So in my last post I linked to an article by a professor Paul Robinson at the University of Ottawa. He apparently took issue with a previous entry of mine and wrote a response. He was also kind enough to tell me so once it was published. Now as I wrote in the above-linked rebuttal, the main problem I had with the response was the fact that he seemed to miss the point of the article right in the thesis: It wasn’t so much about “whataboutery,” as in: “Annexation of Crimea? What about Iraq?!” It was about people who don’t even put that much effort into making a logically fallacious argument. For example, they read something about censorship in Russia and their response is simply: “Sounds like America!”
Now in case you’re wondering, this isn’t going to be round 2 with the professor. See I check my site stats and I saw that his article had been republished on the hilariously bad Russia Insider. Why bother pointing this out? Well whereas Robinson’s article is articulate and coherent, Insider just can’t resist lowering the bar. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen this happen. You’ll see an article on the blog of some more articulate albeit pro-Kremlin writer, and then you see the RI version and it looks as though it were written by teenagers. Their outrage at an RFERL piece about Stephen Cohen was a perfect example of this.
One interesting thing about RI is that they seem to be interested in the ADHD demographic, because they preface the piece with some talking points. But first I have to start with the headline:
‘Whataboutism’ Provokes Anger Because It Bursts the Bubble of Western Moral Superiority”
Let it be known that the headline itself is false. Now part of this is on Paul, and in the first link to my response I explain why. If whataboutism provokes any anger, it’s probably because it’s the only tactic these people ever use, and they use it so repeatedly and with such predictability that I can almost make them say what I want. Russian aggression in Ukraine? Iraq! Libya! Dilapidation and decay in Russia? Detroit! It’s like a goddamned phrasebook.
Now as for bursting the bubble of “Western Moral Superiority,” it seems the author of the headline forgets that whataboutism is just another term for a logical fallacy- “tu quoque” or “you too.” Actually depending on the situation it can also be a red herring, which is annoying to anyone in any discussion because the comparison isn’t even accurate. But more importantly, logically fallacious arguments really can’t take down any sense of anyone’s moral superiority. Reasoned arguments are better for that. Anyway, on to those talking points:
-Westerner who point fingers at Russia believe Russia has no right to do the same because it is morally inferior
Yes, that’s directly copied and pasted as-is if you haven’t clicked over to the link. This is confusing to me because I’m not sure if that “Westerner” is supposed to refer to me and they left the “s” off of “point,” or if it was supposed to be Westerners, plural. If it is me, I’m guessing they didn’t read the link that Robinson provided in his article, because I never made such an argument.
There are pundits out there who will simply dismiss arguments as whataboutism, even when they might actually be valid, but I’ve never seen any of them making this specific claim. If you happen to be doing something bad, you’re morally inferior on that topic.
Let me give a quick example. The Magnitsky Case was a travesty, but the Magnitsky Act was highly questionable as it punished people without an investigation and it was extremely selective. The act was supposed to be aimed at regimes with human rights violations, but we all know how ridiculously problematic that is, and to the best of my knowledge it has thus far only been applied to Russia. So long as that was the case, Russia held the moral high ground at least on that one issue. Then of course Russia had to prove that it could “answer” those sanctions, because goddammit nobody keeps a Russian official from his Western bank accounts and property! Their answer- punish Russian orphans, particularly the disabled. Moral high ground: blown.
In any case, those pundits who dismiss any comparisons in discussions about Russia, no matter how apt, rarely appear angry to me. That’s the luxury of just dismissing arguments, though it makes you look like a colossal asshole in the process. Sometimes these people may be committing a logical fallacy themselves- most likely special pleading.
-Nothing angers a westerner more than the temerity of Russians who disregard this and ask awkward questions about western policies
I know of no evidence for this statement. If anyone gets pissed it’s at the constant repetition of this often red herring tactic, and its selective use by those who use it.
Here I should also probably point out that Russia Insider’s authors are themselves Westerners, however long they might have lived in Russia. In any case, I’m all for asking awkward questions about Western policies. Here’s one off the top of my head: “Why do Western countries lament over the actions of Russia today while they used to happily accepted billions in dirty money from Russian state officials and businessmen, all the while investing in Putin’s Russia to the point of even selling him military technology?” Awk-ward!!!
