“Hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue”. This phrase is usually ascribed to the French writer François de La Rochefoucauld. What it entails is a very simple proposition: Vice supposes by definition the existence of a positive or virtuous extreme, with regards to which the former is deemed underachieving. Hypocrisy would mean, in this sense, admitting the existence of virtue, while trying to disguise vice so as not to show its perversion.
This means that, while the cynic (from the Greek kyon or dog, this is, an animal which does not abide by social conventions) admits without shame her skepticism vis-à-vis the norms and her lack of adherence to them, the hypocrite at least acknowledges the value of the rule, simulating its compliance.
The revelation of the US Senate report on torture acts committed by security agents of that country during the last years has been qualified in some quarters as yet another instance of “American hypocrisy”. Thus, it is said, the country that pretends to spread the word of democracy and respect for human rights throughout the world has gravely violated such rights in its zeal to fight the “war on terror”.
But American hypocrisy cannot be reduced to cynicism. The egregious ‘vice’ of torture is made all the more patent in contrast with its refined republican traditions, which date back to the times of the foundation of that nation as an independent country. As Jane Mayer has put it in her book The Dark Side, the United States not only have pretended to appear as the champion of democracy and freedom in international relations, but also from the times of George Washington it has characterized itself for respecting the laws of armed conflict that prohibit the mistreatment of prisoners of war. This humanitarian tradition is the one that makes all the more shameful the faults or vices of a country that from the outset has valued people’s rights, in war and peace.
Even more, the republican institutions of the United States, represented this time by the Senate and some other times by the Supreme Court, are the ones that question the despicable practices of the war on terror, in a public self-consciousness exercise very rare among those that have taken the site of the powerful in the history of humankind.
If the ideal thing is that there is no hegemonic power that threatens peoples’ self-determination, it is not less true that it is better that there is a hypocrite ruler rather than a cynic one, for at least the former is capable of paying homage to virtue, thus nurturing the hope that one day it will not need to be falsely honored, from the shadows, but that it will shine with light of its own.