Bearing Witness: Hypocrisy, Not Ideology

Unless this is mangled memory (and in my advancing age, it may well be), when the sit-com Seinfeld interspersed Jerry Seinfeld doing stand-up with the main show, I was struck by one routine about sports fandom. Seinfeld noted that since the players on any team are constantly changing, fans are essentially pulling for the jerseys.

As observational humor goes, that joke is funny, but I also think it essentially nails what is wrong with partisan politics when anyone defends her/his party (team) regardless of behaviors while simultaneously illuminating every slip of the other party (team) as if the world is coming to an end.

For that reason mainly, I have removed myself entirely from partisan politics (inspired by the late and great George Carlin, who is the team to which I lend my loyalty).

Recently, I have noticed Democrats posting on social media a news story concerning Rudy Giuliani’s daughter being arrested for shoplifting. I ignored the posts at first, but since I certainly have found Giuliani in the past and recently to be beyond loathsome in his commentary (notably when paired with equally loathsome Bill O’Reilley), I happened to click the link once to discover the story is from 2010.

All of this puts me in an ethical/intellectual bind because in many respects the Giuliani-as-law-and-order-politician/daughter-as-criminal dynamic does highlight what I believe is how we must judge both leadership and privilege in the U.S. But the context in which I have found this story (and it being from 2010) still reeks of partisan sniping and pettiness (especially if we consider the recent ugliness surrounding comments about the Obama daughters).

In the U.S., political leadership, wealth and success, and privilege are nearly inseparable—despite the meritocracy myth perpetuated by the privileged to mask their greased paths to power and wealth.

And thus, the genuine differences between Democrats and Republicans remain mostly in word only—platforms, speeches, and published commentaries. War mongering, accountability-driven public education reform, economic policy, etc., remain significantly similar regardless of political party affiliation in the U.S., particularly is we assess the policy against the larger ideology justifying those policies (free market mechanisms, neoliberalism, etc.).

Participating in partisan politics, then, in the same ways we participate in team sport allows privileged leadership to continue serving the interests of the privileged at the expense of the great majority of people in the U.S.—notably the marginalized.

While I am not suggesting ideology doesn’t matter, I am calling for placing judgments of leaders and the privileged in the context of hypocrisy first. Let me offer some context.

Both Democrats and Republicans champion market forces for reforming public education, notably parental choice as a driving mechanism for reform.

However, when controlling for student demographics (and conditions such as selection exclusivity and attrition), among private, charter, and public schools, virtually no differences in major outcomes exist.

But let’s go further, many endorsing market forces (whether vouchers on the right or charter schools on the left) often claim issues such as class size do not matter—assertions that must be tested against not only those making the claims but also the evidence from the market itself.

Bill Gates, for example, has pushed for classes of 40 students with teachers paid bonuses for those large class sizes; however, Gates himself attended elite private schools with extremely low class sizes.

And therein lies the problem with hypocrisy.

While private schools do not in fact outperform public schools (both forms of schooling have a wide range of so-called quality), the market dynamics around private schools responding to parental choice clearly show that low class sizes are important—in fact, justifying larger financial investments by parents.

And I think now we can circle back to how Giuliani and his daughter can and should matter.

Privileged leadership in the U.S. represents word and deed designed for everyone else except the privileged class; in education, what privileged leaders are saying is that, for example, class size doesn’t matter for other people’s children (but it does for mine and my privileged friends).

Giuliani’s tone-deaf and offensive claims about law enforcement and black/brown people/families reveal the arrogance of leadership and privilege—and thus, he should be held accountable for his hypocrisy. But not as yet another partisan mask for letting those on the “other” political team slide (which is what I believe most of the posts I have seen are doing).

Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, among many things, is about the puppet show that is partisan politics as team sport. Vonnegut’s dystopia, however, is playing out before us now whenever we fail to see past the veneer of ideological claims, whenever we continue to pull for the jerseys.

To judge leadership/privilege against hypocrisy is a moral imperative that is lost in ideological team sport.

“But to recommend thrift to the poor is both grotesque and insulting,” wrote Oscar Wilde. Why? Because the people demanding thrift among the poor are not themselves living under the same directive; if fact, the wealthy who demand thrift of the poor wallow in waste and excess.

Those demanding “no excuses,” as with those rejecting the importance of class size, for example, tend to live in abundance and slack—among the very riches of excuses.

And so I believe that a key part of our fight for public education and democracy is that we cannot have genuine ideological battles until we hold all ideologies responsible for the validity of their own investment in those ideologies.

Hypocrites have no moral authority. Without moral authority, a person deserves no political authority.

As long as we allow hypocrisy, however, in order to preserve our partisan politics as team sport, we are part of the problem.

In a 1961 interview by Studs Terkel, James Baldwin states: “People don’t live by the standards they say they live by, and the gap between their profession and the actuality is what creates this despair, and this uncertainty, which is very, very dangerous.”

