Roger’s Rules

Why you shouldn't let Eliot Spitzer get away with being called a hypocrite

Having just learned the news about New York Governor Eliot Spitzer’s expensive taste in tarts, a friend emailed to ask me what was the fancy word was that meant taking malicious pleasure in the misfortune of others: “Spitzer?” he suggested.

I have never liked Mr. Spitzer and his intrusive, rogue-prosecutorial ways. I take it amiss that even in his disgrace we are all going to be subjected to a non-stop Spitzerfest for the next 48-72 hours. Why can’t he simply disappear? I am already more than sated on the stories of The Emperor’s Club, whose experts earn nearly as much as a successful law partner. Still, there have been a few gems to emerge from the glee. My favorite so far was highlighted by Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit: “Prostitute Admits Link to Eliott Spitzer; Resigns From Escort Service in Disgrace.” Pretty good, eh?

There have also been a spate–no, a cataract–of reflections about hypocrisy, including an amusing passel at Protein Wisdom. My own feeling is that there are so many reasons to dislike Eliot Spitzer that I would hate the issue of hypocrisy to obscure his many other, more heinous faults. In fact, I am not entirely sure Mr. Spitzer rises to the level of the genuine hypocrite.

Some readers may recall the sad story of George Roche III, the former president of Hillsdale College who was alleged to have had an affair with his son’s wife. It was a sordid, unhappy story: the woman committed suicide. Mr. Roche resigned but always, so far as I know, protested his innocence.

I wrote a brief piece about the case. I was not so much interested in defending Mr. Roche–as I said at the time, about his guilt or innocence I knew exactly as much as my readers, namely nothing–but in reflecting about the oft-made charge of hypocrisy.

When I was in college, I recalled, there was a story going around about the German philosopher Max Scheler (1874-1928). Scheler was known for inspiring ethical meditations with titles like “On Man’s Place in the Cosmos.” He was also, according to this story, known for his energetic philandering. A distraught admirer approached him about this discrepancy: how could he write all those noble, morally uplifting works and yet lead such a discreditable personal life? The response attributed to Scheler is illuminating. The sign that points to Boston, he said, doesn’t have to go there.

In effect, I noted, Scheler was defending hypocrisy. He was saying that the ideals he articulated were more important than his personal failure to achieve them. When the story of Bill Clinton’s liaison with Monica Lewinsky became public, there was plenty of condemnation, but almost nobody talked about hypocrisy: lying, yes; moral turpitude, by all means; but not hypocrisy. That is because hypocrisy is essentially an aristocratic failing. It extols “the best” even if the best is generally unattainable.

This indeed is one reason that hypocrisy, among all the vices, is regarded with particular disdain and horror by egaliatarians. A hypocrite publicly upholds noble values and standards of behavior even though he knows he may sometimes fall short of the conduct they require. He does this because he recognizes that those values are worthy of support and commendation even if he cannot always embody them.

La Rochefoucauld’s observation that “hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue” will doubtless be trotted out early and often when in the case of Eliot Spitzer and the girls. It is a famous, though often misinterpreted, observation. The epigram has generally been presented as meaning–in the words of one journalist–that “the loudest moralizers may be most suspect.” But I believe that La Rochefoucauld meant to suggest that hypocrisy was an implicit acknowledgment of the claims of virtue. Otherwise, why bother with dissimulation?

There are, as I say, many reasons to dislike Eliot Spitzer. I, too, hope he goes away, and quickly. The music critic Tim Page, referring to an unpleasant and pretentious college president, observed that he was the sort of chap that gave “pseudo-intellectuality a bad name.” I feel similarly about Eliot Spitzer and hypocrisy. His behavior gives that ambiguous vice a bad name. What’s wrong with Eliot Spitzer is not so much that he praised good things and did bad ones. Most of the items he championed in his various moral campaigns were, when you looked behind the rhetoric, of dubious value. Really, he was a power-hungry, regulation-crazed functionary whose chief sin was to harness the power of the state to destroy his enemies and aggrandize himself. Had he been a little more hypocritical he might have been less dangerous.