Friday, June 06, 2008


At the Sunday Times, Simon Jenkins reviews David Runciman's Political Hypocrisy: The Mask of Power, from Hobbes to Orwell and Beyond:
His essential message is that politics is complex, indeed the most complex of all human activities. We therefore need to know “what sorts of hypocrites we want our politicians to be, and in what sorts of combinations”.

This involves much dirty work. We must grade their mendacities into first and second order hypocrisies. At one level we accept such white lies as are implied by “the basic standards of social conformity...politeness...a desire not to hurt someone else's feelings...good manners”. We promise this and deny that because otherwise life is just not liveable.

At another level, we want to be sure that leaders who make promises (which we may acknowledge as hypocrisies and thus be complicit in) are aware of their hypocrisy, like Trollope's ever-anguished Phineas Finn. In other words, we must appreciate the central paradox, that our rulers be sincere in their insincerity. The general (or the party leader) who predicts victory in a battle certain to end in defeat at least owes it to his followers to plan for that defeat. It is what Orwell called “benign self-deception”.

Although Runciman is often opaque and sometimes disappears into a miasma of his own paradoxes, this is a useful corrective to much journalistic sanctimony. There is no point in denying political hypocrisy “by denouncing it, or taking sides, or seeking some sort of personal insulation from it”. It is embedded in society and ideology. Most (if not all) wars and religions are riddled with the language of hypocrisy. It is a cloud swirling round everything we do and say. The compromises of even so thoughtful a politician as Barack Obama, says Runciman, are “not hypocrisy but instead a form of principled pragmatism”.

The difficulty, and it is immense, is that of which Hobbes warned. When a proclaimed pragmatism strays into self-deception and we lose sight of what is truly at stake, hypocrisy loses its virtue and becomes toxic.

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