Saturday, May 16, 2009

Accusation Against Pelosi: Hypocricy or Cynicism?

Many Democrats are completely baffled at the attention Republicans are focusing on Nancy Pelosi and the Torture Memos. After all, they argue, the Bush Administration that was in charge of all that was done to the terrorists at the black sites. Pelosi is guilty, at worst, of passive acquiesence. That deserves to be condemned, but is a minor matter compared to actually running the sites. So why the obsessive focus on Pelosi?

The trouble with this question is that it assumes everyone agrees there is something wrong with shackling known terrorists to the ceiling a week or more to keep them from sleeping, slamming them into the wall 20 to 30 times in a row, or waterboarding them 83 to 183 times. But try, if you can, to place yourself in the perspective of someone who thinks that everything that went on at the black sites was perfectly fine. Republicans are, in effect, clearing themselves and the Bush Administration of any wrongdoing because they didn't see anything wrong with any of that. But if Pelosi thought there was something wrong going on, it was incumbent on her (but not on them) to speak up. At the most superficial level, they are accusing her of hyopcrisy for failing to act on her principles.

The trouble with such accusations is that they are never very convincing. People who believe that not-quite-torture is wrong and evil consider it unimportant that Pelosi was a hypocrite in failing to oppose it; such a failing is a trivial offense compared to actually committing not-quite-torture. People who criticize Pelosi as a hypocrite for failing to live up to her anti-torture principles while giving themselves a free pass because they support not-quite-torture regard oppostion to not-quite-torture as vile terrorist-coddling that endangers American lives. So why condemn Pelosi for failing to live up to to such dangerous principles?

It is my belief that there is a deeper, unspoken accusation there. To understand it, consider the subject where liberals are most fond of accusing conservatives of hypocrisy -- homosexuality.

There is no shortage of examples. Senator Rick Santorum holds himself out as Mr. Family Values and denounces homosexuality as a menace that threatens our whole civilization, yet is completely accepting of his gay staffer. Senator Larry Craig holds himself out as Mr. Family Values and denounces homosexuality as a menace that threatens our whole civilization and is caught soliciting gay sex in a public restroom. Reverand Haggard preaches passionate anti-gay sermons while carrying on with a gay prostitute. We liberals condemn them as hypocrites. We mock them for failing to live up to their stated values. But how convincing is such an accusation?

Certainly such accusations are unconvincing to anyone believes that homosexuality really is an evil menace that threatens our whole civilization. Consider what David Frum had to say on the subject:

If a religious leader has a personal inclination toward homosexuality - and nonetheless can look past his own inclination to defend the institution of marriage and to affirm its benefits for the raising of children - why should he likewise not be honored for his intellectual firmness and moral integrity? "I count him braver who overcomes his desires than him who conquers his enemies; for the hardest victory is over self."
Or, put differently, the personal failings of an anti-gay crusader are irrelevant to the underlying evil of homosexuality.

The accusation of hypocrisy does not make much sense from a liberal standpoint either. Does it really make sense to say, "Not only does so-and-so have vile, bigoted values, but he doesn't even live up to them"? If someone's values are vile and bigoted, isn't it better, after all, not to live up to them? But are we really criticizing, say, Rick Santorum for publicly condemning homosexuality while privately being completely accepting of his gay staffer, or are we actually condemning him for privately accepting a gay staffer while publicly condemning homosexuality? The distinction is subtle but real. It amounts to saying that Rick Santorum knows that there is nothing wrong with being gay, as evidenced by his being completely accepting of his gay staffer's orientation. Yet he lies by publicly pretending to think homosexuality is wrong in order to pander to his constituents' worst instincts and win votes. That isn't hypocrisy; that's cynicism.

Many accusations of hypocrisy make more sense when read as really accusations of cynicism. Consider Al Gore's mansion which uses energy at a considerable rate even as Gore preaches the need to cut energy consumption to fight global warming. Hypocrisy? Many environmentalists would agree that it is, indeed, hypocrisy, but that doesn't make global warming any less real or the need for conservation any less urgent. Now try it as an accusation of cynicism. Al Gore knows global warming isn't real, as evidenced by his extravagant energy consumption, but he continues to fear-monger in order to impose his political agenda. Doesn't that make more sense?

Now, apply this general rule to the accusations against Nancy Pelosi. I think what Republicans really mean is that Pelosi obviously didn't think anything going on at the black sites was wrong, as evidenced by the fact that she didn't protest at the time. But now she is pretending to think not-quite-torture was wrong in order to pander to her constituents, despite the real danger opposition to not-quite-torture poses to American lives. Seen from that perspective, it almost makes sense.

Update:

Cheney's speech confirms my suspicions. Without actually naming Pelosi, he says, "Some members of Congress are notorious for demanding they be briefed into the most sensitive intelligence programs. They support them in private, and then head for the hills at the first sign of controversy." This is an an accusation of cynicism not even masquerading as one of hypocrisy.

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