Today I’d like to write about one of the most irritating memes, for lack of a better word, that one encounters in discourse on Russia. It goes something like this: There’s a news story about some social ill or bad deed of the Russian government, and some ignorant Westerner or a privileged Western expat chimes in with something like: “Sounds just like the US/UK/West/EU/wherever.” Or a variant of this is: “Oh you’re talking about Putin/Russian government? I thought you were talking about Obama/Cameron/Merkel/Poroshenko!” The culprit is almost always someone wholly ignorant about Russia and commenting on some news story, or it is a pro-Russian expat who attributes their privileged lifestyle to Putin (sometimes that’s almost accurate).
I cannot stand this non-argument. It’s not just whataboutery, it’s actually worse simply because it is not just a non-argument, but it’s basically the equivalent of pointing your finger and saying: “No, YOU are!”
This is one of those things that falls under the term “fractal wrongness,” i.e. wrong on every conceivable level. Half the time, the comparison these people are making isn’t even remotely accurate. For example, you make a point about Kremlin control over the media and censorship, and suddenly Mr. Sounds Like America chimes in with his unwanted two cents. Very well, let’s take a look at this recent case with Novaya Gazeta, one of Russia’s few remaining independent newspapers.
Here we have an independent newspaper, often critical of the government, facing the threat of having to shut down because of a curse word that they actually censored with asterisks. Meanwhile pro-Kremlin social network groups on VK routinely post not only uncensored curse words, but racist images and even pornography. The first violation was an article by Yulia Latynina which was cited for “extremism.” Personally I didn’t read the article; I’ve never been one of her fans to say the least. That being said, “extremism” is the bullshit catch-all that the Russian government uses to persecute people. Pretty much every time they actually specify what the “extremism” was, you can find plenty of examples of pro-government media, groups, or individuals doing the exact same thing with impunity. For example, if it was “inciting hatred against national/ethnic groups,” you will never see anyone hit with such extremism charges for inciting hatred against Ukrainians, for example.
So what say you, oh Mr. Sounds like my country? Does that happen in America, for example? Now of course they’ll start scrambling and throw out some ridiculous comparison, most likely the FCC. Bullshit. FCC rules apply to everybody, not just media outlets the government doesn’t like, which brings up another issue- the American government actually changes, making it nearly impossible for an administration to use the FCC as their personal media watchdog. Note, for example, how Fox News and the Bush administration led to an explosion of liberal and even more radical media, first in radio with things like Air America, and then on TV. In spite of Colin Powell’s son being head of the FCC under Bush, we didn’t see an attempt to wield that power against media outlets which were critical of the war. That fight was waged by private companies like Fox and Clear Channel, and various think tanks.
So no, I’m really, truly sorry, but that doesn’t sound like America at all. And you can do the same with nearly every issue. constitution violations? America is full of constitutional barracks lawyers, but the fact is that our constitution has remained pretty solid over the years. Compare that to Russia, where the constitution supposedly guarantees freedom of speech, press, freedom from censorship, the right to assembly, and a section on separation of church and state which is far more unambiguous than our 1st amendment, and yet all of these ,among others, are violated on a routine basis. Are you still sure it’s the same? Okay let’s make a deal. For a reasonable price I’ll go to the US and organize an impromptu anti-government protest on public property. You go to Russia and try to do the same. We’ll see how that works out.
Not practical you say? Unfair you say? Alright. In the words of the most horrible singer of our era, Look at this photograph. Those are armed Tea Partiers. If you’re unfortunate enough to know anything about the Tea Party movement, you’re also aware that this isn’t an isolated incident. Here’s a report straight from the stupid horse’s mouth. Bottom line is that the US is actually liberal on the question of free speech and right to assembly to a ridiculous degree, one which is far beyond the reasonable limits of public safety. I mean here you have a bunch of people with incredibly poor critical thinking skills, insecure masculinity, pumped up on sheer terror over things that aren’t even happening, and our police let them scream at the government while armed with semi-automatic rifles. And yet Russia is afraid of a 14-year-old girl with ribbons in her hair, NGO’s that have nothing to do with politics, and poems, just to name a few things that scare Russia’s government shitless on a seemingly weekly basis.
So no, the US media, civil rights, etc. aren’t “the same.” Those latter above-mentioned things don’t sound too much like America or the EU to me, or anyone who actually knows what they are talking about.
