It’s Not About Hypocrisy
9:22 AM EST on March 7, 2023
Last week on his Apple TV+ series, comedian Jon Stewart interviewed Oklahoma state Sen. Nathan Dahm about gun control and Dahm’s belief that more guns make the country safer. Near the end of the nine-minute interview segment, which mostly consists of dull bickering and recitations of rote talking points, Stewart asks Dahm why he supports banning drag story hours in the name of protecting children and yet does not support gun control legislation that would protect children. It’s vintage Stewart, setting a rhetorical trap for his wrong-headed interlocutor and then, zip, catching him in the snare. Let’s see him wriggle out of this one!
“What’s the leading cause of death amongst children in this country?” Stewart asks. “And I’m going to give you a hint. It’s not drag show readings to children. [...] And what you’re telling me is, you don’t mind infringing free speech to protect children from this amorphous thing that you think of.
“But when it comes to children that have died, you don’t give a flying fuck to stop that, because that ‘shall not be infringed,’” Stewart continues, winding up for his big finish. “That is hypocrisy at its highest order.” The show’s logo flashes on the screen; that’s the end of the edited clip. The message is clear: Haha! We one-upped those dumb conservatives again, mission accomplished.
The clip went viral. Indignant people shared it across social media, with calls for Stewart to run for president, and websites covered it like it was important news. “Jon Stewart expertly corners pro-gun Republican: ‘You don’t give a flying f**k” about children dying,’” Salon trumpeted. “Jon Stewart Schools GOP Lawmaker on ‘Backwards’ Gun Laws,” The Daily Beast wrote. “Jon Stewart Brutally Confronts Republican Lawmaker Over Gun Deaths,” The Hollywood Reporter said. When it popped up for the fourth time on my Instagram feed, I started to feel seriously depressed.
Is this “right-wing hypocrisy,” or is it the right’s coherent vision for enforcing a very specific social order? What is it going to take for liberals to understand that “hypocrisy” is not a charge for which right-wing authoritarians must answer at the risk of losing clout, but a tenet of and testament to their power? It’s really not complicated: Dahm and his ilk don’t care about protecting children; they care about “protecting” certain children from certain things (like books and drag queens) that they consider threats to a white supremacist patriarchal social order. That’s it! With this understanding, what’s even the point of pretending to debate a creep like Dahm on policy particulars?
Stewart had clearly carefully diagrammed the interview, and yet the whole thing felt like a chore to watch. The logical and ethical holes in Dahm’s repeated deflections and talking points—more guns make people safer; guns don’t kill people, people kill people; fentanyl and obesity kill more people than guns; fatherlessness is the real scourge at the root of gun violence in the U.S.; background checks are an infringement on the right to own a gun; what about knives?—were so gapingly obvious, Stewart should have driven a bulldozer right through them. Instead, he took Dahm far too seriously and what could have at least been a satisfying dismantling of a total dope was instead just nearly 10 minutes of painful middle-school-debate-club rhetoric.
At one point, Stewart verges on whiny. “I don’t understand why you won’t just admit that you are making it harder for police to manage the streets,” he asks (as if cops aren’t constantly using their guns to murder people in the street with impunity), “by allowing all of these guns to go out without permits, without checks, without background stuff. Why is that hard? Why can’t you just stand by that?” Dahm seems almost pleased by the question. “Because that’s not what I’m doing,” he says, going back to the well. “I’m defending the individual’s right to keep and bear arms.” Here, Stewart could have made a case for a sociality of interdependence, in which we recognize that one person’s right to have a gun doesn’t automatically trump another person’s right to life and liberty and that individual rights are inherently mediated by notions like the common good, but instead he merely reiterates his previous point about Dahm making the world “more chaotic.” Watching the video, I was struck by how intensely unimpressive and anticlimactic it was to see Stewart spar with a local politician clearly just looking to raise his national profile: Dahm was the more pathetic of the two, but it shouldn’t have been nearly so close.
Pointing out so-called right-wing hypocrisy might make the Jon Stewart-watching crowd feel superior to their political foes, but it does nothing to actually build a movement capable of overcoming them. In fact, it does worse than nothing; its smugness serves to flatter the sensibilities of its liberal viewers while obscuring the way political power is built and used in this country. In a piece from last year, writer Lisa Duggan wrote about the cliché of right-wing sexual hypocrisy, explaining that it’s not “hypocrisy” as much as it is the sexualization of inequality. The whole post is worth a read, but here’s the most relevant paragraph:
The libertine underbelly of life on the right is so widely noted that it qualifies as a pretty worn-out cliché. Sure, sure … another right-wing politician soliciting sex workers, another priest abusing boys, Steve Bannon’s third ex-wife living in a sex partying meth house he pays the rent on. Yawn. The standard response to these commonplace scandals is to charge these homophobic masculinists and pious moralists with hypocrisy. But that charge doesn’t really get at the broader structural determinants of this ubiquitous phenomenon. It’s not merely a matter of individual or even simple political hypocrisy. The deeper history shaping these scandals is the way that inequality has been sexualized. The least powerful are represented as sexually excessive or perverse, needing regulatory controls. The most powerful espouse those controls as key to public social order, while maintaining their own unaccountable sexual access to subordinates. This is the open secret of sexualized inequality that is the backdrop for racial lynching (both extralegal and via the penal system), for gendered rape culture, for the sexual impunity of the boss, the father, the priest. The complex intertwining of class, race, gender, ability, citizenship status and more produces a historically embedded, shifting, interactive map of impunity and punishment; its maintenance depends on a public/private distinction that enforces public order while shielding private license. When that historically morphing distinction breaks down, scandal erupts as a momentary crisis of sexual order. The charge of hypocrisy actually frames the crisis as personal or narrowly political rather than structural and historical.
The last line bears repeating. Charging a person (like Dahm) or group (like Republicans) with hypocrisy, frames the issue (protecting children, for example) as something having to do with appealing to individuals’ senses of reason or conscience and ignores the existence of social and economic systems that help maintain a status quo in which children are not only murdered in their schools and turned into cheap laborers, but are in general considered property of their parents, often to their own detriment. It’s obvious but worth saying: If such problems could be solved by merely pointing out politicians' perceived hypocrisy, they would’ve been solved by now.
As the theorist Jules Gill-Peterson wrote on Twitter, “Moral outrages, like hypocrisy, aren’t interrupted by our moral condemnation or critique because they are integral to authoritarian displays of power. The good news is, the task has not changed since the first anti-trans bill was tabled years ago: build an effective politics.” Gill-Peterson continued:
Anti-trans authoritarian politics is premised on demonstrations of claimed superiority, meaning that claiming the counter-superiority of our morality is very easily dismissed. Political wins, by contrast, can sink authoritarians. Sorry to be tweeting like an intro to poli sci class, but I think these distinctions are hard to hold under the relentlessness of this moment—and therefore worth coming back to as guides for achieving real wins … and American liberalism has shrunk in the face of authoritarians by doubling down on moral and ethical forms of assertion since 2015. (“Look how deranged and bad the other side is, we’re better people!” with no plan to stop their goals our enact ours.)”
Building a political movement that can actually contend with the rising authoritarianism in statehouses across the country will require sustained action, undergirded by real understandings of the forces shaping the political landscape. Jon Stewart’s decades-long shtick of yelling Ummm, hypocrisy much?? was never really up to the task of helping people make sense of this, but at least it was sort of funny. Now it’s not even that.