Friday, July 3, 2009

Hypocrisy Pt. 2

Another kind of hypocrisy talk in politics has to do, not with the private lives of politicians, but with their allegedly inconsistent political positions. The charge is used on all sides. From the left come charges that Israel (and the United States for that matter) is in no position to criticize Palestinian terrorists because it is a practitioner of state terror itself. The United States is hypocritical in denouncing North Korean or Iranian nuclear weapons when it has the world's largest stockpile of them and is the only country actually to have used them, and then to bomb intentionally a civilian population. On the other side of the political spectrum, the media is accused of giving openly gay mayor of Portland, OR a more or less free ride over allegations of improper behavior with a male underage subordinate. See and . In contrast, the argument goes, a heterosexual conservative politician would have been pounced on and mauled gleefully and relentlessly. (Of course, that does not quite work, because Bill Clinton was pounced on and conservatives!)

The obvious response to such charges of hypocritically ignoring the beam in your own eye is to accuse one's accusers of treating morally different cases as if they were "moral equivalents." So, they ask, is it not morally relevant that Israel has a policy and principle against targeting civilians. When these appear to have been violated, there are accusations, inquiries, and prosecutions. In contrast, Hamas and other terrorists deny the distinction between civilian and military targets. They place rocket launchers and arms caches in civilian areas, near hospitals or mosques, precisely because they know the Israelis, unlike themselves, are officially squeamish about attacking such targets. They themselves have launched over 10,000 rockets deliberately (if not very effectively, thank God) against civilian targets in southern Israel. So the cases are different and it is a reflection of your moral bankruptcy if you don't see the difference.

Is North Korean possession of nuclear weapons no different morally from that of the United States? In treating them as morally equivalent you have to ignore a lot of significant differences. The U.S. has possessed the weapons for sixty years whereas North Korea is expanding the nuclear club. It is a notoriously nasty, totalitarian state and a source of instability. It shows no interest in open and honest negotiations and disregards in practice the agreements it signs. (Here someone might point out that the U.S. broke its treaties with American Indians.) By the way, I regard all possession of nuclear weapons by anyone as evil, just because they are built to be weapons of mass destruction aimed at civilian targets.

This sort of approach to politics, going directly from very abstract principles to particular cases, may make one side appear unrealistic and self-righteous while the other appears hypocritical.

In what sense is hypocrisy involved here? Is it about saying one thing and doing another, as in failing to live up to one's own moral standards? But that, I argued in my previous post, is not hypocrisy but the nature of the (fallen) human condition. Hypocrisy has to mean something more serious, like expounding one set of principles while really adhering to a contradictory set. But is that the case in any of these examples and how do we know?

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