The Limits of Loyalty

Is loyalty a virtue or a sin?  Does the world need more of it, or less?

Donald Trump, in a controversial speech to the Boy Scouts of America on Monday, endorsed the former in no uncertain terms, rambling to the gathering of thousands of teenage boys, “As the Scout Law says, ‘A scout is trustworthy, loyal’—we could use some more loyalty, I will tell you that.”

The subtext of this remark was clear enough to anyone paying attention to current events.  Throughout the past week, the president has been very publicly steaming about Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whom Trump feels betrayed him by recusing himself from the administration’s Russia imbroglio—and also, apparently, by not investigating Hillary Clinton for God knows what.  In an ongoing series of tweets, Trump has tarred Sessions as “beleaguered” and “VERY weak,” effectively goading him into resigning, lest the abuse continue indefinitely.

The implication—or explication, as the case may be—is that Sessions’s duty as America’s chief law enforcement officer is to protect Donald Trump from the law, not to defend the law against those who violate it, up to and including the commander-in-chief himself.  As Trump made plain in an interview with the New York Times, his hiring of Sessions was predicated on the AG serving the president—not the Constitution.

But then it’s not only Sessions who has found himself the object of Trump’s wrath on the question of absolute allegiance.  Let’s not forget James Comey, the former director of the FBI, who famously met with the president in January, when the latter said, point-blank, “I need loyalty; I expect loyalty.”  Comey’s eventual sacking—like Sessions’s, should it occur—was the result of being insufficiently faithful to the man in the Oval Office.  Of daring to think, and act, for himself.

As someone who has never been leader of the free world—nor, for that matter, held any position of real responsibility—I must confess that I remain skeptical about the value of unconditional submission in one’s day-to-day life and generally regard free agency as the far superior of the two virtues.  Indeed, I would argue (to answer my own question) that “virtue” might be altogether the wrong word to use in this context.

When thinking about loyalty, the question you must ask yourself is:  What, exactly, am I being loyal to?  Is it to a set of principles, or to another human being?  And if you are merely dedicating yourself to a person, what has he or she done to deserve it, and what, if anything, will you be getting in return?

Certainly, the spectacle of Trump demanding total fealty to Trump is the most extreme—and most cartoonish—manifestation of this latter category, since the president has shown minimal interest in reciprocating whatever devotion happens to come his way.  Except with members of his immediate family (so far, anyway), Trump’s modus operandi is to ask for everything and give nothing back.  Part and parcel of being a textbook sociopath, Trump views his fellow humans purely as a means to an end and rarely, if ever, stops to think how he might make their lives easier in the process.  It does not occur to him to treat people with respect for its own sake.  If anything, he views empathy as a sign of weakness.

This behavior may well represent an abuse and perversion of an otherwise useful human trait, but that hardly makes a difference when considering the enormous political power of the man doing the perverting.

Which brings us—by way of analogy—to Adolf Hitler.

In Germany, beginning in 1934, all members of the armed forces were required to swear a solemn oath—not to Germany, mind you, but to the man at the top.  This vow, or Reichswehreid, read, in part, “To the Leader of the German Empire and people, Adolf Hitler, supreme commander of the armed forces, I shall render unconditional obedience and […] at all times be prepared to give my life for this oath.”  As you might’ve guessed, soldiers who refused to comply tended not to live very long.

If that seems like an extreme and sui generis example of a personality cult run amok, let me remind you of the moment in March 2016 when, at a campaign rally in Florida, Donald Trump implored his adoring crowd to raise their right hands and pledge, “I do solemnly swear that I—no matter how I feel, no matter what the conditions, if there’s hurricanes or whatever—will vote […] for Donald J. Trump for president.”

While a stunt like that doesn’t exactly sink to the depths of the Hitler oath—Trump wasn’t about to jail or murder anyone who opted out—it is nonetheless a profoundly creepy thing for a presidential candidate in a democratic republic to say—particularly when you recall that Trump once reportedly kept an anthology of Hitler’s speeches at his bedside table.  This for a man who can otherwise go years without reading a single book.

That Trump evidently views Hitler as some sort of role model—and is haphazardly aping the Führer’s stylistic flourishes on the campaign trail—ought to give us serious pause about where his own fidelity lies—is it to the nation or himself?—and about whether his pronouncement at the Republican National Convention that he—and he alone—is capable of steering America forward was less an expression of supreme confidence than a barely-veiled threat against those who doubt that a serially-bankrupt con artist is the best man to preside over the largest economy in the world.

