Sunday, May 18, 2008

Beware of the Hypocrite!

The Guardian has a teaser article by David Runciman, whose book Political Hypocrisy: The Mask of Power, from Hobbes to Orwell and Beyond is to be published later this month. I admit that I'm unfamilar with Runciman's work and have no prejudices against the man. From what I can glean from the article, he defends hypocrisy as a bulwark of privacy and personal resistance – an intriguing hypothesis (I'm not joking), and probably well-worth pondering.

However, since hypocrisy is a pet hate of ours over here at Obscene Desserts, and something we both have a hard time taking as a positive character trait, I feel the need to comment.

Runciman begins by drawing attention to these pathologically confessional times of ours (which have recently reached their carnivalesque nadir with the publication of Cherie Blair’s tell-all blah-blah). Our problem with Gordon Brown, he suggests, is that he does not fit the bill of showbiz politicians like George W., Obama and our Tone, with their insufferable populist pseudo-honesty (after all, who knows whether they're not just being drama queens?).

In this climate, a person like Gordon Brown can but fail. The PM's voluntary exposure in the confessional media circus tends to result in embarrassing clumsiness, which one can either despise or read as a sign of his hypocrisy (i.e. he’s not genuine, he has something to hide). Runciman, by contrast, construes Brown’s blatantly unmediagenic style as a positive symptom of unease about contemporary political culture, which in turn betokens the secret – "the deep" – Gordon behind the public mask.

Fair enough. I too am sick to death of public personae forcing intimate details of their sorry lives upon me (from the texture of their bodily fluids to the kinky stuff they like to do in their spare time – it’s spare time, so would you please keep it private?). I really don’t care about “what happened at Balmoral” and whether Cherie favours banana-flavoured jiffies – but after my daily online dose of the British press (and I don’t mean the tabloids) one can’t help not knowing. My brain-cup overfloweth with the Snowdon of bullshit which “respectable papers” heap up as “valuable” information these days.

Runciman’s critical overture is followed by a longish discussion of George Orwell, whom he is at pains to co-opt to his defence of hypocrisy. Orwell according to Runciman was “an anti-hypocrite for whom there were worse things than hypocrisy.” Obviously, this defiant rejection of the popular image of Orwell as the incarnation of absolute moral honesty and plain speech is meant as a stab at people who endorse this view, such as Christopher Hitchens, whom Runciman doesn't seem to find all that cuddly.

Fair enough, too. We all know (or should know) how difficult it is to uphold one’s high moral standards as an instinct-driven animal surrounded by other, equally instinct-driven animals and there is no reason to believe that Eric Arthur B. was an exception to this rule of animal urges.

Nevertheless, I can’t help finding Runciman’s argument … dodgy, to say the least. So let's look at it a little more closely.

Given Orwell’s first-hand experience with British Imperialism (in which the imperial police officer in Burma was hopelessly – albeit critically – entangled), Runciman goes on to explain, Orwell not only accepted a certain, “sustainable” form of hypocrisy as an unavoidable trait of liberal democracy, he also thought that such a strategic hypocrisy is infinitely preferable to its radical opposite – absolute sincerity. Compared to this terrible sincerity, hypocrisy is not only the lesser evil, one might in fact take it positively, as a quasi-heroic act of resistance (these are ot Runciman's terms, but this seems to me to be the gist of his article).

Consider fascism, Runciman says, which, in ruthlessly promoting an all-engulfing ideology that infiltrates every nook and cranny of private life, eliminates the possibility of hypocrisy (in the Runciman sense of self-determined action).

To elaborate on this point, Runciman quotes from Orwell’s novel 1939 Coming Up For Air (nice touch: I love this sadly underrated book). The passage he refers to is one where the protagonist, George Bowling, attends an anti-fascist lecture. Having listened to a barrage of ideological claptrap in a half-empty auditorium, Bowling comments on the speaker:

Interesting to know a chap like that in private life. But does he have a private life? Or does he only go round from platform to platform, working up hatred? Perhaps even his dreams are slogans.