Now you think that these talking points were good enough to let the reader get the gist and move on to the article, but no.
Kudos to author for his concise insight but he does not go far enough:
I knew it! Robinson’s failure to toe the party line 100% is no accident! Could he be a crypto-neocon? You can’t prove he isn’t!
West spreads far more mayhem, misery and death around the world than Russia does
This statement is totally unsubstantiated and can easily be turned on its head. For example, RI is on this thing called the internet, commonly accessed by these things called PCs. Who invented all these things? Have the internet and the PC, not to mention the smartphone, not revolutionized the entire world and raised living standards everywhere? You know what? Screw the technology for a second. Read this man’s story some time. He’s known as “The man who saved a billion lives.” These are just two examples, associated with the United States alone. That’s not even counting the whole “West,” and then we’d have to include Japan and Korea as well.
The point here is that we can decide to focus only on the bad or we can be more realistic and acknowledge the fact that by almost every indicator, humankind lives better today than it ever has. Keep in mind that there are people who think that Russia is inherently bound up with dictatorship, a “slave mentality,” corruption, and theft. Incidentally many of those people happen to be Russians but that’s beside the point. The point is- dialectics, mah boy!
Russians pointing a finger at the west are much more often onto something than westerners raising an issue with Russia.
If you’re hoping for the author to substantiate this, you’re shit out of luck. It’s basically just saying this is right and that’s wrong, which when you think about it isn’t that far removed from those Western pundits who smack any comparison down with the word whataboutism.
I think I know what happened here- the person who published this wasn’t able to construct a coherent article, so they tacked on their own unsubstantiated, highly questionable assertions to the top and then said Robinson didn’t go far enough. I want the reader to think long and hard about that next time you hear the Team Kremlin crowd talking about how the “Western media” is in lockstep (check the comments of the first link in this article if you want to see that argument get torn to shreds with real examples).
The intro they tacked on is amusing as well:
A much needed article. It may come as a surprise to you but this is actually a thing. For years now western Russia commentators have claimed Russian critique of the west in reponse to western critique of Russia is invalid – unworthy of any consideration – and should be dismissed out of hand.
Is it a “thing?” I hadn’t heard the term used in discourse on Russia until at least 2014, when the whataboutist arguments started flying fast and furious. They say “for years now,” but I and many others can tell you that this country was very different as little as two years ago.
The key thing in this for me is where they say “western commentators have claimed…” First of all, I’m surprised to find that I’m now somehow representative of “western commentators.” For one thing, I’ve been living in Russia all this time and the closest connection I have to the “Western media” beyond some friends and acquaintances I met this year was the time I was featured in a debate against Ed Lucas on Sky. 500 Neocon points awarded!
Second, I’m not sure I’ve seen anyone actually claim what they say they do. There are certainly people who dismiss specific attempts and don’t consider them, but not such a blanket statement. As I said before, actual whataboutist arguments are inherently fallacious from a logical point of view, so right there is a justification for dismissing them. But on the other hand I have seen people engage with such arguments and explain why the comparison is improper. I personally do this all the time. I’m actually trying to teach people about these things.
The piece de resistance is a photo of a US soldier, probably in Iraq, and…get ready for it…a whataboutist caption!
“Like that time Russia blew up the Middle East”
They totally burned me there! See I was totally in favor of US military intervention in the Middle East because I know that America is always the good guys and they have to go killed the evil terrorist bad guys in those Arab countries!
Oh wait…Hang on a second. That’s all bullshit. In the real world, I was against that war in Iraq from the start. I attended three separate demonstrations and even did some counter-recruitment work. I was also opposed to military involvement in Libya and Syria. Say what you will, but I think there were better options and what we have there now is kind of the worst of both worlds.
I’m getting something else too…Yes…I remember now! I’m not a representative of the US government, nor have I ever been. I haven’t even worked for any level of American government since 2002! I can reasonably call myself a hardcore “dissident” since 1999, even earlier to be honest.
Do you realize what this means?! It means that I can say whatever I goddamned well please about Russia’s actions in Ukraine because I never endorsed aggressive actions like the Iraq War and was in fact dead set opposed to them in word and deed.
