Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Limits of Yelling "Hypocrite!"

One of the easiest accusations to throw at a political figure is that of hypocrisy, because... they so often are hypocritical. But our acceptance of hypocrisy in the context of politics also makes it easy to make unfair accusations of hypocrisy, for example, "Back in the 80's the liberals in Congress did this, now they say they oppose the same thing." Never mind that the term "liberal" is subjective, we're talking about two completely different groups of people, and even if the issue truly is the same it's possible for somebody over the space of thirty years to find cause to change his mind. Sometimes the accusations are absurd, such as "Ayn Rand collected Social Security even though she opposed it," or "President Obama wants to raise taxes on the rich even though he isn't voluntarily paying taxes beyond the present tax rate." Its not hypocrisy to advance change while following the present laws, or accepting the quid pro quo benefit of paying your Social Security taxes even if you believe its implementation was a mistake.

One of the forms of hypocrisy that a politician's political opponents tend to see as a particular point of vulnerability, or find particularly annoying, is when a candidate lives his life in a manner that seems partially, largely, or completely at odds with the political positions he holds (or, in some cases, pretends to hold). So when Newt Gingrich argues that gay marriage will harm the traditional institution of marriage, it's pointed out that he has a long personal history of infidelity and is presently in his third marriage. And when Al Gore argues that strong action is needed to limit the effects of climate change, it's pointed out that he lives an incredibly wasteful lifestyle.

These accusations are not entirely unfair. Gingrich has no explanation for how gay marriage will supposedly undermine traditional marriage, and it's reasonable to point out that he has no personal problem with weakening the institution of marriage or ignoring his vows to his spouse, and yet the institution of marriage survives. The wasteful, self-indulgent lifestyles of people like Thomas Friedman and Al Gore arguably represent the tragedy of the commons - it's true that individual action, even at the scale of an individual whose carbon footprint approaches that of a typical neighborhood or small town, is not going to have any measurable impact on climate change. But that doesn't make it any more pleasant to hear such a person lecture you, Friedman-style, that if only gas were more expensive and ordinary people (like you) could not afford to drive as much, we would all be better off. It may be true, but why is it that the proposed changes seem to affect only the lifestyles of others? It's also reasonable to point out that you can build yourself a lavish mansion and live in the highest of styles while taking steps to minimize your carbon footprint, perhaps you should do so before lecturing others about waste.

Walter Russell Mead has attempted to explain the differences between acceptable hypocrisy and unacceptable hypocrisy. First he distinguishes character flaws from hypocrisy:
Not all character flaws are inconsistent with positions of great dignity. General Grant’s fondness for whiskey did not make him unfit for command. Other statesmen have combined great public achievement with failure in their personal lives. Franklin Roosevelt was neither a good father nor a good husband; Edward VII was a better monarch than man.
Given that everybody has character flaws, it should go without saying that it's possible to be a great leader in one field while being deeply flawed in another. Shifting back to the topic of actual hypocrisy, Mead tells us,
A television preacher ... cannot indulge in drug fueled trysts with male prostitutes while preaching conservative Christian doctrine. The head of Mothers Against Drunk Driving cannot be convicted of driving while under the influence. The head of the IRS cannot be a tax cheat. The most visible leader of the world’s green movement cannot live a life of conspicuous consumption, spewing far more carbon into the atmosphere than almost all of those he castigates for their wasteful ways. Mr. Top Green can’t also be a carbon pig.
I should first point out, "Yes, they can." The television minister will do just fine until his actions become public. The head of MADD could come back with some appropriate mea culpas and perhaps even improve the message of her organization. (I know Mead has a specific case in mind, but he's arguing a general rule - one anecdote does not prove a rule.) And yes, though it's annoying, it is very possible for somebody to be the biggest "carbon pig" in the world and still argue forcefully and accurately about the need for collective action on climate change.

