When Loyalty is Not a Moral Virtue
Although loyalty is always highly valued among our politicians, George W. Bush has shown himself exceptional in placing so high a priority on loyalty in assessing his people.
While in many contexts loyalty is rightly regarded as an important moral virtue, Bushs excessive valuing of loyalty is less a sign of his appreciating a moral virtue than of his inhabiting a world in which true morality is scarcely relevant.
So when this president bestows the Medals of Freedom on a George Tenant, whose failures in the pre-war intelligence helped plunged America into a disastrous war, or on Paul Bremer, whose misjudgments helped squander what chances there were of avoiding disaster, it is indeed a scandal. For these honors are supposed to acknowledge achievements in the service to the nation as a whole, and to the nations values, and not just loyal service to an individual.
But while calling it a scandal is a valid moral judgment on this presidents actions, we should also understand that Bushs excessive valuing of loyalty is a clue to why this president consistently works to advance his own power at the cost of the nations good order.
History reveals that groups in which loyalty is most highly prized are those embedded in a social system so fragmented that they cannot contain that wholeness (harmony, 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.
Those highly fortified castles are good metaphors for the mindset 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 war to the death.
The chronic war that was an inescapable objective reality for the masters of medieval fiefdoms is a psychological reality for the Bushites who have degraded the system of American politics into warring elements among whom the possibilities of cooperation are destroyed by their ceaseless strife.
When the world is seen as an arena for perpetual war, the crucial distinction is not between right and wrong but between friend and enemy.
So while President Bushs memorable declaration that either you are for us or youre against us distorted the geopolitical realities of the war on terror, it did show us the nature of the world he inhabits. Its a world where what counts about someone is that he is for us and against them.
The Ethic of Gangsterism
Like feudal lords, the gangster also dwells in a system in which fragmentation dictates that war is a chronic condition. And thus for the gangster, too, being able to trust the fealty of those within the fortified walls is a matter of life-and-death importance.
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