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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

So Are You

One of my favorite captions on a Prawfs post was Matt Brodie's observation that our political discourse is marked by Hypocrisy All The Way Down."

Another overused (and somewhat related) trope is tu quoque, (you too). Faced with an argument that "deem and pass" enactment of health care reform would be unconstitutional, the first response of Congressional Democrats was that "Republicans did it too." Republicans, criticized for failure to mind the banks, ran videos of Barney Frank expressing his desire to "roll the dice" on expanding home ownership. Both parties use tu quoque to deflect criticisms of fiscal irresponsibility. What other response could there possibly be?

Of course, pointing out that an opponent has failed to see the similarity between his own conduct and yours can be an important part of discourse. But only if one continues and uses this inconsistency to explain why, for example, deem and pass is an acceptable tactic or that the federal budget should not be balanced at the expense of economic growth.

I think the popularity of tu quoque has the same roots as our passion for the related theme of hypocrisy.  It avoids identifying opposing values and meeting the substance of what the other side has to say. In reflecting on Matt's post, I wrote the following:

<blockquote><p>My sense is that charges of hypocrisy are popular because they do not require us
to talk with one another about the real reasons for our disagreement. It is the
invocation of a widely shared norm by those who have no intention of honestly
debating what divides us. Rather than discuss the substantive differences
between the tickets of Obama/Biden and McCain/Palin, we search for "gotchas" -
things that allow us to dismiss our opponents without ever engaging what they
have to say. It's a form of discourse for those who have no intention of

In preparing for the Nuremberg trials, the lead American prosecutor Justice Robert Jackson and his British counterpart, Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe, worried about the potential use of tu quoque by the German defendants. While Allied atrocities were certainly not comparable in scope or provenance to those of the Germans, they both knew they had occurred. The position of the Russians, who had invaded Finland and had collaborated with the Nazis in the rape of Poland, was particularly sensitive.

Jackson's solution was to simply write into the charter for the International Military Tribunal that tu quoque was inadmissible. QED.

I'd settle for a break.

Cross posted at Shark and Shepherd

Posted by Richard Esenberg on March 23, 2010 at 10:26 AM | Permalink


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