On Loyalty and Its Dangers

Last night I checked the New York Times and saw that they were livestreaming the Congressional debate over the certification of the Electoral College results. I started watching and then realized that some students, particularly in my eleventh-grade American Civilization classes, might be interested, so I posted a link on Google Classroom. When I returned to the livestream, it was no longer going on; there was uproar in the hall and loud noises coming from outside. Lawmakers were huddling on the floor or hurrying out. Then sounds of crashing and yelling, rioters bursting into the room. It was probably the strangest event that I had watched live on TV or through streaming. A debate and then, suddenly, a broken debate.

There is little to say about it that hasn’t already been said; I watched for a couple more hours on ABC News; nothing seemed to happen but more and more chaos, Republican rebukes, a bizarre video from Trump, people scaling the walls of the Capitol. Finally the police and Secret Services managed to clear the rioters out of the building. In the morning I tuned in again to see that the certification process had resumed. Within an hour or two, it was complete, and Biden’s victory had been officially accepted by Congress. But the tumult isn’t over; for one thing, it has to be dealt with in many different ways, and for another, it could resume.

I don’t know whether any of my Civilization students tuned in–we meet just once a week–but if they did, right then, the sight must have been surreal: first democracy in action, then mobs.

Plato was right that democracy runs the risk or encouraging selfishness and self-satisfaction. But that is part of the reason why the Constitution was written so carefully, why so many procedures and checks and balances were set in place. The unwieldy structures and processes of U.S. representative democracy are supposed to prevent and restrain extremism of various kinds. What, then, has gone wrong?

This question has been discussed endlessly–but one word that kept coming up in the news interviews was “loyalty”: the idea that the rioters felt loyalty to Trump and were doing this largely out of loyalty, because he had incited them toward it. As someone mentioned, he himself classifies people terms of loyalty: who is loyal to him–that is, never criticizes him–and who is not.

A certain kind of loyalty can destroy a government, a relationship, an institution. It is the loyalty that usurps integrity and ethics, that goes on reckless attack, that gives up anything just to prove itself again and again. This loyalty comes with a thrill: of imagined belonging, acceptance, revenge. It is horrifying but not far away. Probably each of us has known a speck of it at some point in our lives, either in ourselves or in those close to us. The one who doesn’t dare say anything critical about so-and-so, because that would be unloyal.

No one teaches this in school, except through literature and history. There is a virtuous loyalty that has room for criticism. There’s a kind of patient, rugged loyalty that does not lose its mind. But there’s another kind that tries to rid itself of mind, because thinking seems like treason itself. This can happen on the right and on the left. It can happen outside of politics. It is only a fraction of what was happening yesterday in DC, of what has been happening in the U.S. and around the world. It falls far short of explaining everything. But for what it holds, it is worth bearing in mind. Its ruins have no end. The burdens of the mind are light compared to this.

I took the above photo yesterday afternoon from inside Szolnok’s Holocaust memorial. I did not intend any sort of connection between the Holocaust and what happened yesterday. They are profoundly different and should not be trivialized through comparison. But it occurs to me now that a dangerous kind of loyalty runs through both.