What does it mean to be a hypocrite in politics?
Stephen Miller, an adviser to President Donald Trump, has been denounced in the pages of Politico for his “hypocrisy,” by his uncle, no less. Miller, like the president, supports a more restrictive approach to immigration. His uncle, David S. Glosser, insists that this is an instance of “grim historical irony,” proving that all these generations after his Polish-speaking forebear uttered his first words of English, Mr. Glosser doesn’t quite know what “irony” means.
(Which is . . . oh, never mind.)
Miller’s ancestors immigrated to the United States. Every living American is either an immigrant or had immigrant ancestors. For that matter, every human being dwelling in North America, and every one who ever has, is either an immigrant or a child of immigrants, humans not being native to the continent, or to any other continent but Africa, the significance of which ought to be obvious to any Homo even half sapiens. By the Glosser standard, everybody who supports immigration restrictions is a “hypocrite.” (That’s how you know it is kind of a stupid standard.) By the same standard, everybody who thinks that living like a caveman is sub-optimal is a hypocrite, too: What, it was good enough for your ancestors! If it weren’t for grub-eating, head-bonking, and casual cannibalism, you wouldn’t even be here!
Hypocrisy is the pretense of cleaving to certain moral standards in public while violating them in private. Miller, whatever his sins, does not pretend to be an open-borders man in public while fighting for immigration restrictions in private. On the matter of immigration, his public statements and his political actions match up just fine.
Hypocrisy is something else. When all those “family values” crusaders end up slamming Mr. Winky in the cash register? That’s hypocrisy. (But, remind me: Did Bill Clinton run on a platform of perjury and intern-diddling? And who was that guy who insisted that his faith taught him that “marriage is between a man and a woman”?) All those global-warming end-timers flying hither and yon in G650s and cruising Cannes in yachts that ought to say “Maersk” on the side? Hypocrites, to be sure. Well-intentioned hypocrites, maybe, but hypocrites nonetheless.
Where we see hypocrisy, and how wrong it rubs us, seems to depend very greatly on how sympathetic we are to the political figure in question: Class warriors Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders lead the lives of affluent people, subsidized in part by taxpayers and the educational institutions whose rising tuitions they are always going on about. Hypocrites? Arguably. Were the Clintons and the Obamas hypocrites to send their children to private schools while opposing school-choice programs for the plebs whose tribunes they claimed to be? Maybe. Or maybe they were just making concessions to reality. Barack Obama delivers homilies on “inequality” while wearing a Rolex, and Mrs. Clinton nods along swathed in Hermès. You could run a soup kitchen for a year on what these people spend adorning their persons. And the same argument used to be made about Catholic cardinals and the splendidly outfitted churches of Christendom.
If we are to have any legal immigration process at all, then there will be conditions and criteria under which certain would-be immigrants are excluded. That’s what it means to have a legal process.
I sometimes tease the most indefatigable of my immigration-hawk colleagues that, try as I might, I cannot find anybody named “Krikorian” on the manifest of the Mayflower. But, here’s the thing: Mark Krikorian’s views on immigration may be valuable and true or corrosive and false, but none of that has anything at all to do with how the Krikorians made their way from Armenia to Washington. We are all of us entitled to our own opinions, irrespective of what our grandparents or great-grandparents did. Even Stephen Miller.
If we are to have any legal immigration process at all, then there will be conditions and criteria under which certain would-be immigrants are excluded. That’s what it means to have a legal process. There was no immigration-and-naturalization process when our Pilgrim forebears landed here, and we had effectively open borders for many years. Victorian England had effectively open borders, too. (And borders have a way of moving around.) A great deal of immigration occurred during that period. Are we then obliged to accept open borders as the only possible policy that avoids opening us to the charge of hypocrisy? That’s a silly argument, but it is what follows from Glosser’s construction.
God help us all if we are to be so entirely captive to the past.
Much is made of the fact that the novelist Ayn Rand received Social Security and Medicare benefits at the end of her life. Why shouldn’t she have? She dreamt of a world in which there was no forced redistribution of wealth. She lived in this world, where there is. No doubt she paid a ton of money in taxes over the years. Hypocrisy would be if she had maintained that people in her position owed a special duty to forgo such benefits, or if she had pretended to forgo them. I myself believe that Social Security is a flawed program that we’d be better off without. I’d eliminate it tomorrow if I could. If they’re still writing checks when I’m of retirement age, I will gleefully cash them. I was once paid by NPR to go on NPR and argue for defunding NPR. I went to excellent public schools but believe the public-school system at large to be beyond reform.
None of that is hypocrisy — that’s declining to put oneself at a special economic disadvantage for living in the world that exists rather than the world one would prefer. Elon Musk has benefited from subsidies that he opposes in principle, and Koch Enterprises does not operate in a world of perfectly free markets. That isn’t hypocrisy, either. The world is what it is, and all of us — including those of us who wish to change it — must navigate the land as it lays rather than by the blurry stars of ideology. The real world is complicated, and simple-minded declarations of “hypocrisy” do not make it any less so.
The charge of hypocrisy is, in this context, only another expression of the ad hominem fallacy. “Never mind your argument, who are you to make that argument?” Miller’s arguments on immigration — and Trump’s, and Krikorian’s, and mine, and yours — are either good arguments or poor ones, productive or unproductive, leading to better policies or to worse ones. Whether those arguments are made by the offspring of Jewish immigrants from Belarus — or their uncles, or the grandsons of Bavaria-born hoteliers, or Armenian Americans, or dam-builders who show up in Texas one day from parts unknown — is irrelevant to the underlying question.
It’s worth thinking a little more carefully about these things. If we don’t, then ad hominem will be all we have left.
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