Lott lives! An interview with Jeremy Lott
By Bernard Chapin
Role models are rather hard to come by for internet writers. Ours is not a magnificent brave world, but it is rather new and one of the scribes who always made a favorable impression upon me is Jeremy Lott. From humble beginnings, his career has progressed favorably and he is well-known and well-regarded within Conservadom. I've read and enjoyed scores of his pieces over the years, and I still take time out to devour whatever it is he posts. Currently, he is the Competitive Enterprise Institute's current Warren Brookes Journalism Fellow and a contributing editor to Books & Culture. As an independent writer he's appeared at practically every important conservative site such as The American Spectator in which he had an article recently.
BC: Jeremy, nice to meet you. For those who aren't familiar with your latest book, what's the central thesis of In Defense of Hypocrisy?
Jeremy Lott: Dan McCarthy brought to my attention a quote from Adam Smith that I wish I'd stuck in the book: "Virtue is more to be feared than vice, because its excesses are not subject to the regulation of conscience."
It could just as easily have been called On Hypocrisy. I look at instances where people are charging hypocrisy and ask a few questions: (1) Is hypocrisy really the problem here or is it a distraction? (2) Say you could eliminate the hypocrisy. Would that have a good or a bad effect? (3) Are these hypocrisy accusations just somebody's way of asserting his own virtue? The point is to get readers to think about these things and supply their own answers.
BC: What is it about hypocrisy which so uniquely angers people?
Jeremy Lott: The moral free riding. I, the hypocrite, put on an act to convince people to think better of me but then go out of character when I think they aren't looking.
BC: Could we not say that the hypocrite is superior to a good many other people due to his knowing right from wrong? Even if he doesn't "walk the walk," isn't his knowledge of proper behavior a point in his favor?
Jeremy Lott: Hypocrisy is valuable because it doffs its hat to the good, even when our behavior is not so good. It also works to limit that behavior. Good parents, for instance, tend to watch their swearing and otherwise act better around their kids because they understand that they're being watched like hawks. They want to start the kids off on the right foot, and it changes them.
BC: I found your subtitle intriguing, "Picking Sides in the War on Virtue?" Is there a war on virtue at the moment? Wasn't that battle lost long ago?
Jeremy Lott: In a piece for the Dallas Morning News, I clarified this, calling it an "undeclared war on virtue." Attacks on hypocrisy are usually attacks on moral distinctions, and I think that struggle will go on for quite some time.
BC: Along the same lines, does the culture war still rage? It seems rather one-sided at the moment. Is there any hope for conservatives in the decades to come?
Jeremy Lott: It depends on what they want to accomplish. One of the reasons that Iraq is such a mess is that the U.S. went in with fuzzy or unworkable objectives. So my question to conservative culture warriors is this, "What concrete things do you want to accomplish?" It won't do to complain about a Carteresque malaise. And if you want to use the government to enforce all but the most basic norms, then you're rendering unto Caesar something that frankly does not belong to him.
BC: Let's turn to political correctness. Isn't cultural Marxism all about hypocrisy or, at least about the adoption of fake virtues?
Jeremy Lott: Hmm. I argue in the book that hypocrisy accusations are a cheap way of arguing for our own virtue. I am denouncing these really bad guys and so, "Oh what a good boy am I." PC denunciations can serve the same function.
BC: Is hypocrisy a partisan issue? The political left appears to be uniquely enflamed by it. They often use it as an argument stopper. Once they establish that a person doesn't always practice what he preaches then they maintain there's no reason to listen to their opinions about anything.
Jeremy Lott: Hypocrisy accusations are a staple of leftist rhetoric and also conservative talk radio palaver. Boy it's been fun trying to make that case on right wing talk shows.
BC: How'd you get into writing? Was it an accidental career path? I always liked your story—which of course I'll let you to tell.
Jeremy Lott: In the nineties I was part of the now largely forgotten amateur e-zine movement. It was fueled by new technology -- which made it possible to publish stuff online but not so easy that just anybody could do it (i.e., blogs) -- and Clinton hatred. A few people took notice of my zine work and so, during college, I was able to freelance to pay the bills. After accidentally graduating, I decided that the night job would be a better fit.
BC: So far you've worked at Reason and The American Spectator, where do you plan on going from here? Are you disillusioned by the world of political writing?
Jeremy Lott: To answer your first question, it's up in the air at the moment. I took a detour into the think tank world for the last few years. My current job as the Warren Brookes Journalism Fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute is great, but it's only a one year gig and few fellowships would give me as much freedom.
The second book, a comic history of the vice presidency, should be finished in June. I'll have between then and the end of September to line up a new gig. If anybody out there is interested in one slightly used writer, drop me a line.
As for the second question, it assumes that I was "illusioned" in the first place, no?
BC: Thanks, Jeremy.
Get weekly updates about new issues of ESR!