Is hypocrisy to be preferred?

In the last decade or so, one has frequently heard people express the sentiment that it is somehow “better” for powerful politicians to openly proclaim the evil things they do, because “at least it’s out in the open.” In my mind, this is profoundly and disturbingly misguided, as our present experience with Obama’s “kill list” shows. When Bush openly claimed excessive powers, his party embraced that position and it became part of the mainstream debate. Similarly now with Obama’s “kill list” — there are now liberal pundits who are openly defending the indefensible, simply because it’s their guy doing it. I don’t think any rational person can argue that this course of events has improved the chances of rolling back the Bush-Obama anti-terror policies.

What’s nice about hypocrisy is that it at least maintains some point of connection with morality. It keeps moral principles — like “you don’t torture people” or “you don’t send killer robots to murder people on your sole say-so” — enshrined as norms, meaning that there’s some kind of leverage for change. Actually committing the crimes is bad enough, but publicly proclaiming them to be the right thing to do is an even more horrific crime, because it closes down the possibility that the crimes may end in the future.

We have a “natural experiment” before our eyes right now of how the “at least it’s out in the open” strategy worked with Bush and Obama — once moral norms are dethroned, it just leads to further degradation. I know that one might be uncomfortable with such slippery-slope arguments given how often they’re used by conservatives, but that really is how it works. We just happen to think the moral norms they lament weren’t truly moral in the first place — it’s good that we’re on a slippery slope toward greater freedom to divorce, greater acceptance of gays, etc. It’s not good that we’re on a slippery slope toward greater acceptance of torture and assassination. (I hope this isn’t too complicated for anyone.)

So in conclusion, if I had to choose between Obama having a top-secret kill list that he’d disavow in public and the current situation, I’d chose the top-secret kill list every time — because say what you will of hypocrisy, at least it leaves open the possibility of an ethos.

37 thoughts on “Is hypocrisy to be preferred?

  1. Nowhere better to hide something than right out in the open, in plain sight. When it’s all openly acknowledged, that removes the jarring effect, the jolt that results from having to bringing something to light, because that’s already done in advance. The two layers of public and the concealed subterranean level become collapsed. There’s no longer the possibility to have real scandal.

    By the way, the creep of this logic seems to be advancing in other ways too. Note Romney’s nonchalance this week when it came to light that he had given hecklers the OK to disrupt his opponents’ rally speech, which he seemed to acknowledge with a shrug. To which my first reaction wasn’t “how awful that he would stoop to such tactics”, but was more an icky feeling that “we really shouldn’t be told that. Why aren’t you HIDING that?” That’s the difference between say a Nixon and Bush-Obama-Romney. Shame is becoming more and more rare, as Lacan might say.

  2. Worth adding that this process is still nothing close to democratic accountability, and the idea that this is “out in the open” is therefore itself a pernicious fiction. The fact that we know that a group of top secret dudes get together and decide who they will secretly kill is just the public announcement that the executive arbitrariness of the process will not be something they wil hide, but will, rather, flaunt. But there will be no oversight of it, which is the only important thing about its ostensible public character.

  3. I think this is the ultimate apotheosis of the Christian gut instinct that always prefers honesty to hypocrisy. If you think about it, the typical Christian apologetic move of “we’re just as terrible sinners as everyone else, but we openly admit it” is the archetype here.

    So I’m going to say that openly embracing the kill list policy is the best possible proof Obama is a sincere and devout Christian.

  4. Setting aside the question of whether “you don’t send killer robots to murder people on your sole say-so” is in all crucial respects an accurate description of the current policy, is it obviously much worse than any other mode of warfare? Why? How about “you don’t send assassins to slit people’s throats” or “you don’t order planes to drop bombs that turn people into bits of meat” or “you don’t order your conscripts to mow down thousands of enemy conscripts with machine gun fire”? The focus on the novel means of applying lethal force seems arbitrary, a substitution of aesthetic reaction for analysis. Your problem might be with this war, or with war in general, or with any use of lethal force on behalf of sovereign power – assuming you actually have a coherent position. As I was just arguing in abbreviated form with zunguzungu/Mr. Bady on The Twitter, it seems to me that you and your political allies find it easier to agitate against the war-pornographic image of the killer drone and its pseudo-personalized victims than on behalf of a serious alternative policy – and by serious I mean at least as legitimate (and susceptible to legitimation), not to mention likely less harmful to children and other living things, than the current policy – which has been formed in part on the basis of prior rounds of left-liberal discomfort with “military necessity” as previously understood and concretely realized.

