November 2006

Jason B. Jones


In Defense of Hypocrisy: Picking Sides in the War on Virtue by Jeremy Lott

It's not often that one gets to watch a book's thesis unravel in real time, outpaced by the weirdness of the world, but happily, that should be the fate of Jeremy Lott's In Defense of Hypocrisy: Picking Sides in the War on Virtue. The exposure of Mark Foley, and more dramatically, the subsequent exposure of the five-year attempt by the House leadership to protect his seat, will probably erode the audience for a book encouraging us to remember that the kneejerk aversion to hypocrisy is a moral mistake. Don't mourn too much, though: In Defense of Hypocrisy offers a self-flattering travesty of the longstanding conservative tolerance for hypocrisy, its ostensible moral seriousness swamped by tendentious question-begging and scale-loading, by a willful blindness to historical differences and by an unseemly eagerness for partisan hackery.

All that's too bad, because hypocrisy does deserve defense, and the usual conservative defenses of hypocrisy, whether they come by way of Rochefoucauld, Burke, T. E. Hulme, or any other source, are compassionate, morally serious, and philosophically coherent. These defenses come in mild and forward-leaning versions. The milder version sides with Browning, noting that "a man's reach should exceed his grasp,/Or what's a heaven for?" In the face of human imperfection, that our private conduct is usually not quite so golden as our public self-presentation can hardly be a surprise. When someone falls short of their own stated ideals, the proper response can only by sympathy, and the feeling that there but for the grace of God... George Eliot, in The Impressions of Theophrastus Such, tried to sever the expectation of any connection between public and private life, insisting through "Theophrastus Such" that so long as the public outcomes of a public official's decisions are beneficent, then private morality is of no consequence.

There is a more aggressive tolerance for hypocrisy, one that goes beyond Rochefoucauld's maxim about about the "homage vice pays to virtue." In the hands of Edmund Burke, for example, the existence of hypocrisy ought to be taken as a sign of the moral health of society. After all, hypocrisy is first and foremost a sign of the practitioner's shame; it acknowledges, publicly and in advance, that one's actions are, at the least, not praiseworthy. More than this, as David Bromwich has explained in Politics by Other Means: Higher Education and Group Thinking, on the Burkean account hypocrisy weakens vice, by strengthening the community's public adherence to the virtue. (In two ways: the hypocrite and his audience extol the virtue before the hypocrite's exposure, and then the exposure itself turns into an opportunity to reaffirm the virtue and deplore the vice.) To an extent, the very act of hypocrisy makes the practitioner a better person, because she must habitually pretend to be good.

These longstanding defenses of hypocrisy are, to my mind, still persuasive. And Jeremy Lott is entirely correct to deplore the bizarre degeneration of moral and political reasoning in the United States, whereby hypocrisy is the only charge that seems to have sticking power. And it's also true, as he documents with some wit, that the charge of hypocrisy usually covers over a pretty unsavory helping of schadenfreude. When I charge my neighbor with hypocrisy, I inwardly relish his fall from the good graces of the block. That thrill of pleasure hardly affords me the moral high ground. When Lott documents the odd glee that journalists, especially columnists, seem to take in documenting instances of purported hypocrisy, his book comes to life. But that argument attacks such low-hanging fruit that it's slightly embarrassing to see it belabored at such length.

In Defense of Hypocrisy alleges that it pushes the defense of hypocrisy further than previous moral reasoners have done. Lott asserts:

Hypocrisy is so widespread that it might as well be part of our DNA. It is widespread because it is useful... While hypocrisy usually helps to prop up norms and preserve the existing order, that isn't always the case. It also provides a way for good men to pay lip service to heinous governments and warped social customs while working to thwart and ultimately undermine them.

You see, hypocrisy is not just a necessary evil. It's also an engine of moral progress.

It will already be clear that Lott has such a broad conception of hypocrisy that the word loses all meaning. From this point of view, those assisting on the Underground Railroad or working for the resistance during World War II would count as hypocrites if they did not publicly proclaim their deeds. It may be the case that in some technical sense this is hypocrisy, but such honorable exceptions don't legitimate the grosser forms that permeate our culture.

It's also never clear how Lott distinguishes hypocrisy from other kinds of action. He sometimes seems to suggest that hypocrisy occurs any time there's a gap between one's public and private self, or between one's public words and reality. In part, this isn't his fault: As he correctly observes, the "popular usage of the term hypocrite is expansive as a shotgun blast... Hypocrite is often brought in to describe someone we don't like, doing something that we disagree with, involving some sort of perceived contradiction." And while Lott tries to signal his disagreement with such sloppy usage, he nonetheless is happy to rely upon it when it suits. This is on evidence any time Bill Clinton comes up in In Defense of Hypocrisy.

