What to Tell the Axe-Man

Jeremy Waldron

  • Political Hypocrisy: The Mask of Power, from Hobbes to Orwell and Beyond by David Runciman
    Princeton, 272 pp, £13.95, September 2010, ISBN 978 0 691 14815 1
  • Virtues of Mendacity: On Lying in Politics by Martin Jay
    Virginia, 241 pp, $24.95, April 2010, ISBN 978 0 8139 2972 9

When American politicians are caught having illicit sex – like Eliot Spitzer, who resigned as governor of New York in 2008 after it was revealed that he was using a call-girl when he went to Washington, or Mark Sanford, governor of South Carolina, who got into trouble when his aides discovered that he was really visiting a divorcée in Buenos Aires when he said he was hiking in the Appalachians – a lot of people say that it’s not the cheating or the fornication that bothers them. It’s the hypocrisy; or it’s the lying. They say that the zeal for prosecuting prostitution rings which Spitzer had displayed when he was attorney general made him a hypocrite when he availed himself of the services of the Emperor’s Club VIP as Client No 9. ‘This is really about hypocrisy and not sex,’ according to the Republican Party consultant who tipped off the FBI about Spitzer’s extra-curricular activities. A columnist in the New York Times said that the Sanford affair ‘would be a private matter … if it were not for the appalling hypocrisy of yet another social conservative saying one thing while doing another’. (Sanford was a strong proponent of ‘family values’.) Or remember what people said about President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky in the 1990s. It wasn’t the oral sex with a young White House intern that they minded; it was that Clinton lied about it. This is what puritans sound like when they’re trying to be liberals.

So what’s the big deal about hypocrisy? Why is it worse secretly to violate moral standards you say publicly you believe in than to violate moral standards you say you don’t care about anyway? Why didn’t the New York public regard Spitzer’s campaigns against prostitution as a mitigation of his personal offence – in a hackneyed phrase, the tribute that vice pays to virtue? Better still, why wouldn’t they regard it as lending authority to his crusade, showing that Spitzer, unlike other less corruptible prosecutors, knows whereof he speaks?

It’s not a frivolous possibility. Politicians who stand up for family values don’t have to deny that they (the values and the politicians, too) are beset by powerful temptations. Spitzer must have known that high-class prostitution is very tempting to men who can afford it. Maybe that was one of the reasons he was zealous in prosecuting it. The fact that he succumbed to the temptation himself doesn’t undermine that position; if anything it reinforces it. It’s like an alcoholic who perceives the value of a 12-step programme more forcefully than his sober neighbours. In some circumstances, putting his own temptations on display might even help his campaign, just as someone in the grip of a gambling addiction can argue from his own experience that casinos ought to be more heavily regulated. In other circumstances, it would be better to keep the vice secret: that way it wouldn’t be a distraction and his personal knowledge of the strength of the temptation could still do its work in motivating his campaign. All this is worth thinking about when we seek refuge from our fear of seeming prudish in a reflexive denunciation of the mendacity or hypocrisy of a public man who says one thing and privately does another.

In 2007, David Runciman devoted his Carlyle Lectures at Oxford to the subject of hypocrisy – not hypocrisy in general, but hypocrisy in politics. It is a wonderful topic. Everyone knows that politics is partly a matter of ritual and ceremony, deception and compromise. Politics requires us to talk about complex issues as though they were simple, and to keep hidden from public view some of the nastier deals and compromises that enable us to get things done in communities made up of millions of quarrelsome, naive and opinionated people. Without this unpleasantness, as Bernard Williams once observed, important and worthy political projects would fail. There is no question of a politics of pure authenticity or uncontaminated sincerity. So, if hypocrisy is still a vice in the political realm, it has to connote something more complicated than just saying one thing and doing or believing another. Runciman’s aim is to get to the bottom of what that might be.

Since the Carlyle Lectures are officially devoted to the history of political thought, Runciman’s reflections are presented as a series of essays on hypocrisy as it has been addressed by a succession of English writers: Hobbes, Mandeville, Bentham, Trollope, Sidgwick and Orwell. Hypocrisy is known as a peculiarly English vice, he says, though some think the United States is overtaking the United Kingdom ‘as the repository for much of the world’s hypocrisy’. For the most part, Runciman does not cross the Atlantic; with the exception of some musings on Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama at the end of the book, it is an English tradition that he takes himself to be exploring.

Runciman’s account of Orwell on hypocrisy and lying is particularly interesting. Orwell certainly understood the uses of disingenuousness in politics, particularly democratic politics, and in spite of his reputation for denouncing double-think, he was by no means opposed to it. He never lost sight of the fact that hypocrisy and anti-hypocrisy have the potential to leak into each other, and that far more frightening than hypocrisy is a state of affairs in which people are left with nothing in the way of private life and private sentiments to be disingenuous about. Where appearances are everything, there is no need for masks: ‘no one has anything to hide, and that is where the terror lies.’