    The ostrich solution that the blogger ends up advocating fits nicely within the larger pattern of political and moral avoidance. So at least on that score, it’s consistent, even if it seems to add up to “I’ll just let the grown-ups handle this for me.”

  5. More substantively, though: I’ve opposed every war America has been involved in since I could vote. I went on record as opposing whatever would be done in retaliation for 9/11, on the very day. There is essentially no such thing as “military necessity” for a country that accounts for half of the world’s military budget.

    I’m not willing to come out against violence or war in every conceivable situation — but I’m definitely against all of America’s wars, because our incredible advantage over everyone means that every one of them is de facto an act of unjustified aggression.

  6. I’m not sure that your second reply really is so much more “substantive” than your first one. That you have opposed every one of America’s wars is I suppose very interesting to you. The notion that having too much of an advantage is to be avoided would be of possibly even more interest to those who actually do the fighting, if implemented as policy.

    American militarism can certainly be questioned and criticized, but having a gargantuan military budget or seeking global military pre-eminence has nothing directly to do with the concept of “military necessity.” Making up your own definitions is another good avoidance tactic, I guess, but not really much more substantive than vulgar insults.

  7. (I only let CK’s first comment through in case anyone was skeptical that people were defending Obama’s policy. Now it’s an interesting experiment to see if there are any lurkers out there who are angrier at me for my tone than they are at CK for advocating US imperialism!)

  8. CK MacLeod : ” seems to me that you and your political allies find it easier to agitate against the war-pornographic image of the killer drone and its pseudo-personalized victims than on behalf of a serious alternative policy”

    This strikes me as a kind of projection, one that overlaps, at least potentially, with an apology for/glorification of war/violence that we would probably agree is typically conservative. You’re saying that all this prating about the ways we justify, parse, conceal, or openly disclose the violence we inflict are just so many ways of refusing to look violence in the face and own up to it. It seems according to this position that to the extent we can’t make that killing stop, or reduce it, we need to stop engaging in idle talk and stick to doing things constructive, like devising less destructive POLICIES. And then of course when those policies are not to be had, that will just end up meaning making peace with the status quo.

    An opposing view – an arguably “radical” one, i.e. guaranteed to baffle from a liberal standpoint – might hold that there is something else at stake here, something just as important as “mere” life – which is the fate of the human in its moral dimension (strange as it may sound, it doesn’t always appear to coincide with a concern for human life in the strict sense). The taboos — i.e. the sacredness or public non-questionability of the ideals we strive to uphold — and the hypocrisy that ensues when we inevitably fail to live up to them, are also important, though this fact seems sometimes to condemn us to an impossible/absurd dilemma. Maybe the difference is that we’re in favor of avowing/acknowledging this dilemma, while you’re saying the only sensible thing to do is disavow it and submit to the deadlock of inevitable violence.

  9. willmcjunkin (@willmcjunkin) I’m considering a reply to your thoughtful comment, but I appear to have been disinvited – put under the blogger’s sovereign ban. As I write, I can’t have any confidence that he will “let [my] comment through,” this comment or any particular comment – not conducive to discussion, to say the least..

  10. Adam,

    This has made me ponder whether the round-about insult is better than the direct insult.

    I teach the wider point when we discuss Machiavelli, and it is always the most poignant moment of the course when I play the courtroom scene from A Few Good Men. When we sacrifice the moral for the political, even in the name of the moral, have we not already lost? Or spend our power accidently killing cadets and covering it up rather than fighting wars, as in the movie. I concur with your point that open sanction opens debate on a topic and politicizes it, which is rarely for the better.

    Regardless, Macleod, can you not note that you first comment was almost all accusation and that the response, at least from Adam, was entirely predictable?

  11. “CK may reply without fear. The consensus seems to be undermining my fearsome sovereign ban.”

    Given your principled defense of hypocrisy, this is hardly reassuring! When’s the drone strike? Will there be posthumous evidence of innocence?

  12. I’ve always imagined the President uses his Nobel Peace Prize as a paper weight to keep his kill lost from flying off the desk.

