th-century ideas like patriotism, loyalty, and treason still cause controversy. The recent news that some Arab-American and Islamic translators and chaplains at the military prison at Guantanamo Bay were either openly sympathetic to their captives or direct conduits to terrorist organizations in the Middle East might seem like an open-and-shut case of treason. And such perfidy is unfortunately not a new development in this current war. There were also citizens of the United States-most prominently John Walker Lindh-fighting for the Taliban and several dozen more Americans organizing terrorist cells here at home. Posters proclaiming “Bomb Texas, not Iraq”-along with speakers equating the United States with Nazi Germany while praising North Korea and Cuba-were not uncommon during televised peace marches on the eve of the Iraq campaign. A mere two years ago, on Halloween night 2001, only a few weeks after 9/11, the New Black Panther party and assorted Islamic clerics in America-Imam Abdul Alim Musa, Imam Mohammed Asi, Imam Abdel Razzag al-Raggad, and others of the various mosques in the Washington, D.C., area-cheered on the Taliban, venting racist, anti-Semitic (and subversive) propaganda in a time of war, and showed themselves somewhat pleased at the deaths of thousands of Americans. It was all broadcast live from the National Press Club.


Yet Americans of the present age are uneasy with such an absolutist idea as “traitors” who are “disloyal” to the United States. Of course, we can accept as treasonous a rogue FBI agent who is caught on tape selling secrets to the Soviets; but barring such brazen acts we find issues of loyalty more nebulous and not so clear-cut, and thus are hesitant to tell anyone what to do or think.

Part of our problem with “treason” is the age-old ambiguous nature of individualism within Western society. We mavericks feel little unease about leaving an employer, organization, or community when new allegiances so often promise us greater satisfaction and material benefits. Sometimes there is nothing intrinsically wrong with such a transitory lifestyle that certainly leads to upward mobility; but the dividends of personal freedom and affluence also can promote a shallow and smug self-absorption in which thousands of private agendas rebel at the claims of the state’s own. It is almost as if individual Westerners believe liberty-the freedom to work, earn, go, do what they please when they please-is their automatic and assured birthright, an entirely natural occurrence owing nothing to the culture and countries that alone guarantee political freedom’s rare existence.

This modern unease with proclaiming allegiance to the state over one’s associates was best captured by the novelist E. M. Forster’s oft-quoted remark during the nightmare years of Nazi ascendance. “I hate the idea of causes,” he wrote, “and if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” One wonders about what Mr. Forster’s life and work would have been like had he lived with his friends in a Nazi-occupied Great Britain. Such a promotion of rights over responsibilities is a long way from the carefully delineated path that Socrates walked between the dilemma of conflicting loyalties to the polis and to an individual’s sense of morality. While the old battle-veteran bravely chose not to renounce his own views when bullied by the democratic jurors at Athens, he also reminds us in the Crito that the citizen of a consensual society does not have the right to ignore or break the laws simply because he has found them inconvenient to his own ideology or political position. In fact, the manner in which Socrates confronts his accusers and awaits his execution is really quite conservative. His is a sort of patriotic non-violent martyrdom that does not destroy the fabric of legality, but seeks instead by the ultimate sacrifice to admonish-or better yet, shame-wayward citizens to be as good as the ideals of their own government.

The specter of Vietnam and Watergate also played a role in the modern American erosion of the notion of loyalty to country. During the 1960s we ignored the nuanced lesson of Socrates, and thus wrongly conflated the pathology of blind devotion to our elected leaders with something inherently wrong with the United States itself-as if Socrates’ Athens, not weak Athenians, was the problem. Thus we were relentlessly admonished about the pernicious wages of “loyalty”-as if the problem perhaps was too much, or the wrong kind of, patriotism per se, rather than the abuse of it by a few isolated apparatchiks. Two of the most infamous lines of that era, after all, were Lyndon Johnson’s braggadocio about the need for a trustworthy assistant (“I want his pecker in my pocket”), and Charles Colson’s purported brag that he was “prepared to walk over [his] grandmother” for Nixon.

The excesses of Vietnam and Watergate were wrongly chalked up not just to a rather paranoid Johnson or Nixon, but to a pervasive faith in government itself. America of the 1960s had not gotten over the recent hysteria about “loyalty oaths,” Hollywood Communist inquiries, and McCarthyism, and it could not really accept that the well-educated and idealistic Rosenbergs and Alger Hiss had been abject traitors. Indeed, a Charles Colson was seen as more of a threat to the republic than Jane Fonda, who actively sought an enemy victory and broadcast Communist propaganda to American troops in the field. The former was rightly jailed, the latter wrongly excused or even praised.

