Let’s Retire “Hypocrisy”
Political media criticism is a difficult job. This is due not to external forces or physical conditions, but to largely self-prescribed strictures about how news organizations should operate. Most mainstream media outlets have an overabundance of caution about perceptions of bias, and feel compelled to present a broad range of opinions, even if that supersedes other qualifications for registering ones opinions, or if the range of opinions turns out not to be especially broad. On an individual level, pundits and journalists seem to feel gun-shy about making value judgments on the subjects of their field, leading to convoluted arguments about semantics and reality. Beset by an ethical code that won’t allow the media to call a spade a spade, the concept of hypocrisy beckons as an oasis in a desert of acceptable critiques. “Hypocrisy” is appealing because it follows a rudimentary algorithm: find a political statement from a politician, find a differing statement from the same politician, and juxtapose the two while smirking, Halpert-style, at the camera. It is political criticism at its purest, achieving the purported goal of uncovering wrongdoing without engaging with the actual content of the statements. “Hypocrisy” is a banal, shallow term favored by pundits for its political neutrality, and should be stricken from the media lexicon.
The problems with hypocrisy are two-fold. First, despite the relative ease of assembly, reporters and pundits building a hypocrisy case fuck up with alarming frequency. What’s derided as hypocrisy is often merely an evolution of thinking due, as in 2004, when John Kerry’s shifting positions were used to cudgel his presidential bona fides and market the cringiest campaign merchandise. Present day observers might wonder how “realizing the Iraq War was a mistake” was considered an electoral gaffe, but the era of Freedom Fries and Dixie Chicks black-balling knew no political lows. Lobbing hypocrisy accusations at politicians for allowing new data to inform their policy-making feels a bit like berating a toddler for their inconsistent attitude toward touching a hot stove: correct on the barest technical terms, but counter-productive to the more important goal of not having to repeatedly rush a child to the burn ward. Likewise, more insidious members of the media often deploy hypocrisy charges as ways of obviating otherwise legitimate criticism. This strategy was rightfully skewered by Matt Bors’ “Mister Gotcha,” but continues to enjoy success among media publications who are actively uninterested in the advocacy they’re refuting. The climate activist with a car, the billionaire who wants to raise taxes, socialists who don’t want to move to Venezuela; these are not hypocrites and their criticisms of the status quo are not invalidated by their existence in it.
Perhaps nowhere is “hypocrisy” less meaningful than when aimed at the current President. It is worthless to criticize Donald Trump’s mutable, unfixed public policy positions because his profound ignorance toward the subject matter and his disdain for truthfulness already make for a sort of existential hypocrisy. It may be mildly amusing to dredge up his 2013 tweets inveighing against cookie thievery each time he’s found with his hand in the jar, but it produces little in the way of analysis. A demented, lazy moron with no interest in governance beyond self-enrichment and basking in the applause of racist grandparents is bound to offer up inconsistencies. To call him hypocritical is to suggest he has the capacity to retain two contradictory thoughts simultaneously, which is exceedingly generous. Better to call him a panderer, liar, or a bullshitter and be done with it.
Our President’s blind-squirrel approach to honesty is useful in that it reveals the second, larger problem with hypocrisy as a media watchword: it is insufficient in its criticism. When hypocritical behavior is correctly identified, what should follow is an investigation as to the underlying beliefs that cause it. Often, these beliefs are much more pernicious and objectionable than hypocrisy, but lay unchallenged by the media — like a police officer dusting his hands after putting a parking ticket on Ted Bundy’s van. To borrow a term from arithmetic, journalists and pundits should be more interested in finding the common denominator.
Conservative leadership has long enjoyed the benefits of media negligence. Paul Ryan’s commitment to fiscal conservatism may seem incongruous when he joyfully passes a deficit-exploding tax cut, but both actions are entirely consistent with his fundamental belief: that poor people deserve fewer material comforts, and that their immiseration is to their own benefit. He longs to slash the social safety net and deliver more wealth to the ultra-rich, and his votes in Congress underscore this ideology. Mitch McConnell, a Galapagos turtle in appearance, intransigence, and longevity, may be a hypocrite for denying Obama’s judicial appointments while railroading Trump’s through the Senate, but that pejorative pales in comparison to his core motivation to eliminate liberal involvement in politics and expand conservative power. The agglomeration of his statements and policy initiatives is only muddled if one ascribes him values like “procedural norms” or “bipartisanship” — assume he is operating solely as a right-wing power-broker and the image comes into focus like billboards in They Live! John Roberts isn’t “calling balls and strikes” so much as moving home plate under Republicans’ pitches and kicking it out of the way for Democrats’. And the President’s paeans to “law and order” and “due process” do not conflict with his actions, but underscore them.
Politicians with abhorrent views will continue exercising these views in secret if the media indulges it. We do a disservice to the public by slapping “hypocrisy” on untoward political behavior and calling it a day. Fear of appearing overly partisan must yield to fear of abetting harmful policy, especially when antipathy toward the press is itself a political issue. Hypocrisy is an obsolete issue. Let’s retire it. There’s more important stuff at stake.