Which leads Runciman to make a big leap from this lesser known novel by Orwell to (arguably) his most famous one:
The scene from Coming Up for Air also foreshadows a theme of [1984], which is what it might mean not to have a private life, not to have anything held back or reserved, but simply to be the slogans that one is forced to spout through and through. In such a world, hypocrisy would not simply be valuable, it would in a sense represent the ultimate value, because its precondition is having something to hide. Nineteen Eighty-Four is a description of a world in which hypocrisy has become impossible.
Two points need to be made here. First of all, wherever did Runciman get the stupid idea from that fascism destroys hypocrisy? Granted, total transparency might have be an officially-desired by-product of Nazi Gleichschaltung (as indeed of any utopian-totalitarian system), but how encompassing was this desired transparency in Nazi Germany really? Runciman here seems to confuse Nazi propaganda with real life in Nazi Germany, in a way that seems entirely typical of the British obsession with this historical period.

But just because Joe Bloggs thinks that German life between 1933 and 1945 was completely suffused with Nazi ideology (in fact there seem to be quite a few Joe Bloggs around who believe that German life in 2008 continues to be suffused with Nazi ideology), does not mean that academics should also have licence to do so.

All the more so, as this conflation comes at a price. Runciman here seems to overlook Nazism’s distinct ability to foster and exploit the human capacity for hypocrisy: from the averted eye in the face of everyday violence to stockpiling spoils from confiscated Jewish property for personal gain – not to mention the hypocritical official line of the two Christian denominations (For a complex analysis of the position of the Church in Nazi Germany see Chapter 3 of Richard J. Evans’s The Third Reich in Power).

Secondly (and here’s the literary scholar speaking, who hates it when people plunder literary texts to illustrate their non-literary arguments): I really think that Runciman misreads Coming Up for Air, or at least that he doesn't read it fully. It is true, the notion of “keeping things private” expresses Bowling’s own guiding principle in life, but the novel also points out that it is precisely this attitude that gets him into trouble, especially with his forever nagging wife Hilda. The whole novel hinges on Bowling's clandestine trip - in a bout of middle-age nostalgia and with the aid of money won on a horse (without the wife knowing, of course) - to his childhood village of Lower Binfield. The frustrations of his journey down memory lane herald the domestic catastrophe to come.

When he is found out, Bowling briefly tries to explain, but Hilda’s stubborn refusal to listen to him leads him to back down and choose “the line of least resistance” instead. The novel ends with him listing the three options available to him in this situation:
A. To tell her what I’d really been doing and somehow make her believe
B. To pull the old gag about losing my memory.
C. To let her go on thinking it was a woman, and take my medicine.
But, damn it! I knew which it would have to be.
From Runciman’s perspective, Orwell would have to favour option C.: Keeping one’s peace by remaining silent, even when the need to explain oneself is urgent (along the lines of: "Screw Hilda, I know what’s the truth, and that’ll do me"). The open end of Orwell’s novel potentially affirms this interpretation.

But there is a deeper undertone to Bowling's concluding post-adolescent sulk. For what might work in Bowling’s private life is a different thing in reality. Written on the eve of WWII, Coming Up For Air is an alarm cry against the protagonist’s complacency, which may be read allegorically, as the embodiment of a particularly British attitude or even Britain itself (George Bowling - "GB" - know what I mean?). In the particular historical context in which the novel is written and set, taking the line of least resistance means accepting the possibility of global catastrophe.

Moreover, as we say in Eng Lit: never conflate author and narrator! Clearly, Bowling does not ventriloquise Orwell's view when he seeks refuge in his own mediocrity:
And what’ll happen to chaps like me when we get Fascism in England? The truth is it probably won’t make the slightest difference. As for the lecturer and those four Communists in the audience, yes, it’ll make plenty of difference to them. They’ll be smashing faces, or having their own smashed, according to who’s winning. But the ordinary middling chaps like me will be carrying on just as usual.
This statement would seem to be a full endorsement of Runciman’s idea of hypocrisy. But “George Bowling Hero” is certainly not the message of Orwell’s book. Instead of a latter-day St. George, he is a very British Everyman ready to put up with anything as long as his little life remains intact: “Who’d bother about a chap like me? I’m too fat to be a political suspect.”

Only Bowling’s latent anxieties give reason for hope. Only his fears suggest that he might muster some kind of courage if push comes to shove:
And yet it frightens me. The barbed wire! The slogans! The enormous faces! The cork-lined cellars where the executioner plugs you from behind!
The novel is clear about this: in order to prevent such things from happening, one must be ready to act – and in all honesty. In a world of cork-lined execution chambers, there is no space for hypocrisy.

