Awash in a sea of retread partisan political tomes, former AmSpec Assistant Managing Editor Jeremy Lott’s In Defense of Hypocrisy was bound to stand out. That the hypocrite gets little love in modern America is hardly breaking news, but my former colleague Lott enters the fray with such verve and chutzpah it’s tough not to get caught up in the vindication or at the very least revisit some long-held assumptions. Lott was kind enough to answer a few ancillary questions arising from my reading. A transcript follows:
We’ll get this over with straightaway: In Defense of Hypocrisy? I’ve heard “suffer the little children,” but never “spare the rod and spoil the hypocrite.” How’d a nice young man such as yourself get mixed up in this business?
I lost a bet. Maybe that’s why the book begins with a defense of Bill Bennett.
Toward the end of In Defense of Hypocrisy you declare, “If you have read this far and do not think better of hypocrisy than you did going in, then this book has failed.” Yet in earlier chapters you contend, amongst other things, that “by far the most terrifying part of the taxonomy of hypocrisy is self-deception.”
In other words, our hypocritical revulsion to hypocrisy is deeply entrenched. Do you not expect a certain amount of resistance to such an audacious argument at first, even by those who with a little time and consideration might be won over? A book that, to varying degrees, defends Strom Thurmond, Britney Spears and Michael Moore might take a bit of time for mainstream America to digest, no?
I expect tons of resistance. Thus the Moment of Decision line at the start of the last chapter. The book is supposed to be a conversation between the author and the reader. It begins with “I” and ends with “you.” The thrust of the last chapter is, “So what do you think about this?” I put my e-mail address (firstname.lastname@example.org) in the author bio so readers can tell me.
Are you optimistic about winning admirers for hypocrisy?
What I hope to do is reinvigorate our old grudging respect for hypocrisy and take some of the sting out of the more ridiculous hypocrisy accusations. Whether I’ll succeed in that is up to my readers. If they find it convincing and a good read and they tell friends they must read this then it might make a dent.
Is what constitutes hypocrisy always open to interpretation? Is one man’s hypocrite another man’s freedom fighter?
It’s a fairly elastic term, but we can still come up with a rough two-part test for uncovering hypocrisy. First, does it involve deception or contradiction? Second, is the would-be hypocrite playing a role? (“I am shocked — shocked! — to find gambling…”)
One of the great strengths of this book is the way it weaves the political, personal, and (pop) cultural into a single tapestry. Were these connections apparent to you before you started or did the process of writing reveal the strands in the hypocritical web, as it were, for you and crystallize your thinking on the topic?
Some of it was planned out but then the writing took over. I didn’t plan, for instance, to do a whole section on Britney Spears. And several sections wouldn’t write where I had planned to write them, so I kept moving them around until they seemed to fit. Also, since writing is a good way of sharpening your thinking, my ideas about hypocrisy developed along the way.
You’ve said you found it impossible to write a book about hypocrisy without talking about Bill Clinton. Since this is The American Spectator, perhaps we should talk about your brilliant little Clinton Fallacy formulation? What is it? And is the former Boy President’s appeal in part because of or despite his proclivity for this not-so-damnable damnable offense?
The Clinton Fallacy was the argument that he broke the rules, but that he was for tougher rules so he should get a pass. This worked for campaign finance reform and also for sexual harassment laws, and it absolutely infuriated conservatives. Bill Clinton was a scoundrel and a cad but his genius (if that’s the word) was that he understood how hypocrisy works in politics. We tend to see it in our political enemies but have blinders when it comes to our allies or ourselves. Also, when he was up against it, Clinton bet the White House on the basic hypocrisy of the American people about sex, and won.
The chapter “Plank in the Eye” likewise suggests you couldn’t write a book on hypocrisy without talking Jesus. You contend the Messiah would “not find common cause with our many modern anti-hypocrites.” For those eternally wrestling with the jelly bracelet query, “What Would Jesus Do?” is the answer, “…buy a copy of In Defense of Hypocrisy today!” Or do you think the Lamb of God would consider such a statement tantamount to a smear campaign by Swift Money Changers for Truth?
I’d like to think that Jesus would flak for my book, but… let’s just say that he’s not a tame lion. Jesus was hyperbolic and vitriolic and perhaps, as Christians believe, absolutely right. He thought hypocrisy was bad but not so much for the deception as for the bad behavior that it masked. And he cautioned people that they should still listen carefully to what the teachers of the law had to say, and follow those teachings. Today, we’ve created more of a “saint or shut up” approach to hypocrisy. We tend to approach the issue with the opposite set of assumptions as the rabbi from Nazareth.
Okay, so you’ve made your argument in defense of hypocrisy. Say the book catches on and you convince a good deal of the world you’re right. They accept, as you contend, “It is better to have the bad acknowledge the good and to publicly conform to the right than for it to operate with no restraints at all.” Would widespread societal acceptance of hypocrisy as, in your estimation, “an engine of moral progress” undermine the very reasons why it is such an effective engine? Once people know those who promulgate the terms of the restraints are not bound by them would those borders become, in effect, porous?
Good question. There would still be certain limits in place, I think, and they’d stick. In order for hypocrisy to work, the deal is that you try very hard to pretend to be living up to your ideals and we then reward that effort by not noticing when you stray unless things get out of hand. This wouldn’t stop us from encouraging consistency. It’s much more effective to pull someone aside and say, “You’re absolutely right when you say X. And because of that, I encourage you to…” than to just call them out as lousy hypocrites.
Now that the book has been out for a few weeks, have any reactions/ misunderstandings to the text taken you off guard? Is there anything you would change in light of this?
I’ve yet to be cold-cocked by any of the responses because I anticipated the parts of the book would drive certain people batty (Strom Thurmond, clerical sex scandals, etc.). However, I was surprised by one thing. A few sympathetic critics have argued it shouldn’t have been titled In Defense of Hypocrisy. It’s not a systematic defense of hypocrisy, though it contains many arguments in favor of hypocrisy. They have a point, but On Hypocrisy or Thinking about Hypocrisy would be fairly boring titles.
Is there any specific question you wish people would ask about the book, but have as yet not? (And, sure, you can go ahead and answer it, too.)
Q: What were you thinking with the Reverse George Costanza Exception? A: Um, it made sense at the time. Sorry about that.
You close the book with what you describe as “a Rodney King-like plea for a ceasefire in the hypocrisy wars,” adding that if that doesn’t convince us, “give this book to your niece.” Should we take that to mean nieces are particularly hypocritical or at least more open to arguments in favor of hypocrisy?
That’s the hope. Plus, they’re cuter than nephews, so there’s just no downside.
If “our normal activities are fraught with hypocrisy of self-deceptive variety,” are those who disagree with the argument behind In Defense of Hypocrisy self-delusional hypocrites?
I should use that the next time I’m on television. “You, sir, are a lousy hypocrite. You just won’t admit it, even to yourself. For shame.”