“I’m a great believer in hypocrisy. It’s the nearest we ever get to virtue. It’s a statement of what we ought to be. Like religion, like art, like the law, like marriage. I serve the appearance of things. It’s the worst of systems; it is better than the others.”
So says Rawley Bradfield, Head of Chancery at the British Embassy in Bonn, West Germany, in John Le Carre’s 1968 novel A Small Town in Germany. When I read those words over the holiday break, they rather struck a nerve, for I’ve been contemplating here recently the importance of hypocrisy in social relations. Yes–it’s importance.
Hypocrisy tends to be regarded, especially among those on the Left, as a sin akin to the Bible’s unforgivable “sin against the Holy Ghost,” around which debate still swirls (What is is? Have I accidentally committed that sin?). Hypocrisy is the distance between one’s publicly stated values and one’s actual practices, and we loathe those who do not practice what they preach. Many religious communities have rituals of confession and penance for a range of sins, but hypocrisy is not really seen as a sin in an of itself. The preacher may be carrying on an adulterous relationship on the side, but at least he isn’t urging others to do likewise. He’s maintaining the form of things, even if, by so doing, he is helping to weave the rope that will hang him. On the Left, however, we don’t have much use for form. You catch your favorite organic farmer spraying Roundup all over the place, and he is dead to you. Because, for us, reality tends to matter more than appearance. We don’t make the world a better place by saving souls–we make our souls better by saving the world.
But I worry–I truly worry–about losing our ability to commit acts of hypocrisy, about shortening the distance between our stated values and our deeds. And yes, it’s that ignorant, child-raping, treasonous piece of shit Donald Trump (piss be upon him) who has brought this matter to a head. He is increasingly making it possible for the United States to act hypocritically. After all, one of the first things his State Department did was to erase from its mission the promotion of human rights abroad. Has the United States always acted in the interests of human rights? Hell, naw. But at least in promoting the form, it made itself open to criticism from the corner of its own expressed values. To express openly a particular ideal is to make yourself accountable to a broader public. Yes, we may fail to live up to that ideal, or even desecrate it outside the glare of the public eye, but it at least signals a commitment to the idea of perfectibility, if not of perfection, and that idea may well find adherents in others–your Monsanto whore of a farmer may well have inspired other people to adopt herbicide-free practices, and their positive experiences is not undermined by his hypocrisy.
(I am completely blanking on its name, but there was a controversy in the early Church surrounding the issue of whether or not one could be truly saved if one had heard the Gospel from a source that later turned out to be in a state of sin, and the Church fathers agreed that salvation is not dependent upon the moral state of the one presenting the Gospel. I hope you see the parallels.)
In this discussion of hypocrisy, you may well have brought to mind the Roman Catholic child rape scandal (still ongoing), but passing pedophiles around was no act of hypocrisy in the slightest. According to Catholic dogma, it’s a great sin to bring scandal to the Church, and Church leaders reckoned that the revelation of said regime of child rape would have called into question the nature of the Church as the means of humankind’s salvation. So it was a matter of one value trumping another. The Church is not capable of hypocrisy as an institution because it holds among its greatest values the defense of the institution. Likewise are dictatorships not capable of hypocrisy because they hold the preservation of the dictator as a person and an image as their reason to be. These are regimes incapable of hypocrisy.
And that is the direction in which we are moving. Ignorant, child-raping, treasonous piece of shit Donald Trump (piss be upon him) aims to collapse the distance between values and actions, not by moving actions in the direction of values but by the opposite. And sure, you might say, at least the United States now stands naked–at least its reality is revealed for what it is, and it’s no longer a hypocrite. But hypocrisy may well be the nearest we ever get to virtue, and without that ideal as our guiding star, no one can tell us we’re going in the wrong direction. Classic American governance constitutes the worst of the systems; it is better than the others.