As true blue Americans, we are taught at home, school and by way of our daily social curriculum, to be loyal. The word does not get much play until it’s time to deal with its essence. So what does it mean – when it matters? As we tend to do, let’s turn to language.
The first encounter with its meaning alerts us that “loyalty” is a heavy duty concept that will play a role as to all family members, citizens, employers, employees, politicians, professions and all social, cultural, political, religious institutions. Nope, no one is absolved or spared.
At some point in our lives, “loyalty” is presented, taught and learned. It then begins to have a life of its own depending on how its meaning and principles evolve. Our two “Thesaurus.plus” pigeons left out some other written and unwritten tenets such as, “resistance to temptation to desert or betray.” That’s the “guilt trip” that is often attached to the situation but often not the context, where the truth tends to exist.
Therefore, there is an inference that “loyalty” is a one way street and that it is absolute, owed, expected and assumed. History teaches that autocrats, authoritarians, dictators and despots whose ideology is built on power and control demand unconditional “loyalty” from its followers. There is no wiggle room.
“Loyalty” became a serious point of discussion in the past eight years regarding being “loyal” to one party and one man regardless of reasons to question their veracity. “Blind Loyalty” to Republican Trumspism was a major component of the ideology and mania.
“Loyalty” has other significant components that deal with its ethos and essence, such as authentic “Credibility and Trust.” So how do we come to terms with such an intangible critical concept that most of us would agree is pertinent to every aspect of our lives?
I posit that “loyalty” is a two way street based on authentic credibility and trust of all relationships. “Loyalty” can’t be bought or sold – or can it be?
“Loyalty” can’t be demanded or forced. I believe that loyalty is a primary core value of a Democracy because of its power to empower. Authentic loyalty provides confidence to believe in the vision, mission and guiding principles. It provides freedom, motivates and inspires. Authentic loyalty builds camaraderie and collaboration; the key element being authenticity.
Since 2016, credibility and trust became a central focus as citizens were asked to “blindly believe” – unequivocally, in one man and one party. To not remain “blindly loyal” meant to be ostracized, rejected and an enemy of Republican Trumpism.
This gave rise to citizens who refused the MAGA definitions of “loyalty” and stood their ground. They were called traitors and turncoats. But again, integrity, credibility and trust came calling. The truth by way of facts, documents, emails, videos and indictments vindicated the most courageous and honorable among us. Sally Quillian Yates is one such American heroine.
Unlike many in the Trumpsim orbit, Sally Yates testified UNDER OATH and did it with dignity. It’s an interesting fact that those who are the subjects of alleged indictments refuse to raise their right hands and/or plea the fifth. Why is that?
Sally Yates testified more than once under oath. She faced congressional committees forthrightly with integrity and intelligence. She represented what we expect from our public servants – credibility.
From 2016 on, American and global citizens were reintroduced to a word not heard since the Nixon years and the Watergate scandal – “Whistleblower.” The nickname for one whistleblower of the 1970s was “Deep Throat.” The Nixon international scandal exposed corruption, cover ups and soiled our political landscape. But even then, those who spoke the truth were degraded as snitches. Nixon also had a ‘base’ of supporters who believed that he and the party could do no wrong. Sound familiar?
One of the whistleblowers of the Nixon scandal was revealed in later years as William Mark Felt Sr. (1913-2008), an American FBI agent who worked for the FBI from 1942 to 1973. He was also known as “Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House”, a film released in 2017.
Felt had tried to avoid going to the press, but forces of power and control denied him. He felt conflicted and trapped, witnessing corruption on a daily basis and felt guilty about remaining silent. As an FBI officer, he worked for all three branches of government sworn to uphold and defend the Constitution. He was also an American citizen working for the American people – just like all the members of the Senate, Congress, and White House. Above all else, he was an FBI agent sworn to uphold the rule of law.
Aside from the curiosity of knowing his name, Americans wondered why a respected public servant would break loyalty from the Executive Branch of government? Americans wanted evidence, connections and were left to answer critical questions such as, “What is a whistleblower?” “Who are these people?” “What motivates them?” “Are they traitors or heroes?”
An expected code regarding “loyalty” by corporations, institutions and political parties has been “loyalty up and loyalty down“, with no space in between. Some political leaders still believe in “blind loyalty” regardless of proof of corruption and criminality.
The major question being, does the ethical code of conduct apply equally to all? Or are there exceptions due to status, title, financial power and control? The landscape can change dramatically when unscrupulousness begins to surface and is overlooked by choice and design.
The problem most often stems from leaders who are threatened as to loss of power, financial gain and legal action. Whistleblowers offer opportunities for institutions and individuals to respond with transparency, admit to the truth and advocate for credible changes.
This is when the authenticity and the virtue of loyalty come into play. Loyalty should not be equated with absolute blind obedience and subservience. The public expects authentic loyalty from leaders of institutions. This applies to all institutions, be they public or private – be it elected officials, police, military and government.
Whistleblowing takes place when there is absolute and undeniable proof of blatant corruption, cover ups, incompetence, dishonesty, criminality and when the highest authority with the power to invoke fact-finding chooses to ignore and deny the truth.
After Watergate, we did not hear much about whistleblowers until Jeffrey Stephen Wigand, who on February 4, 1996, appeared on 60 Minutes. He stated that Brown & Williamson had intentionally manipulated its tobacco blend with chemicals, such as ammonia, to increase the effect of nicotine in cigarette smoke. Jeffrey Wigand was an American biochemist and former vice president of research and development at Brown & Williamson in Louisville, Kentucky, who worked on the development of reduced-harm cigarettes. Like Mark Felt, he discovered corruption and coverups. In 1996 he blew the whistle on tobacco tampering at the company.
