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“Hypocrites!” jeer the blue-state metrosexuals at church-going folk who reelected US President George W. Bush in November. Writing in the Boston Globe of October 31, for example, William V D’Antonio complained, “President Bush and Vice President [Dick] Cheney make reference to ‘Massachusetts liberals’ as if they were referring to people with some kind of disease.” In fact, avers D’Antonio, the citizens of Senator John Kerry’s home state lead purer lives than Red Staters:
The state with the lowest divorce rate in the nation is Massachusetts. At latest count it had a divorce rate of 2.4 per 1,000 population, while the rate for Texas was 4.1 … Born-again Christians have among the highest divorce rates. The Associated Press, using data supplied by the US Census Bureau, found that the highest divorce rates are to be found in the Bible Belt.
That is true in part because the population of the Bible Belt is younger and more likely to marry; if no one but lesbians lived in Massachusetts, the divorce rate would be zero. Nonetheless it is true that Massachusetts liberals display less hypocrisy than Bible Belt Christians, who preach better than they practice. Liberals admit no constraints to pleasure-seeking. They are not hypocritical, but merely disgusting.
On the other hand, the neo-conservatives offer a spirited defense of hypocrisy. Professor Gertrude Himmelfarb, the wife of movement founder Irving Kristol, is a specialist in the Victorian era, a byword for hypocrisy. Up to 5% of young women in the Victorian era worked as prostitutes. In a July 1995 interview with Religion and Liberty, Himmelfarb observed, “I believe firmly in the old adage, ‘hypocrisy is the homage that virtue pays to vice’. Violations of the moral code were regarded as such; they were cause for shame and guilt. The Victorians did not do what we do today – that is, ‘define deviancy down’ – normalize immorality so that it no longer seems immoral. Immorality was seen as such, as immoral and wrong, and was condemned as such.”
Before taking exception, I should emphasize that Professor Himmelfarb has a point; apart from the saintly, only the unashamedly wicked are guiltless of hypocrisy. The rest of us pay homage to standards that we do not uphold in practice. For the sake of filial piety we honor parents who well might be unpleasant people, and uphold civic virtues that our leaders honored more in the breach than the observance. The fact that we acknowledge virtue even when we pursue vice makes civil society possible.
For the sake of domestic harmony we tell lies daily. We do not tell our wife that she looks fat, or our child that he is a dullard, or our aged mother that she is a nasty old harridan. The first recorded lie of this genre was told by God in Genesis 18:12-14. The matriarch Sarah laughed at the angels’ prophecy that the elderly Abraham would father a son; God interrupted, and told Abraham that Sarah thought that she (rather than he) was too old. Thus hypocrisy has divine sanction.
It is true that sexual repression makes one miserable, but so does sexual license, the more so if one is female. Sex is not the problem, contrary to Sigmund Freud. The problem is life. When Faust tells Mephistopheles that he wants to experience life with all its joys and sorrows, the devil answers pityingly, “Believe me – I’ve been chewing on this hard cookie for thousands of years, and from cradle to grave, no one has ever been able to digest this sourdough.” Life by definition is a failure. First you will grow old (if you are lucky) and then die. Family, religion, culture and nation offer consolations in the face of death, within limits.
Secular modernism marches under the banner of truth and freedom. Unmasking the hypocrisy of family and civil life was the single-minded purpose of modern literature from no later than the 1879 premiere of the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Nora abandons her husband and children at the end of the play out of pique at her husband’s condescension. She had forged a co-signature on a loan to pay for the rest cure that saved his life and no longer can bear to be his puppet. Despite her husband’s vow to change, the pursuit of truth and honesty demand the instant and total sacrifice of Nora’s children as well as her marriage. She has no means to earn a living, and well may end up in a brothel, but she has freed herself from illusion.
Ibsen’s plays follow a predictable template in which dirty little secrets guarded by hypocrisy come to the surface. Hereditary syphilis in Ghosts, a forged co-signature to a loan in A Doll’s House, an old love affair in Hedda Gabler, and other such devices expose the hypocritical underpinnings of family life and lead to madness, divorce, or suicide.
King among the moderns was Freud, of course, who purported to find in sexual repression the secret of neurosis. Eschewing Freud’s pessimism (“the purpose of psychoanalysis is to go from hysterical misery to ordinary unhappiness”), his successors proposed that by eliminating the family in favor of an incubator and a team of mental-health professionals, neurosis could be eliminated, like smallpox. That is the import of Hillary Clinton’s book title, It Takes a Village (to raise a child), presuming of course that the village is populated by social workers.
The other moderns were just as single-minded. Ibsen’s younger Swedish contemporary August Strindberg turned patriarchy into a nightmare in The Father. Gustave Flaubert chronicled the adulterous passion boiling within bourgeois marriage in Madame Bovary. George Bernard Shaw (Mrs Warren’s Profession) and Emile Zola (Nana) presented prostitution as a rational choice for working-class women. This genre of literature never drew broad patronage from the public, which knows perfectly well that most marriages involve a great deal of looking the other way, and would rather read stories in which the protagonists live happily rather than miserably ever after. That is why romance novels sell more copies than so-called serious fiction. In this lies a lesson.
The healthy instinct of the public, which prefers the fantasy ideal of happiness to modernist truth telling, illustrates why hypocrisy only deserves two cheers. We cannot tolerate the continuous disappointments of family and civic life, without the hope of something better. Bible Belt Christians are not merely hypocrites but also sinners. They do not only go against the rules, but also against their conscience. Religion does not presume human perfection, but a longing for perfection. That longing is what makes it possible to chew Mephisto’s sourdough. It is not surprising that throughout the industrial world, all but the religious have given up on family life.