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?

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6 Responses

  1. Ben Barros says:

    Depends on whether we care about Yoo’s character (hypocrisy maybe relevant) or the merits of his arguments (hypocrisy irrelevant). I’d also like to put in a vote for the Diamond Age as The Best Novel Ever, though some of Stephenson’s other books give it a run for its money.

  2. Frank says:

    As Jon Elster says in Political Psychology, hypocrisy is the tribute virtue pays to vice.

    And I’ll nominate Stephenson’s Snow Crash as a fantastic book, though the skewering he got in TNR’s review of his latest stuff suggests that his move into history is ill-advised!

  3. Eh Nonymous says:

    I think comments about Stephenson’s ability as a writer are off-topic, despite being tangentially relevant.

    Dead on, DH.

    It matters not if Yoo was for, against, or ignorant of what we argue is the morally right (or legally right, or politically preferable) stance, during the Clinton years.

    What matters more is that he was morally wrong (and legally wrong, and politically idiotic, and pragmatically foolish, and etc. etc.) when it counted, when the stress hit, when he had a chance to make a difference instead of just complaining.

    I blame him not for his hypocrisy, but for his failure. His failure to be a good lawyer. His failure to be diligent, honest, and self-critical. His failure to be a no-man, instead of a yes-man. That he defends himself today is not wrong. He can and should; maybe others, if not Yoo, will learn something from it.

    But let it not be said that his hypocrisy, or lack thereof, is any defense to his ineptitude and moral failings.

    Shame on him, and shame on those who enabled him.

  4. Kevin Heller says:

    I think Dave’s point is well taken. Stephenson’s delightful passage highlights, for me, that there are two very different forms of hypocrisy: overt and covert.

    Covert hypocrisy is what Yoo preaches: applying a different standard to like things, criticizing one while praising the other, but pretending to the same standard.

    Overt hypocrisy, by contrast, treats like things differently, but does so accompanied by the frank admission that one is not applying the same standard. For example, a person could say (and I’m not defending this!), “yes, both Christianity and Islam have led to much bloodshed, but I am only going to criticize Islam because I think it is a false religion.” Or a person could say (and I’m not defending this, either!), “yes, both women and blacks have been discriminated against in the job market, but I’m not a woman, so I’m not going to worry about gender-discrimination.”

    Personally, because I value consistency, I rarely find double standards compelling, difficult to avoid though they may be. But I find overt hypocrisy far less troubling, perhaps even noble in its way, because at least it makes plain the hypocrite’s axiology of moral values, thereby allowing us to judge those values for ourselves. The covert hypocrite, by contrast, tries to take the moral high ground by claiming to defend a general moral principle (i.e., a principle that applies with equal force in all like cases), even though he is actually using that moral principle as nothing more than a rhetorical tool to promote his partisan agenda — thereby denying us the ability to judge the soundness of the his axiology (Christianity over Islam; blacks over women) for ourselves.

  5. …or like when some tolerate, if not encourage, certain examples of law breaking(illegal immigration?) but see a Constitutional Crisis when THIS President issues a “signing statement”.

    Yoo’s criticism of President Clinton somewhat mirror those of many of us who criticized President Bush for signing McCain-Feingold when he thought it unconstitutonal.

    If President Clinton thought War Powers applied then he should have abided by it. I think Mr. Yoo believes that Mr. Clinton was well within his rights as President to act as he did – Mr. Yoo just wishes Mr. Clinton would have expressed similar thoughts.

    If this makes me an enabler, so be it.

  6. Bart Motes says:

    The irony is that the Republican party is the great beneficiary of this obsession with hypocrisy. Because they are presumed to be straightforward about their general lack of ethics in the political realm, they escape criticism for acts for which the sanctimonious Democrats are pilloried. In the field of legal opinion, I certainly think it is relevant if one somehow views the same acts performed by one administration to be repellant and when performed by another to be somehow OK. The problem is not hypocrisy but holding a view entirely at odds with the foundation of this country: that men cannot be trusted, only law. Placing men above law, like modern Republicans have in creating this expansive and unprecedented power for their President, is a betrayal of the ancient principles on which this country was founded and profoundly unconservative. In that context, I think it is entirely appropriate to point out the hypocrisy involved. The Victorian example is not entirely accurate. One may be a minor hypocrite in advocating a code of behavior for others that one does not follow oneself out of belief that society operates on such fictions and in the realm of sex, we today have many such minor hypocrisies–some rooted in romance, others in more base emotions. In other words, it is ok to do in private what cannot be publicly acknowledged for reasons of discretion. In matters of state, no such defense can be made.