Mead carries on about how you can have any range of character flaws as an environmental activist (which, again, have nothing to do with hypocrisy), but that you can't have big houses, a personal jet, or even invest in firms that could turn a profit if their green energy technologies are adopted on a wide scale. Perhaps Mead is correct to a point, because obviously you will annoy somme listeners - even sympathetic listeners - by living a lifestyle that's so at odds with your message. And obviously people like Mead will come out of the woodwork with a tu quoque argument. And Mead's demands on Gore are plainly absurd:
Surely, skeptics reason, if the peril were as great as he says and he cares about it as much as he claims, Gore’s sense of civic duty would call him to set an example of conspicuous non-consumption. This general sleeps in a mansion, and lectures the soldiers because they want tents.
Bad example. Exactly when in history was it that generals didn't sleep in mansions while lecturing their troops to make do with far less? I don't recall G.W. pitching a pup tent in the Rose Garden, or even so much as ordering that the White House air conditioning be set to a higher temperature, when he ordered the invasion of Iraq or Afghanistan. A more apt expression might be that it's not possible to be rich and advocate for the poor - but that serves only to highlight how ridiculous Mead's argument is. If you're wealthy, have access to the media and have political influence, you can advocate very effectively for change. You won't have a bigger impact on the public debate by giving away your wealth and living in a homeless shelter.

Although the tu quoque argument is inherently about hypocrisy, Mead states that he doesn't believe Gore is a hypocrite:
I am not one of those who thinks him a hypocrite; I think rather that he shares an illusion common amongst the narcissistic glitterati of our time: that politically fashionable virtue cancels private vice. The drug addled Hollywood celeb whose personal life is a long record of broken promises and failed relationships and whose serial bouts with drug and alcohol abuse and revolving door rehab adventures are notorious can redeem all by “standing up” for some exotic, stylish cause. These moral poseurs and dilettantes of virtue are modern versions of those guilt-plagued medieval nobles who built churches and monasteries to ‘atone’ for their careers of bloodshed, oppression and scandal.

Mr. Gore is sincere, as the fur-fighting actresses are sincere, as so many ’causey’ plutocrats and moguls are sincere. It is perhaps also true that the fundraisers who absolve them of their guilt in exchange for the donations and the publicity are at least as sincere as the indulgence sellers in Martin Luther’s Germany.

I don’t judge, dear reader, and neither should you.
He doesn't judge, "dear reader" but my goodness does he patronize.
The average citizen is all too likely to conclude that if Mr. Gore can keep his lifestyle, the average American family can keep its SUV and incandescent bulbs. If Gore can take a charter flight, I don’t have to take the bus. If Gore can have many mansions, I can use the old fashioned kind of shower heads that actually clean and toilets that actually flush. Al Gore looks to the average American the way American greens look to poor people in the third world: hypocritically demanding that others accept permanently lower standards of living than those the activists propose for themselves.
In Mead's eyes the average citizen (that's you), it appears, is quite stupid. I suspect that many average people would find it annoying to be lectured by Gore that they should made lifestyle changes, when Gore himself has done so little to minimize his own sizable carbon footprint. But contrary to what Mead implies I also suspect that, if asked, the average voter would recognize the difference between an individual and a collective effect, and that it is physically impossible for the world to support close to seven billion people if the average person lived like Gore.

Is Mead attempting to argue to the contrary? That we can all live like Gore? That, on the whole, people in the developing world do not have to accept lower standards of living than are enjoyed in the developed world? (Is that even Gore's message - or is it more that if corrective action is not taken the situation in much of the developing world will grow worse?) If Mead accepts that the world's resources are limited and that it's impossible to lift the average lifestyle of every inhabitant of this planet to that of the American middle class, and if he truly believes that people in the developing world need somebody to tell them that fact, who is it that he believes would be an appropriate spokesperson? Bill Gates?

Does Mead imagine that it would be easier to hear the message from a wealthy, privileged westerner who makes no argument that he, or anybody he knows, should live a less profligate and wasteful lifestyle? Also, why does it matter how the average person in the developing world perceives Al Gore? Most don't even have the capacity to "unfriend" him on Facebook, let alone influence the policy of their governments. That may not be fair, but it's reality. (If it makes you feel better, even with our entrenched democracy and comparative wealth, the average American voter has only slightly more influence on government and policy.)

The short version of Mead's argument is that Al Gore shouldn't be taken seriously on environmental issues because he lives a lifestyle that is wasteful, and is too narcissistic to even see the conflict between what he says and what he does. What's missing? Any substantive argument. Any indication that Al Gore is wrong. That says to me that the problem is with Mead - as I stated up front, it's easy to accuse politicians of hypocrisy. But what matters is whether they're right or wrong. If Mead believes that Gore is wrong, he should make his case. If not, he should stop rambling about why Gore should not be taken seriously and start explaining why any inconsistency between Gore's lifestyle and his environmental advocacy is irrelevant - a distraction from the truth.

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