The True Colors of a Citizen

Posted on 05 April 2012 by Tim Fong

Last week I wrote about the importance of seizing the American identity.

This week, I want to talk about the necessary tension between personal loyalty and institutional loyalty in oppositional politics.

Throughout left wing politics, it’s common to hear people call for solidarity.  But what does solidarity really mean?  Does it mean falling in line with the loudest voices in the room, who declare their actions must be supported by all?  Or is there something more?

Oppositional political work is only possible with an understanding of obligation and personal loyalty. This is because even non-violent oppositional political necessarily carries risks. It is only with support from a group can an individual maintain such activity.   Personal loyalty is a two way street between individuals, and it comes not from outside, but from the normal give and take of life.  That is, people learn to trust each other over time, from seeing that when they help someone else, that person in turn will have an obligation to pay them back when the time comes.  This specifically does NOT refer to the kind of twisted personal loyalty that people who’ve been through mindless hazing rituals endemic to some elite social organizations.  Rather, it is the kind of personal loyalty that comes either from living life side by side with a community, or from the bond a group of people feel when they engage in a focused struggle to better themselves in some way.

This is very much contrary to the thrust of modern life, especially in the United States, where the dominant culture of consumerism is more about positioning oneself properly through the purchase and display of the appropriate symbols, anything from clothing, cell phones, specialized education, leisure goods and travel.  For many people that I have met, they don’t have any other way to relate to other people, such that almost all their personal relationships  are based on such status positioning.

Perhaps some people will say that I am being overly harsh, and that people have other motivations.  In response, I would point to the social science survey data that shows most adult Americans have fewer than 3 close confidents.  See

In talking to people at Occupy, I have met more than a few people who felt isolated, and who acutely felt the isolation of life in today’s America.  It seemed especially acute among the  college educated under 30, which I found interesting. I suspect it has to do with the hothouse competition for approval that characterizes modern elite education.  As a friend of mine observed, too, if on the other hand you don’t have much, you have no choice but to depend on your friends to survive– it’s essential.

The flip side of this discussion, is the people who scream “solidarity” as a reason for the rest of us to endorse, tolerate or encourage their destructive behavior. And here, I am not only speaking of property destruction, but of emotionally abusive and disruptive behavior in a group setting. I understand that for many people who are breaking free of the consumerist culture, they are for the first time seeing the power of working in a group, and of shedding the atomized, isolating popular culture.

All the same, to me there is  profound misunderstanding of the role of group solidarity and personal loyalty.  Part of personal loyalty isn’t just demanding that other people do what you want and protect you, but also what you give– and giving lipservice to “serving the people” and some kind of transcendent ideal isn’t enough.

[Shorter– if you’ve never acknowledged me, handed me a plate of food or helped me clean a sidewalk,  or had my back when someone rushed me, then don’t fucking talk to me about how I owe you.]

At the same time, personal loyalty alone isn’t enough.  We can easily imagine a society where all that counts is personal and family relationships, and there is no thought of a wider good outside of those personal networks.  In fact, that is part of what has created the current crisis, in that the elite have demonstrated repeatedly that their loyalty is more to themselves than to the common good.

Personal loyalty must, and does exist in tension with institutional loyalty.  Institutions, are really collective agreements, between people who share a common orientation.  What institutions allow, is for people who  have never met and share no personal relationships or personal obligations,  to work together collectively.  They can be as small as a minor religious sect, or as large as an international movement with branches on every continent.  Nation-states are institutions too.

Cooperation that exceeds personal networks is pretty powerful, but at the same time it carries certain risks.  Across the political spectrum, you’ll find there is much skepticism of institutions, both on the left and the right.  This is justified, because institutions can also be oppressive.  Everyone is familiar with institutional abuse.  In those situations, institutions demand that their members, if they want to remain members, follow dictates that are injurious to some of the members.  The only real defense in that case, is the personal networks of the targeted individuals, which is to say, the networks based on personal loyalty and obligation.

Totalitarian governments, for this reason, seek to eliminate the bonds of personal loyalty and obligation as a way to maximize social control.  The United States is a somewhat different situation, in that personal loyalty has been destroyed by the consumer culture.  Whether that was by design or by accident is a question for another day; suffice to say that it happened, and we’re seeing the consequences today.

The discussion so far has been at the abstract level, but social relationships are anything but abstract.  The concrete display of social relations is most notable in art, and we can say that art often transmits these values to a wider society.  Because the conflict of personal loyalty and obligation is so denigrated in American culture, it is difficult to think of any mass market films that clearly highlight it.  Instead, we must turn to Asian cinema.  Two films, one old and one recent, provide some of the best examples of what I am talking about.

Those films are A Better Tomorrow, and 13 Assassins.   John Woo directed A Better Tomorrow, and Takashi Miike directed 13 Assassins.  Both films feature highly stylized violence, and indeed, that is often the main drawing point for American audiences, who exoticize the films as merely an excuse to watch bodies fall.  That is, the characters are not seen as human characters, but just as cardboard cutouts waving guns around in what might as well be a video game.   However, at their core, both films are about the tensions between personal and institutional loyalties.