And suppose I wasn’t even American? What do these geniuses say when a Russian voices criticism of their government’s actions? “Hey Sergei, don’t you know America invaded Iraq?” I know full well that this kind of thing actually takes place, but it’s even more idiotic because there’s even less of a reason to assume the person in question would endorse actions like those of Bush.
If you want to have some real fun with that little Middle East barb, read on.
See the thing about whataboutism is that if you’re doing a wrong thing right, you want to make sure that the thing your opponent does is exclusive to them. The classic example of Soviet whataboutism was: “They lynch negroes in the South.” There was a good reason for choosing that topic. For one thing, the USSR had America dead to rights on the topic of racism for many decades and American Cold War propagandists knew this. More importantly, however, whatever you think the USSR was doing, they sure as hell weren’t lynching any black folks or burning crosses.
Now on the other hand, if someone accuses you of theft and then you point out the time they stole from the same place, you’re still both guilty of theft. So you want to make sure your logically fallacious accusation can’t be leveled back at you.
So how does this have anything to do with the Middle East? Well several things, really:
-When the USSR was powerful, it did intervene and get involved in other countries far from its borders. This is not a moral judgement but intended to make a point- that is to say that history tells us that when Russia was strong enough to throw its weight around on the world scale, it did. Moreover, when we look at how readily the Kremlin moved to invade and punish its “brother people”(the same people, according to Putin) in Ukraine, we’d have to be naive indeed to believe that Russia, were it to have the kind of power to project force the way the US does, wouldn’t use that power. This is something we can also infer from the utter lack of any substantial opposition or criticism of the annexation of Crimea and the invasion of Ukraine. By contrast, in Western countries serious talk of war inevitably leads to protests and anti-war organizations.
-Russia was a supporter of the “War on Terror” and it was also a member of US CENTCOM from 2001, shortly after 9/11. Putin’s government has supported the NATO mission in Afghanistan and it also shared intelligence with the US regarding terrorism. Are we really to believe that Russia wouldn’t have got involved in some way if it were stronger at the time?
-The Iraq War presented Putin with the best of both worlds: he got to criticize US imperialism but at the same time benefit from rising oil prices that helped make Russia what it was in the glory years. But guess what- Russia still benefits from the Iraq War today. Iraqi Kurdistan is often called “the other Iraq” due to its meteoric success post-invasion compared to the bloody quagmire that characterized the other parts of the country. This region had de facto autonomy since 1991 but Saddam had isolated the area economically and obviously it wasn’t the most attractive place for investment given the fact that it was still officially part of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. After the invasion, the Kurds took control and the place has boomed. And guess who’s there. That’s right: Russia’s Gazprom. Nice of the US, UK, and Poland to do the heavy lifting while Russia comes in and gets a cut, don’t you think?
-Most of the weapons we see in Middle East conflicts are Soviet or Russian designed. Keep in mind that many of these weapons and their ammunition can be license built copies, but arms trafficking and Russian organized crime go hand in hand. To what extent is anyone’s guess.
-The US supports brutal dictatorships like Saudi Arabia. Russia supports Assad. Personally I’m more hostile to the Saudi regime, but it’s still backing a dictatorship, and this is basically a thought experiment.
I could go on but the point here is that Russia’s hands are not clean in the Middle East, and just by listening to Russian discourse on Ukraine and other former Soviet republics it isn’t too far fetched to imagine how Russia would act if it actually possessed the ability to project its force around the world. Why else do you think they were so interested in those Mistral carriers, and why are they still trying to update their navy? Blue water navies are imperialist tools. It’s also more disturbing that in Russia you don’t have the kind of political diversity of opinion and media that the West has. As I said before, the West is full of people who hear their government sabre-rattling and then immediately oppose it due to ideology or principle. Western politicians have to worry about elections and their own media. Bush managed to get the media on board in 2002, but by 2004 the administration had become a joke.
Let me make the above perfectly clear- I’m not saying any of those points above somehow mitigate the US’ actions in the Middle East. But if you want to play the “you’re not so clean yourself” game, Russia’s a fair target.
