Liehards: On Political Hypocrisy | The Nation


Liehards: On Political Hypocrisy

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For Runciman, the best guide for distinguishing between harmful lies and useful mendacity is the Anglo-American liberal tradition—the strain of modern political thought seemingly most attached to the idea of politics as the realm of truth-telling and interpersonal trust. His singular claim is that many great figures in this tradition going back to Hobbes (though not to Locke) thought long and hard about a problem that persists to this day: how much lying can we tolerate—and when, what kinds and why? Or as he more cynically puts it: “What sorts of hypocrites [do] we want our politicians to be?” His survey of the great liberal thinkers of the past 350 years, including novelists, philosophers and politicians, is intended to provide nothing less than a “practical guide” (in the author’s words) for dealing with political hypocrisy in our own time.

The Virtues of Mendacity
On Lying in Politics.
By Martin Jay.
Buy this book.

Why Leaders Lie
The Truth About Lying in International Politics.
By John J. Mearsheimer.
Buy this book.

Political Hypocrisy
The Mask of Power, From Hobbes to Orwell and Beyond.
By David Runciman.
Buy this book.

About the Author

Sophia Rosenfeld
Sophia Rosenfeld is the author, most recently, of Common Sense: A Political History.

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In Runciman’s estimation, Hobbes, though in many ways not a liberal, arrived at “one of the central insights of modern politics” with its premium on equality: that “to rule in a modern state is by definition to play a kind of double role—that of the everyman who is also the only person with real power.” To Hobbes’s way of thinking, as long as this rule is understood and honored, occasional lying or public concealment of one’s true nature or motives should be an accepted aspect of political life, whether one is playing the role of sovereign or subject. More to the point, given the fundamental truth that politics—especially political language—is an inevitably hypocritical business, the only genuinely troubling form of hypocrisy is a political leader’s insistence upon his own unwavering sincerity, which amounts to the thinnest of lies about the nature of power.

But it is Bernard Mandeville, a creature of the first age of true party politics, who emerges as Runciman’s unlikely touchstone, in part because Mandeville was able to draw out the practical implications of Hobbes’s claims. Both by scrutinizing the sham moralizing of his Tory enemies in the power struggles of early eighteenth-century England and by looking back to Oliver Cromwell, that “vile, wicked Hypocrite, who, under the cloak of Sanctity broke through all Human and Divine laws to aggrandize himself,” Mandeville came to the conclusion that one can distinguish between more and less benign forms of hypocrisy. What deserves special censure is hypocrisy about hypocrisy—attacking the morals of one’s opponents while making a fetish of one’s own supposed virtue. The “second order” hypocrite, playing on the people’s desire for sincerity and knowingly and falsely painting himself as the only respectable man in a crooked world, soils the stables that he professes to have cleaned.

In Runciman’s telling, it was the leaders of the subsequent generation of revolutionaries in America who devoted themselves—with only partial success—to trying to work out what a successful injunction against hypocrisy (i.e., one that did not itself fall prey to hypocrisy) might be. But Runciman’s point is weakened by his startling statement that, owing to the contradictions created by slavery, “no event in modern political history has been so marked by the problem of hypocrisy as the American Revolution.” The ahistoricity of this claim serves to remind us that what counts as hypocrisy is always open to judgment and subject to change. Slaves, after all, were not the only group of people left out of equal-rights claims in the late eighteenth century, and plenty of committed revolutionaries, regrettably but honestly, spent little time worrying about their own political commitments in light of the continued existence of human bondage in Europe’s settler colonies.

Finally, after scrutinizing many of the nineteenth century’s patron saints of political honesty (here canonized as sages of acceptable and unavoidable forms of hypocrisy), Runciman arrives at the liberal anti-hypocrite par excellence, George Orwell. Should we be surprised that our greatest post-Bentham critic of the sort of platitudes and language games that mask the truth about power nevertheless saw that some aspects of hypocrisy were inevitable, especially in a democracy, and some not as dangerous as others? According to Runciman, even Orwell came to the conclusion, quite in keeping with Runciman’s own views, that a politics single-mindedly focused on anti-hypocrisy is not only self-defeating but a vice unto itself. Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four is here transformed into a picture of a world in which hypocrisy has become impossible because language has finally been emptied of all meaning. Indeed, in one of Runciman’s more intriguing formulations, fascism is redefined as imperialism that has shed its close relationship with hypocrisy and become honest about the workings of power, even as it perpetuates other lies.

Ever the consequentialist, Runciman cautions against worrying too much about any but the most potentially damaging varieties of deception. Yet he sidesteps a serious obstacle, which is that lies—and the extent of their damage—can generally only be identified in hindsight. Mainly, though, he advocates moving away from a politics of personality in which we insist above all on authenticity and sincerity of intention. Approvingly, he quotes the late political theorist Judith Shklar: “It is easier to dispose of an opponent’s character by exposing his hypocrisy than to show his political convictions are wrong.” This is a message worth dwelling upon every election season.

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