January 22, 2005

DREAMING THE IMPOSSIBLE DREAM

Two cheers for hypocrisy (Spengler, Asia Times, January 19th, 2005)

"Hypocrites!" jeer the blue-state metrosexuals at church-going folk who re-elected US President George W Bush in November. Writing in the Boston Globe of October 31, for example, William V D'Antonio complained, "President Bush and Vice President [Dick] Cheney make reference to 'Massachusetts liberals' as if they were referring to people with some kind of disease." In fact, avers D'Antonio, the citizens of Senator John Kerry's home state lead purer lives than Red Staters:

"The state with the lowest divorce rate in the nation is Massachusetts. At latest count it had a divorce rate of 2.4 per 1,000 population, while the rate for Texas was 4.1 ... Born-again Christians have among the highest divorce rates. The Associated Press, using data supplied by the US Census Bureau, found that the highest divorce rates are to be found in the Bible Belt".

That is true in part because the population of the Bible Belt is younger and more likely to marry; if no one but lesbians lived in Massachusetts, the divorce rate would be zero. Nonetheless it is true that Massachusetts liberals display less hypocrisy than Bible Belt Christians, who preach better than they practice. Liberals admit no constraints to pleasure-seeking. They are not hypocritical, but merely disgusting.

On the other hand, the neo-conservatives offer a spirited defense of hypocrisy. Professor Gertrude Himmelfarb, the wife of movement founder Irving Kristol, is a specialist in the Victorian era, a byword for hypocrisy. Up to 5% of young women in the Victorian era worked as prostitutes. In a July 1995 interview with Religion and Liberty, Himmelfarb observed, "I believe firmly in the old adage, 'hypocrisy is the homage that virtue pays to vice'. Violations of the moral code were regarded as such; they were cause for shame and guilt. The Victorians did not do what we do today - that is, 'define deviancy down' - normalize immorality so that it no longer seems immoral. Immorality was seen as such, as immoral and wrong, and was condemned as such."

Before taking exception, I should emphasize that Professor Himmelfarb has a point; apart from the saintly, only the unashamedly wicked are guiltless of hypocrisy. The rest of us pay homage to standards that we do not uphold in practice. For the sake of filial piety we honor parents who well might be unpleasant people, and uphold civic virtues that our leaders honored more in the breach than the observance. The fact that we acknowledge virtue even when we pursue vice makes civil society possible.

For the sake of domestic harmony we tell lies daily. We do not tell our wife that she looks fat, or our child that he is a dullard, or our aged mother that she is a nasty old harridan. The first recorded lie of this genre was told by God in Genesis 18:12-14. The matriarch Sarah laughed at the angels' prophecy that the elderly Abraham would father a son; God interrupted, and told Abraham that Sarah thought that she (rather than he) was too old. Thus hypocrisy has divine sanction.

It is true that sexual repression makes one miserable, but so does sexual license, the more so if one is female. Sex is not the problem, contrary to Sigmund Freud. The problem is life. When Faust tells Mephistopheles that he wants to experience life with all its joys and sorrows, the devil answers pityingly, "Believe me - I've been chewing on this hard cookie for thousands of years, and from cradle to grave, no one has ever been able to digest this sourdough." Life by definition is a failure. First you will grow old (if you are lucky) and then die. Family, religion, culture and nation offer consolations in the face of death, within limits. [...]

The healthy instinct of the public, which prefers the fantasy ideal of happiness to modernist truth telling, illustrates why hypocrisy only deserves two cheers. We cannot tolerate the continuous disappointments of family and civic life, without the hope of something better. Bible Belt Christians are not merely hypocrites but also sinners. They do not only go against the rules, but also against their conscience. Religion does not presume human perfection, but a longing for perfection. That longing is what makes it possible to chew Mephisto's sourdough. It is not surprising that throughout the industrial world, all but the religious have given up on family life.

Many responsible and decent secularists will object to this conclusion and point to their own unwavering commitments to family. What escapes them is that they have nothing to say to those disintegrating around them and will ultimately condone or defend any destructive behaviours provided they are popular and widespread enough.


Posted by Peter Burnet at January 22, 2005 7:53 AM
Comments

And where do people feel comfortable raising their families?

There is a great moment in the movie, Metropolitan, where one of the characters sees his old toys waiting to be collected by the garbage men on the sidewalk in upscale New York when he was visiting a circle of friends he was trying to be part of. (They had been thrown out by his estranged father.) What a terrible but true statement it was.

My wife always says that the true hypocrites are those who accept the inheritance but refuse to acknowledge where it came from: The kids who take the money and refuse to invest like their grandfather did. Or worse, those who live in a society founded by Puritans, but refuse to invest in their society like the Puritans did.

Posted by: Randall Voth at January 22, 2005 9:01 AM

Per the divorce rate in Mass -- apparently, as a base issue, the per capita marriage rate in "Red States" is much higher than in Massachussets -- proportionately, a lot of people getting married in, say, Montana, and a lot of people screwing it up, with not so many getting hitched in Mass and sticking with it. Presumably Mass has a lot more of shacking up going on. . . .

Posted by: Twn at January 22, 2005 9:50 AM

"Liberals admit no constraints to pleasure-seeking. They are not hypocritical, but merely disgusting. "

Great line. The Left loves to use the term to label anyone might fail up to their own, self-imposed constraints, knowing it can never be applied in reverse, because the Leftknows that you can't be a hypocrite if you have no standards.

Posted by: HAL 9000 at January 22, 2005 1:05 PM

Peter:

If the personal conduct of Christian conservatives is, on the whole, indistinguishable from secularists, than in what way is being a Christian conservative superior?

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at January 22, 2005 1:53 PM

Jeff:

Because he knows his conduct is wrong and doesn't pretend otherwise to his children.

Posted by: Peter B at January 22, 2005 2:55 PM

This is a false and unnecessary debate. There is no shortage of people who know how to behave decently and who teach their families to behave decently without any reference to the divine. There is also no shortage of people who Bible-thump and daven till the cows come home who behave execrably and whose progeny are like the worst beasts in the field.

Most intelligent secular people understand that a sincere belief in religion is helpful to many in enforcing reasonable standards. Why is it so difficult for the religious to return the favor?

Posted by: Bart at January 22, 2005 3:01 PM

Bart, the problem I, as a conservative, have with libertarians is on the question of what "behave decently" means and where that standard comes from.

The typical response is, "as long as no one gets hurt..." But that is baseless because someone must get hurt to enforce any standard; such is the nature of enforcement.

Posted by: Randall Voth at January 22, 2005 10:58 PM

Mr. Voth;

No, that's what should be legal. Libertarians believe that civil society is sustained best by people, not the government. As a welfare state robs people of the habit of productivity, the regulatory states robs of them the moral imperative.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at January 23, 2005 2:10 AM

Randall,

You missed my point. I was not going to get into the libertarian/interventionist debate, that is for another place and time. My point was simply that one does not need reference to the divine to lead a decent, honorable life. Even the most restrictive laws that a religious person would impose on secular behavior can be drafted with a non-religious justification. I would refer you to the avowedly secular state of Singapore, which bans drugs, gambling, prostitution, nudie bars, etc, without a reference to the divine.

Posted by: Bart at January 24, 2005 8:10 AM
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