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Culture

Why Hypocrisy Matters

Terry Sawyer

Where Goldberg and Coulter see failed idealists, I can't help but see people wielding beliefs like bludgeons that they'll gladly drop once the bloodwork is done.

Republicans have become increasingly savvy about hypocrisy. Surely, it's a matter of evolutionary course that they would need to develop this skill in order to insure their survival. After all, as the putative God party, they are the ones who rail against the decline of their shoebox morality, where everything is in its place and the creator of the Universe is a very old man who votes for their candidates, believes that taxes are too high, and helps Confederate flag fans pick their lottery numbers.

It's a curiously sniping form of moralizing, the kind where single mothers are filthy whores but philanderer Newt Gingrich, can be blithely forgiven for his "lapse". Anne Coulter puts the conservative position on hypocrisy rather succinctly in her own inimitably demented way: "Hypocrisy is the only sin that really inflames them (liberals). Inasmuch as liberals have no morals, they can sit back and criticize other people for failing to meet standards that liberals simply renounce." (Coulter, Townhall.com 16 October 2003)

In this transparently hagiographic recasting, conservatives are only hypocrites because they are the only good people in the universe who must cast about in a sea of savages. The truth of the matter is, in fact, the reverse. It's conservatives who tailor morality to fit the needs of the moment, acting as moral relativists who depend on the public's thimble worth of historical recall. Liberals have never renounced morality, but only claimed that matters of good and evil require nuance, engagement, compassion, and complexity.

Conservative reactions to Rush Limbaugh's drug abuse have been fairly typical of their never ending and empty double standard. The way Coulter and Jonah Goldberg, writer for the National Review, frame the issue, Rush Limbaugh's recent admissions are just more evidence of the sterling quality of conservative character because he admitted his addiction and refused to blame anyone, though he did hint that the media was out to smear him. Limbaugh's confession and maudlin slugger joe proclamations of "I am not a victim" came only after his housekeeper sold him out to a tabloid and he found himself flailing in a Florida drug dragnet. His red-handed revelation seems less about any genuine reflection on his longstanding pill jones than it does an attempt to save his AM empire with a quick rinse of his dirties.

Conservatives rightly questioned the penitence of Bill Clinton when his admissions were circumstantial necessities made under duress as a kind of post-crisis ass covering. How is Limbaugh's speech, given prior to a stage-managed admission into rehab, any more genuine?

Goldberg spills much ink soft-lighting Limbaugh's mistakes noting that: "I think getting addicted to pain medication after being prescribed it is different from going out and scoring heroin." (Goldberg, Townhall.com, 15 October 2003). If addiction is a vice, it's hard to imagine how lazily acquiring it makes one more virtuous. At lease scoring heroin requires developing people skills for individuals outside of one's normal social circle. It's funny how stridently Goldberg applauds Rush for declaring himself "not a victim" while simultaneously eroding his responsibility in subtle asides. After all, at least he's not slumming for his addiction. Sure, to garner the number of pills he's reported to have taken he would have most certainly have had to acquire them illegally, but getting illegal pharmaceuticals seems less dirty than those "street" drugs. It has a certain, shall we say, "whiteness" to it.

Goldberg is also trying to make the argument that Limbaugh was originally prescribed the medication so his addiction is really just an unfortunate side effect of being embroiled in the medical industrial complex. Ecstasy used to be legal and morphine and heroin are pharmaceutical cousins, so does developing a horny taste for those drugs after a painful surgery mean that one's addictive behavior is summarily excused even if you end up swabbing knobs for China White? Aren't street addicts and prescription junkies pursuing the exact same feeling?

Whether or not Limbaugh began his drug abuse recreationally seems irrelevant to the fact that his eventual use was clearly for pleasure. This is a familiar refrain for Goldberg who carts out his wobbly-wheeled philosophical defense of hypocrisy every time a conservative gets nailed for it. At its heart, he displays a fundamental misunderstanding of the vice; a flippant characterizing of it as simply people with good intentions and angelic ideals who stray in the most poetically human of ways. But hypocrisy is far more cancerous a character flaw, with sinister undercurrents that his cynical thumbnail quite pointedly ignores.

The reason hypocrisy is an important vice is not because conservatives should have to live lives in perfect sync with their vision of the perfect world. But where liberals get most incensed with conservative hypocrisy is that it is frequently symptomatic of a much darker, more corrosive form of moral corruption. What hypocrisy reveals most often is that one's stated belief system is one of expedience and false purity, in short: a huge, fucking lie. What conservative hypocrisy reveals is not lapses in morality, but the craven absence of authentic belief. The hypocrisy of the moment is often superseded by the broader hypocrisy of political temperament.

