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How is hypocrisy defined?

April 19, 2010

The cynic in me understands that politics is a grubby game. The idealist in me thinks that politics can change the world. The realist in me knows that the best politics come from a bit of both. That is what upsets me most about Kevin Rudd; he plays the grubby game but to what end? An article from David Burchell today totally nailed this issue for me – PM’s phoney piety and postures make for poor policy.

In the eyes of many who observed him, there could never have been a greater rogue in American politics than Lyndon Baines Johnson. He wheedled, connived, flattered, haggled and manoeuvred his way through some of the greatest legislative triumphs of the modern American presidency. Yet despite that “exquisite hole”, that “unfillable void” which one cool observer detected at the centre of his heart, as a consequence of all his grandiose imperfections, endless petty vanities and self-delusions, Americans found themselves in possession of that grand amalgam of civil rights, education and health legislation which has been, for better and for worse, the foundation of public life in the modern US for the past 40 years.

Politics by its nature will always be impure, and its best practitioners will always be profoundly impure as a result. (Saint Catherine of Siena went so far as to partake of the pus and sores of her invalid charges to remind herself that she was immersed in the well of human impurity.) And yet the best practitioners, knowing this, deploy their impurity to a greater goal — like Johnson’s civil rights legislation, and his Medicare and Medicaid programs — in the attainment of which endless unedifying deals, compromises and petty shortcuts are necessary. There is a current of authentic and serious impurity in politics, out of the veins of which most public policy that is genuinely enduring passes. Woe betide us when — in our need for some kind of facsimile of moral purity — we settle instead for a meagre diet of phony piety and political posturing. Then we’ll be plagued with leaders who’ll use church attendance as a substitute for some genuine moral creed; who’ll adopt impeccable moral heroes of no earthly relevance to their own situations; and who’ll pretend to lofty pseudo-philosophies, such as the fashionable anti-neoliberal catechism, which are only balms for other people’s psychic wounds and to which they pay no more attention than they might to a rapidly murmured church sermon.

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