There have also been other contemporary ideological force-multipliers that helped to undermine the ideas of both “loyalty” and its antithesis “treason.” Multiculturalism-or the contemporary fad that no one culture inherently is any better than, or deserves to be privileged over, another-has made it hard to express faith in the United States as a singular country worthy of devotion and sacrifice. Inherent in the great addresses of a Pericles, Lincoln, or Churchill were appeals to citizens to ponder the beauties and values of their own civilization. Listeners were instructed to realize how lucky they were to live under such liberal regimes, and then asked to pledge in their private lives to protect and improve the commonwealth. In contrast, sometime in the 1960s and 1970s, frustrated by the slowness of progress on civil rights, furious over lingering economic disparity, and mired in shame about past abuses, our elites jettisoned the old American ideal of a melting-pot, multiracial society united by one culture. America was instead to be replaced with the romance of the salad bowl: Different ethnic and racial groups were to maintain their own core cultures as if they could still somehow in spirit remain full citizens of one country.


In one of the most paradoxical developments in American history, idealists on the left somehow convinced millions that America really was at heart a tribal society of white, male capitalists, whose easily caricatured literature and values reflected just those parochial interests. Under this revisionism the West went from a culture of universal ideals, blind to the particular circumstances of its adherents, to the property of a particular race (white), from a particular place (Europe). And from that distortion, it was an easy step to idealize the “Other” in similarly tribal terms-a Che, Fidel, Ho, or Mao offered “alternative discourses” that did not have to be adjudicated by traditional logic, morality, or practicality. No, their dogmas could be declared equally legitimate or even superior on the basis that they were from the Third World and of purportedly non-Western pedigrees.

Race, ethnicity, and national origin excused totalitarianism and outright genocide in Latin America, Southeast Asia, and China. We feel the aftershocks of multiculturalism even today, from the ridiculous to the sublime-as students in California of Mexican heritage often attend segregated graduation ceremonies predicated on race at state-funded universities, while we award literary prizes to “African-American novelists” or “Native American poets” rather than simply to talented Americans who chose to write about the particular background and landscape they know best. Indeed one of the most disturbing symptoms of multiculturalism run amok showed itself during the recent California recall election, which witnessed the calculated metamorphosis of the once centrist and popular Cruz Bustamante into a shrill tribalist of the first order. Most Californians cringed-but kept silent-at his acceptance of illegal donations from the Indian gaming industry that had hired his brother, his advocacy for driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants from Mexico, his failure to denounce a MEChA manifesto that talked of “a bronze state for a bronze people,” and his later campaign commercials and whipped-up appearances before almost exclusively Latino audiences.

Relativism, and its twin Utopian perfectionism, also make us uneasy with the idea of national unity and loyalty. These modern Sirens hypnotically whisper to us that since we cannot be 100 percent perfect, why even try? Who, after all, possesses enough morality, wisdom, or legitimate authority to promote “loyalty”-loyalty to what, to whom, when, where, and under what circumstances? We often quote Samuel Johnson’s famous warning that “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel”-but fail to note both that Johnson was talking specifically about false patriotism, and that elsewhere, on at least a half-dozen occasions, he praised both the patriot and the necessity of loyalty to one’s country.

Critical to this cynicism is the reductio ad absurdum, where the extreme and rare case is cited first, not last-and as the primary, not the last-resort, reason to deprecate loyalty: “How can I support a country that promotes racism? A military that bombs children? A president that was not really elected?” And when deliberately targeting civilians in a time of peace is simplistically equated to injuring civilians while bombing enemy soldiers during war-death being the common denominator that trumps all considerations of circumstance, chance, intent, and result-how can I pledge my support to America in Afghanistan? The relativist further proclaims “Not in my name” to armed defense, but still expects that same government to ensure that hijacked airliners do not vaporize him at work. Yet loyalty demands confidence in some ability of the state to determine right and wrong, which is then the fountainhead for requisite action under difficult circumstances. It is always easier to slur unabashed loyalists as unthinking Neanderthals (conjuring up Vietnam-era slogans like “My country right or wrong”) than to identify those who are sophisticated and disloyal as simple traitors.

Historical revision has done its part as well in destroying the old virtue of national loyalty. If we teach our youth that World War II was mostly the Japanese internment camps (never mentioning the context of a liberal governor and president, hand-in-glove, panicking amid wartime hysteria) and Hiroshima (always apart from the fear of a blood-bath when hitting the shores of the Japanese mainland)-while ignoring the Rape of Nanking, Guadalcanal, or MacArthur’s postbellum creation of a liberal Japanese society-then how can the citizen look to the past to galvanize his confidence in the present?

Yet to the classical mind it was never a question of whether an Athenian or Roman was free from error. Rather the only rub was whether his country was at least better than the alternative. For example, how often do American schools really discuss the debate over women’s rights or integrating the military after World War II in the context of how much worse the world outside the United States was at the time? Do we remind our students of the horrendous and bloody landscape between 1930 and 1950 beyond our shores-the mass murdering of races and religions in fascist Europe and Japan, the millions butchered in the Soviet Union and China, the tribal butchery and mayhem in Africa and India, and the iron-clad rule of dictators in Latin America? If one is taught, instead, that the United States has been the prime historical nexus of gender, race, and class pathology, then why should one feel any loyalty to it in the here and now?

