Jewish World Review March 29, 2005 / 18 Adar II 5765
Hypocrisy without principles is the worst kind of all
Let's do something crazy. Let's assume that everyone involved in the Terri Schiavo controversy has operated in good faith. In other words, let's imagine that Michael Schiavo isn't a homicidal money-grubber; that the Republicans aren't political opportunists performing a Kabuki dance for the right-to-lifers; that the so-called evangelicals really do care deeply about Terri Schiavo and are not fighting a cynical proxy war against abortion; and that the Democrats siding with the Florida courts' decision to starve Terri to death are not doing so out of a reflexive petulance toward anti-abortion and conservative forces.
For most of us, this is probably harder than we're willing to admit. But assuming the best motives on everybody's part isn't merely an exercise in niceness. Doing so helps us take arguments seriously. Private motives always play a role in public arguments. Michael Jackson's lawyer may be more motivated by his desire to buy a new boat than his belief in his client's innocence, but that doesn't mean his courtroom arguments should be ignored.
Similarly, perhaps, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist is as interested in the Iowa caucuses as he is in Schiavo's recovery. Maybe not. Heck, maybe Venusians are speaking to him through his fillings. Who knows? All we can judge for sure are the arguments he and his colleagues present.
Concentrating on the merits puts the Democrats and liberals opposing federal intervention in a difficult bind because most of their arguments fall into one of two categories: "The Republicans are hypocrites" and, relatedly, "We must respect states' rights."
There is a useful rule of thumb for scoring political brawls of this kind: Usually when one side accuses the other of hypocrisy, it is being hypocritical, too. Liberals who have rejected states' rights as everything from quaint to flat-out racist are suddenly scandalized that Republicans want to interfere "intrude," "meddle," "bully" in the Schiavo case. This is a very difficult argument to square with the Democrats' decades-long commitment to making the federal government, particularly federal courts, and the final arbiter of every local issue imaginable.
To the sustained applause of liberals, the federal government can impose its will on everything from the gender balance of college athletics to the number of Asians that can work for the fire department. The same liberals who today lament the damage done to "the rule of law" in the Schiavo case have in the past cheered the retrying in federal courts of allegedly racist or homophobic malefactors' civil rights violations.
Similarly, to suggest that the federal courts should turn a blind eye to the seemingly unlimited appeals of convicted murderers is, for liberals, akin to declaring oneself a troglodyte. And, of course, the granite ideological foundation for many of the Democrats' most committed activists is the nigh-upon religious doctrine that states must never, ever, be allowed to set their own policies on abortion.
Yes, pro-life Republicans who have been campaigning for decades to have states set their own policies on abortion, the death penalty and civil rights are suddenly cheering Congress' rush to open the federal courts to a whole new stampede of right-to-die cases. Sure, there's an inconsistency here, and this exercise may come back to bite the right in years to come.
Yet the point here isn't to highlight the seeming hypocrisy of liberals. Nor is it to zing conservatives for their highly selective interventionism. Rather it is to note that screaming "hypocrisy" is not an argument, particularly if you don't agree with the principles you claim your opponent is violating. If the Schiavo case were somehow about racism, liberals would leap to intervene, states' rights be damned. And if Terri Schiavo were a convicted mass murderer, Congress wouldn't have created a special lifeline.
Even so, there's a particularly important lesson here for Democrats. The Republicans had a serious advantage in this debate: They had a real argument about the specific merits of this particular case and why it should be an exception to the rule. Meanwhile, liberals were nearly silent on why Terri should die, opting instead for cheap ad hominem. Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, for example, contented himself to impugning the motives of conservatives and making "jokes" about Frist lacking a brain and Schiavo being no more alive than a zygote. But, most of all, liberals mocked conservative "hypocrisy." That's certainly fair game in politics, but pointing out how others inconsistently apply their own principles is not a substitute for having principles of your own.
The Schiavo incident demonstrates that conservatives are going to use their legitimate power under the Constitution to act on their convictions. Obviously, pro-life conservative convictions will be different than pro-choice liberal ones. If liberals don't like that, they'd better come up with a better strategy than simply borrowing arguments they never believed themselves.
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