Who's a Hypocrite--and Who Cares?
Why shouldn't vice pay tribute to virtue once in awhile?

The Wall Street Journal, Tuesday, August 4, 1998

What do Clarence Thomas, Bill Clinton, feminist leaders and Linda Tripp have in common? All have lately been accused of hypocrisy. Do the charges against them hold up? And is hypocrisy necessarily a bad thing?

Webster's New World Dictionary defines hypocrisy as "a pretending to be what one is not, or to feel what one does not feel; esp. a pretense of virtue, piety, etc." By this definition, it's plainly unfair to accuse Justice Thomas of hypocrisy in opposing racial preferences. Nobody has questioned the sincerity of his views; the charge of hypocrisy rests on assumptions about his background. In the wake of Justice Thomas's disputed appearance last week before the National Bar Association, the New York Times editorialized: "The fact that he himself benefited from programs that opened up educational opportunities to minorities adds to the resentment."

But why should it? After all, it is perfectly respectable to change one's mind. Ex-smokers who want to take away my cigars are meddlesome and irritating, but they aren't hypocritical.

Even if Justice Thomas has always believed in the principle of colorblindness, there would be nothing unprincipled about the young Mr. Thomas taking advantage of preferences to secure admission to an elite college. We aren't morally obligated to behave as if the world conformed to our ideals. A libertarian is not required to forgo Social Security benefits or a rent-controlled apartment, any more than he is entitled to withhold taxes because he believes government is too big.

The charge of hypocrisy would carry some weight if Justice Thomas were criticizing those who benefit from preferences or exhorting young blacks to shun them. But his objection to preferences is a matter of law and policy. To say that the rules are unjust is not to say that people shouldn't play by them. Many whites support racial preferences; is their view illegitimate if in some way they owe their wealth or position to past discrimination?

Even as Justice Thomas's critics pillory him for putative hypocrisy, President Clinton's defenders applaud his hypocrisy in apparently concealing extramarital affairs. "We all lie about sex, or if we don't, [we] should," wrote a San Diego Union-Tribune columnist last month. Here hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue. Disclosing an affair, the argument goes, compounds the betrayal, subjecting the wronged wife to additional pain and embarrassment. Keeping it secret may save a troubled marriage, and it allows the unfaithful husband and his mistress to remain respectable in the eyes of the community.

As a matter of custom and manners, such a view has much to recommend it. Mr. Clinton, however, is suspected not merely of concealing an affair, but of lying about it under oath and obstructing justice by tampering with witnesses in a legal case. Because the justice system's imperative is to uncover truth, not to keep up appearances, the law has little room for hypocrisy.

Moreover, sexual harassment law, which made possible Mr. Clinton's current predicament, is a product of contemporary feminism, an ideology that rejects Victorian hypocrisy in favor of the slogan "The personal is political." Male sexual aggressiveness in the workplace, in the feminist view, is a means by which the "patriarchy" subjugates women, and inquisitions into such behavior--exemplified by the Anita Hill imbroglio during Justice Thomas's confirmation hearings--are necessary to vindicate the equality of the sexes.

Yet the feminists who ardently believed Ms. Hill have largely stood by Mr. Clinton amid Paula Jones's and Kathleen Willey's accusations of sexual misconduct. In April the National Organization for Women briefly considered supporting Ms. Jones in her case against the president, but decided against it after polling its state and national leaders. NOW's president, Patricia Ireland, explained that the group determined Ms. Jones's lawsuit was unworthy of support because it was backed by "disreputable right-wing organizations." The personal is political, it seems, except when politics dictates otherwise.

This hypocrisy does not necessarily mean the feminist position lacks merit, and some feminists, notably the antipornography crusader Andrea Dworkin, have stuck to their principles, attacking the president as vigorously as they did Justice Thomas. But the definition of sexual harassment is unsettled, and the feminist position is a controversial one. If mainstream feminists are willing to abandon their principles for the sake of political expediency, especially in such a celebrated case, they will have difficulty persuading the public to embrace those principles.

Ms. Tripp, like Mr. Clinton, stands accused of hypocrisy in her personal life: She pretended to be Monica Lewinsky's confidante while surreptitiously recording their conversations and relaying Ms. Lewinsky's secrets to prosecutors and to Ms. Jones's lawyers. We need only consult the dictionary to find Ms. Tripp guilty as charged--but her hypocrisy in betraying Ms. Lewinsky is defensible as being in the service of a greater good. Ms. Tripp, after all, had been served with a subpoena by Ms. Jones's lawyers and was legally obliged to tell them the truth. She knew the public would disbelieve her and the White House would pillory her if she didn't have evidence to back up her claims.

Secretly recording conversations is a standard technique of law enforcement; every informant or undercover cop could fairly be branded a hypocrite. So what? Employing deceit to catch criminals may be unsporting, but criminals themselves are almost always hypocrites. If they weren't, they would simply confess and save the rest of us the trouble and expense of prosecuting them.

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