On the juicy story du jour

hypocrisyOne of my worst traits is that I love to watch and read about things I shouldn’t love to watch or read about. I have successfully limited my intake of gossip mags to in-flight reading, and I’m doing better about avoiding gossip sites, I guess, but I still have a major problem.

So the other night when news broke about Sen. David Vitter, R-La., being a customer of a prostitution ring, I ate it up. I also set about trying to download the phone numbers of other people involved. I was disappointed when I woke up the next morning and realized that no new high-profile figures had emerged scathed. And I continue to be disappointed at the lack of new information.

You might say, “Well, Mollie, you’re a journalist covering Washington. This is natural.” Not so, alas. The truth is I’m just a voyeur (mostly in the sense of someone who is an obsessive observer of sordid or sensational subjects) and someone with a particularly bad case of schadenfreude. I would be mortified if people knew all the horrible sins I’ve committed but I see no problem in delighting in the sins of other.

I keep thinking that this is a story waiting to be written. Some enterprising reporter should look at people like me who have this problem. It’s at least as interesting as the news that yet another politician pays for sex (or preys on young men or cheats on his wife while she’s recovering from major surgery, etc.). It’s also much more far-reaching, I think.

The other journalistic point I wanted to make on the sex scandal is how some folks really have trouble writing up the sad tales of those engaged in sex scandals. I came across two not-so-good ledes in my mad search for more info today. Here is the Agence France Presse:

A conservative senator from America’s Bible Belt has apologized after being exposed as a former customer of an upscale prostitution agency whose massive client list is said to include many Washington power brokers.

I mean, where to begin? Louisiana is, last time I checked, in the South, but calling it the Bible Belt rather ignores the large Roman Catholic population there — larger, by percentage, than the United States as a whole. But more than this it’s just the silliness of prudery and counterprudery. Prostitution is illegal in this country, not only for conservative Christians in the Bible Belt but for everyone. And we know that if a liberal Senator from some other region had been implicated, we can be pretty darn sure that the first line wouldn’t have been “A liberal senator from America’s godless state of Oregon . . . ” or what have you. But more on this in a moment.

The Times (UK) began their story this way:

A God-fearing Republican Senator has apologised for “a very serious sin” after becoming the first member of the US Congress to be discovered on the telephone records of the woman dubbed DC Madam, who is alleged to have run one of Washington’s biggest prostitution rings.

God-fearing? Oh do calm down, Times. Again, I can’t wait for the descriptor “godless” or some such to show up in subsequent stories.

But it is interesting, once again, how moral indiscretions — while universal — seem to be bigger problems for those who advocate for a stricter moral code. Part of the problem is that the mainstream media feel they can’t advocate for many traditional moral codes unless they involve children. That leaves them no alternative but to infer or explicitly accuse hypocrisy. Vitter is a self-admitted adulterer. He’s a whoremonger (a word which needs better synonyms, I think). He’s a betrayer of his marital vows. He’s a lawbreaker. And he’s a darn lucky man to have retained his family in spite of his behavior. But is he a hypocrite? TMatt’s post about this topic yesterday called him a hypocrite, and most people would say he is a classic hypocrite.

Merriam-Webster tells us that the word hypocrisy comes from the Greek hypokrisis, referring to the act of playing a part on the stage. Definition:

a feigning to be what one is not or to believe what one does not; especially: the false assumption of an appearance of virtue or religion

Someone is not a hypocrite, necessarily, for doing something that they preach against. I’m not a hypocrite, necessarily, for believing my voyeurism is wrong while also engaging in voyeurism. I am weak, that’s for sure. Here is how St. Paul put it in Romans 7:

For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I. . . . For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. . . . For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Hypocrisy is different than this constant struggle St. Paul describes as the plight of every Christian. Hypocrisy is “acting the part” of a religious person while having no actual belief to back it up. That may or may not describe the folks involved in this scandal and others but how can we know? Is Vitter’s membership in a Catholic church a ruse designed to trick voters, colleagues and family members? Or is he an adulterer who has sinned against God and family? I’m pretty sure there’s no way reporters can know the answer to that question.

It is a tricky concept but it’s clear that misunderstood notions of hypocrisy underly many stories about moral indiscretion. Of course, one might argue that Rochefoucauld‘s 17th century view (“Hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue.”*) has fully infiltrated the modern lexicon and linguistic purists should just admit defeat. Either way, I think mainstream reporters should know that Christians do not presume moral perfection on the part of converts but, rather, see sin as an unfortunate part of daily living.

*It occurred to me in the shower this morning that the modern take on Rochefoucauld’s statement is “Hypocrisy is the homage virtue pays to vice.” I’m sure I’m the 10,000th person to realize this.

