Who doesn’t love a good polemic from time to time? Looks like one of my recent articles provoked a response, entitled “In Defense of whataboutism.” I’m not sure how necessary this is given the fact that while I haven’t defended whataboutism or whataboutery, I’ve repeatedly examined the concept to show why it is such a poor argument (it’s actually a logical fallacy known as “Tu quoque” or “You too”), but also why many things that might at first glance sound like whataboutism are in fact not, and can in fact be valid arguments. In fact here’s an article I wrote some time ago on that topic. Here’s another, where I actually bring up a publication from The Interpreter, the significance of which will become apparent to the reader once they read that response to my article. In that one, I deal with a tactic often used by some Russia critics, by which they dismiss any comparison, however valid, with the magic words “moral equivalency.” Put simply, you cannot claim that I use whataboutism or whataboutery as debate-ending words. If I call it out, I’m usually careful to explain why the comparison is wrong or why it doesn’t matter from an ethical point of view.
Unfortunately, it seems the blogger in question missed the point of this recent article, which in fact isn’t about simple whataboutery at all, but a specific “meme.” To refresh your memory, it’s the one about people who read something critical of Russia and say something like “Sounds like just like the United States!” In particular it’s about how people will say this in cases where there is literally no comparison unless you go back to maybe the early Cold War or 19th century. If we speak about crackdowns on independent media and someone says “That sounds just like America,” that’s not whataboutery, it’s simply idiocy. Here’s a passage from that very article:
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!”
There are make a clear distinction between that specific trope and whataboutery. I don’t know how this couldn’t be more clear, and yet…
“The anger which whataboutism provokes in some Western commentators suggests that it hits a raw nerve, possibly because it bursts their bubble of moral superiority. This week, in his blog Russia Without BS, Jim Kovpak describes the finger pointing involved in whataboutism as ‘one of the most irritating memes, for lack of a better word, that one encounters in discourse on Russia.’ This retaliatory finger pointing, Kovpak writes, is an example of ‘“fractal wrongness”, i.e. wrong on every conceivable level’.”
Saddle up and let’s take this apart. First we have implied “anger” at whataboutism. This is a common tactic which I find questionable- the idea that people criticizing something means they’re enraged and thus it must be striking some nerve, some truth they want to keep hidden. Very well- many people get angry, sometimes enraged at moon landing conspiracy theorists. Buzz Aldrin got angry enough at one to punch him in the face in pubic, while being recorded.
Such fury! Allegations about faking the moon landing sure get a rise out of Aldrin! Perhaps they strike a sensitive nerve? Alright you get the point.
I suppose Paul, the author, is basing this on the fact that I used the terms “the most irritating memes.” The problem is that I wasn’t describing the “finger pointing involved in whataboutism;” I was, as I wrote above, describing a particular meme that I actually distinguished from run-of-the-mill whataboutery. If anything, accusations of whataboutery seem to provoke more anger from the pro-Kremlin side since the term came back into fashion last year, mainly because they realize that it’s essentially pointing out a logical fallacy in their arguments and thus invalidating them (assuming the accusation is accurate in a specific case).
But as for anger? Well anti-vaxxers provoke a lot of anger with their “arguments.” Does that mean they’ve struck a raw nerve? No.
On the question of moral superiority, I suppose I’ve handled this topic before. There certainly are supporters of the status quo who refuse to hear any criticism of their side. These tend to be people with close ties to governments, veteran pundits, and think tank wonks. Or they may be politicians themselves. That being said, the Russia watchers I tend to follow and interact with are virtually all, at the very least, left leaning if not radically so. Not one of them asserts some kind of general moral superiority in the West and we discuss not only apt comparisons between Russia and, for example, the US, but we even routinely discuss those few areas in which Russian policies or cultural aspects are actually superior to American analogs. And speaking for myself with my politics, I can rattle off facts about the US government’s bad deeds for hours, to the point where RT would be offering me my own show, so long as I never let that condemnation turn to Russia.
Let’s move on to the next part:
Kovpak’s view, and I suspect this is an opinion held by many others, is that only one side may legitimately ask ‘what about?’
I honestly don’t see how someone could have got my opinion in that piece so wrong. In my work I’ve actually identified times when it’s the Western politicians and their supporters who resort to whataboutery. So there goes that theory, at least as far as it concerns me.
