Jeremy Lott's new book In Defense of Hypocrisy announces its goal in its title. Reason Editor-in-Chief Nick Gillespie caught up with Lott, who has done stints at the American Spectator, the Cato Institute, and Reason (as the 2002 Burton Gray Memorial Intern), via email to discuss the ins and outs of saying one thing while doing another.
reason: What's the thumbnail sketch of your argument? Why should we be defending hypocrisy and, by extension, hypocrites?
Jeremy Lott: If I met someone on an elevator and had to sum up the book in one sentence, I'd say it's about why you're a hypocrite and that's ok.
After interviewing a number of people about it and thinking the issue through, I decided that we should defend hypocrisy for a couple of reasons.
One, it usually forces us to hide and restrain some of our darker impulses in order to keep up appearances.
Two, it creates moral wiggle room for people to acknowledge the right thing—or speculate about what the right thing might be—even if they don't always do that thing.
reason: Who are the biggest and yet most defensible hypocrites in American politics of the past, say, 10 years?
Lott: One character who pops up several times is Bill Clinton. I found it impossible to write a book about hypocrisy without talking about Clinton. He's such a great example of how hypocrisy works and why people hate it so much.
I was definitely a "Clinton hater" in the '90s. I hated how he was so phoney and I couldn't believe it when he walked away from Zippergate relatively unmolested.
But here's the rub: He wasn't a horrible president.
Clinton's hypocrisy allowed him to pay lip service to a lot of dumb policies but not really press for or implement them. And when he decided to brazen it out on the issue of sex and perjury, the hypocritical consensus—don't ask about sex but, if asked, lie about it—saved him.
It's standard to bring up Newt Gingrich for balance but Newt was a piker compared to Bill. He was either too consistent, or clueless, or inconsistent in really uninteresting ways.
reason: What about other cultural figures?
Lott: Britney Spears is a fun one. Try Googling "Britney Spears" and "hypocrisy."
Here you had young wholesome Baptist girl and former Mouseketeer who was saving it until marriage who suddenly turned into, well, Britney Spears.
reason: You write, "While hypocrisy usually helps to prop up norms and preserve the existing order, that isn't always the case. It also provides a way for good men to pay lip service to heinous governments and warped social customs while working to thwart and ultimately undermine them." Can you give a quick, specific example of the former?
Lott: Sure. Our hypocritical tolerance but disapproval of adultery helps to prop up marriage, and that's a good thing.
reason: And when it comes to the second, doesn't it often work in the other direction? Strom Thurmond, as vile a racist as there was in 20th century politics, had a black daughter he never acknowledged even as he was filibustering against equal rights for African Americans. Where does his hypocrisy fit into your vision, and can you give an example of someone who paid lip service to a cruel government or social order while undermining it?
Lott: I'm glad you bring up Strom Thurmond because I found him to be a fascinating character. Thurmond is vulnerable to all kinds of accusations of hypocrisy but he was also the governor who ended lynchings in South Carolina. He brought the hammer down on a group of lynchers with such force that he embarrassed white South Carolinians into knocking it off.
reason: Doesn't condoning hypocrisy encourage extremism by permitting people to moralize without requiring that they live by the moral regimes they promote? Bill Bennett can't talk about gambling precisely because he would be called a hypocrite. Isn't that a good thing?
Lott: In the first chapter of my book I use the Bill Bennett example to talk about the extremism that's promoted by our hyper-awareness of hypocrisy. Here you had a guy who had never railed against gambling and yet people were saying that he was "through" because of his perceived hypocrisy. If it was fun, people believed that Bill Bennett would be against it, otherwise he'd be a hypocrite. Just bizarre.
I'm never sure what to do with extremism. On the one hand, it sounds like you should be against it. On the other, it doesn't mean a whole lot unless you set it in a meaningful context. The American Founders were extremists; they were also—arguably—hypocrites. They endorsed the fundamental equality of all of mankind but denied that recognition to slaves. I'm rather glad that they went ahead and said the right thing even if they left it to future generations to act on it.
reason: Isn't this precisely most problematic for people who make moral choices others would consider deviant (drug users, prostitutes, johns, gays, gamblers, porn consumers)? It seems like these people benefit from gay legislators and gambling moralists who have to moderate their views in order to avoid accusations of hypocrisy.
Lott: It's tough to say. We all make choices that others consider deviant. I think that in your gay-and-gambling-topia, people would view, say, my churchgoing with suspicion, and seek to limit it.
reason: Wouldn't a society that tolerates hypocrisy be most favorable to social conservatives, who are more likely to try to impose certain lifestyle choices on others (even if they live differently themselves)? The liberal hypocrisy seems to be more about funding sources, as in the case of Michael Moore, which seems less nefarious than the intolerance espoused by Bennett and social conservatives. What's your sense of that?
Lott: There are two issues there. First, I argue in the book and elsewhere that conservatives should love liberal hypocrisy, and I defend Hollywood hypocrisy as a force for good. Second, if millions of people read my book we all decide to take a better approach to the issue, then whatever explicit rules we have will matter a whole lot less.
reason: Toward the end of the book, you introduce the hypothetical case of a pro-drug war politician whose kid gets caught doing drugs. The pol pulls strings to get the kid off and you say, who could be against that, a parent helping his kid? But doesn't it matter that drug use is not a crime like murder or theft? It involves a person choosing to do something for him/herself. Wouldn't the wiser pol reflect on the policies he's endorsing and come to a different conclusion? Or if he still thought drug use was evil and wrong, he should let his kid rot in the gulag system he endorses for less-connected users. What social good comes of pols who write laws that they refuse to apply to themselves and their associates?
Lott: Politicians write drug laws because that's what the public wants. If our hypothetical pol decides to step down for consistency's sake, odds are, he'll be replaced by someone just as bad or worse.
In which case, you've eliminated the hypocrisy but you've also lost a potentially sympathetic ear and someone who could work behind the scenes to blunt the impact of some really stupid rules.
I love anti-drug war firebrands as much as the next guy but what we need is someone who can speak to the concerns of most Americans and believably say, "I share your worries and your values, but we need to start moving things toward [fill in the blank]."
reason: You dedicate the book to your father, the Rev. Robert Lott, "whose hypocrisies are microscopic." If he is praiseworthy because he isn't really a hypocrite, then should we really be defending hypocrisy?
Lott: It's possible to defend hypocrisy while admiring people who live lives of rigorous—but not foolish—consistency.
reason: Any other parting thoughts?
Lott: Would it be hypocritical of me to ask everybody to buy my book? I think not. But if it was, I'd still defend it.