I’ve got hypocrisy on my mind, thanks to recent developments in the process of appointing officials to the Obama administration. First, Timothy Geithner, appointed to the position of national tax collector in chief, turns out to have failed to pay certain taxes. Then former Sen. Tom Daschle, the nominee to head Health and Human Services, turns out to have failed to pay much more. He wriggles and squirms a while under the spotlight but makes no move to step aside until a third nominee, Nancy Killefer, withdraws on principle over a much smaller sum of unpaid taxes, after which Daschle can’t stick around without looking like an utter tool.

And all this, to hear some speak, reflects badly on the incoming Obama administration, which was supposed to have been better than all this.

Well, yes, it does reflect badly.

But at the same time, it reminds me of a passage from Neal Stephenson’s novel The Diamond Age:

“You know, when I was a young man, hypocrisy was deemed the worst of vices,” Finkle-McGraw said. “It was all because of moral relativism. You see, in that sort of climate, you are not allowed to criticise others — after all, if there is no absolute right and wrong, then what grounds is there for criticism? . . .

“Now, this led to a good deal of general frustration, for people are naturally censorious and love nothing better than to criticise others’ shortcomings. And so it was that they seized on hypocrisy and elevated it from a ubiquitous peccadillo into the monarch of all vices. For, you see, even if there is no right and wrong, you can find grounds to criticise another person by contrasting what he has espoused with what he has actually done. In this case, you are not making any judgment whatsoever as to the correctness of his views or the morality of his behaviour — you are merely pointing out that he has said one thing and done another. Virtually all political discourse in the days of my youth was devoted to the ferreting out of hypocrisy.

“You wouldn’t believe the things they said about the original Victorians. Calling someone a Victorian in those days was almost like calling them a fascist or a Nazi.”

Both Hackworth and Major Napier were dumbfounded. “Your Grace!” Napier exclaimed. “I was naturally aware that their moral stance was radically different from ours — but I am astonished to be informed that they actually condemned the first Victorians.”

“Of course they did,” Finkle-McGraw said.

“Because the first Victorians were hypocrites,” Hackworth said, getting it. . . .

“Because they were hypocrites,” Finkle-McGraw said, after igniting his calabash and shooting a few tremendous fountains of smoke into the air, “the Victorians were despised in the late twentieth century. Many of the persons who held such opinions were, of course, guilty of the most nefandous conduct themselves, and yet saw no paradox in holding such views because they were not hypocrites themselves — they took no moral stances and lived by none.”

“So they were morally superior to the Victorians — ” Major Napier said, still a bit snowed under.

” — even though — in fact, because — they had no morals at all.”

There was a moment of silent, bewildered head-shaking around the copper table.

“We take a somewhat different view of hypocrisy,” Finkle-McGraw continued. “In the late-twentieth-century Weltanschauung, a hypocrite was someone who espoused high moral views as part of a planned campaign of deception — he never held those beliefs sincerely and routinely violated them in privacy. Of course, most hypocrites are not like that. Most of the time it’s a spirit-is-willing, flesh-is-weak sort of thing.”

“That we occasionally violate our own stated moral code,” Major Napier said, working it through, “does not mean we are insincere in espousing that code.”

“Of course not,” Finkle-McGraw said. “It’s perfectly obvious, really. No one ever said that it was easy to hew to a strict code of conduct. Really, the difficulties involved — the missteps we make along the way — are what make it interesting. The internal, and eternal, struggle, between our base impulses and the rigorous demands of our own moral system is quintessentially human. It is how we conduct ourselves in that struggle that determines how we may in time be judged by a higher power.”

To judge any of the participants in this morality play, we have to ask ourselves: Is there a “planned campaign of deception” on the part of individuals who never believed in clean and open government and routinely violate the principles of civil society? Are these individuals sincerely committed to certain principles and simply stumbling while trying to live up to them? Or is the truth perhaps somewhere in between — no intent to deceive, but at the same time, no particular commitment to a higher standard?

