Five years ago, Secretary of State Clinton addressed a Conference on Internet Freedom at the Hague. Why would she accept an invitation like that? Her department suffered the most embarrassment from the diplomatic cables leaked to Wikileaks. Consequently she led the Obama administration’s successful public effort to destroy that Internet news outlet. She took a strong stand that Internet freedom does not extend to people who publish information that makes government agencies look bad. You might want to ask her: if Internet freedom does not extend to Wikileaks, what is it good for?

Secretary of State Clinton delivers address on Internet Freedom in The Hague, Netherlands.

So why would Secretary Clinton deliver a speech like that? A number of possibilities come to mind:

  • The invitation to speak at the conference came from a friend, and she didn’t want to say no.
  • The invitation came from some other source where circumstances made it difficult to say no.
  • Secretary Clinton does not know the meaning of hypocrisy.
  • The Obama administration needed a prominent person to say all the right things about Internet freedom. As our chief ambassador overseas, Secretary Clinton was a good pick.
  • Secretary Clinton, together with other Washington mucky-mucks, lives in a bubble. Therefore she doesn’t realize, or doesn’t care, what people think of her.
  • People have short memories. Politicians have even shorter ones. Secretary Clinton just forgot about the Wikileaks business.
  • It suits a diplomatic, public relations, or other short term purpose of the Obama administration to speak out on a non-controversial topic like Internet freedom. See the point about ambassadorial pronouncements above.
  • Secretary Clinton knows she’s hypocritical, and doesn’t care if other people know it, too. From this point of view, you don’t care because we all play the same game.
  • Secretary Clinton tries her best to do the job in front of her each day. If that job involves saying contradictory things from one day to the next, so be it.

Unless Secretary Clinton tells us why she gave the speech, we can only guess the reasons. In fact, we would have to guess the reasons even if she did tell us why she gave the speech. So let’s set guessing aside and linger a bit over the third point. We know hypocrisy when we see it. It’s pretty common. Adolescents become aware of it fairly soon. They talk about it because it’s not something they were aware of when they were children. When they do become aware of it, they wonder how they could have lived so long without seeing it.

What exactly is hypocrisy? The definition I remember from early on is to say one thing and do another. The meaning is actually a little more complicated than that. It means to pretend, to act, to play a part. Now of course playing a part is integral to almost everything we do, where we take on roles in our families, our workplaces, and so on. Hypocrisy is different because the pretense takes on a moral component. You actually tell people to behave one way, when it’s obvious to everyone who listens that the example you set is just the opposite. Even if people do not follow your bad example, they will certainly dismiss your words.

That’s why we want to ask the question, why would Secretary Clinton deliver a speech about Internet freedom on the world stage in the Hague? Why would she waste her time? The destruction of Wikileaks transpired recently. Secretary Clinton did not wield the hammer, but in her position as head of the State Department she publicly approved the actions of all who did. The federal government would not have destroyed Wikileaks had she disapproved.

When she delivered her address, Secretary Clinton spoke for her government and her country, not for herself. Why she thinks blatant hypocrisy serves her country’s interests is the riddle. More narrowly, why would she think hypocrisy serves her government’s interests? Hillary Clinton is not dumb, clueless, or parochial in her outlook. She can recognize moral contradiction just as well as we can. She can see that the destruction of Wikileaks is clearly inconsistent with her remarks at the Conference on Internet Freedom.

Let’s take up the obvious response on Secretary Clinton’s behalf. She and the rest of the government would say that the Wikileaks disclosures were not just embarrassing. They bear on key issues of national security. The nation’s chief diplomat would say that the nation’s security is in jeopardy when diplomats cannot conduct their business confidentially. She and the government she represents would argue that national security trumps Internet freedom. Freedom of information has to give way when the survival of the state is at stake. Wikileaks had to be destroyed that the state might thrive.

People who see blatant hypocrisy in Secretary Clinton’s words believe the opposite. They believe that when a government conducts its business in secret, as our government does, the state is already destroyed. At least, the democratic state we cherish is gone. The only important goal is to open the government’s conduct to public scrutiny in order to retrieve the democracy we cherish. Blatant hypocrisy on the world stage does not advance that goal. Moral misconduct like that means we continue to play our designated part, where our government lectures other countries about how to behave. In secret, we do what we like.

In publication since 2009, The Jeffersonian occasionally publishes topical collections of essays on politics, such as Revolution on the Ground and Infamy. To learn about these and other books, visit Dr. G’s Writing Workshop.

Related book

Revolution on the Ground

Related word history

Here is a brief history of the word hypocrisy:

ORIGIN Middle English : from Old French ypocrisie, via ecclesiastical Latin, from Greek hupokrisis ‘acting of a theatrical part,’ from hupokrinesthai ‘play a part, pretend,’ from hupo ‘under’ + krinein ‘decide, judge.’