Mainstream American reviewers often talk about the “balletic” gun fights of John Woo’s flms, and the effortlessly cool demeanor of Chow Yun Fat.  However, A Better Tomorrow is ultimately a drama, focused on three men, Ho, Kit and Mark.  When the film opens, Ho is a gangster, along with his good friend, and sworn brother, Mark.  Sworn brotherhood meant an obligation to look out for the other person under all circumstances, in a self-sacrificing way.  As way of background, during the early 20th century, sworn brotherhoods were the only way for young males in rapidly urbanizing China to survive.  Many people migrated from farms to cities, where jobs were scarce and government institutions unsteady.  Some of these had criminal undertones, while others were akin to proto-unions for various blue collar occupations like dock workers.

Mark and Ho  are trusted subordinates of a Triad gang  with a counterfeiting operation.  Kit is Ho’s younger brother.  Kit does not know his older brother is a gangster, and as the film opens, is preparing to become a police officer.  Ho encourages his brother to study hard and improve his life.  Kit is loyal to the institution, in this case, the old colonial Hong Kong government.   When Ho is betrayed by members of his own gang, and future Triad boss,  Mark avenges him, it sets into motion a story of conflicting obligations.   Ho ultimately tries to quit the gang to protect his brother’s job, yet the gang knowing this threatens Kit as a means to bring Ho back to the fold.  Kit is angered by what he sees as Ho’s betrayal and also, by the fact that his brother’s criminal past stalls his career– even though he is taken off the case, Kit doggedly pursues the head of the Triad in an attempt to bring him down.  In the end, all of the men have to navigate the conflict ridden territory  of loyalty to family, friends and institutions.

The tension between the Hong Kong government and organized crime was a real one at the time, as the HK colonial government and society  had previously been immensely corrupt.  The story goes that during the 1970s, you had to bribe ambulance drivers if you wanted them to take you to the hospital.   Essentially, people lived within their personal networks only, and there was a minimal sense of the common good.  After an epic fail wherein a senior member of the police service was caught taking bribes and managed to sneak past customs, the HK colonial government founded the now-famous Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) to eliminate corruption at all levels.  So severe were the threats that  ICAC agents reputedly would take elaborate security precautions involving multiple car switches, just to get home from work.   A Better Tomorrow is a dramatization of the tensions that existed in many people between the pull of personal networks and obligations and institutional loyalty.  It wasn’t an easy thing to negotiate either, as HK had been built by refugees fleeing civil war– and people in those situations must depend on personal relationships and obligations to survive when all else has failed. It can be the difference between life and death.

Where A Better Tomorrow looks at the interactions between the criminal underworld and the police,  13 Assassins looks at the conflicting loyalties between members of the elite.  Miike sets the film in late 19th century Japan, at a time when the country was on the verge of modernization.  The modernization would sweep away the samurai based feudal government and replace it with a modern nation-state, removing the privileges of the samurai elite.    A prominent member of the ruling family Lord Matsudaira, is a ruthless sociopath who tortures his subjects for his own entertainment.

Under the government of the time, samurai had the power to kill commoners should they so choose, and Matsudaira exploits this to the maximum, much to the horror of all around him.     Because he is so-well connected (the younger brother of Japan’s military ruler), Matsudaira cannot be sanctioned through official channels.  In the US (and Japan as well, to be fair) the samurai and their government are often lionized as models of conduct.  Miike’s film displays the ugly side of the samurai legend, mainly, the unquestioned prerogatives of the samurai elite to kill and rape at will.

A senior government official, Doi  realizes that Matsudaira is insane and a threat to the well-being of all Japan, should he ascend to a higher office.  He therefore hires a trusted samurai to kill Matsudaira.  Doi’s choice is Shinzaemon, a steadfast old samurai who has fallen on some hard times.     On the other side, is Matsudaira’s head of security Hanbei.  Hanbei realizes that his master is insane, but by the samurai code he must obey.  Hanbei and Shinzaemon also share  an old tie– they once trained in the same sword school.  In Japan at that time, this was a serious bond of obligation, in that joining a sword school often involved swearing a blood oath of permanent obligation to the school and to the fellow members.   Junior members of the school would follow and obey senior members– this was fundamental to the entire Japanese feudal system.   Senior students had an obligation to teach the juniors to the very best of their ability, and in turn juniors had to obey seniors.  Shinzaemon sets about recruiting his team for the mission.  While some of the assassins join alone, others join primarily because their seniors have chosen to go.  13 Assassins presents the conflict not only between personal loyalty and institutional loyalty, but between various institutional loyalties.  Shinzaemon ultimately betrays the institution of feudal Japan, out of a belief that rulers must also be accountable to the people at large.  Arguably, he acts out of loyalty to what today we would call the democratic ideal.

Stepping back for a moment, we should pause to note that East Asia has its own problems, and that the culture of personal obligation is often honored more in the breach than in actuality.  Living in a web of obligation can at times, be stifling, as both 13 Assassins and A Better Tomorrow show too.  But all the same, organized human activity can’t happen without it.  Especially organized human activity in stressful, high pressure situations.

In real life, as in films,  personal obligation and institutional loyalty can be used for good or for ill.  In the end, it is the effects that matter. The tension between institutional and personal loyalty can only exist where people share a common orientation, and that will be the subject of next week’s piece– We’re Not Comrades.