Liehards: On Political Hypocrisy | The Nation


Liehards: On Political Hypocrisy

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Jay does not disagree with Runciman’s view of political lying, though he is more sanguine about liberal institutions as safety valves. His aim is also to move away from moral absolutism in the realm of political life and its epistemology without compromising democratic ideals. But the route he takes to arrive at this position is different from Runciman’s. Jay, an intellectual historian, iconoclastically organizes his book around varying concepts of “the political” rather than a chronological parade of major thinkers. He also looks to a more heterogeneous collection of historical voices, from Plato and Aristotle to Immanuel Kant and Benjamin Constant, to Carl Schmitt, Leo Strauss and Hannah Arendt. Indeed, it is the ideas of Arendt, who doesn’t fit neatly into the liberal tradition, that Jay principally (but by no means uncritically) draws upon for his historical as well as normative conclusions about lying in politics.

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.

Also by the Author

Atul Gawande argues that physicians should focus care on the good life—including its very end.

How Americans have become tyrannized by the culture’s overinvestment in choice.

Jay, like Arendt, starts from a broad and distinctive reading of the past. Not for him Runciman’s limited focus on English political thought or Mearsheimer’s on events from recent years alone. Instead, Jay begins by trying to explain the obsessive concern with publicity, sincerity and the “zeal for truthfulness” (in Arendt’s words) that has characterized Western modernity since the late eighteenth century. The historian Perez Zagorin may have been correct in claiming that Europe’s early modern era could properly be labeled the Age of Dissimulation, given its chief architects’ fixation on various kinds of deception and secrecy. Even the Enlightenment had a complex, tactical relationship to truth. Consider the case (though Jay does not) of the great eighteenth-century atheist, the Baron d’Holbach, breathlessly exposing the lie of Christianity and the falsity of God at the same time that he, in a decade-long act of subterfuge, smuggled a stream of heretical manuscripts out of France and published them under phony names with deliberately misleading places of publication. But according to Jay, all of that dissembling came to an end, at least as an accepted, necessary part of public life, with the Age of Revolutions.

In the American case, Puritanism, with its fixation on moral surveillance and its strident anti-Catholicism, produced the first sustained attack on the politics of deception. The rejection of an aristocratic culture of refined politeness in favor of “plain speech” marked the second. The politics of the revolutionary era made a virtue out of “ruthless sincerity” and directness. The new nation’s Constitution needed to be not only a public document but also explicit and easily comprehensible. Great American leaders, from Washington to Lincoln, had to be paragons of personal honesty.

In France, too, the mood changed. Even without any Puritan impetus, eighteenth-century revolutionaries turned against a seemingly hyperfeminine and baroque court culture in which dissimulation and intrigue reigned. What replaced it in private and public life alike, Jay explains, was a Rousseauian transparency and an austere, seemingly masculine, anti-rhetorical pose. This was a shift whose significance Edmund Burke, with his elegiac dismay at the end of all “pleasing illusions” in French political culture, was among the first to recognize. (Runciman’s quick dismissal of Burke for his “loss of judgment” on this subject seems oddly misplaced.) A Rousseau-like commitment to honesty in its many forms has endured to become a hallmark of modern democracy, where, as Jay notes, quoting La Rochefoucauld, “Hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue.”

Jay sees our contemporary attachment to political “science” and technocracy as one more (doomed) effort to isolate the absolute, unvarnished truth and put it in the service of a pure democratic politics. He might also have looked to the enduring populist attachment to answers derived from the people’s common sense. Both promise today, in different ways, to solve the problem of phoniness and deception in politics once and for all. Yet the political lie has not only endured but prospered. So what is to be done? Jay thinks the classical liberal intellectual tradition, with its insistence on the ideal of rational consensus, holds few answers. He is more warmly disposed toward those theoretical stances that acknowledge the various fictions at the core of each and every political vision. That category includes the strain of recent thought that sees politics itself as a form of theater in which masking and a certain amount of dissimulation and hypocrisy are vital, whether in forming coalitions or simply in preserving the illusion of representation. Precedents extend all the way back to Hobbes’s great insight about the king’s double act as the ruler and as one of the people. Mainly, though, Jay sides with modern republicans like Arendt who, while denouncing certain kinds of lying, found a way to make principled defenses of others.

Jay follows Arendt closely in stressing the potential value of lying from below—that is, prevarication on the part of private individuals in an effort to resist the inquisitorial authority of the church or state, whether it be the Baron d’Holbach evading the censors of the Old Regime or citizens today challenging various democratically endorsed surveillance techniques. In fact, from this perspective, lying can sometimes look like a way to encourage a better future. And like Runciman (though based on different political premises), Jay ultimately emphasizes the value of pluralism of opinion, debate and rhetoric, even at its most misleading, over the search for perfect truthfulness. Robespierre’s lethal efforts to eradicate the boundaries around private life and to annihilate even the smallest trace of doublespeak or two-facedness stand here as the chief warning to anyone eager to crusade against political lies in the service of democracy. There must remain some things we can be disingenuous about, namely the impulses of our hearts. Put differently, falsehoods need their space, too—despite utopian aspirations to the contrary. Otherwise, we get the Reign of Terror. This is a central message of Arendt’s On Revolution (1963).

Yet beyond repeating this cautionary tale, Jay does not offer much in the way of hope. And what optimism he does retain in his fascinating history of politics’ enduring struggle with lying turns out to be very much of a piece with conventional liberalism. To his way of thinking, the best strategy for exposing the most damaging kinds of untruth is to sustain a free press, an independent court system and the open academic culture of our universities—and to try to simply live with the rest. But Runciman, the explicit champion of liberalism, is probably correct in saying that in a climate of round-the-clock news reporting, with its vicious circle of lying and “gotcha” coverage, journalists are often the willing purveyors of hypocrisy. The realist in Mearsheimer also suggests that any democratic state trying to live up to its exalted morals but eager to engage in an “ambitious foreign policy”—that is to say, the United States—is also likely soon to be ratcheting up its fearmongering, cover-ups, spin and public lying. All we can do, in his estimation, is to hope that we can eventually vote the worst offenders out of office. It seems that “truthiness,” serial hypocrisy and their close cousins are the price that must be paid for democracy.

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size