Baldwin, then, as writer/artist describes himself—in a 1984 interview by Julius Lester—as a witness: “Witness to whence I came, where I am. Witness to see what I’ve seen and the possibilities that I think I see.”

Every people, every generation needs the artists-as-witnesses, but a democracy requires that each one of us serves as witness in the way Baldwin explains:

Lester: You have been politically engaged, but you have never succumbed to ideology, which has devoured some of the best black writers of my generation.

Baldwin: Perhaps I did not succumb to ideology, as you put it, because I have never seen myself as a spokesman. I am a witness. In the church in which I was raised you were supposed to bear witness to the truth. Now, later on, you wonder what in the world the truth is, but you do know what a lie is….

A spokesman assumes that he is speaking for others. I never assumed that—I never assumed that I could….No society can smash the social contract and be exempt from the consequences, and the consequences are chaos for everybody in the society.

Hypocrisy is that obvious lie we must bear witness to by rising above mere ideology.


5 thoughts on “Bearing Witness: Hypocrisy, Not Ideology

  1. Paul- I love this, and agree entirely. The partisan differences between Democrat and Republican are nil within the context of neoliberalism. The standard and application of privilege as system generated must be what is addressed. And still, I wonder about, and struggle with, my own hypocrisy. For instance, does the relative wealth I have accumulated via my privilege make any of my statements on addressing poverty hypocritical? Do I have to give away all that I own in order to avoid the hypocrisy of hoping to end poverty from the stance of my relative wealth, even though my wealth has not been a personal choice, but one acculumated via that system of privilege? I remember a politcal argument with brother-in-law, who loves U2. I told him that U2 was represented by a pretty progressive frontman who is working to end world poverty. (I’m not entirely sure I approve of Bono’s approach, but that’s a different issue…) His response was, to paraphrase, “As long as Bono jets around the world to end world poverty between his many mansions, he’s a hypocrite. Don’t need to listen to him.” So my brother-in-law is safe now in privatizing the music of U2 while remaining completely unaffected by the moral message behind the music. I hate this, and yet I wonder, is there truth to this position? If I hold Guliani open to criticism due to his hyporicsy, do I have to apply this to others? Or worse, to myself?

    Another way of putting this question: How do we shift our view of morality from an alienated, privatized version (which fits perfectly into the neoliberal frame),to a corporate morality that considers the body of the common good rather than just “me”? How do we witness from the perspective of this corporate morality rather than from the limited perspective (and thus the poetnitial hypocrisy) of our individual experience? How do avoid individualized hypocrisy in witnessing to the morality of the whole?


    • I wanted to address that but the piece was growing too long.

      My short answer: My privilege does not discredit my voice, but *what I do with it* can. Do I say “I succeeded so can you”? The discrediting arrogance of privilege.

      Or do I use my privilege in the service of others to obliterate privilege, inequity?

      I still struggle with to what degree of comfort should I horde for my family and self and still be ethical. Harder Q.

      • Yes- the question is, not do I deserve my privilige? But, who do I serve with my priviege? How do I use it? And if we allow our fear of hypocrisy to silence our voices we create more room for the arrogant, self-serving privilege of others.

        Maybe there is a Part 2 coming?

  2. Perhaps we should look at a horizontal divide such as that between political factions and realize that the divide is more two facets of a vertical continuum, i.e. economic status. Where I see hypocrisy as applied cynicism, I also see the self-victimization by folks at the “bottom” who follow the dictates to practice poverty, essentially, by entangling themselves with debt through overconsumption. Not that I advocate for monastic self-deprivation either, but really the only way to beat them is to starve them.

  3. Enjoyed your post–great read and thought-provoking.

    “Hypocrites have no moral authority. Without moral authority, a person deserves no political authority.”

    From my perspective, that basically wipes out most of Congress and the Executive Branch. Hypocrisy is about wearing “masks”…acting. When I hear a politician speak (like Rudy) I always remember what drives the vast super-majority of politicians (and us): self-interest.

    Rudy does what he does for Rudy, as do most of us. It is in our nature. That does not remove morality and ethics–in fact it should enhance the sensitivity to honesty, transparency and fairness. But…

    Other than time, self-interest may be the most destructive force in our lives. Self-interest fuels greed and lapses in ethics (or in some cases, a dismissal of any moral foundation.) Self-interest will turn ideology to mush and be a causal force to motivate a “staunch conservative” promoting “small government” to approve programs and benefits to enhance their district/voters (pork barrel politics)

    In this perspective, politics, as an art of compromise, is actually a balancing of self-interests–the politician’s, the constituent’s and the others fighting for political turf and $’s .

    Self-interest will never be obliterated from politics–it is part of the process…like hypocrisy.

    It is up to voters to choose their relative favorite poison.

    Thanks again for sharing your perspective–wishing you and yours a happy, healthy and prosperous New Year!


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