Runciman’s apparent endorsement of these comments suggests ordinary hypocrisy is not his real target. He is opposed to what he calls ‘second-order hypocrisy’. The definition of this is not always clear, but I think the second-order hypocrite is supposed to be the one who cynically exploits the public’s familiarity with double standards in politics and takes advantage of its naive yearning for someone who can rise above it. The second-order hypocrite is one who pretends to the public that double-dealing and hypocrisy, though endemic, are not inevitable – and that he is a beacon of sincerity in a corrupt and hypocritical world. This is the most dangerous actor of all, the one whose anti-hypocrisy is itself a deliberate mask. Second-order hypocrites create the impression that full sincerity and transparency are actually possible in a politics that puts feelings and virtues on public display. They make a fetish of their own virtue, professing it genuine in a world where everyone else’s professions are known to be bogus, and they trade on their own vaunted ability to distinguish the sincere from the insincere and to expose and denounce the latter. By their own efforts they do great harm to people who, if not innocent, certainly don’t deserve to be ‘outed’ or disgraced. But worse still is the political climate they produce. It is a climate in which everyone is on the alert for hypocrisy and lying, and in which other forms of wickedness are put to one side in the all-consuming quest to uncover a mismatch between a politician’s public professions and the genuine sentiments of his soul.

I wish Runciman had devoted some time to the superb reflection on political hypocrisy and its exposure in Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution, first published in 1963. On Revolution is many things: a meditation on American constitutionalism, a lament on the passing from the world of a certain sort of high-minded engagement with politics, and a reflection on the divergent courses of the American and French Revolutions. But its most powerful passage is its denunciation of the war on hypocrisy – ‘the never-ending fight to ferret out the hypocrites’ – that transformed Robespierre’s dictatorship into a reign of virtue-based terror. The idea was to identify those in whose hearts the principles of revolutionary solidarity and equality were not firmly and unequivocally lodged, or those who didn’t really care for the poor or care for revolutionary France in the way they said that they cared. If only the rot of hypocrisy could be extirpated the natural virtue of good-hearted humanity would shine forth. ‘This misplaced emphasis on the heart as the source of political virtue,’ Arendt wrote, and the quest to eradicate hypocrisy from public life, are together a recipe for madness. The human heart, she says, is ‘a place of darkness which, with certainty, no human eye can penetrate’. When we say that nobody but God can see into a human heart, ‘nobody’ includes one’s own self, ‘if only because our sense of unequivocal reality is so bound up with the presence of others that we can never be sure of anything that only we ourselves know and no one else’. The consequence of this is that our entire psychological life is cursed with a suspicion that can be raised at any time, by us or by others, against our innermost motives. To demand that everybody display in public his innermost motivation is actually demanding the impossible. And so it transforms all politicians into hypocrites. The moment the public display of motives begins, Arendt says, hypocrisy and the fear of hypocrisy begin to poison all human relations. We would do well to remember this in our own politics, when we go round priding ourselves on our ability to discern the hypocrisy of others, whose motives, we believe, are not as pure as our own.

Martin Jay, whose book The Virtues of Mendacity: On Lying in Politics is also based on a set of lectures, sees these passages by Arendt as a powerful indication of why the demand for a politics of truth and transparency is bound to be self-defeating. Jay writes that ‘the ruthless quest’ in revolutionary France ‘to purge [hypocrisy] from the public realm, the insistence on tearing away all masks to reveal the “true self”, had the effect of dissolving the distinction between the natural self and the public persona’, which is the only thing that makes politics possible and bearable.

Quite apart from strategic considerations like bargaining and dealing with one’s enemies, a person has to be a bit of a phony to participate in politics. People care about one another unevenly, even while they proclaim slogans of equality, community and solidarity. But it is what they proclaim – on the stump or in the legislature – that gets things done, not what they really feel. For all anyone knows, a person’s commitment to a given cause may be hesitant or vacillating. It is the appearance of wholeheartedness that makes a difference because it has the ability to engage thousands of others – perhaps in their hearts equally hesitant – in collective action. Even the politics of hope requires a degree of falsification, if only about the prospects of succeeding. One cannot inspire a nation without an imaginative vision of what might be, even as one harbours in one’s heart knowledge that the vision is partly a fiction and that its realisation is bound to be partial, shabby and compromised. Does this make all successful politicians into liars? Probably. But then we await an account of why a liar, in this regard and in these circumstances, is a bad thing to be.

