If you spend any time on Twitter, you’ll probably be familiar with the latest pathetic attempt to defend and insulate the U.S. status quo from criticism. It centers around the usage of an infantile and meaningless term, “whataboutism.”
Let’s begin with one particularly absurd accusation of “whataboutism” promoted by NPR last year:
When O’Reilly countered that “Putin is a killer,” Trump responded, “There are a lot of killers. You got a lot of killers. What, you think our country is so innocent?”
This particular brand of changing the subject is called “whataboutism” — a simple rhetorical tactic heavily used by the Soviet Union and, later, Russia. And its use in Russia helps illustrate how it could be such a useful tool now, in America. As Russian political experts told NPR, it’s an attractive tactic for populists in particular, allowing them to be vague but appear straight-talking at the same time.
The idea behind whataboutism is simple: Party A accuses Party B of doing something bad. Party B responds by changing the subject and pointing out one of Party A’s faults — “Yeah? Well what about that bad thing you did?” (Hence the name.)
It’s not exactly a complicated tactic — any grade-schooler can master the “yeah-well-you-suck-too-so-there” defense. But it came to be associated with the USSR because of the Soviet Union’s heavy reliance upon whataboutism throughout the Cold War and afterward, as Russia.
This is a really embarrassing take by NPR.
First, the author tries to associate a tactic that’s been around since humans first wandered into caves — deflecting attention away from yourself by pointing out the flaws in others — into some uniquely nefarious Russian propaganda tool. Second, that’s not even what Trump did in this example.
In his response to O’Reilly, Trump wasn’t using “whataboutism” to deflect away from his own sins. Rather, he offered a rare moment of self-reflection about the true role played by the U.S. government around the world. This isn’t “whataboutism,” it’s questioning the hypocrisy and abuse of power of one’s own government. It’s an attempt to take responsibility for stuff he might actually be able to change as President. It’s the most ethical and honest response to that question in light of the amount of violence the U.S. government engages in abroad. If our leaders did this more often, we might stop repeatedly jumping from one insane and destructive war to the next.
Had O’Reilly’s question been about the U.S. government’s ongoing support of Saudi Arabia’s war crimes in Yemen and Trump shifted the conversation to Russian atrocities, he could then be fairly accused of changing the subject to avoid accountability. In that case, you could condemn Trump for “whataboutism” because he intentionally deflected attention away from his own government’s sins to the sins of another. This sort of thing is indeed very dangerous, especially when done by someone in a position of power.
But here’s the thing. You don’t need some catchy, infantile term like “whataboutism” to point out that someone in power’s deflecting attention from their own transgressions. I agree wholeheartedly with Adam Johnson when he states:
"whataboutism" does not describe a propaganda technique, it IS a propaganda technique. Which is what makes it such an effective one.— Adam H. Johnson (@adamjohnsonNYC) March 16, 2018
He’s absolutely right. One should never rely on the lazy use of a cutesy, catchy term like “whataboutism” as a retort to someone who points out a glaring contradiction. If you do, you’re either a propagandist with no counterargument or a fool who mindlessly adopts the jingoistic cues of others. Responding to someone by saying “that’s just whataboutism” isn’t an argument, it’s an assault on one’s logical faculties. It’s attempt to provide people with a way to shut down debate and conversation by simply blurting out a clever sounding fake-word. Here’s an example of how I’ve seen it used on Twitter.
One U.S. citizen (likely a card carrying member of “the resistance”) will regurgitate some standard intel agency line on Syria or Russia. Another U.S. citizen will then draw attention to the fact that their own government plays an active role in egregious war crimes in Yemen on behalf of the Saudis. This person will proceed to advocate for skepticism with regard to U.S. government and intelligence agency war promotion considering how badly the public was deceived in the run up to the Iraq war. For this offense, they’ll be accused of “whataboutism.”
The problem with this accusation is that this person isn’t switching the subject to bring up another’s transgression to deflect from scrutiny of his or her behavior. In contrast, the person is putting the conversation in its rightful place, which is to question the behavior of one’s own country. When it comes to issues such as nation-state violence, the primary duty of a citizen is not to obsess all day about the violence perpetrated by foreign governments, but to hold one’s own government accountable. This is as true for an American citizen in American as it is for a Russian citizen in Russia.
NPR explained how the Russian government used “whataboutism” to deflect away from it’s own crimes, but Trump actually did the opposite in his interview with O’Reilly. He wasn’t deflecting away from his own country’s crimes, he was pointing out that they exist. That’s precisely what you’re supposed to do as a citizen.
