Q & A: Joseph Epstein
Joseph Epstein, 74, is a writer of short stories, essays, biography (Fred Astaire), as well as some of the wittiest and wisest reflections going for the Wall Street Journal. He's also a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, a former visiting lecturer at Northwestern, a lifelong (almost) Chicagoan who spent his early years in Rogers Park, and now an Evanstonian.
Epstein is also the author of Envy: The Seven Deadly Sins (2003). Watching male journalists on CNN tsk-tsking over the stash of porn snatched from Osama bin Laden's bunker got me thinking about whether the seven deadlies should be expanded to eight to include hypocrisy. Who better to ask than Epstein? As I submitted questions to him via email, I couldn't help but go a bit afield.
Carol Felsenthal: Can you give me some examples of local politicians who qualify as hypocrites?
Joseph Epstein: All politicians are disappointing. Perhaps the purest, the least obviously corrupt, politician in Illinois in recent years was Senator Paul Simon. One year he quoted a passage from one of my books on the Christmas card he sent out to supporters. He would occasionally write to me, addressing me as “Joe.” At one point, someone I knew named Carol Iannone came up for the minor non-paying job of member of the National Council of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The word somehow spread that she was a right-winger. She wasn’t; she was a serious literary critic. I wrote a letter to Paul Simon, before whose committee the nomination had to pass, patiently explaining what a good person Ms. Iannone was and how valuable she would be on the Council of the NEH and asking that he consider her nomination with the utmost care. I never had an answer from him, and he voted against her. He went with the party on this one. My point is that there are other kinds of corruption than patronage and stealing.
CF: Should hypocrisy be elevated to the ranks of the Seven Deadly Sins?
JE: Yes, no question about it. In an age when traditional sins seem to carry less weight, hypocrisy still rings the gong. I’ve even heard it described—by the man who runs the website Gawker.com—as the last sin. The man who writes books about virtue is discovered losing millions at the slot machines in Vegas, the senator who is strong on family values and is discovered in acts of non-Euclidian sex—this gets, deservedly, attention.
CF: Or is hypocrisy just so common—is there a politician you could think of who could not be cast as a hypocrite—that it's hardly worth mentioning anymore? Are politicians more prone to hypocrisy than, say, school teachers or dentists?
JE: The only local politician I can think of who may not have been guilty of hypocrisy is the late [Ald.] Leon Despres. But then he, in all his purity, appears to have accomplished very little as a politician. We are all at some point or other guilty of hypocrisy, but it is written into the job description of politicians. Among politicians, though, I would generally say that hypocrisy runs higher among liberals than among conservatives. The reason for this is that liberals claim a higher estimation of human nature; this gives them a platform from which the fall is more precipitous.
CF: Academia seems to have more than its share of hypocrites. Why?
JE: The reason, I suspect, is that there is an implied idealism in the academic life. In becoming an academic one is presumably not going for the money but instead living for one’s intellectual passions. Too often the bet on one’s intellectual passions doesn’t pay off—one doesn’t write the splendid books one had hoped to write, one doesn’t take the pleasure in one’s students one had hoped to find. And so all one is left with is one’s empty idealism and, in many cases, regret that one didn’t go for the money or the more active life. One discovers a high degree of disappointment and depression among academics, which often issues in hypocrisy.
CF: Who in your opinion are today's biggest hypocrites? (If someone asked me I might pick Al Gore; perhaps Newt Gingrich or John Ensign or Dominique Strauss-Kahn.)
JE: Al Gore would be high on my list. We now have to put Arnold Schwarzenegger up there on the list. Lots of Hollywood figures would have to be included: Steven Spielberg, Barbra Streisand, Alec Baldwin. The reason I put such people on the list is that their lovely opinions really don’t cost them anything; they live one way and vote another. Theirs are just a collection of O.K. opinions, and don’t amount to a genuine point of view.
