This is the season in which, quite obviously, lascivious ears tune up for hypocrisy on the part of politicians. More often than not the scorn is justified. It can't be a surprise that politicians seeking public office will adopt positions that, they calculate, will most appeal to the voters. And it is to be expected that, if a politician changes his stance on an issue, critics will judge the changed position as being opportunistic and insincere.
OK. But the focus this morning is on public figures whose views have actually changed. How are they to be received? With perpetual suspicion and distrust?
An arrant example is in the news, namely the reaction by a prominent columnist, Gail Collins of The New York Times, to a statement by candidate Mitt Romney during the debate of Republican contenders for the presidency. Romney was elected governor of Massachusetts in 2002, and his views were pretty widely known as pro-choice. Here is the narrative as it appeared in Ms. Collins's critique: "Nothing changed until he was safely in the governor's office in 2003, and began to veto every single expansion of abortion rights that hit his desk. Then he announced that he had experienced a change of heart while studying the issue of embryonic cloning, and no longer believed that abortion was a matter best left to the individual's conscience. 'I changed my mind. I took the same course that Ronald Reagan took, and I said I was wrong and changed my mind and said I'm pro-life.'"
Now look at what Gov. Romney ran into. The critic took a very high dive from the ladder of scorn.
"The best we can hope for is that in the quiet of his motel room after a night of campaigning, Mitt Romney brushes his teeth, says his prayers, and sadly tells himself that you have to be one whopping hypocrite to get to be governor of Massachusetts and a Republican presidential nominee in the same lifetime. If not, if he thinks he has achieved a complete mid-career, all-expenses-paid moral do-over, then we are in really big trouble."
The difficulty here is the planted axiom, which is that one can't move from a position backing choice, to one backing life, except for venal reasons. It can all certainly be made to sound like just that. But there is left open the question: What if the candidate whose mind has changed is absolutely sincere?
I thought to take an American issue about which we would now say that only a single position can responsibly be held, namely human slavery. I wondered: How was it possible that many Americans -- in many states, the majority -- could find themselves settling down to life in a democratic polity whose public thought was anchored to a bill of rights and yet condone slavery?
I did not want to tax my own polemical resources on that one, and so I went to the Internet and discovered something called "Teacher Created Resources Inc." Collected here are arguments useful to student speakers when assigned a debate topic. I found a page headed "Anti-Slavery Speech," instructing students on how to present the argument against slavery -- and the opposite argument, for slavery. For slavery? Yes.
"Many Southerners and slave owners were in favor of the institution of slavery. The idea that slavery might be abolished was very frightening to the Southerners. Write a speech that is persuasive in justifying slavery.
"... Use background information from the perspective of a master who owns slaves.
"... State the advantages of slavery to the economy of the South. List the conditions that slaves live under on your plantation. Describe your religion and (explain) that, according to it, slaves are in their appropriate place in society.
"... Discuss the benefits that the slaves and the white Southern economy will experience because of slavery."
We have to imagine that there were public men in the age we speak of who, giving thought to slavery, walked into an epiphany of the kind Gov. Romney claims to have walked into in the matter of abortion. Early utterances by Abraham Lincoln were ambiguous in the matter of slavery, and, of course, the principal draftsman of the Bill of Rights was a slave owner.
Isn't it an obligation of some kind, in a society that yields to public discourse for judgments on the law, to permit a contender for high office to change his mind on basic issues without incurring the charge of hypocrite or opportunist?