Print More

(Host) Commentator David Moats reflects on loyalties and how we acquire them.

(Moats) I used to joke with my father that electricity must come from human bones. He was an electrical engineer, and his business involved generators and transformers and all kinds of electrical paraphernalia. Even so, and even though he was exceedingly patient with his explanations, I had a hard time throughout my childhood remembering the difference between a volt and a watt and an amp. To mock my own ignorance, I used to tell him that I had a theory.

Every time I came across a power substation here in Vermont, it seemed to be located next to a little cemetery. So I told him that I thought that electricity must have something to do with the proximity of human bones. I thought of this as I was driving through Queens, New York, and I passed a massive cemetery, spread over acres of land next to the freeway. And what do you know? – rising above it was a giant power plant, with a towering smokestack. Proof if I ever saw it.

My father worked for Westinghouse his whole career, and I was remembering the kind of childish loyalty we used to feel toward his company. As a family we always bought Westinghouse appliances. It was an article of faith with us that an electric light bulb from Westinghouse would have to be better than one from General Electric. It was all a kind of joke – not something we took seriously. But as trivial as it might have been, our insistence on using Westinghouse light bulbs was an expression of loyalty to him.

These are the kinds of loyalties that begin with family connections. My mother was Catholic, and we were raised Catholic, and so we felt an unquestioned loyalty to the Catholic Church. The idea of going inside a Protestant church was actually kind of scary.

The loyalties with which people grow up go a long way toward shaping their identities. When we get to high school, we act out this idea of loyalty screaming ourselves hoarse at our school’s basketball games.

Sometimes this kind of loyalty takes on a tribal narrowness, and we are unable to look beyond our own small worlds. In many parts of the world the fury we might expend at basketball games gets channeled into the fury of tribal violence. I have always been grateful that my sons were able to channel their energies into baseball and football rather than being turned loose with a Kalashnikov, as they might have been in Serbia or Iraq.

I know now that Westinghouse was no better in any real sense than General Electric. But the point was not Westinghouse. The point was my father.

Our loyalties can narrow us, or they can enrich us. We love our country, but we don’t love everything our country does. It’s all part of growing up – understanding that even if Westinghouse makes an excellent light bulb, it’s not the only light bulb in the world.

This is David Moats from Middlebury.

David Moats is the editorial page editor for the Rutland Herald and winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. He spoke from studios at Middlebury College.

Comments are closed.