“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” is a popular line from Emerson that is mostly used to dismiss critics. I’ve used it myself, almost always to dismiss criticism of my opinions on some matter. I also like saying the word “hobgoblin. I’m also fond of this line from Huxley, “Consistency is contrary to nature, contrary to life. The only completely consistent people are the dead.” Again, it is used to brush away nitpickers and pedants. It’s a handy tool.
That’s the thing. Trivial inconsistencies and contradictions, otherwise known as exceptions, are to be expected in just about all things outside of death. In philosophical or political matters, where you are often dealing with gross generalizations and flowery rhetoric, everyone is a hypocrite to some degree. Events simply don’t fall so neatly into their categories, which leaves room for all sides to claim they support their side.
The most obvious example for myself is the forever war stuff with the Muslims. I was in favor of blowing up Afghanistan to make a point after 9/11. I was fine with sending in troops to hunt down the jihadis. By the time Obama came to town, I was all for leaving the dung heap to molder. That makes me a hypocrite, but events changed, I had more data and I simply changed my mind on some things. My liberal friends are still scandalized when I call Obama a worse war monger than Bush. They simply cannot fathom my apparent hypocrisy.
That’s what bugged me about the hysterical reaction from Conservative Inc. over the Pope’s words regarding the limits of speech. The left hates other religions in proportion to their proximity. Catholics are close so they are hated with great intensity, just behind Evangelicals. They also are always chanting about free speech as they implement speech codes. It made perfect sense for the Left to have a ritualized freak out over the Pope. It’s what they do.
Professional conservatives, on the other hand, are predisposed to respect religion, particularly Christianity. Even The Weekly Standard crowd is pro-Pope on the isseus that have no impact on their tribe. The caterwauling from Conservative Inc. struck me as contrived, as if they were trying to inoculate themselves in some way. We see that with race all the time. That, or they were hoping to deploy their libertarian chariots to out flank the Left on the matter of free speech absolutism.
Thinking about it, I suspect what really bugs me about it is that it concedes a more important principle to the Left. That’s the right of association. You simply cannot have freedom of speech without freedom of association, which includes the right to private discrimination. If the Christian baker must work for the homosexual couples trying to make a point that the baker finds objectionable, you have effectively given the state the right to regulate speech.
If I’m free to say what I like, but you are free to use the courts and the law to bankrupt me for saying things you don’t like, you have effectively stripped me of that right. Put more simply, if the state requires you and I to be in the same room, even though we say objectionable things to one another, we are going to want the state to set the rules for what we can and cannot say to one another. Otherwise, it ends in a knife fight.
That’s why the professional conservatives wet themselves when these issues arise. Freedom of association means the diner gets to hang out a sign that reads “Whites Only.” If Jonah Goldberg or Rich Lowry were to argue that a business owner should have the right to refuse service to blacks, he is fired in hours. They know that a wide range of opinions are forbidden in public so they avoid getting anywhere near them. Not everyone can afford to be John Derbyshire.
Therein lies the rub for me. Hooting about free speech when we encourage and tolerate enormous amounts of regulation of speech is not just hypocritical. It is illogical. It is compounded by the demands for state regulated association, embraced by all of the ruling class. The French prefer the government to play referee. Americans hand that job to corporations and academia. Complaints about the Pope’s formulation is haggling over trivialities.