Hypocrisy among public figures is nothing new. But lately we’ve been witnessing examples that represent seemingly new dimensions of mind-numbing duplicity.
First there was John Edwards running for President, earnestly presenting himself as a model husband standing by his wife while she dealt bravely with cancer. And then we had Tiger Woods, making hundreds of millions from product endorsements which projected an image of the golfer as composed, dignified and exemplary.
Neither of these guys are doing too well right now.
And they’re not alone. It seems like every day people in the public eye are revealed to have been acting in blatant conflict with their public image.
Take George Rekers. One of the foremost and most vehement anti-gay activists in the country, Rekers has been doing his best to out-do Ted Haggard and Mark Foley. Rekers, who served with James Dobson on the founding board of Focus on the Family, has made a career out of pathologizing gays and lesbians as a “deviant segment” of society, and has been a leader in the effort to prevent them from being able to marry or adopt children. He was recently found to have taken a male escort, whose services he obtained from rentboy.com, on a 10 day vacation, getting daily nude massages from his paid travel “companion.”
And then there is the sad spectacle of the Congressman from Indiana, Mark Souder. A hard-line “family values” conservative and fervent proponent of traditional marriage, Souter has been one of the most zealous advocates in the country for abstinence-only programs for youth. With the help of a young and attractive member of his staff, he made a now widely viewed video advocating against schools providing any kind of sexual education other than curriculum exclusively designed to promote abstinence. Souder, who is married, resigned from Congress this week after admitting having an affair with the staffer, who is also married.
Do George Rekers’ or Mark Souder’s lifestyle choices entirely negate their beliefs about homosexuality and abstinence? I don’t think so. Just because the messenger is flawed, doesn’t mean the message is necessarily wrong. The reason that I disagree with them is this: I think the policies they advocate are cruel, repressive and out of touch with human nature. And I find the scientific evidence supporting them to be virtually nonexistent.
Now there’s the news this week that Al and Tipper Gore recently purchased a fourth home, this one a $9 million ocean-view estate in Montecito, California, with nine bathrooms, six fireplaces, five bedrooms, a wine cellar, swimming pool, spa, fountains and extensive terraces. The mansion is, apparently, a summer home for the couple.
You’d think the former Vice President, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work to educate people about the dangers of global warming, would be concerned about his carbon footprint. But this isn’t the first time Gore’s desire to live large has collided with his call for us to transition to greener and more energy efficient ways of life. The day after his film about global warming, An Inconvenient Truth, won an Academy Award for Best Documentary, the Tennessee Center for Policy Research released a report stating that Gore’s Nashville, Tennessee home, which he still owns, was using more than 20 times the energy of the average US home.
It’s reminiscent of the sarcastic remark by the American essayist Logan Pearsall Smith. “All reformers,” he said, “however strict their social conscience, live in houses just as big as they can pay for.”
I don’t believe that’s true about all environmental reformers, and I certainly don’t begrudge Al Gore the money he has made investing in ventures that he believes are part of the solution. He’s never professed any aversion to capitalism, and it’s long been a central part of his message that there are major profits to be made in new green technologies.
But I question whether Gore considered his own ecological footprint when he and Tipper decided to purchase their fourth home. And I wonder if he recognized how his choice might fuel allegations of hypocrisy and elitism. If you want to spearhead a worldwide movement, “Do as I say, not as I do” is probably not the most effective social statement.
Any coherent environmental understanding today has got to recognize the damage we are doing to the planet through our overconsumption of resources and energy. Gore may eventually “green” his new home with solar panels, and maybe he’ll spend millions more to make it into a model of alternative energy. Will he put composting toilets in all nine bathrooms, and burn nothing but organic sugar cane waste in the home’s six fireplaces? Even if he does, the sheer size of it, not to mention his three other homes, means that its construction alone used vast amounts of energy and materials. In a world of finite natural resources and an ever-growing human population, the inconvenient truth is that we need to learn not just to green our consumption, but also to consume less stuff.
I believe that, on balance, Al Gore has made enormous contributions to the environmental movement. And I don’t think that his extravagant lifestyle choices discredit the overwhelming scientific evidence for climate change. But at some point, each of us has to look into the mirror, assess the way we are living, and ask whether we are doing what we can for the planet and the life it makes possible.
It’s not enough any longer to agree in principle with the cause of environmental protection or the importance of honesty in our intimate lives. We need to agree with them in practice.
I’m not saying this is easy. The clash between hypocrisy and integrity takes place in every human life. Each of us, and I certainly include myself here, has done many things that have been costly to the environment and to the well-being of those we love. I could give you a painfully long list of the things I’ve bought or done that were harmful, that were wasteful, and that generated pollution. But I could also give you a list of the things I’m doing that are positive and fruitful, that speak of respect for life and the environment. My work is to make sure that as the days pass, the first list grows shorter while the second grows longer.
Any sane person with an ounce of self-reflection knows that none of us lives in complete integrity with our values all the time. That’s why I concur with Moliere that “one should examine oneself for a very long time before thinking of condemning others.”
I believe that we can learn a great lesson from the examples of the people whose actions have conflicted with their message. If we learn that lesson, then they will have actually done us a service.
The lesson isn’t that this person or that one is bad and if we hate them enough or punish them enough then we will all be cleansed of their evil. Judging others and feeling superior to them never freed a human soul.
The lesson is that while it’s relatively simple to practice virtue at a distance, that’s not enough. You must do the hard and ongoing work of bringing your life into alignment with who you really are. Sometimes it takes great discipline to make your choices congruent with your values.
The lesson is that feeling morally superior or righteously indignant won’t heal the world. The lesson is that your real religion is what you do when the sermon is over.