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  • Stephen A.

    Of course, when a Leftist politician ends up on the list, it will receive little comment and won’t be at all shocking.

    I prefer hypocrites who promote values to immoral slime politicians who don’t pretend to, frankly.

  • Eli

    OMG this post is just way too good. The Divine Mrs. MZH strikes again. Of course more thoughts after I’ve had a chance to digest it a bit more….

  • Reader John

    The press knows two kinds of conservative Christians: The hypocrites who don’t measure up to their moral ideals and the fanatics/fundamentalists who do.

  • Eric Chaffee

    Mollie,
    When did you become a Universalist? Your words — “…it is interesting … how moral indiscretions — while universal — seem to be bigger problems for those who advocate for a stricter moral code.” And again, “…Christians … see sin as an unfortunate part of daily living.” Must we?

    Perhaps the notion of sin in Christianity has not been demolished by Jesus — yet — because we haven’t heard him, yet. (Sorta like the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t kick in to consciousness for a long time after the Civil War.) It appears that many folk give sin a new Cartesian twist: “I am a sinner, therefore I sin.” It would seem that Christians use Grandpa Adam as an excuse, a fall guy for our druthers, rather than as an object lesson to detect the modus operandi of the Tempter. “Sin is in my genes” we defend. Not according to Jesus. He clearly dismisses sin as causative agent on at least three occasions: the woman taken in adultery (“go, and sin no more”); the man born blind (“neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents”); and the man at the Bethesda pool (“sin no more lest a worse thing befall you”). Would he have dismissed sin radically like this if he thought it impossible for them or us to cease sinning? (I don’t think he was that cruel.) Jesus expected us to cease sinning in this life!

    The problem with hypocrisy is that it is a pretender of something which the belief-holder thinks impossible. “I’m a good boy, but what, me stop sinning? Impossible.” The Emancipation has been announced. Why don’t we believe it? — because the church leaders tell us that sin is permanently stuck to the bottom of our shoe, following us wherever we go. Jesus didn’t believe this. Neither should we. It has been said that ‘news’ is just the same old stuff happening to different people. If I’m titillated by those happenings, perhaps I’m recognizing myself in the reports. “Physician, heal thyself” would seem to be an invitation, rather than a taunt.

    ~eric.

  • Joseph Fox

    It may well be that the “obsession” with other folk’s secret behavior IS a trait which has great value in surviving in human culture. It goes hand in hand with the old saying “watch what people do rather than what they say”. Reporters have a responsibility to bring to the public’s attention those incidents when a politician’s (Conservative or Liberal) actions do not match his public posturing. That is usually considered “News”.

  • Dennis Colby

    I don’t really think the Times or AFP stories are out of line – after all, Vitter himself brought the words “God” and “sin” into the conversation in his admission. Mabye “Bible Belt” and “God-fearing” are a little old-fashioned, but so is “whoremonger.”

  • Reed

    Is Vitter’s membership in a Catholic church a ruse designed to trick voters, colleagues and family members? Or is he an adulterer who has sinned against God and family? I’m pretty sure there’s no way reporters can know the answer to that question.

    Actually, I think that a reporter could answer that question as the adultery is a matter of timing. According to the Senator’s statement, he was a client of the prostitution service a long time ago.

    So…how long has Sen. Vitter been a lector at his church? Was he a lector prior to his becoming a Senator? Was he using the prostitution service and preaching against it at the same time? Most importantly, did he use the pulpit as a campaign soapbox For example “Prostitution is a sin against God and family! If I am elected…”

    If a reporter really wanted to know, and if the editors thought this angle was important (especially the ruse part), then the news service could probably answer it.

  • Eric G.

    It isn’t just family-values conservatives who are accused of hypocrisy in the media. I’ve seen quite a few stories about environmentalists who are accused of living lavish energy-consuming lifestyles. When a family-values conservative commits adultery, the hypocrisy is worth noting in a way that it isn’t when an anything-goes-sexually liberal does the same thing. In the same way, nobody cares whether Newt Gingrich (to pick a random example) drives a small car, but if someone like Al Gore doesn’t, that’s a legitimate news story.

    Whether fair or not, those who preach family values set themselves to a higher standard to be judged on their sexual activities.

  • Tom Stanton

    Mollie – feel free to delete this post as it doesn’t really pertain to the journalistic issue.

    But, from one gossip glutton to another – God have mercy on us both. Thanks for that sobering reminder and confession.

