Notes: Two Cheers for Hypocrisy

IF YOL ARE looking for evidence to support the thesis that the United States is in a period of civic decadence—a period when almost anything that can be thought can and must be said—then hold your moral magnifying glass to a moment in last spring’s House debate over a bill to send non-lethal aid to the Nicaraguan rebels. (“Non-lethal" was, of course, a fig leaf. Receiving everything but rifles and ammunition from us, the rebels would have that much more money with which to buy arms from other suppliers.) A Democratic congressman rose, said that he was for the aid, and urged his fellow Democrats to vote for it too. Otherwise, he said, they would be vulnerable to attack in the next election for being “soft on communism.” Reporters later cited that argument as swaying many other Democrats to support the bill, which passed 248 to 184.

What was decadent here was the congressman’s corrosive excess of candor. Although fear has motivated lawmakers since political competition began, when the congressman said what he did he broke a convention of public speech. That once powerful convention obliged him to say something like, I am voting for this bill because aiding the contras is the only way to pressure the Sandinista government to stop supplying the rebels in El Salvador, stop oppressing the Miskito Indians, and start becoming a democracy. His true motive may have been fear that a future opponent would charge him with being soft on communism, but he should never have said so. He owed a tribute of hypocrisy to the idea of virtue.

For his motive was a base one. It is plainly contemptible to vote for the killing of men, women, and children so that your political career may be prolonged. It is less contemptible to cast such a vote in the spirit of “We do this evil that good may come” or to blink the question of dubious means altogether by painting Nicaragua as a totalitarian state, a strategic menace to the vital interests of the United States, or a threat to Texas. You can excuse a lot of killing if a “vital interest of the United States" is at stake. Even defending Texas is a grander cause than securing the re-election of an eminently fungible congressman.

Long ago Plato wrote that the polis needs “noble lies" to secure belief. Nothing has changed in that respect. The polis still needs noble lies. They keep us from gagging on the truth. They also give us a vision of what Plato quaintly called “the Good” to measure ourselves by and aim at and maybe even someday reach. Two cheers, then, for hypocrisy: the guardian of belief, and so of moral possibility.

—Jack Beatty