Scolding Americans for our various sins is proving popular among an elite group of self-appointed moralists.
Take well-meaning environmentalists who warn us that our plush lifestyles heat up and pollute the planet. To listen to former Vice President Al Gore or New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, we must immediately curtail our carbon emissions — or face planetary destruction.
Yet these influential prophets of doom do not have lives remotely similar to the lesser folk they lecture. From time to time, Mr. Gore hops on a private jet - and purchases “carbon offsets” penances for the privilege. His mansion not long ago consumed more energy in a month than the average American home does in a year. Mr. Friedman lives on a sprawling estate reminiscent of those of the grandees of the 18th-century English countryside.
The rest of us would find these environmental scolds more convincing if they chose to live modestly in average tract homes. That way, they could limit their energy consumption and provide living proof to us of how smaller is better for an endangered planet Earth.
Critics in the business of racial grievance offer the same contradictions.
Recently, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. got into a spat with a white policeman who arrested him in his own home for disorderly conduct. Mr. Gates immediately cried racism. He argued that his plight was emblematic of the burdens the black underclass endures daily from a racist white America.
However, Mr. Gates is one of the highest-paid humanities professors in the United States. And Mr. Gates - not the middle-class Cambridge, Mass., white cop — engaged in shouting and brought up race. Within hours, the black mayor of Cambridge, the black governor of Massachusetts and the black president of the United States all rallied to their chum’s side.
Yet this well-connected, well-paid man apparently wants us to believe in melodramatic fashion that he is living in something like the United States of decades ago.
Indeed, citing racial grievance at times proves a valuable asset for wealthy celebrities. Michael Jackson and O.J. Simpson posed as victims of various racial oppressions when they found themselves in their own self-created legal problems. Race-baiter the Rev. Jeremiah Wright simply retreats to his three-story mansion on a golf course after his day job of denouncing whites as exploiters.
We have more of the rich on the barricades railing about the economic inequality of America. Former Democratic Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina preached about “two Americas,” one poor and abandoned, one wealthy and connected. Mr. Edwards should know because he built himself a gargantuan multimillion-dollar mansion in which he might better contemplate the underprivileged outside his compound.
Sen. Christopher Dodd, Connecticut Democrat, sermonizes about corporate greed and credit card companies’ near-extortion. Nonetheless, Mr. Dodd managed to squeeze out of the corporate world a low-interest loan, a sweetheart deal for a vacation home in Ireland, and thousands in campaign donations.
Former senator and Cabinet nominee Tom Daschle of South Dakota was a big proponent of raising taxes to nationalize our health care system. The problem was that the populist Mr. Daschle both hated paying taxes and loved limousines — and so avoided the former but welcomed the latter.
In the old days, critics of what we called the “system” were at least for the most part blue-collar workers, underpaid teachers or grass-roots politicians whose rather modest lives matched their angry populist rhetoric. Now the most vehement critics of America’s purported sins are among the upper classes. These critics’ parlor game has confused Americans about why they are being called polluters, racists and exploiters by those who have fared best in America.
Do the wealthy and the powerful lecture us about our wrongs because they know their own insider status ensures that they are exempt from the harsh medicine they advocate for others? Mr. Gore, a millionaire, is not much affected by higher taxes for his cap-and-trade crusade.
Or does the hypocrisy grow out of a sort of class snobbery? Do elites hector the crass middle class because its members lack their own taste, rare insight and privileged style? Judging from the police report, Mr. Gates seemed flabbergasted that the white Cambridge cop did not know who he was “messing” with.
Or is the new hypocrisy an eerie sort of psychological compensation at work? Perhaps the more Mr. Gore rails about carbon emissions, the more he can without guilt enjoy what emits them. The more Mr. Gates can cite racism, the more he himself is paid to spot it. And the more Tom Daschle wants to tax and spend for health care, the less bad he feels about his own chauffeur and tax avoidance.
Here’s a little advice for all of America’s wealthy critics: a little less hypocrisy, a little more appreciation of your good lives — and then maybe the rest of us will listen to you a little more.
Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.