Better a hypocrite than a liberal and other conservative insights

PZ Myers posts here about celebrating his 31st anniversary. With my marriage three months off, I find great joy in the sight of happy, long-lasting couples—but I also liked his discussion of how thrice-divorced adulterer Newt Gingrich can be a mouthpiece for “traditional family values” while Myers, an atheist and liberal, is their enemy.
Of particular interest was Myers’ observation that “it doesn’t matter what you do, all that matters is what you say” because I’ve been brooding on the same thing myself. Thinking, for example, about the way that so many northwest Florida right-wingers dismissed Bill Clinton as the “pot-smoking, draft-dodging president” but didn’t bat an eye at George W. Bush, the drunk-driving, draft-dodging president.
In 2004, given a choice between W., a guy who admitted joining the National Guard to dodge the draft and didn’t even complete his commitment and Kerry, a guy who served and got medals for it, they chose to go with the draft-dodger who supported the war he didn’t fight in, rather than the veteran who criticized the war. The car window painted with “I support the troops—Kerry is a traitor” pretty much sums up the incoherence: Supporting the troops means insulting veterans who dissent from the Republican party line.
The same attitude, as Myers notes, pops up on questions of family values. Columnists Suzanne Fields and Michael Gerson have made the old argument that while, of course, it’s bad if a conservative politician is a hypocrite, hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue. After social conservative Rep. Mark Souder’s affair with a staffer became public, Gerson argued that he “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.”
In other words, it’s better to stand up and lie about how you believe in abstinence before marriage or how vile gay people are (Gerson doesn’t make that point but I’ve heard pundits invoke the hypocrisy argument there too) than to question standards. If you say you support traditional values, it’s okay to stumble; if you follow or promote a different view (gay rights, sex outside marriage), you’re a moral abyss.
Embracing beliefs you don’t follow in private isn’t necessarily a tribute to virtue. It’s just as likely a tribute to what will get you elected. I don’t think W.’s pose as the swaggering fighter-pilot had anything to do with respect for those who served, it had to do with what would sell him to the public (and frankly, it ain’t much of a tribute).
I do think we make too much of hypocrisy. The problem with abstinence education is that it doesn’t work (and includes a lot of lies), not whether or not the politicians promoting it abstain themselves.
But I don’t have much sympathy for hypocrites either. It’s one thing to defend a private individual as someone who falls short of his own standards; when someone falls short of standards he’s forcing on others, he should explain why he’s not removing the beam from his own eye instead of plucking sawdust from ours (Newt’s claim he was so busy working hard for this country that “things that were not appropriate” happened isn’t much as explanations go). And right-wing pundits rarely preach tolerance and forgiveness except when one of theirs is caught. After one Repub sex scandal, pundits John Leo and Kathleen Parker asserted we need to stop driving people from public lives over sex—except Bill Clinton, that was totally different!
It’s almost enough to make me think this is more about politics than Christian forgiveness.
Which would make Gerson, Leo and Parker hypocrites themselves.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Better a hypocrite than a liberal and other conservative insights

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