Admirable Disloyalty

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Admirable Disloyalty

Published in the Daily Record April 14, 2015

British novelist E.M. Forster famously wrote: “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.”[1] I was reminded of that line watching Amy Herzog’s 2010 play After the Revolution, now in revival at Center Stage in Baltimore where I live. In it, Herzog explores the question whether disloyalty to one’s homeland and its laws is always a bad thing. Not to give too much away, she doesn’t think so; in the play’s final speech, the widow of the family patriarch who passed some American intelligence secrets to the Soviets during World War II roundly rejects the characterization of that behavior as “dishonorable.”

This tale especially resonated for me because I have roots in the world of the play (among other places). Though set in 1999, the story is haunted by the memory of the McCarthy era, that moment in the early 1950s when suspected Communists were summarily dismissed from government service, blacklisted from Hollywood, and subpoenaed to testify before hostile congressional committees. My own (definitely non-Communist) father was dismissed from the State Department without recourse at almost exactly the moment Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for passing nuclear secrets to the Russians, and there were Communists on my family tree who also fit precisely the profile of the clan playwright Herzog presents (secular Jewish, intellectual, New York-based).

The patriarch’s son reminds us how things were at the time his father passed the secrets.

When he first got involved in the spying, we’re barely out of the Depression, that meant thirty percent unemployment, it meant you don’t walk past a garbage can without someone elbow deep in it. This is the landscape of my father’s childhood and young adulthood. Now who are the people speaking up on behalf of the destitute? The American Communist Party. Who is talking about racial equality, twenty-five years before the Civil Rights Movement? Same answer.[2] Who is calling attention to the fact that Russians are dying by the millions fighting fascism so that American hands can stay clean? Same answer… So who is my dad’s allegiance to?… [I]t’s to his party, it’s to the honest working-class Russians who are dying so that he can be free.

Incidentally, it should be emphasized that what that patriarch did was not treason; the Constitution defines that offense as consisting of levying war on the nation or being of aid and comfort to its “enemies,” and the Soviets were our allies, not our enemies. The patriarch was merely violating whatever laws and regulations required secrecy, and being disloyal to his country – in the service of his greater loyalties to the nation’s then-ally.

A little more than a year ago, my father’s Cousin Robbie died. He was one of those former Communists from the same generation as Herzog’s fictional patriarch. Robbie was just a sweet, honorable guy. His daughter, in announcing Robbie’s death, called him “noble,” and I believe the label was apt, not only for the man in his venerable old age but just as much during his years with the Party. Being an artist and art dealer, Robbie had had no secrets to betray, but I think it likely he would have done so, had he been in possession of any. And it would have been just as noble.

In saying that, I do not suggest it is ever a facile choice to make, deciding between one’s ideals and one’s nation. Even when a nation has behaved very badly, as this country has so often done, that nation may still possess such great value as the guarantor of things we cherish that we may find it is worthy of our loyalty notwithstanding. But the causes that the old American Bolsheviks stood for, identified by the son in Herzog’s play (succor for the destitute, redress to racial inequality, the struggle against fascism), might legitimately weigh heavier in the balance of a fair-minded person.

And laws protecting official secrets do not impress me. You do not change what weighs heavier merely by passing laws criminalizing acts that support paramount causes. Leges sine moribus vanae,[3] wrote the poet Horace, which is generally translated “Laws without morals are useless.” But perhaps Horace also meant “Laws contrary to morals should be useless.” In other words, laws should not necessarily be followed if breaking them supports the greater good. Naturally, the risk of moral error is extreme when one disregards the laws in service of the greater good. One is as apt to find oneself a John Wilkes Booth as a Martin Luther King, once one starts down that road. But there are Martin Luther Kings out there, vindicated by history.

And I would argue that American Communists like the Rosenbergs and others who handed over American nuclear secrets to the Russians have, surprisingly, been vindicated by history. After Russia got the bomb, and ever since to this very day, the “balance of terror” (impossible until Russia had the bomb) has kept the entire world from using it in anger. That is a powerful argument that helping Russia acquire the bomb was the correct choice. A fearful one, but apparently correct, so far at least.

Likewise, I would argue that the Rosenbergs’ successor, Edward Snowden, who has done so much to expose the ways our government has undermined personal privacy and covered up so many misdeeds, has contributed immeasurably to public understanding and discourse, even as he thoroughly disregarded and violated our laws. In both cases, the release of government information was just as salutary as it was illegal and disloyal.

In saying these things, I am not idealizing either the Communists or the modern-day information anarchists. U.S. Communists slavishly followed the Party line even when it called for support of some of Stalin’s most inhumane and murderous practices. And a per se approach that government is entitled to no secrets whatever could and perhaps someday will lead to disaster. But there nonetheless is and remains such a thing as admirable and creative disloyalty.

The trick always has been and always will be to distinguish which loyalties should trump loyalty to one’s nation, and which should not. And that will never be an easy trick to pull off.


[1] From What I Believe (1938).

[2] See, e.g., John Hope Franklin and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans (9th ed. 2011), at 437-39 (Communists stepped in to handle the Scottsboro Boys’ appeal when the NAACP hung back). [My comment, not Herzog’s.]

[3] The full phrase, which I understand comes from the Odes, is Quid leges sine moribus vanae proficiunt?, which I guess could be fairly translated “What use are useless laws without morals?” So technically speaking I’m modifying the meaning a little, inserting a verb where Horace did not put one.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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