Patriotism and The Virtues of Hypocrisy

Let me start by talking about Mel Gibson for a minute. Bear with me — this is actually relevant.

Back in 2000 Gibson made a movie, “The Patriot,” about the Revolutionary War. (I think I saw it on an airplane). And when the movie came out, Michael Lind, a fellow at the New America Foundation, wrote an essay for Slate that has stuck with me, pointing out that nobody involved in the picture seemed to know what patriotism meant. The character played by Mr. Gibson was presented as a man who refused to get involved until his own family was hurt — then he went to war for personal revenge. And this was supposed to show his patriotism.

As Mr. Lind said, the truth is that that’s more or less the opposite of patriotism, which is about making sacrifices for the national good, not serving your personal motives or interests.

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Which brings me to the subject: the apparently equally misunderstood concept of hypocrisy. I’ve been getting some personal attacks on this front, but it’s a bigger issue than that. Here’s the personal version: Suppose that you’re a professor/columnist who advocates for higher taxes on high incomes and a stronger social safety net, but you earn enough from various sources that you will pay some of those higher taxes and are unlikely to rely on that stronger safety net. A remarkable number of people look at that combination of personal and political positions and cry “Hypocrisy!”

Wait — it’s not just about me and the wingnuts. If you remember the 2004 election, which unfortunately I do, there were quite a few journalists who basically accused John Kerry of being “inauthentic” because he was a rich man advocating policies that would help the poor and the middle class. Apparently you can only be authentic if your politics reflect pure personal self-interest — Mitt Romney is Mr. Natural.

So to say what should be obvious but apparently isn’t: Supporting policies that are to your personal financial disadvantage isn’t hypocrisy — it’s civic virtue!

But, say the wingnuts, you say that rich people are evil. Actually, no — that’s a right-wing fantasy about what liberals believe. I don’t want to punish the rich, I just want them to pay more taxes. You can favor redistribution without indulging in class hatred; it’s only the defenders of privilege who try to claim otherwise.

Mr. Lind’s essay about Mel Gibson ended with concerns that we may have lost the sense of what citizenship and its duties mean. Indeed. If people can’t comprehend what it means to work for larger goals rather than in their own interests, if they actually consider any deviation from self-service somehow a sign of phoniness, then we, as a nation, are lost.

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Paul Krugman joined The New York Times in 1999 as a columnist on the Op-Ed page and continues as a professor of economics and international affairs at Princeton University. He was awarded the Nobel in economic science in 2008.

Mr Krugman is the author or editor of 20 books and more than 200 papers in professional journals and edited volumes, including “The Return of Depression Economics” (2008) and “The Conscience of a Liberal” (2007). Copyright 2011 The New York Times.