Finally, the most recent manifestation of internationalism has done its part to contribute to the demise of loyalty and patriotism. This idea of being a citizen not of the United States but “of the world” is, of course, age-old in the West-a common enough, even trite, line from Socrates to Kant. But recent developments have elevated the concept from philosophical speculation to a common tenet of our growing therapeutic culture, as unquestioned as UNICEF cards, Nobel Peace Prize-winning opportunists, and cuddly banalities from a Kofi Annan.

Globalization now unites us with instant communications, from cell phones to the Internet. Its universal taste of blue jeans, T-shirts, and sunglasses makes us superficially identical through a universal fashion. And billions share the same predilections in film, music, and television. This homogeneity, of course, appears to break down more fundamental national differences-but in such a superficial way that only the naive could think that because Mohamed Atta looked Western, lived in Germany, and attended a European university he surely would not mutter Koranic verses like a primordial jihadist as he rammed a jetliner into the World Trade Center.

The demise of the Soviet Union was another event that gave far too many elites the idea that the end of history really was on the horizon-as if disparate, but now mesmerized, tribes of the world would almost unconsciously ape the consumer capitalism and democracy of the West. For Europeans the disappearance of some 300 Soviet divisions on their borders persuaded many that the old international institutions-the U.N. particularly-that had long ago arisen from the ashes of World War II only to be subverted by the Soviet bloc could now at last fulfill their original liberal and dreamy intent.

Lost in all of this naivete was any cold empirical reckoning that would have reminded us that an elected U.S. president and Congress, constrained by an independent judiciary and an ironclad Constitution, were far better protectors of human rights and national security than a U.N. Security Council that was captive to a Chinese veto, or a U.N. General Assembly that included such brutal regimes as those of Zimbabwe and Libya. For the American who professes loyalty to the United Nations rather than the United States, a certain number of beliefs are required, among them the following: that Kosovo, Bosnia, and Rwanda were not preventable; that the sole democracy in the Middle East-Israel-really deserves to be targeted by over 50 percent of all U.N. condemnatory resolutions; and that U.N. peacekeepers are subject to a higher military code of conduct than the U.S. Marine Corps.


Does the insidious erosion of national loyalty in our country really matter? It does, because on a variety of levels patriotism is the only glue that holds a diverse people together, especially during a war. We should remember that a liberal state is rare in civilization’s history. Far more common has been the rule of the tribe or clan, to which individuals proclaim natural allegiance and then do not extend notions of justice to those outside their immediate kin group. In some sense, we have been plagued by just that kind of chaos in the Middle East-among tribal societies bound by first-cousin marriages and religious fanaticism, without any belief that the idea of “Afghanistan” or “Iraq” should transcend more immediate relationships with the family, local mullah, or ethnic enclaves. Contrast that separatism with Italian-, German-, and Japanese-Americans who fought their former fatherlands in World War II, John F. Kennedy’s declaration that his Catholicism was secondary to his Americanism, or the new political career of the immigrant Arnold Schwarzenegger that will put him ideologically at odds with dozens of his own in-laws.

The greatest advocates of the liberal state always sought to subordinate familial, ethnic, racial, and geographical loyalties-from the Athenian reformer Cleisthenes, who tried to diminish tribal affiliations at Athens, to our own Founders, who sought to craft government that would transcend the chauvinism of the local clique. To understand why a much smaller, much poorer United States could tragically send thousands to their deaths in the air over Schweinfurt, on the ground at Sugar Loaf Hill, and at sea on creaky tankers in the mid Atlantic-and has worked itself into a near national hysteria over battling enemies in Afghanistan and Iraq far less impressive than the Waffen SS or the kamikazes-we might take note of the last half-century of pernicious ideologies and mentalities that privileged self and tribe over the general interest of the state.

So we have forgotten the tenuousness of our own great experiment: Of all of civilization’s rare nation-states, the United States was by far the most extraordinary and ambitious in its efforts to forge one people from so many diverse backgrounds and heritages. We alone have tried to elevate a common adherence to a constitution and its ideals over primary loyalties to diverse religions, races, and ethnicities-to such a degree that it is impossible to determine how a typical American even looks or worships.

But if we in America-either from the prejudices of the ignorant or the cynicism of the elite and educated-decide that the United States is not, and should not be, different from other countries (and is surely no better), then there is no intrinsic reason why any of us would wish to sacrifice anything on its behalf. And if we feel that our personal rights are exclusively our own, why feel any responsibility to a consensual state that is supposedly neither creator nor guarantor of our freedom? If and when we reach that point of abject cynicism-and many equally impressive consensual societies have, whether Athens in 338 B.C., Rome around the mid-5th century A.D., Venice in the 17th century, or France in spring 1940-then there is also no historical reason why we should continue to exist as a nation. And indeed at that point we will most certainly not.

©2004 Victor Davis Hanson

Share This