In search of a permanent relationship


London -- YEARS AGO, I brushed my teeth with Kolynos toothpaste. Then Harry Von Zell or somebody got me to switch brands to Ipana, for the "smile of beauty." I felt vaguely guilty about deserting Kolynos, especially after Ipana squeezed its last.

More recently, I was swept up in the wave of private brands. No more Bayer, the aspirin that cooled my childhood fevers; I was persuaded by consumerists that the same product sold for less under the name of my drug store, People's; that outfit has since been sold to some chain with forgettable initials and now my medicine chest is filled with strangers to which I feel no attachment and from which I get no sense of familiarity or security.

Nobody's fault but my own. The seduction of the generic fad made me brand-disloyal. Having slipped my moorings, I now drift from brand to brand -- one morning giving toothpaste with baking soda a shot, next day trying one striped with peroxide -- vainly searching for the shores of a permanent relationship.

That is symbolic of the New Disloyalty that afflicts us at every level.

Corporate loyalty, once an asset of both management and labor, is now a phrase that elicits a snicker. Little more than a generation ago, the average worker could expect to work for three bosses in a lifetime; now we start our careers expecting to work for seven different companies.

Middle managers hop around like pro ballplayers who sell their services with no team spirit, while top executives leap from peak to peak, happy to do battle with the companies that gave them their start.

Public policy encourages this corporate disloyalty. A company's attempt to bind its employees to itself with incentives to stay is scorned as paternalism; the "portability" of benefits is the newest entitlement. Quick-vested interests are in, while slowly maturing options are out.

Management gurus, deriding as inefficient companies that cling to experienced workers in slack periods, advise instant layoffs to stay lean and mean; when business picks up, employers turn to loosey-goosey temps. In response, workers made insecure by the threat of loss of promised security look to government to make pensions personal -- and less binding to the institution that used to be a "home." As a result, the longing for belonging has been replaced by a dependence on independence.

In politics, the New Disloyalty manifests itself in the glorification of the maverick and the vilification of the regular. The once-revered phrase party loyalty is now remembered only in John F. Kennedy's line, "Sometimes party loyalty asks too much." True enough, but other times party loyalty asks too little. No loyalty, no discipline; no discipline, no victories of legislative action.

What about national loyalty -- allegiance to one's country? The amalgam of nationhood that holds a diverse people together is being eroded by ethnic and religious separatists. "Comes the devolution," the new disloyalists cry, "we won't have to live with the different and impure."

Some empires, like the one ruled from Moscow, were properly broken up. And some peoples with distinct identities and no recognition deserve a separate nation, like the Kurds, Palestinians and Tibetans.

But only national loyalty will keep the Scots and Welsh from pulling away from Britain, and the Quebecers from pulling out of Canada. The absence of national loyalty is what keeps the Serbs, Muslims and Croats at each other's throats in Bosnia.

I make no case for blind loyalty. In Poland, President Lech Walesa recently appointed a top Communist spy -- once jailed by this country for stealing secrets of our Patriot missile system -- to head his intelligence agency. When NATO objected, the appointment was rescinded, but the professional spy claimed he had loyally carried out the orders of Poland's legitimate government.

Was Marian Zacharski being a Polish patriot under Communism? No; he knew he was working for his country's oppressors and because his work impeded Polish freedom his fidelity was misplaced.

Adherence beats detachment. Stop the pernicious, worldwide devaluation of loyalty. Encourage allegiance to nation, to party, to corporation and labor force, to family and to conscience. Pick a brand of toothpaste and stick with it.

William Safire is a syndicated columnist.

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