    Tom

  • don

    Journalists seem to cover most indiscretions with the idea that people always act deliberately and in concert with their inmost selves (and that their inner selves are not at all conflicted either, but entirely one way or another). They (and perhaps this just reflects society) seem to think that people are monolithic. On the surface we may have a chocolate coating, but on the inside we’re marshmallow through and through (or something less savory).

    There seems little room for understanding weakness and struggle, especially in powerful people. The most interesting angle on this story that I heard on Paul Harvey (haven’t seen it in print yet) is that women Vitter was involved with said he seemed to mostly want to talk. Considering his powerful position as a Senator, that sounds surprisingly like a lonely and vulnerable person. (NO, that doesn’t mean I’m excusing his actions.)

    That’s an interesting hook to a potentially sad and tragic human story, but it doesn’t fit the template of trying to determine if this man is All Goodness or All Evil. Shakespeare’s fictional characters had moral depth, uncertainty, good moments and bad. Can anyone think of examples where powerful people in the news today were treated as if they might be the same way?

  • Chris Bolinger

    Mollie, feel free to delete this.

    Eric, all three of your references are from the Gospel of John. How John discusses sin differs from how Paul and the writers of the other Gospels discuss sin. (The same is true for other subjects.) Also, many would disagree with your interpretation that Jesus expected the woman caught in adultery never to commit any sin ever again. In fact, the NIV translation is “leave your life of sin”. I recommend that you look beyond the KJV.

    Read Romans 7. It takes some skilled mental gymnastics to interpret Paul’s statements as referring only to sins that he committed before he became a Christian. There is no evidence that Paul ceased sinning in this life, and yet we all agree that Paul “heard” Jesus as well as anyone.

    I doubt that many in the press share your belief that true Christians don’t sin or aren’t slaves to sin. The press likes finding fault and crying “Hypocrite!” because:
    (1) The average Joe likes doing the same — After all, pointing out the mote in someone else’s eye distracts people from the log in mine.
    (2) The press craves power and loves politics, and stories such as this are a great way to exercise power by diminishing another’s.

  • Hans

    He’s a whoremonger (a word which needs better synonyms, I think).

    One of my favorite passages from the King James:

    “Thou hast destroyed all them that go a whoring from thee.” Psalm 73:27.

  • wrigley peterborough

    Tis’ odd, at least in my humble estimation, that a young, Oxonian Senator, who bears enough of a resemblance to the screen actor named Keanu Reeves, should have to resort to hiring a demimonde to fill his idle wifeless hours in Washington. I thought whores were for the ugly nonagenarians of our legislature. We live in a world gone mad.

  • Jerry

    It isn’t just family-values conservatives who are accused of hypocrisy in the media. I’ve seen quite a few stories about environmentalists who are accused of living lavish energy-consuming lifestyles.

    To amplify this correct idea, there were many comments about this in the just completed world-wide Live Earth concert. There were many comments, some snarky, about the SUV’s in the parking lots. The left has a different hierarchy of sins – which ones are worse – but the same dynamics of hypocrisy.

    I think it’s worthwhile for Christians to pay attention meaning and context of word ‘hypocrite’ as used in the Bible. For example, I went to http://quod.lib.umich.edu/k/kjv/simple.html and searched on the word ‘hypocrite’. Reading all the passages with that words was illuminating.

  • http://religion.beloblog.com/ Jeffrey Weiss

    Getting back to journalism for a moment: Mollie, you are technically correct about a narrow definition of hypocrisy. But the ordinary understanding of the word, sez I, is not nearly so precise. By the understanding of most people, Vitter is a hypocrite and therefore the word seems appropriate in the coverage. If I wanted to make your technical point in a newspaper story, I’d need to spend several additional paragraphs.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Jeffrey,

    I raised that point at the end. And my husband and I are always fighting about this since he thinks popular understanding is more important than actual meaning (he’s WRONG!).

    But people have wrong understandings of ‘ironic’ and ‘begs the question’ and that doesn’t vindicate wrong usage in stories.

    More than anything, though, it’s the underlying lack of understanding about what Christians believe about sin and forgiveness that I think is the problem. It’s a stereotype of Christians — and a very wrong one, I’d argue — that they believe they don’t sin.

    In that sense, every Christian who advocates for some marriage law isn’t pretending he has a perfect marriage. Hardly. It doesn’t make him a hypocrite, either.

  • http://religion.beloblog.com/ Jeffrey Weiss

    Um…Mollie, there *is* no “actual meaning” of a word. Unless we’re discussing theology and you’ve got The Word from on high. All there is is the understood meaning. And as a journalist, I need to use words as they are understood, while making any ambiguities as clear as I can.

