On The Normalization of Hypocrisy: Annals of The Culture of Politics, Part 4
It’s considered a little uncool these days to call out hypocrisy. The general idea is that leaders are expected to lie, and just as fish gotta swim and birds gotta fly, officials gotta claim high purpose to cover low deeds. In many circles, the exposure of faux principles is more likely to be greeted by “So what?” than by “Shame!”
I am admittedly uncool, so I’ll just say it: Shame, shame, shame on all the officials who made pious pronouncements in support of Arab Spring and either turned their backs on crackdowns or took overt action to prevent the exercise of free speech in our own fragile democracy.
Here’s what President Obama said in his Arab Spring speech last May 19th:
The United States opposes the use of violence and repression against the people of the region.
The United States supports a set of universal rights. And these rights include free speech, the freedom of peaceful assembly, the freedom of religion, equality for men and women under the rule of law, and the right to choose your own leaders—whether you live in Baghdad or Damascus, Sanaa or Tehran.
At the time, I completely overlooked the significance of the President’s failure to include New York, Oakland, or other U.S. cities in that list. But I grasp it now.
The literal meaning of hypocrisy is play-acting, but it doesn’t apply to the person who pretends to base motives to cover noble actions. The secret liberator who passes as an occupier is a hero, not a hypocrite. Hypocrisy emerges when, for instance, a candidate who condemns the interrogation facility at Guantanamo Bay as a “sad chapter in American history,” promising to close it in 2009, signs legislation and issues executive orders in 2011 to reauthorize military-only trials and hold detainees indefinitely without charge; or the candidate who pledges to respect states’ sovereignty on medical marijuana, then launches raids on legally licensed dispensaries (what’s happening in California is true across the west).
On issues great and small, we know hypocrisy when we see it. But it becomes normalized. A kind of ethical fatigue sets in. Oh well, so what?
When police forces across the nation rose with the dawn to clear out Occupy sites, their actions gave every appearance of national coordination, despite many denials. More recently, crowd-sourced research has turned up ample evidence of collaboration among private-sector policing experts and local police departments seeking stealthy ways suppress protest without attracting crowds of opponents and news media.
Their actions varied from place to place, but none worried overmuch about the rights and well-being of protesters or the implications of these police actions for our cherished freedoms, which now seem badly frayed. YouTube is clogged with images of nonviolent activists being pepper-sprayed, beaten, and dragged off to jail without warning. Here’s a remarkable clip of University of California students’ response to the latest outrage.
Certain reports were especially horrifying to anyone with a sense of history. A library of more than 5,000 books was removed from Occupy Wall Street’s encampment, and only some of them have been saved.
In the end, it doesn’t really matter whether those who have suppressed free speech in the attempt to derail protest are acting in concert, with the conscious intention of shoring up a corrupt and self-serving social order, or simply doing what comes naturally to members of the power elite. I don’t have to see them as all-powerful, all-competent masterminds to feel frightened by their actions: the hegemonic impulse speaks for itself, in a voice that echoes through the generations.
There is widespread hope that Occupy foreshadows a broad, new progressive movement that won’t depend on staking out territory to make its point. Several commentators, including Keith Olbermann, have suggested that Mayor Bloomberg is the villain the movement has needed to propel it past identification with Zuccotti Park’s real estate and into the broader political sphere. Judgments abound—many of them turning on criticism of particular elements of protest, as if our individual approval of this or that tactic is what will move the course of events. Questions are very thick on the ground right now: what new forums for protest will emerge, and can they become forums for proposition as well as opposition? What possible policy actions can encompass Occupy’s opposition to corporate domination of civil society and direct that energy toward overturning it?
I have my favorite answer: I’m convinced that one policy change can be the uniquely powerful lever to unleash the cascade of needed changes: getting private money completely out of the public electoral process, depriving entrenched interests of their primary instrument of public-sector control, the ability to dominate elections and legislative processes with money.
But I am told by a friend who works with progressive political donors and campaigns that this idea is deemed too abstract—too much about process rather than outcomes—to gain traction with a movement grounded in direct action. As Micah Sifry has pointed out, much of the mobilizing power of the Occupy movement has turned on its homemade quality, its evident authenticity, which earns young people’s confidence far more easily than the slickly packaged messages of large-scale national campaigns. I have no idea what may emerge from the current fizz and ferment of progressive think-tanking and analysis of the Occupy movement, and whether it will be embraced by those who have taken so enthusiastically to the streets. But then, if the movement crosses the bridge from refusal to proposal without benefit of expert analysis, I have no idea what form that will take, either.
This much I do know: the opposite of hypocrisy is integrity, a congruence of speech and action, deep commitment to principles of holographic consistency. How does that look? Take a gander at the Council of Elders, described in their statement in support of Occupy as
[A] newly organized, independent group of leaders from many of the defining American social justice movements of the 20th century, declared today that we stand in basic solidarity with the national Occupy Wall Street movement and the committed young people who give guidance to this important quest for justice in the 21st century. We wish to explore every possible, helpful way in which we can connect together the continuing flame of the justice and democratizing movements of the 20th century with the powerful light of the emerging movements of the present time, reflected in the Occupy Wall Street initiatives.
(I have the privilege of serving as President of The Shalom Center, and I am proud that Arthur Waskow, its founder, is among the lead members of the Council and original signatories of its statement.)
History teaches us to carefully examine leaders’ lofty declarations of principle, to be sure they are the real thing, and not merely smokescreens for the abuse of state power. In so many prior times and places, hypocrisy has been normalized, cloaking the disappearance of rights in a mantle of comforting lies. Can it happen here? That question can’t be answered “No” by anyone paying even a modicum of attention.
The opposite of hypocrisy is integrity. The antidote to hypocrisy is the actual practice of democracy in word, thought, and deed.
We must now be deeply uncool, giving voice to democracy, calling out hypocrisy wherever we see it. For inspiration, Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln: “Freedom Day” from the 1960 album “We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite.”