But, come to think of it, there isn't any in an environment of mollycoddled post-capitalism either.


Chris Brooke said...

Wherever did Runciman get the stupid idea from that fascism destroys hypocrisy?

I think you're running together two things that he does say (about Orwell), to create something that he doesn't.

What Runciman gets out of Orwell, first, is a thought that fascists can be imperialists without being hypocrites, while liberal democrats can't, and because liberal democrats can't do imperialism without being hypocrites, they shouldn't be imperialists at all, because the hypocrisies of imperial politics are lethal. (By contrast, the hypocrisies of domestic liberal democratic political life are vastly more tolerable.)

Second, he presents the world of 1984 as a world in which hypocrisy is impossible.

But he doesn't say that fascism destroys hypocrisy across the board (and I don't think he has to say this to make his argument work), nor does he need to deny that fascists weren't able to exploit other people's capacity for hypocrisy.

J. Carter Wood said...

Hi Chris,

Since Anja is swamped with administrative work tonight and didn't expect such a deeply thought out response so quickly,I thought I'd take up a few points.

I think you’re creating a far more eloquent and clear version of Runciman than Runciman himself offers.

One of the difficulties of this excerpt is that it is very difficult to know what Runciman means by ‘hypocrisy’.

The term would, I think, seem to require some kind of knowing dishonesty, such as an assertion in public decrying something that one gets down to in private or vice versa. There is an element of falseness in the term that requires at least a semi-conscious dishonesty for an act or expressed belief to count as 'hypocrisy'.

But in his discussion of Wodehouse and Orwell, Runciman states the following:

What Kipling and Wodehouse had in common for Orwell was that there was a kind of integrity to their double standards, though of very different kinds. Kipling deliberately concealed something of himself, but did not seek to conceal the truth about the nature of imperial power; Wodehouse exposed himself, and thereby inadvertently exposed something of the double standards of the system of power in which he unthinkingly believed.

I’m not sure that either of these are ‘hypocrisy’; at the very least, they don't add up to a consistent definition.

How, for instance, is Kipling’s decision to conceal some element of his personality or private life ‘hypocritical’--or even a ‘double standard’?

Runciman here seems to be talking about two very different, and largely unrelated topics. (Kipling’s private life and the Empire.)

And by arguing that Wodehouse was a ‘political innocent’ (or by seeming to endorse Orwell’s argument that this was true) he would appear to also move him outside the realm of ‘hypocrisy’: how can someone who doesn’t realise what he’s doing be a 'hypocrite'?

Similarly, the following seems very confused to me:

Stupidity might just retain its integrity in the face of totalitarianism, but knowingness never could. Equally, it is impossible to imagine Orwell defending a PG Wodehouse view of British imperialism, because there was nothing innocent about imperialism, and political naivety in that context was always culpable.

Why might stupidity ‘retain its integrity in the face of totalitarianism’ and not in the case of ‘imperialism’? Was there anything ‘innocent’ about totalitarianism (that seems implied by the second sentence, since a contrast seems to be drawn here between the two topics)?

And then, Runciman says,

The first is the relatively innocent hypocrisy of democracy, which is underpinned in the English case by the sentimentality of the working classes and the stupidity of those who rule them. This innocent stupidity is exemplified for Orwell by the "morally sound" willingness of the English upper classes to get themselves killed in wartime.

Innocent stupidity, sure. But hypocrisy? (I know that Runciman is summarising Orwell here, but all of this quoting seems to add up to an argument about what hypocrisy is, and Runciman doesn't at any point say that he disagrees with Orwell's view.)

Indeed, one might say that this willingness of the ruling classes to get themselves killed in the name of democracy is the opposite of hypocrisy (I’m not saying it’s necessarily true, but just taking Orwell’s example as given and questioning Runciman’s apparent agreement with it.)

Surely, hypocrisy would be for the ruling class to loudly proclaim the need for sacrificing one’s life for one’s country and then avoiding it themselves.

