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Charges of hypocrisy
By Tod Lindberg
Published March 29, 2005 The Washington
Our subject today will be political
discourse, and our purpose will be hygiene. We shall attempt
to police the charge of hypocrisy as it occurs on the Op-Ed
pages of major newspapers and opinion journals. We will
offer this attempt in memory of Terry Schiavo. We will
expect it to be just about as effective as the effort to
keep her alive.
You couldn't miss the charge of
hypocrisy during the Schiavo case. Liberals accused
conservatives of forsaking their principles of deference to
the authority of state governments that conservatives
cherish so extravagantly in other contexts. Also, of their
sudden willingness to bring the full power of the state to
bear on an essentially private matter, a family tragedy to
which there is no solution that is not in some sense
correspondingly tragic. Also, of their supposed support for
a "culture of life" when they support the death
penalty. Et blah-blah cetera.
To which one could say: What about
you liberals? Whence the sudden enthusiasm for states'
rights? Weren't you the champion of federal intervention to
overturn benighted state government policies? What's this
sudden regard for the privacy of the family, as if you would
ever concede that a married woman who wanted an abortion
wouldn't have full recourse to the courts to obtain one
against the wishes of the her husband, the father. And sure,
it's OK with you for the full power of the state to be
brought to bear to pull out the feeding tube of Miss Schiavo,
who is innocent of any wrongdoing, so that she starves to
death, but that doesn't mean you'd be willing to entertain
the possibility that some crimes, like the Oklahoma City
bombing, are so heinous that perpetrators like Timothy
McVeigh deserve the death penalty.
But there is an essential and often
overlooked problem with both these sets of arguments: Each
objection on grounds of hypocrisy in these cases itself
entails hypocrisy. Liberals criticize conservatives for
making the matter a federal case when they themselves should
have no objection to someone making something into a federal
case. This is not an argument about whether the Schiavo case
should be settled in state courts or by federal
intervention. It's a nihilistic exercise in nyah-nyah over
standing: You can't say that, only I could say that.
Unremarked is that the one who could say it isn't saying it
in precisely the same way that the person who is saying it
supposedly shouldn't say. It's hypocrisy on both ends.
It's not that all charges of
hypocrisy are hypocritical. If someone generally thought the
federal government should defer to the states and then
caught someone who believed in indiscriminate federal
supremacy and competence making a states' rights argument,
that would be a legitimate grounds for levying the charge. I
wouldn't have to advocate the opposite of what I have said
previously in order to show that someone is advocating the
opposite of what he has said previously. But goodness, how
infrequently the charge of hypocrisy arises in such cases.
That's because in most all of them, the overwhelming
temptation is to say, "See, even Michael Kinsley"
-- perhaps the nation's leading hypocrisy-sniffer --
"who usually favors federal intervention, grants the
wisdom of leaving this case in the capable hands of the
states." Thus objections on the basis of hypocrisy are
themselves inconsistently applied -- again, hypocritical,
one might say. And this, finally, takes us to the underlying
The charge of hypocrisy is based on
a near monomaniacal adherence to the proposition that the
world consists of binary choices -- yes-no, black-white --
the making of each of which is an entirely discrete process
with no effect on other matters that require a choice. Thus,
in the silly states-rights example, if you've ever expressed
a position in favor of a principle of subsidiarity,
according to which decisions ought to be made at the level
of closest competence to those affected by the decision, you
had better not think the federal government ever has a role
in anything, or Mr. Kinsley will be coming for you.
Apparently, the notion that a strong
federal government with robust law enforcement powers
appropriate to the struggle against terrorists might
nevertheless best serve the public interest by letting local
governments decide between stop signs and traffic lights is
just too much for some people.
Also, good things compete with other
good things, at least in minds not addled by a preference
for abstraction at the expense of understanding the world.
Is "don't starve those who haven't left written
instructions to be starved" only admissible in the
context of a renunciation of any competing claim, such as
that state courts should in general decide local matters?
Does disapproval of the federal grant of jurisdiction in
this case mean that we should use the federal courts only to
scrutinize federal law and to settle disputes between
states? Of course not. We balance such claims all the time.
And in the case of Miss Schiavo, we
did a truly horrendous job of balancing them.