Tags: Conflict | Loyalties

A Conflict of Loyalties

Tuesday, 10 June 2003 12:00 AM

What do Linda Tripp, Elia Kazan and G. Gordon Liddy have in common? At first glance, one would say “nothing.”

Tripp “betrayed” her friend Monica Lewinsky by taping their phone conversations. Kazan “named names” to a congressional committee investigating Communists in Hollywood. Liddy “hung tough” and refused to talk about his associates in the Watergate burglary and, as a result, served five years in federal prison.

The tape-recording friend, the anti-Communist film director and the conservative talk show host seem an unlikely trio. But they have something important in common.

They each faced a question of conflicting loyalties: To what and to whom am I loyal, and which takes precedence?

This difficult question is not faced by everyone. Some are lucky enough not to have loyalties that conflict, so they never have to make a difficult choice between them. And others have no loyalty to anyone or anything, so the question never arises.

But some of us have the good fortune to have strong loyalties, but the misfortune to have them conflict. What then?

We must ask ourselves: What is my highest loyalty?

This question was asked by Col. Klaus von Stauffenberg, who had lost an eye, his right hand and two fingers of his left hand in World War II. No one could doubt his courage or his loyalty to Germany. But he had a higher loyalty that required him to risk his life again, by using his three remaining fingers to place a bomb near Hitler.

Hitler survived; Stauffenberg was shot. We consider him a heroic martyr motivated by religious faith. The Nazis considered him a treacherous backstabber.

Evil as monstrous as Hitler’s is rare, so the choice between doing what’s right and standing by one’s associates is rarely so clear. The choices we make will be less clear and less historic. But our choices define who we are, just as Stauffenberg defined who he was.

Motives are hard to assess; they are often mixed or subconscious.

Was Tripp’s motive to reveal wrongdoing in the White House, or to get back at those who publicly called her a liar?

Was Kazan’s motive to reveal Communist influence on movies, or to further his career?

Was Liddy’s motive to avoid implicating the Nixon administration, or to prove his machismo?

Was Stauffenberg’s motive to kill Hitler because he was evil, or because he was losing the war? We can’t be sure. All we can do is praise Stauffenberg for giving his life while trying to kill a monster. All we can do is assess the action.

What, after all, is loyalty?

To a third-grader it’s not telling the teacher when classmates do something naughty. To a criminal it’s not “ratting out” his partners. To a married person it’s being true to a spouse. To a soldier it’s sticking by his buddies. To a public official it’s not betraying his oath to the Constitution. To a scientist it’s stating the truth. To a religious person it’s following God’s commandments.

An important step is to divide loyalty into personal and public spheres. In personal life, we all value loyalty. We hope our family and friends will stand by us no matter what.

But in public life, we expect a different type of loyalty. An official who doesn’t report corrupt associates is voted out of office or sent to jail. A soldier who doesn’t report a massacre of civilians is court-martialed.

The conflict often is not between loyalty and disloyalty, but between two different types of loyalty. It remains for us to decide which we believe is more important.

G. Gordon Liddy is a man I would value highly as a friend. If al-Qaeda were coming to visit, I would have no doubt that Liddy would stick by me, despite the danger. But I’m relieved he’s no longer in government. He allowed personal loyalty to overcome the higher loyalty needed to assure that government does not become corrupt or tyrannical.

Elia Kazan exposed supporters of a totalitarian regime that murdered millions of innocent people. Linda Tripp revealed wrongdoing at the highest levels of government. Both performed a valuable public service, but I would want neither as a friend.

There are many examples of conflicting or misplaced loyalties.

Consider young people who remain loyal to gangs, despite brutal crimes.

Consider battered women who remain loyal to partners, despite continued abuse. Consider environmentalists who remain loyal to their movement, despite repeated exaggerations – from Alar in apples to second-hand smoke to global warming.

Consider animal rights activists who remain loyal to PETA, despite its equating roasting chickens to incinerating Jews in the Holocaust.

Consider clergy who conceal abusive colleagues, placing loyalty to the church above loyalty to the One Whose church it is.

Consider Democrats who remain loyal to their party, despite repeated destructive words and actions during a war, to the point of siding with the enemy.

Consider Republicans who remain loyal to their party, despite repeated increases in federal spending and power that may (or may not) be needed in the war on terrorism.

Consider the growing numbers of single mothers, who lack a husband and may give all their loyalty to the government – and regard it as protector and provider. This explains the “gender gap.” Married women vote Republican as often as men do.

Consider those who remain loyal to Marxism, despite all its failures. They even quote Lenin’s excuse for mass murder: “You have to break eggs to make an omelet.” If Marxists were cooks, they’d all be fired – they broke millions of eggs, but made very few omelets.

People should consider whether their true loyalty lies with criminal gangs, abusive partners, dishonest politicians and various “isms” – or with a higher concept of what a human being and a nation should be. But many people don’t stop to consider anything at all. They merely stay loyal out of habit.

In an ideal world, we wouldn’t be forced to choose between conflicting loyalties. But in this world, we may have to make such choices. We probably will never be in the position of Col. von Stauffenberg, but it is likely that we will have to make less historic choices.

In making these choices, it is insufficient to use the judgment of a third-grader and simply refuse to “tattle” no matter how serious the wrongdoing. But it is equally inadequate to use phony self-righteousness as an excuse to abandon associates for our own convenience. Loyalty is too important to be trivialized in either direction.

We must decide whether our loyalty to persons or groups is trumped by a higher loyalty. That is, we must decide to what or to whom – or to Whom – we will be loyal if put to the test.

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What do Linda Tripp, Elia Kazan and G. Gordon Liddy have in common?At first glance, one would say "nothing." Tripp "betrayed" her friend Monica Lewinsky by taping their phone conversations.Kazan "named names" to a congressional committee investigating Communists in...
Tuesday, 10 June 2003 12:00 AM
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