Gadfly is Marty Aussenberg, a columnist for the alternative weekly Memphis Flyer (where this story is cross-posted). Marty is a former SEC enforcement official, currently in private law practice in Memphis, Tennessee.

Isn’t it amazing how principle collapses in the face of personal experience. Let me give you some examples.

The other night, during the debate between the Republican presidential candidates, two of the participants, Giuliani and Romney, advocated using torture if it might avoid a terrorist attack. John McCain, who is a hard-boiled conservative on most of the bellwether issues, and as (if not more) gung-ho on the war in Iraq as any living human being (remember, he’s going to follow Osama “to the gates of hell” ), spoke forcefully against the use of torture . Why? Because he himself had been the victim of torture some 40 years ago when he was a prisoner of war in Vietnam.

So, for him, invading and occupying a country, killing its people and going against the will of the majority of the American people who want to end the war, is OK, right up until it involves something he’s had personal experience with that he didn’t like. Then his ideology melts in the face of his personal experience.

This follows a familiar pattern, particularly for conservative ideologues. Here’s another example: abortion.

Hard-core right wingers (read: Christian conservatives) oppose abortion, for any reason, for any person. Many of them oppose abortion even if carrying the fetus to term threatens the life of the mother. And yet, studies show that many of these same conservative ideologues are apparently willing to look the other way when the crisis of an unwanted pregnancy strikes home. Many so-called born-agains and other abortion opponents (e.g., Catholics) won’t hesitate to abort a fetus when it affects their own lifestyle .

Ditto for stem cell research. Ronald Reagan was nothing if not a staunch conservative. He hued to the party line on all the bellwether conservative issues, including those revolving around the “sanctity of life.” And yet, who is now the biggest proponent of stem cell research, one of the religious right’s (read: Republican) bêtes noires? Why, Nancy Reagan , of course. As she watched her husband suffer the ravages of Alzheimer’s, it became clear to her that stem cell research presented the best chance of finding a cure for the disease. She suddenly recognized that the sanctity of her husband’s life was more important than a few un-implanted embryos.

Gay marriage provides yet another example. Same sex unions, and, indeed, gayness itself, are big bugaboos for the Republican party. But when your own daughter comes out and announces she’s a lesbian, is living with her lesbian lover, and is going to have a baby that will be raised by (horrors!) the happy lesbian couple, that’s another matter. Just ask Dick Cheney about that .

The same goes for the whole Terri Schiavo episode. Conservatives were up in arms that she would be allowed to die. Bill Frist, you may recall, famously diagnosed her as non-vegetative, based on his review of a video tape. Yet, it surfaced that, of all people, Tom Delay, one of the most vocal of the “save Terry” politicians in Washington, had, some years earlier
decided to withdraw life support from his own father
who was injured in a freak back yard accident. Just another example of the old “do as I say, not as I do” mentality, I suppose.

And finally, you may remember when House Speaker Pelosi went to the Middle East and made the unpardonable, and, according to some right-wing ideologues, treasonous mistake of meeting with a representative of one of the “Axis of Evil.” Then, of course, when our much- vaunted Secretary of State went to the same area, guess what: she herself met with the “evildoers” .

Ethical/moral relativism? Hypocrisy? Maybe, but it just proves the old saying, particularly attractive, it would appear, to conservatives: it all depends on whose ox is being gored.

Going back to McCain’s stand on torture: don’t get me wrong; I’m delighted that McCain can stand up for something he knows is wrong because he’s experienced it. I just wonder whether he would be as vigorous a proponent of our policy in Iraq if, instead of having been a U.S. fighter pilot in Viet Nam, he had been a villager in My Lai.