Fast forward to December 30, 2002 – January 6, 2003 – Time Magazine publishes a Special Double Issue:
Cynthia Cooper was an American accountant, who formerly served as the Vice President of Internal Audit at WorldCom. In 2002, Cooper and her team of auditors unearthed $3.8 billion in fraud at WorldCom. At the time, this was the largest incident of accounting fraud in U.S. history. Since leaving MCI (WorldCom), Cooper started her own consulting firm. In addition, Cooper speaks to professionals as well as high school and college students to share her experiences and lessons learned.
Coleen Rowley became a Special Agent with the FBI and was assigned to the Omaha, Nebraska and Jackson, Mississippi divisions. Beginning in 1984, she spent six years working in the New York City field office. During this time, she served three temporary assignments in the U.S. embassy in Paris and the consulate in Montreal. In 1990, she was transferred to the FBI’s Minneapolis field office, where she became Chief Division Counsel. In May 2002, Rowley testified to the Senate and the 9/11 Commission about the FBI’s pre-9/11 lapses due to its internal organization mishandling information related to the 9/11 attacks which led to the reorganization and expansion of the FBI.
Sherron Watkins was a former Vice President of Corporate Development at the Enron Corporation. Watkins was called to testify before committees of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate at the beginning of 2002, primarily about her warnings to Enron’s then-CEO Kenneth Lay about accounting irregularities in the financial statements. She stated that as early as in August 2001, she alerted Kenneth Lay of these accounting irregularities in financial reports but her efforts were not only ignored but suppressed.
All whistleblowers come from different segments of our society. They are born in different regions, schooled in different schools and pursue their personal and professions passions in life. Each of them did not wake up one day with the intention to whistleblow.
Each affirms that whistleblowing does not occur on one day or in a vacuum. The process can take years of trying to work through unethical environments and/or administrators who deny corruption even when faced with undeniable evidence.
There is a process that whistleblowers go through in trying to provide facts and warnings regarding unscrupulous – fraudulent behavior and practices. The process of knowing the truth, and the truth being suppressed, can be physically and mentally exhausting.
As with many whistleblowers, while doing their daily jobs, they began to uncover unethical behavior, identify corruption, lies, fraudulent processes and cover ups that clearly were not in keeping with the vision, mission, core values and principles of the institutions they served and in some cases took an oath to uphold.
Another common experience by whistleblowers is that regardless of their efforts to provide evidence, alert and warn, they confront hypocrisy at the highest levels that blatantly attempts to deflect and defend corruption by choice and design. It becomes evident that the issues are not mistakes and happenstance but intentional, dishonest, unethical and immoral.
Eventually, whistleblowers face a personal conflict of the “ethical-unethical-right-wrong-fair-unfair-loyalty-disloyalty” tradeoff leading to an eventual disconnect that can’t be compromised nor corrected. From this point on, the whistleblower faces tough decisions – resign and walk away with the evidence or confront the institution legally and/or by exposing the corruption. There are most often no win-win outcomes.
There comes a time when whistleblowers discover that reporting discrepancies, unethical practices, wrongdoing and cover ups to the highest authority is not respected, appreciated and comes with serious life altering consequences.
At times their scrutiny and diligence is confronted by a PR firm, HR Department and Legal Dept. The whistleblower is depicted as a “disgruntled employee” – “persona non grata” – “not being a team player” – “not wanting to play ball” – “biting the hand that feeds them” – “turncoat” – “snitch” – “traitor” – “Benedict Arnold”.
So why do employees most often decide to remain silent? Research points to believing that concerns will not be addressed. Those who pursue the process, often stand alone relying on their resiliency, commitment and sacrifice dedicated to the greater good. Vindication is often left to the very end of the arduous process.
Whistleblowers face the power of institutions that can afford to financially “lawyer up” for years, aside from public and personal attacks, threats and losing their paychecks that their families depended on.
What is also alarming to whistleblowers is the constant hypocrisy by leaders who did not live up to the mission and core values of the institution – always publicly proclaiming their innocence and honorability. As Sherron Watkins of ENRON remembers, “At Enron the company handed out note pads with inspiring quotes. One was from Martin Luther King Jr.,
‘Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.’
Watkins saw the quote very day and wondered – “didn’t anybody else read their note pads?”
Powerful institutions are well insulated from whistleblowers who dare to challenge them. In some cases there is blatant intimidation and law suits, used to silence whistleblowers and witnesses, to keep them from testifying and presenting evidence.
America in 2023 is mirroring some of the same political corruption, unethical practices, cover-ups, constructed chaos, anxieties and stresses that surfaced during the Nixon years. To paraphrase the philosopher George Santayana, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
I posit that whistleblowers are patriots, sheroes and heroes deserving of our respect and gratitude. Their transparency and willingness to divulge the truth regarding unethical and corrupt practices places them at great personal and professional peril. They face moments of truth and must make tough personal and professional decisions, unlike many of us will ever be asked to do.
Whistleblowers in 2023 are again stepping up – front and center with courage, dignity and focus in order to protect the integrity of our Republic and citizenry. They are walking tall holding on to the essence of their citizenship – their loyalty is credible and honorable. A reminder each time their whistle blows that their journey is not only theirs, but ours.
“Integrity, transparency and the fight against corruption have to be part of the culture
They have to be thought to be fundamental values.” ~ José Ángel Gurria