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.

Please respect our Commenting Policy