    “Hypocrite” has a clear, non-technical, and widely understood definition. So I’d use it. There are lots of words (take “cult” as another example) that have one meaning inside one Academy or the other but another out in the world of the MSM.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    “Hypocrite” has a clear, non-technical, and widely understood definition. So I’d use it.

    Fair enough. I recognize my stringency can be overdone. Also, I can be obtuse so forgive me for this next part:

    I know what the etymology and dictionary definition (which I referred to as the “actual definition”) of the word are. I put those in the post, in fact.

    And I see how those contradict with the word’s popular use. But what, exactly, is “the clear, non-technical and widely-understood” definition?

  • Diane Fitzsimmons

    I find it interesting that, often, being a hypocrite gets bigger headlines than just owning up front that one has broken the law. For instance, if a so-called liberal Congressman who supports legalization of prostitution had been found to be a client, I doubt if it would have merited big play.

  • Maureen

    Um… an “ironmonger” _sells_ iron or hardware. He doesn’t buy it except for that purpose. A “rumormonger” likewise is a retailer.

    So Vitter was actually purveying these women’s services for his own profit? I never saw that anywhere.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Maureen,

    That may be but the definition of whoremonger is: –noun
    someone who consorts with whores; a lecher or pander.

  • Alexei

    Tis’ odd, at least in my humble estimation, that a young, Oxonian Senator, who bears enough of a resemblance to the screen actor named Keanu Reeves, should have to resort to hiring a demimonde to fill his idle wifeless hours in Washington. I thought whores were for the ugly nonagenarians of our legislature. We live in a world gone mad.

    Men in Vitter’s position don’t pay prostitutes to have sex–they pay them to leave afterwards.

  • Alexei

    So. . .how long has Sen. Vitter been a lector at his church? Was he a lector prior to his becoming a Senator? Was he using the prostitution service and preaching against it at the same time? Most importantly, did he use the pulpit as a campaign soapbox For example “Prostitution is a sin against God and family! If I am elected. . .”

    Perhaps this is one reason the journalist shouldn’t have used the “lector” without explanation. As far as I know, lectors are just like readers in the Orthodox Church–they certainly have no standing to ‘preach’ without the blessing of a bishop.

    There are readings from the Gospel and Epistle in the Mass–the job of the lector is to read (or chant, depending on the church’s tradition) these lessons. No more, no less.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Hey MZ,

    I assume the Dallas Morning News is now using a special postmodern dictionary. Literalism is the last sin.
    ;-)

  • Dcn. Michael D. Harmon

    I think most Christians would say there are hypocrites who rail against sins they willingly (but privately) commit, and there are forgiven sinners who have repented and reformed.

    It’s hard to tell from the (typically terrible) news coverage, but Vitter seems to be of the latter type. Though you would have to be his confessor to know for sure, I guess.

    But here’s a thought question: If I carelessly dance along the edge of a (small) cliff, fall off and injure myself, am I a hypocrite if, when I am healed, I then post signs along the cliff saying “Danger! Beware!” and tell everyone I meet about the perils of ignoring the Law of Gravity?

  • http://carelesshand.net Jinzang

    The hypocrisy in Senator Vitter’s behavior is that he condemned President Clinton’s adultery while not admitting his own. The sure fire preventative is not to condemn the behavior of particular people. As someone said, “judge not, lest ye be judged.”

  • Eli

    Okay. So the thoughts have congealed a bit more. When I said up above that this post was just way too good I of course meant that it was so incredibly bad. But in *such* a good way.

    While the ostensible point of Mollie’s post would at first seem to be that the MSM is misusing the word hypocrisy, I would argue that the latent point is actually that hypocrisy is only a matter of perspective and that we’re all just a bunch of sinners anyway. Tres Postmoderne et chic. Therefore, according to the post, let’s just get over it already and quit harshing on good Christian folks who happen to screw up. Point taken.

    Onto the topic of schadenfreude. As a fellow shadenfreudian (w.c.?) I think it’s important to make a further distinction beyond defining it as simply a “malicious satisfaction in the misfortunes of others”. The key word is “others”. A distinction simply must be made between my people and “other” people. While I sincerely can’t imagine ever taking satisfaction in the misfortune of my people (e.g. friends and family) I do take particular pleasure in the misfortune of those folks who think they’re above what Jonathan Rauch calls the “hidden law”. Folks who willingly and knowingly act like tards and are on the lower level of the “hierarchy of respectability” deserve, from my perspective, exactly the misfortune (or fortune even) that naturally leads from their actions. As Susan Haack so appropriately put it, “better ostracism than ostrich-ism”.