Lots of hypocrites in sports, too. Big-time college athletics is nothing but hypocrisy, and everyone knows it. The commissioners of all the professional sports leagues—the NFL, the NBA, MLB—are all wedded to hypocrisy. How could it be otherwise? The television sports producer Don Ohlmeyer was once approached by a journalist who said he had a question for him: “If your question is about sports,” Ohlmeyer replied, “the answer is money.” True—too bloody true.
CF: Back to Osama and my reaction to a couple of male journalists discussing the possibility that he consumed porn. I wondered if they had ever done the same and then I thought, "Who cares?"
JS: The nice thing about bin Laden having a porn stash is that his was supposed to have been a life lived exclusively for jihad. He was, in his way, a religious figure. The thought of him taking time out from his religious revolution to watch a little porno scores nicely on the hypocrisy meter.
As for journalists, I wonder if hypocrisy isn’t also built into their jobs. Their job is to catch out public figures at hypocrisy, yet the understanding somehow is that the standards we apply to them are not, no never, to apply to us. Journalists can be little more than snitchers, if that word is still in the language, and all snitchers are, or should be, judged guilty until proven innocent.
CF: How did you happen to write a book on the subject of envy? When your publisher distributed the Seven Deadly Sins among writers, did you request envy?
JE: Envy is of course the only one of the Seven Deadly Sins that is no fun whatsoever. When Oxford University Press, the publisher of the series on the Seven Deadly Sins, came to me, the only sins she had left, so to speak, were Lust, Sloth, and Envy. I didn’t think I could live up to writing a book on Lust; it required a younger, handsomer man. Sloth is a subject of genuine interest, but Envy, as the old Doors used to sing, “lit my fire.” It was the sin of which over my lifetime I was myself most guilty, though with the passing of years I find I envy less and less. This, with its suggestion of falling out of the game, may not be a good sign.
CF: Of the Seven Deadly Sins are there any that should be retired?
JS: Sloth, Anger, Gluttony, Greed, Pride, Lust, Envy—I think they all continue to hold up nicely, thank you very much. What might be interesting is a list of the Seven Enlivening Virtues. Courage and Decency are the only ones I can think of at the moment that deserve immediate clearance.
CF: To take advantage of the fact that your next book is on gossip (Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit, November 2011): The Tribune no longer has a gossip columnist. The Sun-Times has Mike Sneed and Kup's former assistant Stella. Care to comment on Sneed and Stella?
JE: I don’t read a Chicago gossip column, or—please forgive me—a newspaper. My wife takes the Wall Street Journal and I dropped my subscription to the New York Times roughly three months ago, with the result that my appetite, sex life, and general outlook have all greatly improved. Gossip is so much in the atmosphere these days that columns devoted to it seem almost beside the point. The Internet is now the main purveyor of gossip in the contemporary world—the Internet, which Molly Ivins has called “democracy’s revenge on democracy.”
As a kid, I did, as did everyone else I knew did, read Kup’s Column. The column was odd in not containing much in the way of dirt or malice. I’m not sure why so many people read it, with all its cliches (its “coosome twosomes” and “Old Blue Eyes,” the Chairman of the Board spotted at Mister Kelly’s, and all that) and its genuine paucity of interesting news. Maybe Kup’s large readership was owing to its use of boldface type, which made it easy to skim, and the column could certainly never have been accused of straining one’s mental muscles.
I once  wrote an article, in Chicago magazine, mocking Irv Kupcinet, and I was told that he threatened to sue. He described the article in his column contemptuously as “a scissors and paste job.” Such, then, has been my greatest journalistic accomplishment—I brought out malice in Kup. Now there is a laurel a man can rest comfortably upon.
CF: Your next book after Gossip?
JE: I am planning to write a book called Who Killed Charm? The old boy really is dead, you know, and I hope in this book to bring in the perps.
CF: What else are you doing now?
JE: I retired from teaching roughly five years ago. I had a good run at Northwestern. Some excellent students dropped in on my classes, but I find I don’t miss teaching in the least. The two great lies about teaching ... are: 1. I have learned so much from my students; and 2. I would do it for nothing.
Photograph: Chicago Tribune/Charles Osgood
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