Jay’s approach to his subject is more scattershot than Runciman’s. Rather than take us through a series of chapters, each exploring some famous thinker’s views about lying, he assembles hundreds of insights from here, there and everywhere in three long chapters on lying, on the nature of ‘the political’ and on lying in politics. But the gist is clear enough: mendacity is an important art in politics; it is not the ‘accursed vice’ that Augustine and Montaigne excoriated; lies (in Arendt’s words) ‘have always been regarded as necessary and justifiable tools not only of the politician’s or the demagogue’s but also of the statesman’s trade’. Beyond that, Jay also toys with the idea that we need breathing space in politics for opinions we are not sure about, for passions we are just trying on for size, for the necessary toleration of people we can’t stand, and for rhetoric we can’t necessarily justify. We need this breathing space; but the insistent demand for truth and nothing but the truth has the potential to suffocate it. The ‘big truth’ – ‘the absolute, univocal truth, which silences those who disagree with it and abruptly terminates discussion’ – may be as oppressive and inimical to human freedom, plurality, and the vigour of debate as the ‘big lie’.

The thing to do, then, is not to insist on absolute truth and transparency at all costs, but to follow the counsel of Mark Twain: ‘diligently to train ourselves to lie thoughtfully, judiciously; to lie with a good object … to lie for others’ advantage, and not our own; to lie healingly, charitably, humanely, not cruelly, hurtfully, maliciously; to lie firmly, frankly, squarely, with head erect, not haltingly, tortuously, with pusillanimous mien, as being ashamed of our high calling.’ Jay takes this passage from Twain’s essay ‘On the Decay of the Art of Lying’ as a sort of motto. It sums up the tenor of his approach.

But can it be reconciled with morality? Kant famously repudiated such an approach in his essay ‘On a Supposed Right to Lie because of Philanthropic Concerns’, though his target was not Twain but Benjamin Constant. ‘To be truthful (honest) in all declarations,’ Kant said, is ‘a sacred command of reason … not to be restricted by any conveniences’. This was the essay in which Kant said you have to tell the mad axe-man where his victim is hiding if you are asked (and if you can’t avoid answering), and in which he tried to make his position less ludicrous by saying that, if you lie to the murderer and if, unbeknown to you, the victim you’re trying to protect has slipped outside, then when the murderer encounters him after being persuaded by your lie to leave the house, it is your fault if he kills him. (Some Kant scholars believe that he had taken leave of his senses when he wrote that passage, towards the end of his life.)

Jay’s account of the background and course of this confrontation between Kant and Constant is one of the best parts of his book: he brings out the political dimension of their argument about lying in a way that I hadn’t come across before. And he does give Kant his due. Jay accepts what Kant says, that any lie – even a lie from the best motives – detracts from the general veracity of statements and undermines trust and credibility. Not only that, it is not a respectful way to deal with another human being, even if it is a kind way. Talleyrand is reported to have said in 1807 that ‘speech was given to man to hide his thoughts.’ But Jay responds with a dictum of Derrida: you ‘cease speaking’ when you lie, by which I think he meant that one is doing something else with the noises one makes, a sort of parody of speaking, when one knowingly says the thing that is not.

And maybe, too, there is a difference in politics between the lies we tell to get things going and to mobilise our supporters, the lies we tell about our own hopes, passions and wholeheartedness, on the one hand, and systematic deception about particular matters of fact, on the other. Arendt believed this. In ‘Truth and Politics’, an essay she wrote to respond to those who condemned her for reporting uncomfortable facts about Jewish leadership during the Holocaust in Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt emphasised the fragility of contingent truths about who did what, truths about how human free will was actually exercised in the world. If by some ‘big lie’ we manage to eradicate knowledge of some of the laws of physics or some piece of philosophy, it is possible that at a later date it can be recovered; the objective truth will be there waiting for us and we can reason our way back to it. But if we seek to eradicate from the world knowledge or memory of what happened in human affairs or knowledge of what someone did, if we suppress all witness and evidence of what happened, as (say) Stalin tried to suppress from Soviet history texts all witness and evidence of the fact that there once was a man by the name of Trotsky who played an important role in the Russian Revolution, then there is no reasoning back to such knowledge. That is the thing about human freedom and human action – it need not have happened, but it did. Brute, contingent, unreasonable fact. Unless we keep alive the memory that it happened – that this contingency actually occurred – then it can be lost for ever.

That’s the ontology of truth in human affairs. It doesn’t follow that we need to go out of our way to keep alive the memory of everything that happened – that Eliot Spitzer did consort with prostitutes or that Mark Sanford was in Argentina, not hiking in the Appalachians, in June 2009. It is worth understanding the fragility of truth. But what we need to know, and what we need to judge others by, is another matter.