Friday, July 14, 2006

Book Review: IN DEFENSE OF HYPOCRISY by Jeremy Lott

If “patriotism” is the last refuge of scoundrels, “hypocrisy” is surely their first, second, and third hiding place. Nowadays, it isn’t being hypocritical that provides safe haven for unvirtuous folk but rather the practice of pinning the label on others. When it comes to sleaze, the best defense is a good offense.

Jeremy Lott’s literary response to this orgy of blame-shifting is to expose the duplicity of accusers and to argue that hypocrisy isn’t as bad as most folks think. Indeed, the author even shows how the much-maligned characteristic can create positive outcomes.

Lott’s first case in point concerns the hypocrisy charge giddily leveled against Bill Bennett when political opponents discovered that the former Secretary of Education was a high-stakes gambler. Critics were indignant that a man who presumed to tell others about virtue was engaging in a putative vice.

Instead of directing scorn at Bennett, Lott focuses attention on the duplicity of his critics—folks who ignored the fact that Bennett had never criticized gambling per se and that his moral perspective was broadly consistent with Catholic teaching on the subject. Lott also notes that these anti-moralists exaggerated their personal objections to gaming while abandoning their very real convictions about privacy rights—all in order to skewer a political opponent. An awful lot of hypocrisy, in other words, was involved in these charges of “hypocrisy” lodged against Bennett.

Lott’s remarks about Howard Dean, on the other hand, show how an individual can deliver the most damning moral judgments while claiming not to be morally judgmental. “Look, we’re not going to stoop to this kind of divisiveness,” Dean said to Tim Russert after observing that Tom Delay should resign from Congress and serve his (nonexistent) jail sentence in Houston.

As these examples indicate, the anecdote is Lott’s preferred method of inquiry. Using this technique the author comments on, among others, Newt Gingrich, Michael Moore, Britney Spears, and a cast of Hollywood stars. Special attention is lavished upon Casablanca’s Captain Renault and the sham revivalist played by Steve Martin in Leap of Faith. Unfortunately, Lott’s book is longer on examples than on systematic analysis.

Little attention, for example, is given to the proper (or traditional) definition of the word “hypocrisy.” That classic definition (as illustrated in the Oxford English Dictionary) focuses primarily on pretended virtue—not, as is common today, on failing to live up to the standards one professes. While Lott acknowledges the former definition, he effectively dismisses it by observing that distinctions having to do with motives and moral weakness make identifying hypocrisy “a mysterious, almost occult activity.”

Consistent with this definitional lassitude, Lott throws into his inquiry any permutation of deceit that strikes his fancy—keeping vices private, being polite, protecting state secrets, being inconsistent, obeying unwritten (as opposed to written) rules, and lying in order to protect innocent victims from tyrants. Nor are these variegated activities analyzed systematically. Instead, the author alternately condemns and defends a concept that has been stretched beyond recognition. Thus, Lott says near the end of the chapter on Bill Bennett, “…the whole episode was shot through with hypocrisy. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

A more careful presentation might have focused on the reason that Francois De La Rochefoucauld’s 17th century view of hypocrisy (“the tribute that vice pays to virtue”) strikes many people today as odd. It might have noted that modern societies, suffused with existentialist clichés, no longer presuppose the objective view of virtue that informed the French nobleman’s dictum. In its place stand only personal beliefs to which one may, or may not, be true. Consequently, consistency and authenticity are prized above any “real” morality. Being “true to oneself” or “to one’s own beliefs” is cherished—not being, or pretending to be, virtuous. In such a context, Jesus’ admonition to his disciples to follow the Pharisees’ teachings, but not their deeds, has little resonance. What does resonate in modern ears is that gladly misconstrued injunction, “Judge not!” (I should note that Lott offers some helpful exegetical remarks on the aforementioned biblical passages.)

This philosophical retreat from objective morality also explains why those who vociferously denounce hypocrisy are pleased with a “saint or shut up” standard for moral discourse—a rule that creates a society in which, as Lott rightly observes, morality is easily “shouted down.” Such ground rules also satisfy the druthers of those who seek social transformation via political means. Indeed, both neo-Marxists and mall-rat Sartreans are happy to embrace the popular proviso that allows anyone to denounce the personal foibles of moralists—and moralists alone.

One can at least be grateful for the insights that In Defense of Hypocrisy does contain. Despite the fact that it is neither topically focused nor philosophically sophisticated, the book does serve to undermine the popular presumption that hypocrisy (broadly defined) is the worst of all moral failings and to point readers in another direction. What exactly that direction might be is material for another book.

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