Indeed, this book yields a new test for partisan hackery. If all of the following three conditions are true, then you are probably writing a book of partisan hackery, rather than a work of genuine conservative thought: Did Instapundit blurb your book? (Check.) Does your book treat Ramesh "Party of Death" Ponnuru as a serious moral thinker? (Check.) Does your book hail Newt Gingrich and the Contract with America as key to the 1994 election, despite the fact that massive majorities of the voters had heard of neither? (Check.) What's genuinely weird about this is that such partisan genuflection -- wherein no Republican ever was guilty of hypocrisy, and no Democrat, especially Clinton or Howard Dean, ever innocent -- is hardly necessary to his thesis. What's more, I don't even think people would dispute that Democrats publicly complain a bit more about hypocrisy than do Republicans. (Although Googling "conservative hypocrisy" and "liberal hypocrisy" tells a slightly different tale.)

The payoff for this partisan emphasis comes at the book's end, when Lott claims that "the standard, reflexive objections to hypocrisy are really objections to moral reasoning and moral improvement." According to the logic of his various examples, this amounts to saying that Democratic politicians, activists, and columnists object to moral improvement. This is a profoundly reductive argument, inasmuch as it translates to, "my opponents have different moral priorities than my own; hence, they have none at all." The family resemblance between Lott's book and Ponnuru's The Party of Death should now be clear: Both are works by men who loudly proclaim their serious moral reasoning, but who routinely subjugate that seriousness to partisan ends.

Lott ends his book with a lightly anonymized hypothetical example, that of Jeb Bush and his actions to protect his daughter from the consequences of drug laws he helped to enact. Lott's reading of this is that rather than condemn Bush as a hypocrite, we should praise him as a father, and encourage him to think more broadly in the future. But Lott's conclusions demonstrate just how little he has thought about the problem of hypocrisy in a democracy.

I have appealed to Victorian writers twice before in this review, because the nineteenth century took an interest in hypocrisy comparable to our own. As industrialization and democratization eroded the aristocratic codes that had identified right action for generations, hypocrisy emerged as a problem of unusual salience. If I can be excused one more Victorian reference, let me invoke Dickens, writing near the end of Pickwick Papers of one Mr. Stiggins, a preacher given to drink, yet who preaches abstinence from alcohol:

Mr. Stiggins did not desire his hearers to be upon their guard against those false prophets and wretched mockers of religion, who, without sense to expound its first doctrines, or hearts to feel its first principles, are more dangerous members of society than the common criminal; imposing, as they necessarily do, upon the weakest and worst informed, casting scorn and contempt on what should be held most sacred, and bringing into partial disrepute large bodies of virtuous and well-conducted persons of many excellent sects and persuasions. But as he leaned over the back of the chair for a considerable time, and closing one eye, winked a good deal with the other, it is presumed that he thought all this, but kept it to himself.

This is the mode of hypocrisy that Dickens and like-minded critics deplore: It's not so much that the person fails to live up to their own moral standard -- it's that they demagogically incite "the weakest and worst informed" to act meanly toward others, to eschew fellow-feeling in the name of "scorn and contempt." The problem with hypocrisy is that its practitioners cynically encourage bad behavior, and then pursue worse. If true, David Kuo's recent claims that the current Bush administration encourages evangelical Christianism publicly but laughs about it behind its back would be a instance of this form of hypocrisy.        

Or, perhaps, a counter-example, equally lightly anonymized. Imagine, if you will, a congressman who becomes Speaker riding an anti-corruption platform, the architect of a high-profile "contract" with voters. Imagine such a person committing serial infidelities, and going through several divorces, while proclaiming publicly that liberal values are directly responsible for psychopathic murders. No one cares, or ought to care, about a "family values" politician who finds it difficult to live up to his own ideals. Perhaps we might, with Lott, hope that he would seek less adamantly to enforce those ideals on others, but that's about it. What is disgusting and hypocritical about his behavior, in the sense I am borrowing from Dickens, is something different: It is peddling virtue in such a way that virtue itself becomes a vice, all the while exempting yourself from any consequences to your actions. Virtue becomes a vice because it is offered in a form that encourages hatred and intolerance. That is the hypocrisy currently afflicting our culture, and it comes from left and right alike, but you will find it discussed nowhere in In Defense of Hypocrisy.

In Defense of Hypocrisy: Picking Sides in the War on Virtue by Jeremy Lott
Nelson Current
ISBN: 1595550526
193 pages