Do As I Say (Not As I Do): Profiles in Liberal Hypocrisy, by Peter Schweizer, New York: Doubleday, 258 pages, $22.95
The leftist linguist Noam Chomsky has been a strident opponent of American foreign policy since his days protesting the Vietnam War. More than once he has called the Pentagon “the most hideous institution on this earth.” He has spoken out in favor of the state’s efforts to curb “corporate power” or to break up large estates by severely taxing inheritances. He’s the academic equivalent of a rock star, his ideas promoted by rock bands from Pearl Jam to Bad Religion.
According to Do As I Say (Not As I Do) author and Hoover Institution hand Peter Schweizer, he is also a raging hypocrite. He once told an interviewer for National Public Radio that he didn’t want to discuss “the house, the children, personal life—anything like that.” According to Chomsky, “This is not about a person. It’s about ideas and principles.” Schweizer has a different take. He argues that Chomsky’s life is strikingly inconsistent with his stated ideals, and he marshals copious evidence to back up that claim:
• Chomsky joined the faculty of MIT not as a member of the Linguistics Department but as part of the Research Laboratory of Electronics. Lab professors were blessed with lighter teaching loads, higher salaries, and extensive support staff. The only catch was that their work, reports Schweizer, “was funded entirely by the Pentagon and a few multinational corporations.” The professor saw no problem in railing against the entire defense establishment while he drew a salary from same and conducted research that the generals found useful.
• The MIT mandarin often identifies with the working class and calls himself a socialist, but he acquired one home in Lexington, Massachusetts, valued at $850,000 and another estate in Wellfleet worth at least $1.2 million. The Wellfleet home is smack dab in the middle of a state park, and any further developments are prohibited by law. The radical historian Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States, is one of the few neighbors who could afford to buy in.
• Chomsky is dead set against tax havens and has railed against trusts as tools for the rich to perpetuate structural inequality. And yet, “A few years back he went to Boston’s venerable white-shoe law firm Palmer and Dodge and, with the help of a tax attorney specializing in ‘income-tax planning,’ set up an irrevocable trust to protect his assets against Uncle Sam.” When questioned about this, Chomsky told Schweizer, “I don’t apologize for putting aside money for my children and grandchildren.”
The author replies with what becomes a well worn refrain by the end of the book: that Chomsky “offered no explanation for why he condemns others who are equally proud of their provision for their children and who try to protect their assets from Uncle Sam.”
It’s trite but true: If you go looking for hypocrisy, you’ll usually find it. Moralists and moralizers of every stripe make for particularly plump targets, because they often fail to live up to their creeds. This should not be surprising, but Schweizer often treats liberal hypocrisy as though it is shocking. A little subtlety would have made Schweizer’s argument more appealing, if not more persuasive.
An introductory chapter (“The Do-As-I-Say Liberals”) and a conclusion (“The End of Liberal Hypocrisy”) serve as bookends to 11 character studies of influential left-wing thinkers, activists, and politicians, from “Gloria Steinem: Hopeless Romantic, Dependent Female, Serial Monogamist” to “Ralph Nader: Bourgeois Materialist, Stock Manipulator, and Tyrannical Sweatshop Boss.” Like many prosecutors, Schweizer is willing to take the let’s-see-what-sticks approach, in which a) you shape the facts to play to the jury and b) you lump questionable charges together with more rigorous assertions to bolster the overall case in the minds of impressionable readers.
In the case of the lefty filmmaker Michael Moore, the back cover of the book features the orotund sage from Flint’s pious declaration that “I don’t own a single share of stock.” Below the quote is an official looking financial disclosure form that appears to cast doubt on the statement. Shares in a number of companies are listed, including Eli Lilly and Company, Lucent Technologies, and Boeing. The 50 shares of Halliburton stock are highlighted in yellow, as is the signature of “Michael Moore.” Intended message: Michael Moore is a liar.