The problem arises when governments deflect attention away from their own crimes for which they are actually responsible, by pointing out the crimes of a foreign government. This is indeed propaganda and an evasion of responsibility. Calling out your own government’s hypocrisy in matters of state sanctioned murder abroad is the exact opposite sort of thing.
Noam Chomsky put it better than I ever could. Here’s what he said in a 2003 interview:
QUESTION: When you talk about the role of intellectuals, you say that the first duty is to concentrate on your own country. Could you explain this assertion?
CHOMSKY: One of the most elementary moral truisms is that you are responsible for the anticipated consequences of your own actions. It is fine to talk about the crimes of Genghis Khan, but there isn’t much that you can do about them. If Soviet intellectuals chose to devote their energies to crimes of the U.S., which they could do nothing about, that is their business. We honor those who recognized that the first duty is to concentrate on your own country. And it is interesting that no one ever asks for an explanation, because in the case of official enemies, truisms are indeed truisms. It is when truisms are applied to ourselves that they become contentious, or even outrageous. But they remain truisms. In fact, the truisms hold far more for us than they did for Soviet dissidents, for the simple reason that we are in free societies, do not face repression, and can have a substantial influence on government policy. So if we adopt truisms, that is where we will focus most of our energy and commitment. The explanation is even more obvious than in the case of official enemies.
Naturally, truisms are hated when applied to oneself. You can see it dramatically in the case of terrorism. In fact one of the reasons why I am considered “public enemy number one” among a large sector of intellectuals in the U.S. is that I mention that the U.S. is one of the major terrorist states in the world and this assertion, though plainly true, is unacceptable for many intellectuals, including left-liberal intellectuals, because if we faced such truths we could do something about the terrorist acts for which we are responsible, accepting elementary moral responsibilities instead of lauding ourselves for denouncing the crimes official enemies, about which we can often do very little.
Elementary honesty is often uncomfortable, in personal life as well, and there are people who make great efforts to evade it. For intellectuals, throughout history, it has often come close to being their vocation. Intellectuals are commonly integrated into dominant institutions. Their privilege and prestige derives from adapting to the interests of power concentrations, often taking a critical look but in very limited ways. For example, one may criticize the war in Vietnam as a “mistake” that began with “benign intentions”. But it goes too far to say that the war is not “a mistake” but was “fundamentally wrong and immoral”. the position of about 70 percent of the public by the late 1960s, persisting until today, but of only a margin of intellectuals. The same is true of terrorism. In acceptable discourse, as can easily be demonstrated, the term is used to refer to terrorist acts that THEY carry out against US, not those that WE carry out against THEM. That is probably close to a historical universal. And there are innumerable other examples.
For saying the above, Noam Chomsky would surely be labeled the godfather of “whataboutism” by Twitter’s resistance army, but he’s actually advocating the most ethical, logical and courageous path of citizenship. U.S. taxpayers aren’t paying for Russia’s military operations, but they are paying for the U.S. government’s. The idea that U.S. citizens emphasizing U.S. violence are committing the thought-crime of “whataboutism” when it comes to foreign policy is absurd. Our primary responsibility as citizens is our own aggressive and violent foreign policy, not that of other countries.
Naturally, this isn’t how neocon/neoliberal and intelligence agency imperialists want you to think. Proponents of the American empire need the public to ignore the atrocities of the U.S. government and its allies for obvious reasons, while constantly obsessing over the atrocities of the empire’s official enemies. This is the only way to continue to exert force abroad without domestic pushback, and it’s critical in order to keep the imperial gravy train going for those it benefits so significantly. How do you shut down vibrant foreign policy debate on social media that exposes imperial hypocrisy? Accuse people of “whataboutism.”
That’s what I see going on. I see the weaponization of a cutesy, catchy term on social media in order to prevent people from questioning their own government. It’s completely logical and ethical for U.S. citizens to push back against those arguing for more regime change wars by pointing out the evils of our own foreign policy.
In fact, the unethical position is the one espoused by those who claim the U.S. can do no wrong, but when an adversary country does what we permit ourselves to do, they must be bombed into oblivion. These people know they have no argument, so they run around condemning those trying to hold their own government accountable of “whataboutism.” It’s a nonsensical term with no real meaning or purpose other than to defend imperial talking points.
Accusations of “whataboutism” amount to a cynical, sleazy attempt to stifle debate without actually engaging in argument. It’s also the sort of desperate and childish propaganda tactic you’d expect during late-stage imperial decline.
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