Sunday, March 12, 2006

Hypocrisy and politics

One thing I try to avoid here - though I do it too, obviously, hypocritically - is dwell on political and moral hypocrisy. I'm not a fan of blogs or any other avenue of expression that do so either, although many spend nearly all their linguistic space presenting and mocking the hypocrisy of whatever political side they oppose. You will have noticed that I'm not interested here in dealing with O'Reilly, Limbaugh, or Coulter. Blogdom in particular seems like a gigantesque ad hominem buzzing hivemind at times. So and so in the political world says something or another with self-righteousness (William Bennett, Claude Allen, George Bush, Dick Cheney, Rush Limbaugh, etc., etc.), and then they do something that contradicts what they've been saying! This is easy. It's always easy, no matter the political persuasion. It preys on simple political emotions, turning politics into sports. Pop the popcorn, pop open a beer, cheer the smackdown pops, check out Janet Jackson a-popping at halftime - look closely at the breast, but disdain its presence there for all to see. Sometimes it feels good to call someone else an idiot because they say one thing in one context and something else in another or even change their mind. Makes you feel strong, manly, right, just, consistent, and above the fray of poor logic and the guano-stained batcave of political rhetoric.

There is, nonetheless, a hypocrisy that matters. This is the moral and political - or simply existential - version that betrays trust when one has placed one's fragility and risk of harm into the hands of a representative other. Uncertainty generates the necessity of trust as well as its dark Janus brother, paranoia.
Courage and trust have this in common: they are not attitudes with regard to images and representations. Courage is a force that can arise and hold steadfast as one's projections, expectations, and hopes dissipate. Courage rises up and takes hold and builds upon itself. Trust is a force that can arise and hold on to someone whose motivations are as unknown as those of death. It takes courage to trust someone you do not know. There is an exhilaration in trusting that builds on itself. One really cannot separate in this exhilaration the force of trust and the force of courage... Trust is courageous, giddy, and lustful. - Alphonso Lingis, Trust, 2004.
Hypocrisy - in the form that should be assailed - is betrayal not only of trust, but of courage. It charms one into confidence and then breaks or remolds the tacit contract rendering what could have been future courage into fear and mistrust. We don't forget harms easily. When time after time we witness or experience the betrayal, we either cry "hypocrisy!" and blog madly about it or collapse into snivelling balls of paranoia and move to the hills of Idaho or Berkeley muttering about guv'mint or revolution. It's not so easy to walk away and wave it off when it's not only an individual who has betrayed our trust, but an institution under and through which we live.

We've come to accept hypocrisy as an integral part of politics and its institutions. Part of this is the very real harm caused by some in positions of power, such as Bush and Cheney right now, in my estimation. Those who continue to trust them are fools.

Part of this reluctant acceptance (or paranoia) of political hypocrisy also reflects the realities of politics and the fallibility of all individuals. Political decisions affect others, often indirectly and often consequentially. But even the curious perpetual and contrastive ideal-type of the well-meaning politician errs, must change tactics, must deal with the devil at times, must learn where learning may require one to reevaluate and reject one's earlier views even when intransigent others have placed their trust in the politician acting upon those earlier views.

We also witness a deeply entrenched cynicism about politics in general. This is a problem for any hopeful democracy, and it's nothing new (read your Greeks). Yet, if we're cynics about democratic politics, only cynics enter politics and "democracy" takes on the fluffy meaninglessness of abstractions like "freedom" and "security." If anything, democracy is future-oriented and hopeful. It's hopeful of better futures, but it's also hopeful of the trust that can be placed in the hands of citizens and representatives. Cynicism here is the death of hope. When politics goes purely cynical, democracy is dying if not already consigned to the morgue.

