I’ve been watching the big fight over a brief the Department of Justice filed in support of the Defense of Marriage Act. During the campaign, President Obama promised to support the repeal of the act, but the Solicitor General is defending the law in the face of a legal challenge. This has led to much drama.
Here’s the thing. When President Bush was in office, liberals were rightfully outraged at the politicization of the Justice Department. The Bush administration regularly broke the law and defied convention in its dealings with Justice, which relies on its independence from the White House to operate effectively. Now we see some of the same critics attacking President Obama because it’s their ox being gored. When President Bush is putting political pressure on the Department of Justice to provide legal cover for a torture program, it’s bad. When President Obama fails to pressure the Department of Justice to abandon its duty to defend laws he doesn’t like, it’s also bad.
Here’s another example. Conservatives like to talk about the evils of judicial activism and the folly of using empathy as a judge but then they attack Sonia Sotomayor for hewing to the law as it is written and failing to empathize with a firefighter who was denied a promotion in Connecticut.
It’s worth differentiating between this phenomenon and rank hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is when one adulterer calls on another to resign. This is about the exceptions we’re all willing to grant ourselves when whatever we want is really important. Civilization is about putting the emphasis on the means rather than the ends. Let’s not punish people for being civilized.
Dime store hypocrisy
Robert McNamara just died. He is most famous for serving as Secretary of Defense for Kennedy and LBJ and serving as architect of the Vietnam War. He was also President of Ford, President of the World Bank, and in the end was the subject of the Errol Morris documentary Fog of War. I don’t really want to write about McNamara, though. The New York Times obituary I linked to is outstanding, read it.
What I do want to write about is the comments on a qualified expression of sympathy for McNamara by Kevin Drum. I’m revolted by the sanctimony expressed by the commenters. It’s ironic that the value McNamara came to appreciate most late in life — empathy — is found to be so sorely lacking in his critics.
What I’ve come to realize is that in many ways, decisions are decisions. We criticize politicians for lack of transparency, but in our own behavior we fail to be as transparent as we should be. We condemn people for failure to recognize mistakes and change their behavior, but I’ve certainly been known to stick with a bad plan due to a lack of courage to speak the truth and suffer the consequences. The main difference between people like Robert McNamara or Donald Rumsfeld and most of the rest of us is that we lack the authority to err on such a colossal scale. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t call out their errors or their moral failings. People who take on such responsibility should be held to a high standard, and more importantly, examining the mistakes of the past may in some rare circumstances prevent other people from making the same mistakes in the future.
What sticks in my craw, though, is that so many people feel that they are incapable of making such mistakes. Or that having made mistakes, they are not required to atone in the ways they demand from public figures. It strikes me that most of the people who are fastest to condemn would be better served by being grateful that the stakes of their own decisions are far smaller.