Moore may well be lying about his own financial dealings, but this form doesn’t prove that the author of Downsize This! owns a single share of stock as part of his private holdings. The allegedly damning document isn’t a list of Moore’s assets—they’re the assets of a tax-exempt foundation established and maintained by Moore and his wife Kathleen Glynn. As Schweizer explains inside the book, “The foundation allows them to donate funds tax free, make money on their investments, and give the proceeds to any cause they see fit.” In other words, it’s a vehicle to donate money to charitable causes and to roll up that money while it’s idling. What it’s not is money that Moore could use to buy groceries.
Granted, Moore does derive some indirect benefits from his bread and circuses routine. Schweizer studied the Fahrenheit 9/11 documentarian’s charitable contributions and found a few interesting patterns. Apparently, Moore is indeed flinty, as in cheap. He routinely gives away just enough of the foundation’s funds to satisfy the IRS’s requirements to maintain its charitable status. Publicly, he likes to brag about the foundation’s support for first-time filmmakers, women’s shelters, soup kitchens, and similar causes. But the actual grants tend to be either mad money for friends or donations to organizations that advance Moore’s interests.
In 2000 Moore gave $4,500 to the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York and $1,000 to the Ann Arbor Film Festival. Both held events to promote his anti-gun documentary Bowling for Columbine. In 2002 he gave $25,000 to the American Library Association, a donation that Schweizer labels “particularly interesting given that Moore credits ALA members with getting HarperCollins to reconsider a decision to cancel his anti-Bush screed Stupid White Men after 9/11.” Sometimes philanthropy can be very good for business.
Schweizer huffs that Moore’s “hypocrisy runs so deep and the contradictions are so glaring that they border on the pathological.” Here’s a working-class Man from Flint who actually lives on a large estate on Michigan’s Torch Lake and owns a penthouse in New York; a noisy advocate of affirmative action whose own hiring practices are bleached white; a populist down-home Midwesterner who makes millions providing Europeans and America’s coastal elites with fuel for their anti-hick instincts. There’s plenty of material for Schweizer. He doesn’t need to add any exaggerated claims about Moore’s assets.
Schweizer claims throughout the book that while accusations of hypocrisy are routinely leveled at conservatives, liberals tend to get a free pass. One can only wonder, Has the man ever listened to talk radio? Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Michael Savage, and hundreds of other right-wing squawkers all over the dial long ago incorporated criticism of liberal hypocrisy into their normal routines. Hypocrisy accusations are a staple not just of left-wing rhetoric but on the right as well. Turn on Fox News and listen to Fred Barnes or Bill O’Reilly damn those inconsistent liberals. A Google search at the end of last October for the joined terms “liberal” and “hypocrisy” produced 2,570,000 results.
There is a practical reason why conservatives have picked up the “you’re a hypocrite” hammer: If your opponent is defending his integrity instead of his ideas, you’re winning the debate. If Noam Chomsky has to spend time and resources reconciling his paychecks with his politics, those are time and resources that he can’t expend attacking the Iraq War. If Ralph Nader has to square his consumer activism and his stock portfolio, then he might not be able to have the next Corvair recalled.
But it used to be a common conservative belief that you could work within a system and still speak out against elements of the system. Logically, one could live in a rent-controlled apartment but still oppose rent control (as did the hard-core libertarian Murray Rothbard). This was the basic rationale for right-wing political activism—the golden mean between the Scylla of pietism and the Charybdis of more violent, revolutionary impulses. That the right would now criticize the left for the same approach is troubling.
Indeed, many conservatives, from Benjamin Disraeli to William F. Buckley Jr., have professed an appreciation for the moderating influence of hypocrisy. It’s the homage that vice pays to virtue, they would explain, quoting the 17th-century French noble Francois de La Rochefoucauld. There’s certainly a case to be made that liberal hypocrisy helps to restrain some fairly troublesome impulses by turning would-be revolutionaries into poseurs, clowns, and petty manipulators.
Teddy Kennedy may call for more government controls but, as Schweizer accidentally suggests, the desire not to harm his own clan’s extensive holdings has limited the damage. And when Ralph Nader calls for the abolition of the Taft-Hartley Act or rages against our “corporate paymasters,” he’s not making serious policy proposals. He’s playing a part while leaving his large stock portfolio relatively untrammeled. This sort of hypocrisy we can live with.