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Rulers Who Inhabit an Amoral World-- Part II: When Loyalty Isn't a Moral Virtue

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(Part I of this three-part series -"The Rejection of All Restraint "set out to show that to understand the nature of the world that America's present rulers inhabit, we are compelled, because of their pervasive dishonesty, to look for the pattern that emerges from the clues their behavior presents. Here in Part II, the thesis that the truth that emerges is that these rulers inhabit an amoral world will be developed with respect to a second set of clues: those concerning the exalted place of "loyalty" in this president's assessment of people.)

It has often been observed that this president places an unusually high value on "loyalty" in choosing and assessing the people on his team. In our politics, loyalty is always highly valued. This president is nonetheless remarkable for placing so high a priority on that quality.

In many contexts, loyalty is rightly regarded as a moral virtue. We esteem loyalty in a friend, for example, over the "fair weather" kind, or over those who will betray a trust.

But while loyalty may generally be a moral virtue, an excessive emphasis on loyalty is symptomatic of inhabiting an amoral world.

History reveals that those cultural environments in which loyalty is most highly prized are those whose fragmentation -because it has plunged the participants into a hellish "war of all against all"--has made it impossible for the system to contain that wholeness (the harmony, the synergy) we call the Good.

The oaths of fealty in medieval Europe, for example, were important precisely because, in that fragmented feudal system, with no overarching order to hold the various actors in check, a chronic state of war existed among the principalities. The chronic strife of the era is still mirrored in the European landscape, where we see the ruins of castles, surrounded by high walls, constructed on those high and defensible places that, in a peaceful world, would be the last places one would want to try to build.

Those highly fortified castles are good metaphors for the state of consciousness of the world in which loyalty is the supreme value. It is a world in which a great price is paid simply for protection against a hostile outside world, a world where Inside and Outside are divided into an Us and Them postured in expectation of a war to the death.

The excessive priority on loyalty is of a piece with the worship of power. Just as the ceaseless state of war makes power a vital key to survival, so also does the wall of fortification to keep the Outside from getting Inside mean that the Prince will regard the loyalty of those within as of life-and-death importance.

The world in which loyalty swallows up other values, in other words, is essentially a world of gangsterism. The issue of trust is woven throughout The Godfather saga - whether it is the fatal indiscretion of the hot-headed brother in the first film, or the fatal betrayal of the weak brother in the second. "Never tell anyone outside the family what you really think," Don Corleone tells his hot-headed son. In this, he reflects his origins in a Sicilian society, a society that -never knowing any overarching order save that imposed by resented conquerors fragmented into covert private warlord fiefdoms. (And similarly, this White House has never told us what it really thinks about much of anything.) "Fredo, you broke my heart," says the new Godfather upon discovering that his brother has allowed potentially deadly enemies to breach the family's protective walls.

Loyalty is key in a world where fragmentation dictates that war is a chronic condition, and thus that power rather than right will rule.

So when President Bush declared so memorably that "either you are for us or you're against us," it may not have been a good description of the geopolitical realities of the real world "war on terror," but he did show us the nature of the world he inhabits. It's a world where what counts about someone is that he is "for us," i.e. that he is loyal.

It is in that context that we can make sense of Bush's record of dealing with his minions. It's a record in which --far from holding people accountable for the quality of their service to America this president consistently seems to honor those who are loyal to him even if they have failed the country.

This characteristic of the Bush presidency is vividly captured in a recently published piece called "Bush's Wall of Shame," by Tom Engelhardt. In this piece, Engelhardt skewers an "administration which has heaped favor, position, and honors on those who have blundered, lied, manipulated, and broken the law And he gives, as two prime examples of the many whom Engelhardt now "honors" by placing them on this "wall of shame":

"Former CIA Director George ("slam dunk")Tenet, who oversaw an "intelligence" program of lies, misinformation, abductions, torture, the disappearing of prisoners, and the setting up of a mini-gulag of private prisons from Thailand to Eastern Europe, awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom as his tenure at the Agency ended.

"Former Coalition Provisional Authority head L. Paul (I never saw an army I didn't want to disband) Bremer III, under whose leadership in Baghdad the American occupation mis- and displaced more money than is humanly imaginable, and under whose leadership Iraq descended into chaos, awarded the Medal of Freedom."

At an important level, as many of us have recognized, Bush's bestowal of the "Presidential Medal of Freedom" on people responsible for failures of monumental proportions is a travesty of the values that such honors are supposed to represent. Where is the ethic of accountability? By what standard have these people earned a medal?

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Andy Schmookler, an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, was the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia's 6th District. His new book -- written to have an impact on the central political battle of our time -- is (more...)
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