I wonder whether the phenomenon, again, is being accurately named. Runciman seems to take a ‘double standard’ as inherently hypocritical: but what if it’s an openly acknowledged one, or, in his terminology, ‘transparent’? He also seems to accept Wodehouse’s depiction of the British imperial ruling class as ‘stupid’ as an accurate reflection of reality.

This is very much like his willingness to accept the novelistic vision of totalitarianism in 1984 as an accurate social historical statement about Nazi Germany.

Perhaps he doesn't do this, but the excerpt as presented makes this interpretation a perfectly plausible one.

I’m also wondering about your version of what you think Runciman says, i.e., that liberal democrats can’t be imperialists without being hypocrites.

Of course they can. At least in their own minds, if not in ours. The ‘civilising mission’ narrative gave most liberal-democratic imperialists the notion that they were doing something that was a logical conclusion of their political beliefs at home. I.e., that it was not only acceptable but almost an obligation to civilise not only their 'savage' domestic working classes but also the allegedly childish foreigner.

It is not necessary for such a person to be hypocrite.

Note: I’m not saying this makes them right, merely that the liberal democracy that you or I believe in is not necessarily the same one that everyone in the past has believed in. In any case, it’s not at all clear that the British ruling class was entirely happy with 'liberal democracy' at home, let alone abroad. For Runciman to assume that all imperialists were liberal democrats and thus hypocrites is a bit odd. In many ways, their view of the world and their policies toward it were consistent, if immoral.)

I also think that Runciman goes further than you think in suggesting that fascism is non-hypocritical.

He writes:

There is an alternative remedy, of course, which is to abandon hypocrisy altogether. This is what would happen if imperialism jettisoned democracy, rather than the other way around. An imperial order unconstrained by democratic or liberal hypocrisies, in which power can be called by its proper name, in which the sword is always unsheathed because there is never any need to conceal it, is certainly possible.

I mean, he does say ‘altogether’ and ‘never’, which are quite strong terms. Maybe he's merely quoting Orwell. Maybe he agrees with him. Who knows?

Then he says:

Imperialism without hypocrisy is called fascism, and it is one of the distinguishing marks of fascism, as of other totalitarian regimes, that it does not need to be hypocritical. Totalitarians can afford to be sincere about power.

This latter bit is what Anja refers to, an argument that fascism is ‘sincere about power’.

First, I think Runciman—at various points in his essay—is relatively unclear about when he’s saying what he thinks and when he’s expressing Orwell’s view.

As to this notion of sincerity: well, yes, and no.

The Nazis were, of course, very open about power in the name of the people or Volksgemeinschaft or Aryan race (as defined by them).

But the numerous ways in which individuals enriched themselves in the name of the Party would not seem to fall under this rubric.

Thus, anyone who uses Party ideology to enrich themselves at the expense of the Volk, would, in some way, seem to be as much of a hypocrite as any liberal democrat imperialist. Just in a different political context.

And what appears to be Runciman’s conclusion -- that what we’re really left with is a choice between hypocrisies and the real danger are forms of sincerity -- is also not entirely convincing.

Of course, it’s easy to gesture to the neo-cons as the bearers of 'sincerity' and thereby (automatically?) devalue the term. But are all other political perspectives to be downgraded according to their degree of sincerity?

However, sometimes, I think, politics are, actually, about ‘a choice between sincerity and fakery’ and not merely a choice between hypocrisies, as Runciman seems to claim. (And if he's merely claiming that Orwell argued this, then I'm not convinced.)

'Sincerity' does not necessarily mean a choice between totalitarianism and hypocrisy-by-another-name.

One of the slightly irritating things about Runciman's piece is its somewhat half-hearted gesture to Coming Up For Air.

In the excerpt Anja quotes, Orwell, via George Bowling, draws a commonality between individual hypocrisy (Runciman seems only interested in the abstract political/philosophical variety) in liberal democracies and totalitarian states. The same type of person could get along in both systems. And Orwell is pointing out--and decrying--that circumstance.

Perhaps the rest of Runciman’s book deals with this issue in more differentiated terms, but as discussed in the excerpt in the Guardian, it all seems to come out a bit muddled.

Know what I mean?

Anonymous said...

I can't be bothered to take on Runciman, but Anja's post inspired me to pick up _Coming Up For Air_ again. What a good book it is - and how different it seems to me now (age 39) than it did 25 years ago when I first read it.

Chris Williams