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Double-Standard Trouble

March 28, 2005

I spend some of my time brooding about people who seem addicted to double standards–those who take an allegedly principled stand on a Monday, then switch firmly to the opposite principle on Tuesday if it is to their advantage. A lot of this is considered normal today: free-speech hard-liners who support the severe speech limitations of the campaign reform law, people who were outraged by the campaign that bumped CBS’s anti-Reagan made-for-TV movie off the network but not upset by a similar campaign that forced the cancellation of Dr. Laura Schlessinger’s planned television show.

Some Supreme Court justices have become fond of taking guidance from international standards, as in Roper v. Simmons, the recent decision to bar the death penalty for those under age 18. But do not look for the court to condemn cloning, as the United Nations did by a vote of 84 to 34, or to modify abortion policies to bring them into line with the much more restrictive ones of most developed countries. What the justices mean is that we should look to world standards when those standards support their political preferences.

Justice Antonin Scalia, in his Roper dissent, tossed a grenade at the American Psychological Association on grounds of double standards. In an abortion case before the Supreme Court in 1990, the APA said a “rich body of research” showed that by age 14 or 15 people are mature enough to choose abortion because they have “abilities similar to adults in reasoning about moral dilemmas.” But the APA’s certitude of the strong moral grasp of young teens apparently evaporated just in time for Roper, in which it told the court that minors just aren’t mature enough to be eligible for the maximum penalty faced by adult killers.

Teen decisions. Planned Parenthood adopted a more comic double stance on abortion: Young girls are fully capable of choosing to abort without informing their parents, but they could not enter a Planned Parenthood pro-abortion poster contest without parental approval. The fine print on the contest said, “Children under age 18 must have a parent or legal guardian’s permission to submit designs.” No, you wouldn’t want young teens making drastic poster decisions without input from Mom or Dad.

The Republican threat to invoke “the nuclear option” to break the Democratic filibuster over judicial nominations has brought a mother lode of double standards. For example, law Prof. Erwin Chemerinsky of Duke coauthored a strong antifilibuster law article in 1997 when Republicans were obstructing Democratic court nominees but a strong pro-filibuster argument to meet the current debate.

Many newspapers thundered against the males-only membership policy of Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia, which is private, but remained silent about recent discriminatory policies at public institutions, such as a New York City public high school for gays and bisexuals, “Third World” student centers for nonwhites, and women-only lounges like the one at Boalt Hall, the law school of the University of California-Berkeley.

Liberals aren’t the only double-dealers. Conservatives criticize liberals for “playing the race card” and reducing broad issues to narrow ones about race and gender. But conservatives do it too. Liberals opposed appeals-court nominee Miguel Estrada on philosophical grounds and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales on grounds that he favored mistreatment of suspected terrorists. But some Republicans tried to sell that opposition as anti-Hispanic bias. Opposing Estrada, said Sen. Charles Grassley, “would be to shut the door on the American dream of Hispanic Americans everywhere.” Not really.

Both left and right play games on federalism and states’ rights. Liberals, generally contemptuous of states’ rights, want to retain state tort and environmental laws, which they think are better than national laws under Republican dominance. Conservatives consider the states “laboratories of democracy,” except when they want to trump a liberal state program. John Ashcroft’s argument that Oregon’s right-to-die law violated federal drug legislation comes under this heading.

Liberals have been severely critical of the Patriot Act and Ashcroft for the policy of seeking library records of suspected terrorists. Librarians were particularly incensed. However, the American Library Association declines to protest the serious mistreatment of librarians in Cuba. Some 75 dissidents, including 10 librarians, are subject to beatings, denied medical help, and kept in “medieval cages,” according to human-rights advocates. The librarians’ silence has to do with the lingering romantic attachment of the American left to communism in general and Fidel Castro in particular. The Motorcycle Diaries, the glowing movie about the young Che Guevara, is the current horrible example. The romantic left would never do a similar film about a young Nazi. Guevara killed a lot of people and dreamed of slaughtering more. How about On the Road With Adolf ? Let’s not dwell too much on what came after.

From → Politics

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