But... remembering Emerson's famous line from "Self-Reliance" that "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines," we ought to follow it to the conclusion, "to be great is to be misunderstood... Fear never but you shall be consistent in whatever variety of actions, so they be honest and natural in their hour." Or take Whitman's famous paean to democratic pluralism, "Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself; (I am large—I contain multitudes.)." Inquiry, even at its most exquisitely brilliant is always fallible. If it were not, we would be gods or demons or static bores, all of whom inhabitat the same dour pantheon of a heaven where nothing ever happens. Emerson's lines return us to a different form of trust - that we're truly engaged in genuine inquiry about what is right and wrong, good or bad, worthy or unworthy. What do we do?, we ask. The question has to be asked with pedestrian practical constraints and policy tools and metrics in mind, but also with an insouciant greatness that disdains the demand for perfection. In politics especially there is no such thing as perfection, although the demand for it is ubiquitous.

Bill O'Reilly, Peggy Noonan, Ann Coulter, and the many others with minds geared towards monistic repetitions of self-inflating intellectual mire are insignificant microbial waste in this splendid Emersonian world. They, unfortunately, have a market of angry, distrustful people. They are soothsayers, not inquirers. The further misfortune is that that market is a creation of cynicism itself.

This leads me back to the earlier, more banal point. Do we receive much from the time and energy placed in the project of exposing others' hypocrisy? A liar, yes, is a liar. A poor thinker is a poor thinker. But a hypocrite may often only be a hypocrite at face-value. We speak in different languages to different audiences - children, parents, students, co-workers, spouses, the gas station attendant, the doctor,.... These different languages are different because of context. Place different contexts side by side, out of context, and you can easily find what the blogosphere dwells on as hypocrisy. It doesn't require much intellectual energy; simply a few well-placed googles and links. The O'Reillys, et al. are small minds. It's not worth the energy expended to expose their hypocrisy. Why suffer fools at all? Their hypocrisy comes not from the "honest and natural in their hour," but from the ever-flowing dank sewage systems that run through the worse-for-wear city on a hill.

What use, then, does it do to expend time and energy exposing the hypocrisies of others? Clearly, if there's genuine harm involved, it ought to be exposed and decried. The administration ought to be hung not just for its hypocrisy and betrayal of trust, but for its utter treachery. Hypocrisy-exposing when the target should be treachery is also a betrayal in that it misses the target and frames discussion in terms favorable to the traitor - now the traitor is merely a hypocrite. As a political matter, hypocrisy-exposing when the target is small-minded riff-raff who have no respect for the courage and trust involved in experimental inquiry is futile, as well as the game political opponents would much rather play.

Emerson and Whitman, in their own "courageous, giddy, and lustful" ways, implored us to understand that a pluralistic universe of contradictions is a universe of contradictions. In this kind of world, we have to risk our trust and loyalties. We simply have to. The alternative is paranoia, self-loathing, the collapse of whatever is good and decent in community, and a society that devolves through tit for tat. But we then also have to distinguish between battles worth fighting and those not worth fighting. Insignificant microbes wallowing in the mud aren't worth the energy and words - they shape the anger of the true-believers, and no amount of rational criticism, exposing contradictions and hypocrisies, and better arguments is going to change that. Dewey wrote that "ideas are effective not as bare ideas but as they have imaginative content and emotional appeal," so that the problem is then "that of effecting the union of ideas and knowledge with the non-rational factors in the human make-up." We'll always find contradictions in political ideas because the world, history, human experience are never static while we're politicking. Reimagining politics in all its honesty and deceit, coherence and incoherence, change and ingrained habits, illusions, confusions, and contusions, is the route towards understanding what's good about it and towards being societies that truly want to be better than they have been.


Murky Thoughts said...

Hypocrisy is worth looking for, but I think rhetorically we'd do well to keep our listeners aware that it's only an indicium of what's dangerous about certain personalities, psychologies and behaviors people. Soccer mom's are guilty of hypocrisy. Coulter I think it's fair to liken to Hitler.

helmut said...

You're right. I, personally, would rather just ignore Coulter. She only exists when we perceive her as existing. Otherwise she's a silent tree falling in the forest.

Anonymous said...

Nice post, helmut. I think I detect some internal contradictions, but I'd have to print it all out and study it.

Not today, though.


helmut said...

Cheryl -

(Giggles) That's the luxury of writing a post on hypocrisy and contradiction.

altpixel said...

Bravo! You've put together a very sound argument that really addresses a point I've tried to put together for some time now in the midst of informal debates.