  13. The other problem with it being out in the open is that when you continue being a good citizen after the big reveal it just makes clear your own complicity in it. How awful that is.

  14. Somebody,

    We inhabits of the nation-state cannot avoid that. Perhaps Hegel was right about the diremption of Spirit occurring from the necessity of the modern state, to which we feel beholden, in the face of its alienating aloofness from our everyday lives.

  15. If nothing else, CK’s first comment is a nice demonstration of how basically counterintuitive an anti-war perspective has become. “If you don’t like drones, then how are you going to kill all the bad guys at all costs?” The idea that, you know, *not* firing hellfire missiles at people is the best policy, well, that’s just crazy talk; we’ve got to fire SOMETHING at them.

  16. I like CK’s emphasis on advocating FOR alternative strategies, rather than simply against the existing ones, and I don’t think that ignorance is an excuse the public can hide behind anymore. Like it or not, we have access to a ridiculous amount of information now, and the responsibility for championing morality is ours, not the government’s, especially not in a lip-service-only manner. We are supposed to let measures like indefinite detention pass and then still walk on the streets and call ourselves good citizens because it’s not our signature on the bill? The world situation is calling the little guy to step up in a big way to come up with new solutions to replace the current order, and though at the moment most of us have no clue how to make that step, that fact does not absolve any of us of the responsibility.

  17. In this case, it seems like simply refraining from carrying out the attacks Obama is carrying out is a perfectly valid “alternative strategy.” If I were going around serially murdering someone, I think you’d be well within your rights to tell me I should stop without also telling me how I should spend my Saturday nights.

  18. Sarah,

    Do tell me how the average private citizen can make a difference? Now, exclude all the responses that do not have significant effects, such as “consciousness raising” without action. There are few alternatives unless one wishes to devote much of one’s life to it, and that is part of the problem. There are ways of overcoming this, but I rarely see them mentioned. Do you offer specifics or alternatives to this common problem? So far, I have barely ventured beyond what you say, but then I add, with those real possibilities, how can we have responsibility?

    Personally, I prefer building local “publics”/”public commons,” or just plain ol’ building community, but that seems to require the cooperation of the local community, which again is defeated by our uprooted socio-economic milieu. It’s hard to build communities in a culture that advocates not putting down roots, not necessarily doing what your parents did, or moving to the jobs.

  19. Sarah,
    My point is that the statement “but what would *you* propose?” has within it the barely buried assumption that you must propose some other way of getting the (people someone has decided to call) terrorists. Some of them may well be extremely vile people, but there are A. lots of other extremely vile people in the world that we aren’t (or shouldn’t be) willing to kill random bystanders in order to “get” and B. lots of reasons to question whether the people we are targeting for death by drones are actually even what anyone could reasonably call guilty of anything. Given that the costs of killing them is quite high and the necessity to kill them quite dubious, the rational response, it would seem to me, is not to fire hellfire missiles at them. To me, it seems a lot like someone saying “Ok, invading Iraq may be problematic. But how would *you* suggest we deal with Saddam?” To which my answer would be: how about we just decline all the terrible options on offer and go from there?

  20. Jason, I’m still wracking my brain over this one. I confess to being one of the ones with hardly a clue of what to do beyond signing petitions and talking with anyone who will listen. I understand all the reasons why people don’t act, because I am one of them… I’m not out making a large public outcry… I wouldn’t know what to say and I fear having what little stability exists in my life destroyed if I did. It seems that any small action (e.g. not voting for abusers of power, which may include all the candidates) would make a difference if nearly everybody did it — united we would be anything but powerless — but of course I don’t see any movements picking up that much momentum at the moment. Yet I still feel a moral burden to figure it out. I am convinced that if we accept our powerlessness we give up too early, when an innovative answer or a new window of opportunity may be just within reach.

  21. zunguzungu: No one called anything “crazy.” The question remains whether you are taking a position generally against a resort to military action at all – warmaking, sovereign use of lethal force – in the Conflict Formerly Known as the War on Terror, or whether your problem is more with the presidential-Hellfire-assassination policy.

