TCS Daily

In Praise of Hypocrisy

By Alasdair Denvil - December 29, 2003 12:00 AM

Such was Michael Moore's reaction to the news that Saddam Hussein had been captured. In fact, this has long been one of the criticisms of the Bush administration's choice to face down Hussein's regime once and for all: the United States propped up his regime, aided it, even made it deadly; therefore, our opposition to it is hypocritical, unfounded, and unpraiseworthy. We played Dr. Frankenstein, as Moore puts it, and should take no pride in bringing low our own monstrous creation.

It's difficult to know where to begin critiquing this line of reasoning. But, in the first place, saying that we are the same country who supported Saddam Hussein is like saying that today's New York Giants are the same team that won the Super Bowl in 1986. It's true, but only in some loose sense of the word "same" which doesn't get them anywhere near the playoffs this year.


Second, it's not arguable that we supported Saddam's regime, and did so in a way that had horrific consequences. But it could, in principle, be argued that our support this was nonetheless justified. After all, we've financed worse dictators. FDR supported history's single worst killer -- Josef Stalin -- in order to stop Adolf Hitler (who, had "we" not stopped him, likely would have earned Stalin's title for himself).


But, putting those considerations aside, aren't we being hypocrites, celebrating the fact that we've deposed and imprisoned a tyrant who we helped make in the first place? Isn't Moore right, on some level?


Certainly, we need to be careful how we go about defending good causes. Just because we claim to be trying to spread democracy, oppose tyranny, or "maintain regional stability" by propping up a certain regime doesn't justify our actions. Maybe arming Stalin to be rid of Hitler was a good idea, but we need to be very deliberate in deciding who to support and how to support them. Should we have supported Hussein, Cuba's Batista, or the Shah of Iran? Could we have done so in ways that encouraged more democratic impulses? If so, then we could have spared ourselves a lot of trouble and resentment. (And Cuba and Iran could have avoided replacing bad dictators with even worse ones: Fidel Castro and the Ayatollah.)


But to take the line that Moore is taking, to harp on our past support of Hussein at the moment that we are doing everything possible to undercut him, is the height of misguided criticism. Yes, we supported Saddam in the past, but we're not supporting him now. Just the opposite, we're doing everything to eradicate his legacy and to extinguish all his hopes for the future. His heirs are dead, his henchmen imprisoned, he himself has been caught and is about to be put on trial by the people he has oppressed for decades. Worse, the whole world now sees him as a helpless old man devoid of menace or magic. The notion that he had some eternal hold over the nation of Iraq and could rule it by mere force of will has been demolished. Now his supporters are being thinned, and the fear of him is evaporating.


But aren't we being hypocrites? Yes, but not all hypocrisy is bad. When someone makes a mistake and then reverses it, that's the best sort of hypocrisy, the kind that the world needs more of. Of course, we're obligated to point out people's errors, but we're also obligated to praise their improvement. The alcoholic who admits his problem and quits drinking should be praised. But, rather than patting him on the back for mending his ways, Moore and like-minded critics would condemn him as a lousy hypocrite, and deride his newfound sobriety by constantly reminding everyone that he used to be an alcoholic.


But "used to be" is the whole point. The New York Giants used to be Super Bowl Champions. Just like Saddam Hussein used to be the brutal ruler of all Iraq. Things ain't what they used to be. So what's the point of criticizing mistakes that have been left behind?


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