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.

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