Who Cares if John Yoo is a Hypocrite?
Opinio Juris has been discussing whether John Yoo is a hypocrite, based on his criticism of the Clinton administration for violating the rule of law. (Heller: John Yoo’s Hypocrisy; Ku: Fair and Unfair Criticisms of John Yoo; Heller: John Yoo’s Defense of the NSA Program Part I & Part II). For what it is worth, I think that Heller has the better of the exchange on the merits. But his use of hypocrite as the ultimate pejorative label, as opposed to ideologue, or partisan, or bad lawyer, brought to mind a great exchange from The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson:
“Mr. Hackworth,” Finkle-McGraw said after the pleasantries had petered out, speaking in a new tone of voice, a the-meeting-will- come-to-order sort of voice, “please favour me with your opinion of hypocrisy.
“Excuse me. Hypocrisy, Your Grace?”
“Yes. You know.”
“It’s a vice, I suppose.”
“A little one or a big one? Think carefully-much hinges upon the answer.”
“I suppose that depends upon the particular circumstances.”
“That will never fail to be a safe answer, Mr. Hackworth,” the Equity Lord said reproachfully. Major Napier laughed, somewhat artificially, not knowing what to make of this line of inquiry.
“Recent events in my life have renewed my appreciation for the virtues of doing things safely,” Hackworth said. Both of the others chuckled knowingly.
“You know, when I was a young man, hypocrisy was deemed the worst of vices,” Finkle-McGraw said. “It was all because of moral relativism. You see, in that sort of a climate, you are not allowed to criticise others-after all, if there is no absolute right and wrong, then what grounds is there for criticism?”
Finkle-McGraw paused, knowing that he had the full attention of his audience, and began to withdraw a calabash pipe and various related supplies and implements from his pockets. As he continued, he charged the calabash with a blend of leather-brown tobacco so redolent that it made Hackworth’s mouth water. He was tempted to spoon some of it into his mouth.
“Now, this led to a good deal of general frustration, for people are naturally censorious and love nothing better than to criticise others’ shortcomings. And so it was that they seized on hypocrisy and elevated it from a ubiquitous peccadillo into the monarch of all vices. For, you see, even if there is no right and wrong, you can find grounds to criticise another person by contrasting what he has espoused with what he has actually done. In this case, you are not making any judgment whatsoever as to the correctness of his views or the morality of his behaviour-you are merely pointing out that he has said one thing and done another. Virtually all political discourse in the days of my youth was devoted to the ferreting out of hypocrisy.
“You wouldn’t believe the things they said about the original Victorians. Calling someone a Victorian in those days was almost like calling them a fascist or a Nazi.”
Both Hackworth and Major Napier were dumbfounded. “Your Grace!” Napier exdaimed. “I was naturally aware that their moral stance was radically different from ours- but I am astonished to be informed that they actually condemned the first Victorians.”
“Of course they did,” Finkle-McGraw said.
“Because the first Victorians were hypocrites,” Hackworth said, getting it.
Finkle-McGraw beamed upon Hackworth like a master upon his favored pupil. “As you can see, Major Napier, my estimate of Mr. Hackworth’s mental acuity was not ill-founded.”
“While I would never have supposed otherwise, Your Grace,” Major Napier said, “it is nonetheless gratifying to have seen a demonstration.” Napier raised his glass in Hackworth’s direction.
“Because they were hypocrites,” Finkle-McGraw said, after igniting his calabash and shooting a few tremendous fountains of smoke into the air, “the Victorians were despised in the late twentieth century. Many of the persons who held such opinions were, of course, guilty of the most nefandous conduct themselves, and yet saw no paradox in holding such views because they were not hypocrites themselves-they took no moral stances and lived by none.”
“So they were morally superior to the Victorians-” Major Napier said, still a bit snowed under.
“-even though-in fact, because-they had no morals at all.” There was a moment of silent, bewildered head-shaking around the copper table.
“We take a somewhat different view of hypocrisy,” Finkle-McGraw continued. “In the late-twentieth-century Weltanschauung, a hypocrite was someone who espoused high moral views as part of a planned campaign of deception-he never held these beliefs sincerely and routinely violated them in privacy. Of course, most hypocrites are not like that. Most of the time it’s a spirit-is-willing, flesh-is-weak sort of thing.”
“That we occasionally violate our own stated moral code,” Major Napier said, working it through, “does not imply that we are insincere in espousing that code.”
“Of course not,” Finkle-McGraw said. “It’s perfectly obvious, really. No one ever said that it was easy to hew to a strict code of conduct. Really, the difficulties involved-the missteps we make along the way-are what make it interesting. The internal, and eternal , struggle, between our base impulses and the rigorous demands of our own moral system is quintessentially human. It is how we conduct ourselves in that struggle that determines how we may in time be judged by a higher power.” All three men were quiet for a few moments, chewing mouthfuls of beer or smoke, pondering the matter.
“I cannot help but infer,” Hackworth finally said, “that the present lesson in comparative ethics-which I thought was nicely articulated and for which I am grateful-must be thought to pertain, in some way, to my situation.”
Is this tripe, or worth further discussion?