I really don’t know why people find it so hard to understand how idiotic these arguments are. If they aren’t a red herring that has nothing to do with the topic, they’re basically moot from the get go. Using some inspiration from my good friend, I’ve sort of developed a game-theory-like way to understand this.
When we are confronted with the immoral deeds of governments, any governments, we can take essentially two positions:
1. Call out immoral actions of all sides as best as possible. This doesn’t mean every side is equal, and we can consider mitigating circumstances, but essentially we try to stand for some kind of principle or standard.
2. We can point out that some other country also does bad things every time someone points out the bad deeds of a particular country. Since this could basically go in circles, the only real way to end this is for both sides to shut up.
Obviously there are other options in some cases, such as reasonably proving that two cases are actually different, but beyond that these are the two main approaches in our game.
So then we’re left with the question as to which approach makes the world a better place, and which makes it worse- Option 1 or Option 2? As a corollary to this, which system is better- one where human rights are enshrined yet the system often falls short of its professed values, or one where human rights are a priori dismissed as a ploy used by conspiratorial national rivals and thus dismissed using whataboutist arguments any time a human rights issue is raised?
I think it’s clear that the first option in both situations is desirable. Many of America’s fathers, including Thomas Jefferson, were absurdly hypocritical when they penned the Constitution. Here they were proclaiming equality and liberty while some of them, many in fact, owned human beings as property. But because they had proclaimed these ideas and enshrined them in a founding document, people were able to use those words again and again throughout US history to call the system into account when it failed to deliver on its promises. Here we see Lincoln invoking this in one of his debates with Douglas:
“I should like to know, if taking this old Declaration of Independence, which declares that all men are equal upon principle, and making exceptions to it, where will it stop? If one man says it does not mean a negro, why may not another man say it does not mean another man? If that declaration is not the truth, let us get this statute book in which we find it and tear it out.
Let us discard all this quibbling about this man and the other man—this race and that race and the other race being inferior, and therefore they must be placed in an inferior position, discarding our standard that we have left us. Let us discard all these things, and unite as one people throughout this land, until we shall once more stand up declaring that all men are created equal.”
Pointing out the gap between ideals and reality would be revisited again and again in the struggle for civil rights, women’s rights, LGBT rights, in the case of the latter up to this very year. See the nice thing about aiming high with lofty values is that when the system fails to achieve them, people who are seeking justice already have a moral advantage right out of the gate. The document says equal rights, these people aren’t treated equally- burden of proof is on the system to justify that.
The other path is that of ultra-cynicism. “Yes, so we are corrupt. But look at what your mortgage lenders did in 2008! Who are you to lecture us! Leave us alone!” Assuming the other party actually did so, then both parties would just go on being corrupt in their own ways, to varying degrees if not more so because nobody ever calls it out. Of course that’s usually not how it works, and thus it’s just distraction and red herrings over and over gain.
On the topic of human rights in this system, well they’re just a propaganda trope used by the enemy. No need to worry about how well our society respects them. If someone does call us out, we’ll just find some bad thing in their present or past and throw that in their face.
This path makes the world a worse place. It’s bad for America, it’s bad for Russia, it’s bad for everyone. And you can look at the comments on articles like this and all you’ll see is this echo chamber of people explaining how terrible the West is and how morally superior Russia is even if they’ve never lived there, but they don’t do anything. They just sit online reading bullshit and complaining about how terrible their governments are while doing jack shit to change it.
Rest assured that the people in charge of Russia’s foreign language media aren’t interested in seeing any of those problems in the West go away. What would they do without them? In fact they were truly sincere about highlighting this hypocrisy of the West, they’d essentially be screwing themselves because theoretically they might inspire enough people to go out and create a movement for change. Then they would have significantly improved the lives of Westerners at the expense of the Russian people, whose money pays their salaries. Of course the people who run Russia’s foreign language media aren’t concerned about that. They believe that it’s an effective strategy to distract and confuse foreign audiences, and so they keep pairing more intelligent guests and opinions with conspiratorial bullshit and ridiculous comparisons.
Yeah, this is a bit of a long one I know. So I’ll sum it up short and sweet- The invasion of Iraq? Horrible. Criminal. Unprovoked aggression. So is the annexation of Crimea and the Donbas war. And for the exact same reasons. Principles. Get some.