Friday, June 04, 2010

Political Hypocrisy

Offering up a defense of his friend, Mark Souder, Michael Gerson writes,
Moral conservatives need to admit that political character is more complex than marital fidelity and that less sensual vices also can be disturbing. "The sins of the flesh are bad," said C.S. Lewis, "but they are the least bad of all sins....

Yet moral liberals have something to learn as well. The failure of human beings to meet their own ideals does not disprove or discredit those ideals. The fact that some are cowards does not make courage a myth. The fact that some are faithless does not make fidelity a joke. All moral standards create the possibility of hypocrisy. But I would rather live among those who recognize standards and fail to meet them than among those who mock all standards as lies. In the end, hypocrisy is preferable to decadence.
By "moral conservative", Gerson apparently means the class of conservative that wants government to regulate and legislate moral issues - people like his friend, Mark Souder, who was a big-time advocate of the war on drugs and "abstinence-only" education. It's Souder's "abstinence-only" video that is the source of most of the mockery that Gerson deplores. He's also opposed to abortion rights, the funding of family planning education, and gay marriage. It would seem that much of his political career was dedicated to attacking the sins of the flesh that Gerson now tells us, at least in the context of his defense of his friend, aren't that bad.

Fair enough. If politicians like Souder de-emphasize their moral crusading, they will be less susceptible to accusations of hypocrisy or to having their world collapse due to their own moral failings. But in the absence of moral crusading, what's the point of electing somebody like Souder? In terms of his political career, isn't his railing on the moral weakness of others the very thing that made him special? Take that away, and how much is left? Souder may well be a poster boy for "There, but for the grace of God, go I," but if he didn't internalize the lesson (or decided that there was no political benefit, and perhaps even political peril, in espousing a less judgmental brand of politics) what makes his downfall the wake-up call that Gerson (now) believes "moral conservatives" need?

Gerson introduces the concept of the "moral liberal", not in the sense that you might have previously encountered the phrase - a political liberal who espouses moral values - but apparently as a neologism for "libertine". He's using a pretty standard "hollow man" argument, as the vast majority of people on the political left see absolutely no contradiction between living moral lives and having the government stay out of our bedrooms.

To advance his argument, Gerson uses the broadest possible conception of hypocrisy. Yes, we all hold ourselves and others to standards that, try as we might, we sometimes fail to meet. There's a sense in which that is hypocrisy, but what we're addressing with people like Vitter (and John Ensign, Henry Hyde, etc.) is something different. We're talking about people who are happy to condemn, and profit from their condemnation of, the moral failings of others not as they struggle to live moral lives or atone for past transgressions, but without caring that they are applying a double standard. I'll give Souder the benefit of the doubt - he got caught fooling around and he resigned from office. What are we to make of Ensign?

So step back and ask, what's being mocked? If Souder was mocked only for having an affair, assuming he truly believes in marital fidelity and makes a sincere effort to be faithful, Gerson has a point. If Souder was being mocked for sitting next to somebody with whom he is having an active affair, in front of a camera, and lecturing the world about the importance of sexual abstinence outside of the institution of marriage, there's a colorable case that he's a hypocrite of the second sort - the type who doesn't believe the message he's preaching.

When Gerson calls on us to show mercy to Souder, to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume his sincerity, he does so within the context of knowing Souder and considering him to be a friend. But he overlooks two things: First, that most people lack the context to know that we're only dealing with "moral shoddiness, laziness and frailty", and not with a guy who deliberately applies a double standard and advocates for principles and causes he does not actually believe. Second, that although there's nothing wrong with defending a friend, and it can be a good thing to come to the aid and defense of a friend in need, it's not ordinarily a difficult thing to do. The difficulty is demonstrating that same grace and mercy toward somebody you don't know, even to somebody you don't like. Even if that person is Jimmy Carter or Barack Obama. We all have room to grow.

1 comment:

  1. Well, of course he would rather live among hypocrites. They keep their mouths shut about your sins if you keep your mouth shut about theirs, after all.