Whiff of hypocrisy on the Hill

WASHINGTON DC - A friend of mine who is a theologian tells me he now never reads Church history. 'I gave up reading it,' he says, 'because I found it so unedifying.' When human beings, whether lay or clerical, religious or secular, claim to be representing, and seeking to enforce, rigorous moral standards, consideration of their own actual goings-on is often unedifying.

These thoughts are prompted by recent well-publicised activities of the ethics committee of the United States Senate. The committee has been in pursuit of Senator Bob Packwood (Republican, Oregon). It is investigating allegations that Packwood made unwanted sexual advances to more then two dozen women since coming to the Senate in 1969, attempted to intimidate them from telling their stories and used his staff improperly in the alleged intimidation. The committee this week filed suit in the US District Court (the district being that of Columbia) to force the Senate to comply with its subpoena for Senator Packwood's private diaries. The large prurient section of the media public is licking its lips in anticipation of juicy disclosures.

People here whose job it is to follow activities on Capitol Hill believe that the allegations against Senator Packwood are probably well- founded, and that he will not be re-elected. But they also say that other Senators, including some very senior and powerful ones, have an even worse record in such matters than Packwood has. I heard a circumstantial story, which my informant had at first-hand from the victim, about a very well-known Senator who used his official staff to follow up, with pressure, on a proposition he had made to a woman who had the bad luck to be seated beside him on an air journey.

One need not waste sympathy on Bob Packwood if (as seems to be the case) he has been in the habit of making a nuisance of himself to women with whom he came in contact over many years. Other Senators, and other powerful males, are being given notice that this pattern of behaviour has come to carry unacceptably high risks in the late 20th century.

There is, of course, a negative side to that also. Charges of sexual harassment, or child abuse, are hard to prove, but damaging to the accused even if not proved. They are therefore particularly tempting to the blackmailer, the revenger or the publicity-minded (the charges of sexual abuse recently brought against Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago may well have been motivated in one or more of the above ways). Still, on balance, the emphasis on exposing and punishing such offences against women and children must help a lot more innocent people than it hurts.

The overall effects of the Packwood case, then, seem likely to be socially beneficial. Yet the procedures involved leave a bad taste in the mouth. The very idea of an 'ethics committee' made up of politicians, selected by other politicians, combines the faintly ludicrous with the faintly sinister. Politicians are not more ethical than other people. They are notoriously less so. In the 16th century Francis Bacon thought politicians were of necessity less ethical than other people, and this insight was validated in the course of his own political career.

An 'ethics committee' made up of politicians comes near to being a contradiction in terms. And what kind of people, one wonders, compete with one another for membership of a committee that will enable them to sit in judgement on the ethics of their colleagues? This is like queuing up for the privilege of being allowed to cast the first stone.

When the ethics committee of the Senate is in session, the hypocrisy count in the air is exceptionally high. And in general, and at all times, American levels of hypocrisy are high. Historically, the British have had the reputation of being the most hypocritical people in the world, but they have long since been overtaken and surpassed by Americans.

Like all really high-grade hypocrisy, the American kind is relentlessly habitual, socially self-reinforcing, and partly unconscious. American hypocrisy is rooted in a unique combination of religiosity and success. If religiosity is measured by church attendance - and what other criterion is available? - Americans are much more religious than the British and other advanced peoples. As the Christian religion, in all its forms, makes impossible demands on its devotees - 'love thy neighbour as thyself' - hypocrisy has dogged Christianity down the ages, taking its most memorable form in the figure of Moliere's Tartuffe. And the religious style affects the discourse also of the non-religious. Thomas Jefferson, the most secular of American political leaders, was also the most sanctimonious.

As well as the religious dimension, there is that of success. Successful people have much more incentive to hypocrisy than the unsuccessful, because they have more to lose. The British were at their most hypocritical in the early Victorian age, when they were also at their most religious and most successful. The feel of modern American political and commercial discourse - the uplift and the upbeat - is more like that of early Victorian Britain than is anything in Britain today.

It is no part of my intention to berate Americans for their hypocrisy. If there is more hypocrisy in America than there is anywhere else, we must also bear in mind that there is more of almost anything that you can think of in America than there is anywhere else. I like being in America, and their hypocrisy usually doesn't worry me. But there are times and occasions when the prevailing hypocrisy levels are more than one can stomach. That was so here this week, with the ethics committee of the US Senate in session.

(Photograph omitted)