    If the administration merely gave in to its further-left and libertarian critics on the “kill list,” to my understanding it would still be required by law (beginning with the ’01 AUMF, still in effect) to employ whatever necessary force, including military force, in combating Al Qaeda and its to-be-designated affiliates, facilitators, and sponsors. I believe that public opinion is still on that side as well – and I tend to expect that the morning after the next attack it would be all the more so. Opposing the drone policy but not the war makes the question “If not drone assassination, then what?” more immediate, especially if you believe that a next attack is at all possible, and that, if possible, might have very severe political effects beyond whatever immediate destruction (as is in the nature of “terrorism” or “political violence”). This consideration takes us to “if not war, then what?” – a different question, not just in terms of potential consequences, but in terms of what kind of political strategy would be sensible. It’s not that, in my view, you or anyone is obligated to produce a sensible political strategy, or to think up a workable and implementable alternative either to Hellfire-assassination or to the CFKATWOT, but your inability or unwillingness to do any of that will tend to discourage anyone else from taking you seriously at all, even a little bit. Certainly, it’s possible to oppose both policies independently, but that means it’s possible to examine both policies independently as well.

    Willmcjunkin seems to be arguing or at least pointing to a position under which “taking you seriously” would already be too loaded a phrase, but saying so repeats the same refusal – a refusal of the political per se that, taken to its logical conclusion, would make any discussion at all, including this one, utterly pointless. Why not ban me or anyone else from participation? What difference would it make? The discussion would no longer be about making a difference. Differences of that type are too/merely serious. After suggesting that I’m engaging in “projection” regarding the focus on drone warfare, which I compared to a pornographic fascination, Mr McJunkin suggests that my position “overlaps, at least potentially, with an apology for/glorification of war/violence that we would probably agree is typically conservative.” I remain uncertain about how much ground “typically conservative” is meant to cover: Does it include every offering of any kind of “apology” for any kind of violence? One might think not – that’s too absurd, too extreme, and would include almost everything that up until the day before yesterday we might have called “left” or “liberal” – but in the rest of Mr. McJunkin’s comment he seems, somewhat like the blogger and like at least one other commenter, to contemplate the rejection of any policy consideration at all, any comparison or estimation of consequences, as too “complicit” from the perspective of “the fate of the human in its moral dimension.”

    As for the last part of McJunkin’s comment, I’m not sure how the situation he describes poses a “dilemma” at all, since one of the two lemma seems to be the placeholder for an absence, for a lack of intention to pose the or any problem, alongside assertions that something also “important” is “at stake,” but no indication of what that might be or how it might be addressed at all… so maybe a kind of melancholy over a conversation that cannot be held, not because its terms violate “taboos,” but because they’ve already canceled each other out.

  22. Lets take this forward, since we have a general gist of what AQ demands, not only pulling out of the Middle East, abandoning Israel, but the more aggressive elements wants Sharia imposed, democratically if possible, by direct
    action if not.

  23. CK MacLeod: “…a kind of melancholy over a conversation that cannot be held, not because its terms violate “taboos,” but because they’ve already canceled each other out.”

    Maybe the conversation can begin to be held if we change the context and come at it from a different direction. We’re talking about the uses of hypocrisy: hiding the truth for “moral” reasons.

    Let’s move the context to one of marriage. If a couple are “only in it for the children,” and otherwise cannot stand one another, is their fundamental dishonesty really helping their offspring become healthy adults?

    Going back to one of the blogger’s original statements: “What’s nice about hypocrisy is that it at least maintains some point of connection with morality. It keeps moral principles — like “you don’t torture people” or “you don’t send killer robots to murder people on your sole say-so” — enshrined as norms ….” My thought is, if your “connection with morality” depends on having someone in authority lie straight to your face, those aren’t “morals” that you’re enshrining.

    It seems to me that trusting the lie to be a mirror for “morality” is in fact enshrining the master-servant power dynamic.

  24. The fascinating thing here is that CK MacLeod’s position is deeply unserious – while zunguzungu and, to a lesser extent, Adam, are talking pretty specifically about the actions taken by the US government in the war on terror, CK is talking in the vaguest abstractions: a conflict CK isn’t even willing to name, and a “sensible political strategy” which one can apparently discuss without ever specifying what the goal of said strategy is supposed to be.

  25. “If not drone assassination, then what?” – surely errrr no arbitrary trial-less executions on land not under any US jurisdiction? MacLeod’s argument is pure war-mongering barbarism.

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