By Denny Wilkins
We are at war with information. We are continually assaulted by misinformation, disinformation, and reality-based information in amounts the human brain is ill equipped to accept, sort, analyze, and convert into knowledge. Right now, it seems all our addled brains can do in the face of a media pandemic is choose sides.
Whom do we support? Joe Rogan and Spotify? Or Neil Young and Joni Mitchell and the artists sure to follow in yanking their music off Spotify?
Whom do we support? Donald Trump and his 30,000 false and misleading claims — i.e., lies — during his term as president? Or do we support the fact-based reporting of journalists of long standing and experience?
Do we support Republicans? Or Democrats? Do we support authoritarians or practitioners of democracy? Are we New York Knicks fans? Or Brooklyn Nets fans?
In virtually all walks of life, we choose sides. What we may not realize is we are undergoing tests of loyalty.
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As I age, I increasingly ponder loyalty. Most of us, I suspect, have a too simplistic understanding of loyalty. Perhaps it’s a vague feeling we’d crawl through burning oil and run across broken glass because the person to whom we are loyal needs it. And that person never asks; we merely give unreservedly.
Lately, however, loyalty I have awarded (given? allowed? presented? What is the word that best represents bestowal of loyalty?) has been strained. Is it because I have come to expect something in return? A little quid pro quo? If that attitude has emerged in me, I am saddened. But it has. I am human: I have done for others without marked compensation or gratitude for so long … but now, am I finally seeking a little sugar for my faithful attention?
After all, what has Spotify done for me? Have Neil Young and Joni Mitchell done more? What’s in this choice for me?
Loyalty, for me, had always been freely given with no expectation of reciprocity. Either in an instant, or over time, I had become loyal to you. You owed me naught. But 80 years old is no longer a distant horizon. Has the erosion of physical ability or the emergence of emotional and intellectual insecurity altered that equation? Do I now need something, somehow, from an individual or institution that has received unqualified, unquestioned loyalty from me? What’s in this exchange for me?
A half a century ago, a friend sent me a telegram from half a continent away. “I need help,” it said. I replied: “En route.” I fired up my old LandCruiser and drove 1,800 miles through winter’s wrath to get to him. Loyalty? Obligation? Duty? All, perhaps. But if that same friend asked today, would I? No. The loyalty, the obligation, the duty have faded. Why? My friend went his way; I went mine. Connections frayed. Neither of us is to blame; life connects and disconnects. My adoration for the Celtics of Bill Russell, John Havlicek, Larry Bird, and Kevin McHale has faded as the Celts’ playoff runs have fallen into obscurity. What have they done for me lately?
Usually, when young, we begin life with numerous connections. Friends galore: Hale many fellows, well met. After my discommodious departure from a university eons ago, I returned for a weekend visit the following autumn with a list of 50 names. By the following spring, only three names remained. Today, one is left. When she calls, and she has, I text: “En route.” Without question; without animus; rather, with the compulsion of love.
Loyalty given young can last until … well, death. But loyalty, while deep, can be fragile. Often, it cannot bear the weight of passing time. Or the reality of facts painfully learned.
Loyalty might be born in the fire of anger (e.g., Trump’s MAGA base). I find it difficult to hate (but rather easy to be irritated). But two decades ago, I met a man who so frequently angered me I grew to hate him. Time eased that. Today, my loyalty to that person is unshakeable. But, I think, unlike the blind award of loyalty by one person to another, this differed. He contributed to the exchange. He made the bestowal of loyalty possible because his award was congruent with mine.
The list of people (and institutions; I am no longer loyal to today’s feckless Democrats) to whom I am loyal has dwindled. But the ferocity of the loyalty I retain for those remaining few has not dimmed.
Why? I do not know. I have only questions.
Is the bestowal of loyalty a form of received wisdom? Did our teachers, parents, and clerics teach us that loyalty is a virtue and ought to be freely given without question? (Hell, that attitude died when at age 12 I kissed Charlotte and she told all her friends it was awful.)
Should I bestow loyalty to my country without question, even to the point of shouldering arms and killing for it because a civilian leader says I must? Many do. They fight and often die. We honor them when they return, often wounded, often dead.
Should I bestow loyalty to an idea in the weight of overwhelming evidence that the idea is wrong? Pick your poison here: Creationism, intelligent design, a 6,000-year-old Earth, a flat earth, various alleged causes of autism, the claims global climate disruption does not exist, and so on. The reverse is true: How steadfast should my loyalty be to those who believe anything on that list? Loyalty can be as blind as it is deep.
Should I remain loyal to a president whose deeds belie his words? Nixon, Reagan, either Bush, Clinton, Obama? Trump? (“I am not a crook.” “I did not have sex with that woman.”) Humans are fallible, particularly political men (and women, e.g., Marjorie Taylor Greene). I am an American. I remain loyal to a Constitution, however flawed it may be, that determines my rights and responsibilities as a citizen. But I am not compelled to bestow loyalty to those whose fealty to oath of office to that Constitution is flawed.
Should I remain loyal to the men and women in the three branches of that government who have, I believe, shown more loyalty to service to the electorate — and me? Yes. But, to be blunt, no effing way must I be loyal to the politicians who ordered those service men and women into harm’s way with little possibility of “victory.” How little loyalty such civilian leaders have shown them — and the larger us.
Edward Snowden is an American. Many call him a traitor. How should we measure his loyalty? To the rule of law? Or to the spirit of the Constitution, which compels citizens to continually question those who govern the governed?
Loyalty, as I age, is fast moving into a tie with love as the most confusing of human values. That the two — loyalty and love — have indistinguishably commingled both comforts and vexes me.
No words of analysis live here, only a compounding confusion. I treasure loyalty; I reward it; but I … damn it … increasingly feel the need to be rewarded for it. It is selfish, but is it understandable? And is it forgivable?
Screw the Yankees. I’ll always stick with my beloved Red Sox.
Denny Wilkins is a professor in the Jandoli School of Communication at St. Bonaventure University.