The problem, you see, is not that Trump is Hitler.  (He’s not.)  The problem is that he wants to be Hitler—and Mussolini and Saddam Hussein and Vladimir Putin and every other national figurehead who has managed to wield near-absolute authority over his citizenry—often with sarcastically high approval ratings and totally unburdened by the institutional checks and balances that America’s founders so brilliantly installed in 1787.

While Trump’s ultimate ambitions might not be as violent or imperial as those of the men I just listed—in the end, he seems to care about little beyond self-enrichment—the central lesson of the first six months of his administration—plus the first 71 years of his life—is that there is nothing he will not try to get away with at least once.  No sacred cow he will not trample.  No rule he will not bend.  No sin he will not commit.  He is a man of bottomless appetites and zero restraint.  Left to his own devices, he would spend his entire presidency arranging meetings—like the one with his cabinet last month—whose participants did nothing but praise him for being the greatest man in the history of the world.  A Kim Jong-un of the West.

Remember:  The sole reason Trump hasn’t already turned the United States into a full-blown banana republic is that he can’t.  Constitutionally-speaking, the only things stopping him from indulging his basest instincts are Congress, the courts and the American public, and we’ve seen how tenuous all three of those institutions can be.  Should the remaining branches of government fulfill their obligations as a check on executive overreach and malfeasance, we’ll be fine.  Should they falter—thereby providing Trump the untrammeled loyalty he demands—we’ll be in for the longest eight years of our lives.

Considering the Consequences

There has been considerable talk in recent weeks that the United States should consider boycotting the 2014 Olympic Games, to be held in Sochi, Russia.

Supporters of the idea contend that a boycott, if staged, would send a clear and urgent message to the world:  Russian President Vladimir Putin is a jerk.

While the fact of Putin’s jerkitude has been evident to all for quite some time, the most recent manifestation is the Russian Republic’s disturbing and consolidated effort to rid itself of public homosexuality, from putting down gay rights marches and locking up gay activists, to prohibiting gay foreign couples from adopting Russian children and instituting a law against “gay propaganda.”

None of these developments is good news for the democratic world, and may well deserve a response from the United States and any other country that takes pluralism and human rights seriously.

But an Olympic boycott?  Let us think this through.

I recently sat on a jury in a civil lawsuit.  The judge, upon sending us to the deliberations room, included in his official instructions that, should we rule in favor of the plaintiff, we were to award “damages” without considering the consequences of our decision.

For instance, if we concluded that the plaintiff had suffered $1 million worth of pain, we should not be deterred from ruling accordingly by the possibility that the defendant would be unable to pay it, or that the plaintiff would spend it unwisely.  Justice had to run its course.

The world of politics and diplomacy does not function in quite the same way.  Public officials tend to behave with the likely effects of their actions very much in mind, even if this means betraying core principles in the process.

Indeed, as a general rule, we can reasonably establish that a typical politician will act on principle if doing so will yield positive or neutral practical results, and will act against principle for the same reason, but will almost never willfully do the right thing if it produces the wrong outcome.

In pondering whether an Olympic boycott is a good idea, we must first decide whether we care about its consequences, and then ruminate on what those consequences might be.

We certainly have plenty of history to draw upon.

In 1980, the United States led an 80-nation boycott of the Summer Games in Moscow, to protest the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan the previous year.  (Some of the boycotting countries allowed their athletes to compete by marching under the Olympic Flag.)

In 1984, the Soviet Union returned the favor by orchestrating a boycott of the Games in Los Angeles, joined by numerous members of the Eastern Bloc and a handful of other countries as well.  While some participants of this boycott cited particular United States offenses as their justification—Iran, for instance, condemned American policy in the Middle East and Central America—the action was generally understood as simple retaliation for 1980.

For 2014, should we not concern ourselves with the possibility that today’s Russia will also not take an Olympic boycott sitting down?  That our act of principled belligerence will not yield an act of retaliatory belligerence that we might find distinctly unappealing?  That our well-intentioned scheming will not produce blowback and prove itself counterproductive in the long term?

Certainly, we can only speculate as to what President Putin might do in response to America withholding its athletes from Sochi.  What is more, even if Putin told us in advance precisely what he would do, we have reason to regard him as slightly less than a man of his word.

Should this make us more or less willing to throw caution to the wind and boycott away?  So long as we don’t know with any confidence where our actions might lead, is it not prudent to err on the side of the moral high ground?  How much are we prepared to gamble on the values we hold dear?