    As far as there being some imagined distinction between words having some actual meaning that is distinct from the popular understanding I would have to argue that it’s entirely a false dichotomy. Although I do hate to get involved in a domestic squabble, it also seems so obvious to me that words and language can only exist insofar as there is some common understanding of the realities that they are meant to represent. Bottom line: Mark’s right.

    While the shower notion of Mollie’s that “the modern take on Rochefoucauld’s statement is ‘Hypocrisy is the homage virtue pays to vice’” is quite provocative, I also think it’s wrong. I would argue that a much better statement might be that well since ancient Greece and Socrates’ elenchuses that it has been true that “Irony is the homage virtue pays to vice.” It would certainly help explain why it was so important to the people of Athens that Socrates should drink the hemlock. No?

    Finally, on a related journalistic topic, I recently saw a special on HBO called Families in Crisis. It poignantly and sensitively dealt with a woman struggling with bulimia. After her best friend at college dies of starvation, whom the main charater had bonded with over their mutual eating disorder, she realizes that maybe being bad (e.g. binging and purging) actually isn’t somehow better, or more “enlightened”, than trying to be good (e.g. eating healthy). While hypocrisy and irony certainly have their well-established places in our social interactions, it’s a whole nuther thing when we allow them to destroy our lives.

    While I have so much more to say about the nature of irony and hypocrisy how they are portrayed in the MSM perhaps it’s best that I just shut up now…

  • Sarah Webber

    Being a fellow lover of language and big fan of Mollie (how are you feeling these days?), I have to disagree with the incredibly eloquent Eli about word definitions. My husband and I love to joke about never using the word niggardly in public (if you missed the controversy a few years back, here’s Wikipedia to help you review http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Controversies_about_the_word_niggardly). In that case, the public understanding of the word was dead wrong.

    My Shakespeare professor at university told us once how he hated the common and often incorrect use of the word “tragedy” and had this wonderful illustration: a person walking down the street who has a piano accidentally dropped on his head does not experience a tragedy, he experiences a catastrophe. For it to be tragic, the person had to have a hand in causing the piano to fall. Just because a large amount of people might use the word incorrectly should not change the essential and/or original meaning.

  • Clare Krishan

    Maureen has my vote (Catholics need a fish-monger on Fridays to pander to their fasting appetites, like Vitter needed the DC madam to pander to his concupiscence), beware the sin of calumny! He’s at most a mangy* lecher**, a glutton like many who use contraceptives to make whores out of their spouses,

    –pander (n.) “arranger of sexual liaisons, one who supplies another with the means of gratifying lust,” 1530, “procurer, pimp,” from M.E. Pandare (c.1374), used by Chaucer (“Troylus and Cryseyde”), who borrowed it from Boccaccio (who had it in It. form Pandaro in “Filostrato”) as name of the prince who procured the love of Cressida (his niece in Chaucer, his cousin in Boccaccio) for Troilus. The story and the name are of medieval invention. Spelling infl. by agent suffix -er. The verb meaning “to indulge, to minister to base passions” is first recorded 1602.

    Footnotes
    __* Mangy “mange = skin disease of animals, c.1400, from M.Fr. manjue “the itch,” lit. “the eating,” from stem of O.Fr. mangier (Fr. manger) “to eat,” from L.L. manducare “to chew, eat,” from manducus “glutton,” from L. mandere “to chew.” Mangy is attested from 1526.”
    _** Lecher “from O.Fr. lecheor “one living a life of debauchery,” esp. “one given to sexual indulgence,” lit. “licker,” agent noun from lechier “to lick, to live in debauchery or gluttony,” from Frank. *likkon, from P.Gmc. *likkojan “to lick” (see lick). Noun lech “strong desire” is a 1796 back-formation.”

  • http://carelesshand.net Jinzang

    … like many who use contraceptives to make whores out of their spouses,

    WTF????

  • Eli

    Sarah,

    I actually agree with your point. I don’t think there’s any excuse for ignorance and arrogance when it comes to misuses of language as were the cases with the niggardly situations. In those situations it seems pretty obvious that there was a disconnect between the meaning of the speakers and that of the *perceived* meaning of the listeners. Therefore, without getting into semantics, the responses were entirely inappropriate.

    However, that’s not really the point I was making. My point was that language doesn’t exist outside of the way it’s used. For example, the word niggardly actually took on a new meaning during those situations when it was misunderstood. As a result you and your husband apparently, and understandably so, won’t use the word in public for fear of being misunderstood. While on the one hand I think that the whole P.C. thing was one of the dumbest things we as Americans have ever engaged in perhaps Descartes was wrong to say “I think, therefore I am” and instead should have said, “I talk, therefore I am”.


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