My Bar Mitzvah dictionary (received June
17, 1961 and still sitting on my desk over 50 years later), defines fidelity
as: the state of being faithful, exactness, allegiance, fealty, loyalty,
devotion. That seems about right to me.
Most would characterize fidelity as a good
quality. It certainly is in pre-recorded sound reproduction. For a good part of
my life, there was a major push to improve the quality of the sound from records
(large vinyl discs with a small hole in the middle used for the playback of
recorded music prior to the invention of the compact disc and iPod). High
fidelity sound was what we called accurate playback on a good quality stereo
system. The goal was to reproduce the sound of a live performance. Now recorded
music has to be better than a live performance and given the talent of most of
today’s popular “artists”, that is not too difficult. Digital technology allows
a single end recording to be compiled from a multiplicity of studio takes
guaranteeing the latest recordings from Maroon Five, Justin Bieber, Jay-Z and
Beyonce will be perfect in every way.
But fidelity has a dark side, because in
fidelity is loyalty and you have to be very careful to which causes you choose
to be loyal.
My experiences on Capitol Hill brought this
home. There everyone is loyal to something or someone (although that loyalty is
for purchase and apt to change on a dime—see House of Cards). The problem is
that the intensity of that loyalty is getting in the way of legislating, for
legislating is, at its core, about compromise and foregoing some aspects of a
cause to which one pledged loyalty. Both sides on Capitol Hill are guilty of
overzealous loyalty or, what they call, drinking the Kool-Aid. This metaphor
derives from the 1978 mass suicide in the Guyana jungle by 900 followers of the
Reverend Jim Jones. The suicidal cult used cyanide-laced Kool-Aid which upon
further review turned out to be Flavor-Ade (cheaper), but the metaphor
stuck. Everyone on Capitol Hill has
drunk the Kool-Aid, either Red (Republican) or Blue (Democratic). In fact, they
all OD’d on it.
My major source of frustration throughout my year in DC was my
inability to cleave to any one philosophy—red v. blue. I thought both sides had
good and bad ideas and that the goal was to extract the best from each and
weave it into legislation. Silly me!
I was about good bills. They were about
winning. No wonder I was like a fish out of water. Or I was in water and a
guppy among sharks.
Fidelity to putatively “proven” scientific ideas
as well as political philosophies may create problems for the thoughtful.
Despite overwhelming evidence that the underlying genetics of human cancers is
so complex, heterogeneous and constantly in flux that defining a signature for
any given cancer is unlikely, there are billions of dollars being spent to do
exactly that. Then when one considers the amazing breakthroughs being made in
cancer immunology that may prove far more clinically applicable and useful than
any attempt at personalized care through gene sequencing, target identification
and drug-target matching, you have to wonder why all the money is being spent
on the genetic analysis of human cancers from patients often with fatal
diseases as opposed to pouring money into cancer immunology. And what about preventative
and educational efforts to stop cancer from even taking hold (see op-ed of
April 9, 2014 from Dr. Jones and myself here):
Fidelity is an admirable trait. Loyalty to
a just cause like civil rights or equal pay is commendable. Fidelity to people,
especially within a marriage, is essential. In the end, it is what
distinguishes that relationship from all others.
But fidelity does have a downside when
entered into without thought and maintained without mindfulness and constant
self-examination. Is what you signed up for still in place? Has your hero grown
feet of clay? When is a good cause no longer good? When is a bad idea not
worthy of consideration? And most critically, when do my currently held
loyalties and fidelities get in my way of objectivity and perceiving the truth?
We all cling to our beliefs tenaciously. In
a very uncertain world, they provide us with the illusion of control. But it is
just that, an illusion. Tenets of fidelity are crucial to the efficient
operation of any group activity, but efficiency is not synonymous with good, for
group think is certainly efficient. And it is usually wrong.
And they don’t give the Nobel Prize for
thinking like everyone else.