Earlier this year, I delighted people on the Right and infuriated those on the Left by reporting what a friend had experienced in San Francisco’s famed City Lights bookstore. He’d asked a clerk if the new English translation of Oriana Fallaci’s The Force of Reason was available yet, thinking that a store with such a long and proud history supporting banned books would be the perfect place to buy it.
But Fallaci’s militant stance against Islamic militants continues to offend, particularly those who don’t like to be reminded that Republicans actually may not be the most dangerous people on earth.
And so: “No,” the clerk snapped, “we don’t carry books by fascists.”
That story, which was reprinted and much argued about, touched a nerve because it so perfectly exposed the hypocrisy of those who claim to support freedom speech — except when they personally disagree with it. For making fun of the clerk and his ilk, I got called a racist, among other things, on a popular website run by my friend Eugene Volokh, a UCLA constitutional law professor.
This inspired Eugene to make a remark in his own comments section, something he rarely does. “Please do let us know why it is that my friend Cathy is an ‘out and out racist,’” he observed mildly. “I mean in the dictionary sense of the word ‘racist,’ not in the ‘conservative I dislike’ sense of the word ‘racist.’”
The answer, of course, is that “racist,” like “fascist,” is one of those useful word-bombs that can be tossed at people when you can’t think of an intellectual argument. Apparently City Lights is especially prone to this: A reader wrote me that a friend of hers went in asking for a book by Norman Mailer, only to be told by a City Lights clerk, “We don’t carry books by pigs!” But bookstores in general seem fairly thick with hip posers overly confident in their assumptions about the world.
Another friend of mine, for instance, visited Borders not long ago looking for a book she’d heard of that had a funny anecdote about how Al Franken rails against audiences for not employing more minorities, and yet apparently couldn’t find any non-white research assistants for his book Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them… or writers for Saturday Night Live when he was an executive producer there… or researchers and producers for Air America. But she couldn’t remember the name of the book and asked at the information desk for help.
“Really? Al Franken?” the Borders clerk asked dubiously. “It must be some self-published thing.” My friend added that she remembered there was something about liberal hypocrisy in the book’s title, but the clerk said he’d never heard of it and couldn’t find it.
The book, Do As I Say (Not as I Do): Profiles in Liberal Hypocrisy, is actually a very clever and well-researched polemic by the Hoover Institution’s Peter Schweizer, who jokes that “Al Franken’s staff is whiter than Bob Jones University.” Schweizer’s publisher is not a vanity press but Doubleday, but it’s easy to understand why those on the Left wish people who point out the hypocrisy of their icons would just shut up and disappear.
As Schweizer noted when he came to Los Angeles to speak earlier this year at David Horowitz’s Wednesday Morning Club, hypocrisy is part of the human condition and everyone, conservatives as well as liberals, falls short of their professed ideals. Look at William Bennett, for instance, the former Reagan appointee and author of The Book of Virtues whose gambling addiction got him called “the bookmaker of virtues” in liberal circles.
Recently some conservative authors have addressed hypocrisy among their own ranks. In Crunchy Cons, for instance, Rod Dreher argues for an old-fashioned lifestyle that means walking to the market around the corner with the kids instead of stopping by McDonald’s for dinner after chauffeuring them to the mall, or buying organic food rather than factory-farmed chicken.
Many on the Right (especially the “South Park conservatives”) dismiss these as activities of the corny hippy Left. But as a free-range farmer who’s also a political and religious conservative tells Dreher, chicken-processing plants also typically employ illegal aliens, with all the social and moral problems they bring to American society. Do you really want to support that every time you buy a package of tasteless supermarket chicken on sale for 99-cents per pound?
As Schweizer observed, however, while life for conservatives gets worse because of their hypocrisy (witness Bennett’s public shaming); life for liberal hypocrites becomes better. U.S. Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, for instance, and her husband, for instance, are ardent environmentalists. But when endangered species regulations threatened to stall their planned golf-course development, they successfully lobbied to get regulations lifted from the project. “‘With us, the environment isn’t an issue, it’s an ethic,’” Schweizer said, quoting Pelosi. “Which I think is a nice way of saying they love the environment, just not when it comes to their own business.”
Liberals do seem particularly intolerant of those who stray from the party line — another hypocritical aspect of those who like to imagine themselves as live-and-let-live types. Caitlin Flanagan, for instance, author of the new book To Hell With All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife, is typically classified as an anti-feminist Republican writer by women who dislike her message that children lose something when they’re raised by nannies instead of at-home mothers.
But, Flanagan insisted to the L.A. Weekly rather plaintively in a recent interview, “I’m a Democrat, and only conservative on family issues… We, the Democrats, have a real small tent. The Republicans have a big tent.”
Schweizer’s targets just prefer to ignore him. “Michael Moore’s the only one who’s said anything about the book,” Schweizer said. Do As I Say notes that although Moore claimed in his book Stupid White Men he doesn’t own stock because corporations exploit workers, he actually owns quite a lot — including several shares of the reviled Halliburton, before he sold it for a 15-percent profit and invested in other defense contractors.
“He gave a speech saying some crazy person says he invested in Halliburton,” said Schweizer. “He’s stopped saying that, because I challenged him,” backed up by publicly available IRS documents.
Schweizer credits Noam Chomsky, who has famously called capitalism a “grotesque catastrophe,” for at least being the only subject in his book to respond to questions about his hypocrisy. If capitalistic enterprises like tax shelters are so terrible, Schweizer e-mailed Chomsky, why did Chomsky himself set up asset-protecting trusts for his children and grandchildren? That was O.K., Chomsky e-mailed back, because he and his family were “trying to help suffering people.”
I suppose Chomsky also deserves credit for pure chutzpah, which at least is always good for a few laughs. But as someone who’s basically centrist even though I tilt right, I don’t like to see either side undone by its self-righteous true believers. Do As I Say could just as easily be read as advice on how to shape up rather than a pure attack.
“They’ve got a decision to make,” Schweizer says, about the political prospects of the left. “Are they going to be a movement of principles or personalities?” Because so far, the personalities aren’t doing their side much good.
– Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy’s World. She is an NRO contributor.