The Washington Times

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 problem.

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.