How about militarism and warmongering then? While the US has certainly been involved in plenty of military interventions since 1991, Russia has had its share, and in some cases the casualties and long term effects have been just as destructive if not more so than some of the US or NATO ones. It’s clear from the mentality of the Kremlin, laid bare since the Ukrainian crisis, that a major reason as to why we didn’t see more foreign military intervention on the part of the Kremlin is because they simply lacked the ability to project their power on a global scale, as the US does. Anyone who pays attention to the chatter of Kremlin fans knows how they relish at the thought of projecting military power as far as possible, to the point of fapping about invading or nuking Washington. But the US is indeed militaristic, and has been involved in some really bloody conflicts in the recent past, so what’s the key difference?
Well you could ask that aforementioned 14-year-old girl, for example, who was questioned by the FSB for wearing Ukrainian colored ribbons in her hair. You could ask dozens of people who have been labeled “national traitors” and targeted with impunity by vandals, thugs, and in one case, assassins. Oh yes, I’m fully aware of Bill O’Reilly calling critics of the Iraq War “enemies of the state.” But you know who didn’t? The state. Since the Vietnam War America and many Western countries have hosted growing anti-war, anti-imperialist, and anti-militarism movements. All throughout the Bush administration, the US had numerous GI Rights and counter-recruitment organizations (I actually did some counter-recruitment work myself); in Russia the one organization that deals with this was labeled a “foreign agent” without any explanation. Let’s not have any illusions about the US when it comes to this- having political opinions which clash with those of your boss can be dangerous, but at worst you will get fired. Not great in this economy but it beats prison and it’s better than getting beat down or having your face put on a professionally-produced banner that proclaims you to be a national traitor, which is a common practice in Moscow. Being outspoken against the Iraq War in America was nothing like it is when it comes to the war in Ukraine.
Whether the topic is military intervention, corruption, or media bias, one thing to keep in mind is that when you’re about to drop examples of ill deeds that supposedly cancel out those of the Kremlin, you should ask yourself where you got this information from in the first place. More often than not, you’re getting them from that “mainstream” media you so decry. Even if you’re getting it from RT, there’s a good chance that they just got it from Reuters or someone else. A lot of that information is made publicly available to reporters in the first place. If not, the reporters aren’t punished for finding and releasing it. Hell, you can start your own Youtube channel and tell everyone about who “really” controls our government and how they’re about to round up half the population into FEMA camps, and nobody from the US government will attempt to stop you, even citing the “shouting fire in a crowded theater” exception from the 1st amendment. What happens when you try to get all Vice with the Russian government? Did you not read that story I posted above about Novaya Gazeta? Did you not see what happened to Nemtsov and a long line of investigative journalists in Russia? Is it still, as you say, the same?
Moving on, another reason why this argument is bullshit is because you’ll never see the same people, upon reading about some real injustice in the US, Europe, or wherever, remarking: “Police brutality? That sounds just like Russia!” Now to be fair, I realize that a lot of times the “sounds like America” comments come from people who know little about Russia, and thus they can only make judgments based on their own experience. I don’t expect hearing about problems in Russia to resonate much with them, even if it is irritating how they assume that the world revolves around them and that other people in world don’t have problems with their own governments.
The people who have no excuse are the Team Russia expats who pull this kind of shit. You know damned well that when they’re sharing articles about dirty deals on Wall Street or not-so-secret drone wars in Pakistan, they’re neither thinking nor saying: “This sounds like Russia!” That’s because for these people it’s not even about comparing problems, something which is entirely valid if done reasonably. No, what it’s about is telling Russian citizens that have problems with their government to shut up. Johnny Expat gets free accommodation, works 18 hours a week teaching a language he barely knows because he’s fresh out of his TEFL course, and he’s automatically interesting to incredibly hot women just because he’s exotic and a potential ticket out of this place to some. So what’s the problem? Why are all these Russians complaining? Don’t they know there are problems in America too? Better dismiss their complaints and issues and instead start talking about the things that bother me personally as an American! It can vary from case to case for a number of reasons, but that’s usually how this comes off to me. It’s a paradox of the “pro-Russian” expat; they deny Russians the right they claim for themselves, the right to be at odds with one’s government and make a distinction between that government and one’s country.
I’ve said plenty of times before that there can be accurate comparisons between these nations. Those analogies, when accurate, offer great educational opportunities, especially for Russia’s opposition who tend to play the politics of opposites game, much like many Ukrainians. I like to compare whataboutery as a concept to the legal concept of hearsay- there’s a simple definition, but there are many exceptions. But looking at some article critical of Russia and saying “That sounds like America” isn’t one of those exceptions. It’s not even an argument. It’s a cowardly retreat from debate. I’ve seen some pretty unfair articles about Russia in my time, and I’ve utilized analogies to explain why they’re wrong. If you have a problem with a claim in some article, put up or shut up. Make a damned argument and while you’re at it, bring some evidence.