As far back as Geoffrey Chaucer the English satirical tradition has made ample use of hypocrisy’s cousin, the euphemism. Human nature being what it is, the medieval Catholic Church settled upon niece and nephew as the most expedient designations of those otherwise inexplicable attachments to the celibate parish priest, bishop, and so on. Chaucer’s fourteenth century, as narrated in the brilliant Canterbury Tales, is arguably more worldly and cynical than the present. In any case, the non-alignment of pretense and reality is taken as granted.
The Guardian has now set to the wind a selection of emails between the Assads and their circle, access to which was made possible by a Syrian bureaucrat who presumably had had quite enough of the presiding hateful turd and his vain and pointlessly photogenic wife. In this email collection the theme of hypocrisy is amply represented, and who shall pretend surprise at that?
Look wherever you want: the blowhards exploiting in public the hot-button sentiments of anti-Western and anti-American righteousness, as well as their subgenres of sexual immorality and tribal supremacy, will as a rule be found in private to have inclinations of a contrary sort. This principle applies as far away as Abbottabad and as near as Washington D.C., comprising Osama bin Laden’s recently discovered suburban pornography collection as well as the cheap motel quickies of American family values congressmen.
Those who study the world’s geopolitical diversity soon acquire the critical habit of making analytical distinctions. “Muslim,” for instance, won’t do — and neither will Sunni and Shi’a. Even the subdivisions of Pashtun, Hazara, Ismaili, Ahmadi, Alawite, and so on, will sometimes not quite suffice. But, looking in another direction, you can aggregate quite a number of people under a common heading when the focus is the walk rather than the talk. That’s where most of us, in our shared humanity, appear a little less pure, less grand, less authentic.
In a malnourished country, Kim Jong-Il made himself conspicuously corpulent on a steady public diet of anti-Americanism paired with extravagant private consumption of Hollywood films and other imported delicacies. The Pyongyang dynasty’s under-acknowledged early patron, Mao Zedong, shared with the Kims this indulgence in private of things denigrated in public. The non-alignment of pretense and reality is not a universal principle, but it’s a common one.
The tools yielding glimpses into the Assad family’s private life (which would be none of our business, if their business wasn’t a matter of such willful and violent public imposition) also provide snapshots of the Internet activities of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and Iran and other epicentres of holiness. The little that we know suggests the broad appeal of decadent “Western” tastes. So it is across much of the culture war landscape. Who among us really doubts, to cite another timely example, that the American moral police and busy-bodies today agitating against access to contraception and abortion services will re-crunch the moral arithmetic when the calculations concern their own private rights and responsibilities?
The implicit point underscored by the Guardian is not that human beings are hypocritical (an ordinary, even tedious, observation), but that they have more in common than they have as differences. The differences are exaggerated and exploited by opportunistic bigots and chauvinists, like the governing Assad family of Syria. It may not encourage your inner humanist that Bashar al-Assad enjoys the same corporate pabulum which ten years ago you would have found on your teenager’s iPod. But at least you might draw some hope from the likelihood, made today more even more credible, that the culture war is a hollow confidence trick.
On the streets, people are fighting for the freedoms and dignities sometimes taken for granted in Western democracies. Meanwhile, in the palaces, the shortsighted overlords appeal to and indulge the most base of human impulses, denouncing “the West” in public as in private they shop and eat and otherwise enjoy the fruits of their enemies of convenience.