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The Death of Loyalty
News Flash: A Conservative Laments Cultural Decline

by James Leroy Wilson
February 13, 2001

The Death of Loyalty_James Leroy Wilson-News Flash: A Conservative Laments Cultural Decline In the movie As Good As It Gets Jack Nicholson plays a romance novelist, and is asked how he is able to write female characters so well. His response is something like, "I write as if they were men, but without rationality and accountability."

It's mean, unfair, and untrue, yet I think of it whenever I hear of the "feminization" of society. While I have no interest in advancing an argument that women are not rational or accountable, it does seem to me that men, at least prominent men, are less so than in the past. But feminization is a poor characterization for what's going on; female role models are ruder, cruder, and more aggressive than they used to be, so a case could just as well be made that society is being masculinized. What's really happening is the worst traits in humanity are now tolerated and sometimes praised. Narcissism and nihilism dominate the culture.

If sports is a microcosm of society, it will do to illustrate the point. No, I'm not talking about spoiled or thuggish athletes. This is about coaches, their role models. About Rick Pitino. Four years ago, Pitino quit the best job in his profession, coach of the University of Kentucky basketball team, for a multi-million dollar contract to manage and coach the Boston Celtics of the NBA. Fine. There was the big money (taking care of the family, you know) and the new challenge with pro basketball's most storied franchise. All well and good; it's not like he owed Kentucky anything. But then he plans his future on - get this - a lottery. He expected that in the NBA draft lottery, he would be able to draft Tim Duncan. Yes, by inheriting the worst team, he had the best chance, more balls in the machine than other teams had, but not a good chance. Nobody had a good chance. It's a lottery, for crying out loud!

Pitino does not win the pick, and in three seasons his Celtics do not significantly improve. (But it's not really his fault, he was victimized by bad luck in the lottery, right?) Then this year, he quits. Which isn't the worst thing in the world, but what about the timing? Pitino quit on his team in the middle of the season. (What if one of his players had done that?) Then, hoping to restore his now-damaged reputation as a coach by re-conquering the college ranks, he suggests some schools where he might like to coach. This was still the middle of the season; the schools in which he had expressed interest already have coaches. But that's not important, is it. What's important is Rick Pitino and what he wants and what makes him happy.

Pitino isn't the only one. Contract-breaking is becoming a tradition in big-time college athletics. In basketball and football, one good season makes a head coach a hot property. The ink is not yet dry on a long-term, multi-million dollar contract extension with the school when another college or pro team announces a vacancy and the rumors start flying. It's one thing to leave the small-time, a Youngstown St. or a Toledo, for the big-time of Ohio St. or Missouri. But what about lateral moves, like Colorado to Washington? Ole Miss to Auburn? Illinois to the Atlanta Hawks? University of Miami to the Cleveland Browns? Schools have every right to fire coaches after one bad season, because those coaches are just as likely to move on at the first taste of success. Loyalty is a two-way street.

This walking away from commitments is the clearest example of the selfishness of the culture. It's all over the place. Hollywood's serial marriages, Congressmen taking back their self-imposed term limits pledges, whatever is most convenient for you at the time is the right thing to do. No rationality, only rationalization, and no accountability either; if it's legal, who can stop it? Who has the right to judge? The only problem is ethical. Breaking one's word is so common that in some places it's more or less expected. Where honor is gone, cynicism reigns.

Honor persists only in those areas that command loyalty, but that differs from person to person. Some people are so loyal, so loving to their families, that they would take a bribe to support their loved ones. Others might be adulterers who would rather die than see their professional integrity called into question. The best people are loyal in all they do; they keep their promises and commitments at great personal cost and would leave only after what Thomas Jefferson called "a long train of abuses." Loyalty is the glue that holds civilization together. People have to believe in principles and institutions, in things larger than themselves, for the public order to survive. When those principles are mocked or ignored, and those institutions (family, church, state, school, law) relentlessly attacked, the individual receives tacit permission to withdraw from civil society and focus exclusively on individual desires and ambitions. A far cry from laissez-faire capitalism, which depends on the rule of law, this outlook allows cheating, lying, almost anything to get ahead. When society isn't elevated, it crumbles.

The best hope is the young. What goes on in the "culture," i.e., what is seen and heard through the media, is somewhat different from what's going on in "society," the networks of human relationships among common people. There are still families that love, schools that teach, and churches that pray, and the young raised in society might not truly appreciate discipline, accountability, and rationality unless they see it lacking where it's needed most, such as in the Oval Office. The only way they can successfully rebel against weak social institutions is to strengthen them - to start honoring concepts like truth and loyalty. Perhaps enough bad role-modeling among the famous and powerful will impress on them the need for that kind of change.

I could go on and on about cultural decline, but if you excuse me it's my turn to run over pedestrians and fight cops on the Playstation.

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