When moral standards are applied with ferocity only to one's political opponents, it's impossible not to wonder what exactly lies at the core of that ethic. Is it an actual belief in right and wrong, or is it a belief that you are more likely to be able to dispatch an enemy's reputation if you inflate mistakes to the level of unforgivable offense? What conservatives ignore about the constant presence of hypocrisy is that at some point surely it becomes a measure of moral inaccuracy.

Goldberg's version of hypocrisy is ridiculously self-serving for conservatives. He comments that "To argue that every conservative must be perfect before he or she can offer an opinion is to say that conservatives can never offer their opinions." (ibid) Perfection? Let's just say I've never considered applying that standard to a conservative. While turning into white light is not what I expect, I do expect some sort of systemic consistency on occasion or fealty to something other than power. Such haughty disdain for the deeper implications of hypocrisy has deadly consequences in the political realm.

When liberals decried the jerrybuilt rationales for invading Iraq, they did so because they recognized what a hypocritical load of horseshit it was. Here was the George Bush, the candidate who swaggeringly ridiculed nation building and the party that eviscerated Clinton for his humanitarian uses of the military, and he's now suddenly pretending to care about the Iraqis. People in the Middle East aren't as stupid as the people who watch Fox news. For example, they can remember when Saddam Hussein was our ally, when we were shoveling cash and weapons into his coffers at the height of his slaughtering reign. They probably also remember that we enticed Hussein to invade one of our enemies while roundly smacking him down for invading an oligarchy that had cushy ties to our government.

Tell the truth to a Republican, and you get a book like Coulter's Treason (Crown Forum, 2003), whereby detailing the anti-democratic exploits of our government means that you hate our entire country and, in the inchoate and terrifying terms of Coulter, that perhaps you should be murdered or jailed for thinking such things. Indeed, Republicans don't give two shits about freedom and oppression in the world, and they never have. But they know how to rape the good will of the American public into believing that we're just missionaries piercing the darkness with our wondrous shafts of Holy light. In this case, the brazen hypocrisy of the Bush Administration, and its roughshod, ill-conceived, adventuring in Iraq has meant that the people of the Middle East view our presence with loathing and bitterness.

See, when you're a hypocrite, people quite sensibly stop listening to what you say and develop their own theories about your true intentions. In this case, the Iraqi people have seen how hypocrisy and lying are kissing cousins, as the motivations for war have been revealed like patches of skull on a decaying corpse. Conservatives have an uncanny capacity for brushing all such contradictions and imperfections aside, as if sheer fervency supersedes every ethical snag. It's the typical fundamentalist ideology of believing that greater goods excuse minor sins. This is particularly galling for the rest of us when there appears to be no greater good forthcoming.

Hypocrisy also reveals a baseless opportunism. My personal favorite conservative hypocrisy is "reverse racism", that bastard spawn of the dark arts of marketing genius. Like "Federalism", "reverse racism" is simply a smarter shade of an old goal. After all, the modern Republican party has never exactly been the friend of minorities. Hell, even now, at private parties, they have a nasty tendency to wax rhapsodic about the days when darkie had a separate drinking fountain. Despite their deeply entrenched historical ties to segregation, they have baldly attempted to portray themselves as the party who now wants a "colorblind" society. This is perhaps the most evil version of hypocrisy: where one's stated belief directly contradicts one's actions in order to intentionally deceive. Do one thing, call it another.

Where Goldberg and Coulter see failed idealists, I can't help but see people wielding beliefs like bludgeons that they'll gladly drop once the bloodwork is done. There's a real difference between the hypocrisy that emerges from unreached goals, and that which emerges from empty posturing. We all posit ideals that no person can meet and we should be not be throttled for what is essentially the human condition. But that's far different from positing beliefs that, at many levels, you truly don't believe.

Which brings us back to Limbaugh, if only because I could go on until my fingers atrophied and still not have circumnavigated the world of conservative ill will. The right thing to do is to feel sorry for him, even if he has made his entire living sowing the blackest of enmity, making every matter of disagreement into a phony dichotomy between good and evil. Limbaugh's pain, while cause for guilty amusement, is not reason to abandon principle. He should be able to do whatever he wants with his body and not find himself uselessly enmeshed with the criminal justice industry. If he has a problem, or a habit that has taken over his life, he should seek treatment and be given the compassion his life has so sorely lacked.

As for the wider implications, I think it's acceptable for liberals to hold conservatives to the consequences of their rhetoric. The rehabilitation of hypocrisy is a calculated exercise in shrouding conservative's shoddier motives. It's part of a wider program of ranking the worst sins as the ones you are least likely to commit. When is the last time you heard a conservative polemic against greed? Exactly. And that's why hypocrisy matters.

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