I can’t help but compare the laser-like focus on the tax woes of Geithner, Daschle and Kellifer with the rampant and rapacious wrongdoing of the Bush administration. “Moral relativism” is a code phrase commonly understood to be associated with socially tolerant liberalism, and yet the Bush administration’s behavior put a new spin on it. I’m not aware that Bush and company were ever accused of moral relativism in so many words, but didn’t they have one standard for themselves and another for others? Didn’t they hold their words and actions above criticism? Didn’t they claim to belong to the party of morality yet engage in some of the most shameful violations of human welfare and dignity perpetrated by any administration in our recent history? Didn’t this unabashed double standard give rise to our ubiquitous acronym “IOKIYAR” (“It’s OK If You’re a Republican”)?

The Bush administration’s hypocrisy, if indeed it was hypocrisy, consisted in the most incredible moral contortion: Rather than state a principle and then violate it, Bush and his cronies stood for morality itself, then blurred the concept to such a degree that they could claim to uphold it in one sense while making a mockery of it in another. The question isn’t whether they claimed to be good but were bad — this is established. The question is whether one can rightly call them hypocrites when few people actually believe they stood for anything good at all, and in many cases they barely pretended to. Rather than “hypocrite,” the more accurate term would seem to be “reprobate.”

Coming out of this bewildering political murk in which nothing at all was considered immoral (except abortion, gay sex, atheism, and doubting the purity and nobility of the military), we now emerge blinking and grimacing into the dazzling glare ignited by the media’s recent rediscovery of the words “right” and “wrong.” Paying out bonuses to incompetent financiers who drove our economy into a ditch and begged for a bailout? Wrong, wrong, very wrong! Torturing detainees held without charge on an island prison? Wrong, wrong, very wrong! Failing to pay taxes on gifts from “friends” with transparent ulterior motives? OHMIGOD OHMIGOD SO WRONG WE CAN BARELY CONTAIN OURSELVES! WROOOOOOOOOONNNNNNNGGGG!

Wrong, yes. And not to be minimized. But more wrong than the countless wrongs of the Bush administration, many of which go beyond the dishonest and selfish into the thoroughly monstrous? We hold Geithner and Daschle and Kellifer accountable, but not Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Gonzales, Libby, Feith, Addington, Wolfowitz, Yoo?

Blame Barack Obama for raising our standards, I suppose.

Who are the hypocrites here? President Obama, for discovering that it’s virtually impossible to be both effective and clean-handed in Washington and deciding that in a time of crisis the former might be more important than the latter — yet also owning up to that decision? Daschle, for failing to live up to another man’s code? Geithner, for having fallen down in what was supposed to be his area of expertise? Republicans, for suddenly remembering that they have tongues with which to lash others now that they’re no longer the party in power? And once we decide who the hypocrites are, do we judge them harshly, as amoral schemers, or gently, as frail humans charged with tasks most of us wouldn’t have the first idea how to handle?

Having led us into this thicket, I’m now going to whip out a machete and hack a path through it by proposing that it isn’t all that complicated, really. Because ultimately, all true morality (and yes, with that phrase I reject moral relativism and all its works) boils down to one thing: whether we’re helping or harming our fellow human beings. And so the questions we ask about our leaders when they appear to fail us are these:

1. Did they harm anyone, directly or indirectly?

2. How serious was the harm?

3. Did they mean to do it?

4. If they had a chance to help, did they choose not to?

5. If they had a chance to undo the harm they did — before they were caught — did they pass up that chance?

Then let us forgive those who do no harm, or whose harm is mild and unintentional, or who make sincere and suitable amends; and let us condemn those who do great harm, who do so deliberately or insensitively, who withhold their power rather than use it to do good, and who know they’ve done wrong but hope to slide by without consequence.

This is not too low a standard to be worthy, nor too high a standard to be attainable. It’s clear, simple and free of political bias, and it gets to the heart of what we want most from our leaders: the confidence that, whatever stupid, thoughtless, human things they may do from time to time, they do have our best interests at heart.

1 comment

  1. who mean well, like you and me.

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