The reason this is a difficult quandary is because, as we know, the answer to that last question is, “A whole lot.”  What makes the United States different from, and superior to, many other countries is that we will preserve, protect and defend—sometimes to the death—the characteristics that make us great in the first place.  Included among these is the right—nay, the duty—to register one’s displeasure when others fail to do so.

The trouble is that sometimes the best way to ensure justice in the long term is to tolerate injustice in the short—a fact that is of little comfort when one reflects how often such thinking, known as “realpolitik,” has failed to produce the former while succeeding in the latter.

Resolving this debate is an Olympian task, indeed.

Don’t Say ‘Gay’

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the outgoing president of Iran, famously made an unholy spectacle of himself in a 2007 speech at Columbia University when he asserted, “In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals, like in your country.”

Today in Russia, President Vladimir Putin is trying to make this literally true.

As part of a broader crackdown on gay rights activities of various sorts, Russia recently passed a law against “homosexual propaganda,” making it illegal to “spread information about non-traditional sexual behavior” to children under 18 years old.  Transgressors will be penalized with heavy fines, and violators from other countries will be subject to deportation.

This “propaganda” legislation joins similar measures against public homosexuality in the Russian Federation, such as the prohibition on foreign same-sex couples adopting Russian children, as well as the general practice by Russian police to break up gay rights marches and demonstrations, often violently, and detaining some of their participants.

As well, assaults on gay Russians by straight Russians have run rampant in the country for a long time.  Anti-gay sentiment apparently cuts wide and deep, with 88 percent of the public giving the new “propaganda” law a thumbs-up, according to a state-run polling organization.  (The trustworthiness of such opinion-gathering outfits is in some dispute, but one suspects this one is not too far off.)

Here in America, most of this official anti-gay policy strikes us as positively barbaric, and is no longer tolerated in our open, pluralistic culture.

Or is it?

Reading about the “propaganda” law, I could not help but be reminded of the kerfuffle in Tennessee at the beginning of this year over what came to be known as the “Don’t Say ‘Gay’ bill.”  Proposed by State Senator Stacey Campfield, the bill, if passed, would have effectively banished all discussion of homosexuality in the state’s elementary schools.

“At grade levels pre-K through eight,” the bill stipulated, “any such classroom instruction, course materials or other informational resources that are inconsistent with natural human reproduction shall be classified as inappropriate for the intended student audience and, therefore, shall be prohibited.”

Sound familiar?  Is there any part of that sentence of which Vladimir Putin would not approve?

This is not to say that Tennessee is as bad on gay rights as Russia, per se.  Campfield’s bill never actually passed muster in either house of the state’s legislature, having died in committee.  Further, no American state government is systematically rounding up pro-gay rights agitators as they regularly are under the Putin regime and in many other hell holes around the world, particularly in Africa.

What should nonetheless command our attention here in the states—the one way in which the shenanigans in Tennessee mirror the shenanigans in Russia—is the leading role that language plays in the battle over gay civil rights around the world.

The central irony of the new “propaganda” law—unmistakable and essential—is how it is, itself, an exercise in propaganda.

While everyone with any sense knows that homosexuality in some Homo sapiens is an objective fact of life that cannot simply be wished away, this legislation seeks to do precisely that.

In a Russia whose population has flatlined in the last several decades, where the prospect of insufficient occurrences of heterosexual congress presents as an existential threat, homosexual intimacy can reasonably be seen (by the homophobia-inclined) as slightly beside the point.

The Russian government has been actively encouraging procreative sex for years.  In this way, the “propaganda” law can be seen as complementary and then some—a means not merely to discourage one form of non-procreative sex, but to deny its very existence.

Conceivably, this would make sense if human sexuality was a choice, as some apparently still believe, and homosexual relations were merely a form of rebellion against social mores, as some apparently also still believe.

The problem is that this is not the case.  Homosexuality exists whether a government wants it to or not, which means any attempt to argue or legislate to the contrary will ultimately be futile and subject to the sort of ridicule President Ahmadinejad faced when he suggested Iran was immune to the gay germ.

“Don’t Say ‘Gay’” policies are not merely an affront to gay people, you see, but an affront to truth.

Not unlike neo-Nazi denial of the Holocaust or Turkish denial of the Armenian Genocide, they are an attempt not to attack a particular group of people, but rather to delegitimize them outright by withholding from them the most basic component of human dignity:  Acknowledging that they exist at all.