07 October 2006

When Hypocrisy is not

One of the better minds on the net is James Taranto. He edits Opinionjournal.com and writes the Best of the Web Today column. Here are his comments on Rep. Mark Foley from October 2.

The most fascinating comment about the scandal comes from Andrew Sullivan:

I don't know Foley, although, like any other gay man in D.C., I was told he was gay, closeted, afraid and therefore also screwed up. What the closet does to people--the hypocrisies it fosters, the pathologies it breeds--is brutal. There are many still-closeted gay men in D.C., many of them working for a Republican party that has sadly deeply hostile to gay dignity. How they live with themselves I do not fully understand. . . .

What I do know is that the closet corrupts. The lies it requires and the compartmentalization it demands can lead people to places they never truly wanted to go, and for which they have to take ultimate responsibility. From what I've read, Foley is another example of this destructive and self-destructive pattern for which the only cure is courage and honesty. While gays were fighting for thir [sic] basic equality, Foley voted for the "Defense of Marriage Act." If his resignation means the end of the closet for him, and if there is no more to this than we now know, then it may even be for the good. Better to find integrity and lose a Congressional seat than never live with integrity at all.

It seems to us that someone who is sexually interested in children had damn well better stay in the closet, and if he can't, he should be put in one with a thick metal door that locks from the outside. It is astonishing, and more than a little disturbing, that Sullivan would seek to make Foley a poster child for gay liberation.

Further, has it occurred to Sullivan that his response to the Foley scandal undermines his own credibility as an advocate of same-sex marriage? Sullivan has long claimed to be advancing traditional values. All he wants, he says, is for society to recognize that gay couples are no less capable of serious, loving, lifelong commitments than ordinary couples are.

But if a middle-aged congressman were caught sending lewd messages to 16-year-old girls, what adherent to traditional values would claim that the congressman's real problem is that he is insufficiently open about his sexuality?

Exploitation Reaction Formation
One of the odder accusations being leveled against Foley is that of hypocrisy. As the Washington Post notes, Foley "built his political career in large measure on legislative proposals meant to halt the sexual predation of children and others":

A well-liked member of the class of conservatives elected to Congress in 1994, Foley was until two days ago a deputy whip for the House Republicans and a co-chairman of the Congressional Missing and Exploited Children's Caucus. A Web site for the bipartisan group states that it was formed to "create a voice within Congress" on that issue and to operate a hotline for tips about "online child sexual exploitation" that could be passed to law enforcement agencies.

At a White House Rose Garden ceremony on July 27, President Bush hailed Foley and some other House and Senate lawmakers as members of a "SWAT team for kids." Bush spoke while signing into law a broad child protection measure that included a Foley-sponsored provision requiring sex offenders to register in every state where they live, work or attend school.

Exploiting children is bad. Does simultaneously decrying the exploitation of children make it worse? This would seem to be a pretty obvious case of hypocrisy being the tribute that vice pays to virtue.

What's more, any armchair psychologist worth his salt will tell you that Foley's activism on behalf of children appears to be a reaction formation--that is, a neurotic defense against his own impulses (a theme we struck, in another context, two weeks ago).

A tangentially related analogy is the antigay activist who turns out to be a closeted homosexual. (Andrew Sullivan notwithstanding, Foley does not seem to fall into this category. He in fact voted against the Federal Marriage Amendment in 2004.) This is a standard trope of the gay left, and it is not without a grain of truth.

But the Foley case shows why this trope is not really an argument. Foley's own apparent penchant for exploiting children in no way discredits the idea he was espousing: that society should be vigilant in protecting children from exploitation. Similarly, when a gay-basher turns out to be secretly homosexual, that has no bearing on the question of whether homosexual conduct is moral. Many activists for children are motivated by nothing more complicated than a genuine concern for their well-being. By the same token, many opponents of gay rights are psychologically untroubled and sincere in their beliefs.

We're not making a case against homosexuality here; we tend toward the love-and-let-love view. And it can be useful to understand the psychology behind extreme political views (or behind odd political obsessions, even if they aren't extreme). Our point simply is that a psychoanalysis is different from an argument on the merits.

Where Taranto's logic uncharacteristically fails him is in the assumption that a vote for the Federal Marraige Amendment is, at least in part, anti-gay activism. That is like saying that someone opposing an increase in the minimum wage is therefore anti-worker. There is a significant difference between intent and result. One's intent may be to protect and preserve small businesses which create jobs.

I recall an ad in favor of Oregon's marriage protection amendment, which featured two partnered gay men who said, among other things, that there are good reasons for not wanting to redefine marriage. I agree.

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