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Two Cheers for Hypocrisy

A gray appreciation of John McCain, thinking about Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Donald Trump

Francois de La Rochefoucauld: “Hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue.”

I have long been intrigued by this epigram and its political implications. I like its ironic cogency, and think that historic and contemporary hypocrites demonstrate the insight of this pithy observation, but also its limitations. I am thinking about this as the ceremonies and tributes to John McCain are proceeding. I have, on this gray and cool Friday morning in New York, a gray observation to make in the spirit of this series: I appreciate John McCain not despite the fact that I see him as a hypocrite, but because I do.

Consider these beautiful, powerful, words that transformed the world, written by the hypocritical owner of over one hundred of his fellow human beings:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among them are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Thomas Jefferson indeed was a slave owner with a bad conscience, torn between his public commitment to the enlightened ideals of equality and his very real private interests in his human property, which made his way of life possible

And also consider these racist words written by “the Great Emancipator”:

“I will say, then, that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races — that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this, that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I, as much as any other man, am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”

Abraham Lincoln, though he found slavery abhorrent and played a major role in abolishing “the peculiar institution,” was a white man of his times, a white supremacist we would say, as revealed in this quote.

Jefferson and Lincoln were hypocrites. Their fame is belied by beliefs and practices contrary to their great public actions. Yet, the homage their vice paid to virtue has been more important than the vice itself. The ideal and imperfect practice of human equality is very much more with us because of their actions.

I know, though, that sometimes the way vice pays homage to virtue, destroys any possibility of principled action. The pretense of commitment is so transparent that commitment itself seems to be completely arbitrary. Principle may become lost. This I believe to be our present situation. This also Hannah Arendt observed in the role the search for hypocrites played in the escalation of terror associated with modern revolutions.

Donald Trump is the master hypocrite of our times. He claims to be draining the swamp, as he engages in unprecedented levels of corruption. He repeatedly declares he is the least racist person, while he has a long ongoing history of overt racism, most spectacularly with his long campaign attacking the citizenship and the legitimacy of the first African American President of the United States. He warned before his election of rigged elections and has suggested that the midterms may be rigged, as the evidence mounts that he and his associates rigged his election by colluding with a foreign power, and his Republican Party is engaged in sustained voter suppression of the poor and the non-white.

I suppose his outrageous hypocritical claims to virtue in the face of his profound vice, does involve a kind of homage to virtue, but because his vice is so apparent, I don’t think it works that way. Rather, he is destroying the possibility of virtue. I think he has lost a sense of what his commitments are really, and I fear that his supporters have come to the point that they too are losing a sense of what a real principled commitment is apart from their devotion to their leader.

Thus, the question of what if Trump actually did shoot someone on Fifth Avenue is worthy of serious reflection. How his supporters and facilitators would respond could conceivably follow the pattern of other instances of his transparent hypocrisy.

It is in this context that I applaud John McCain’s hypocrisy. I am ambivalent about McCain and the tributes he is receiving from across the political spectrum, though I find Jeff Isaac’s elegy to a flawed man to be on the mark. On the one hand, McCain exhibited throughout his life important virtues: his heroism, and commitment to faith, honor, and country. On the other hand, in my judgment, his judgment was deeply flawed, leading to his complicity in the degradation of the values that he most cherished.

On his deathbed, he made clear that both Sarah Palin and Donald Trump would not be welcome at his funeral. Yet, he is the person who invited them into the political arena. He is the man who in an act of political expediency and hypocrisy is responsible for making Palin a national figure when he chose her as his running mate in 2008. This, in turn, set the stage for Donald Trump and his post truth authoritarianism. No longer is knowledge and understanding of public affairs the requisite for leadership. Truth, honor and integrity are ignored. Appeal to the mob as Hannah Arendt understood the term in The Origins of Totalitarianism, the crowd according to Canetti in The Crowd and Poweris all that matters for a significant portion of the American public.

McCain’s patriotism was narrow, voting against making Martin King Jr. birthday a national holiday. And from beginning to end, it seemed that he never saw an opportunity for a war that he didn’t like, and always wanted to spend more on armaments. His view of the special mission of America and its role in the world were unreflective.

The appearance of virtue combined with his political expediency and lack of judgment leads me to think of McCain as a hypocrite. But I think the way he was a hypocrite is in the tradition of Jefferson and Lincoln. I think he is worthy of my respect, despite the fact that I think he was wrong on many issues and has played a significant role in the degradation of our political life. His very visible and even heroic intentions were so obvious and sincere, standing in sharp contrast to Trump, even as he did not follow the dictates of his intentions. He, with his flaws of judgment and hypocrisy, stands as a reminder to Trump and his supporters and collborators that principle like truth is not infinitely malleable.

Two cheers for John McCain and hypocrisy!

Jeffrey C. Goldfarb, the Michael E. Gellert Professor of Sociology at The New School for Social Research, is the Publisher and founder of Public Seminar.

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Jeffrey C. Goldfarb

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