The West can point fingers at Russia, because it is objectively better, but Russia has no right to point fingers at the West, because Russia is objectively worse than the West. The comparisons Russian whataboutists make are therefore invalid.
Is the West objectively better? That’s hard to say because there is no “the West” anymore, but how could we even test this? Well we could look at things like GDP per capita, infrastructure, quality of life, life expectancy, individual freedoms, etc., and I’m really sorry but virtually every time we look at these things and compare them to Russia, we see that “the West” comes out on top. That might not justify in particular action taken by a particular Western country, but at the very least they can claim their way gets results, unlike Russia’s “special path,” which presented at best, a temporary stop gap that is going to lead to catastrophe when its rotten system inevitably collapses due to its own internal inconsistencies and dependence on a single personality.
As for whether these comparisons are invalid or not, it depends on how accurate the comparison is. To take an extreme example, I recently saw a pro-Russia commentator condemn Belgium for supporting the sanctions against Russia by bringing up the horrors of the Congo Free State and its subsequent colonial regime after it was seized from Leopold II by the state. Got that? Belgium has no right to criticize Russian aggression because of atrocities that happened largely in the Victorian era. In any case, Belgium gave up its colonies in the early 60’s. Russia wants colonies today. Incidentally, however, the topic of Leopold II would be a valid criticism in some debates, such as the question of Lenin monuments in Russia or Ukraine.
Again, that is an extreme example, but one which provides a perfect example of an invalid comparison. It’s also a bit amusing because while Belgium no longer behaves as a 19th century power, Russia wants to, and virtually all its political scientists subscribe to an ideology formed in that century.
And speaking of invalid comparisons:
However, even if Kovpak is right that the West is objectively better than Russia, it still seems to me to be completely valid to point out hypocrisy where hypocrisy exists. For instance, when people like Michael Weiss of The Interpreter Magazine denounce the Russian media for their bias, it is surely entirely fair to comment, as I have, that Weiss and The Interpreter are hardly bastions of balanced reporting themselves.
Ignoring the extent to which the West is objectively “better” than Russia, I don’t see any problem with pointing out hypocrisy so long as it is accurate and it’s not the sole argument one has. Again, whataboutery is at its core, nothing more than a “Tu quoque” fallacy. But in this sole example he gives, it’s an inaccurate comparison. The Interpreter is basically a watchdog of Russia. It is an organ of a think tank. It’s actual purpose is looking at things like bias in the Russia media, but it is not the media itself. That being said, The Interpreter does hurt its case by relying so heavily on people like Paul Goble, who appears willing to give a platform to any whackjob Russian intellectual so long as it fits his narrative. Read enough of Goble’s articles and you’ll be convinced that Russia is about to collapse in a singularity of AIDS, demographic crisis, and ethnic conflict by the end of the week. The Interpreter also employees Catherine “Catfitz” Fitzpatrick, who is, and I’m sorry there’s no nice way to say this, batshit insane.
That being said, The Interpreter also has articles on topics such as the Ukrainian far right and their involvement with Maidan. According to the pro-Kremlin side, the evil Western neocons are trying to cover for Ukrainian neo-Nazis. So why would they even publish such a thing? The Interpreter isn’t even media, really. Now you can say these are exceptions, which they are albeit for good reasons, but I’ve yet to see anyone on RT or any Russian media outlet being allowed to make a case for Maidan or against the Crimean annexation, save for Abby Martin who got reprimanded. I’ve never seen these pro-Kremlin sources having lengthy discussions with various Maidan supporters to see how they really feel about Russia and far right nationalists, or ask why they were protesting. By contrast in the “Western” media I can find plenty of info on far right nationalists in Ukraine, in its volunteer organizations, as well as interviews with pro-Russian separatists and their leaders.
The truth is that when it comes to bias, pro-Kremlin people will continue to insist that there’s an information war against Russia or that “the Russian side is shut out” until the Western media stops reporting negatively on Russia’s deeds in Ukraine and starts accepting their numerous, often-contradictory “alternative explanations,” which is not going to happen because while they might not be perfect, mainstream Western news outlets are actually concerned about fact checking. Ask Dan Rather or Brian Williams what happens when you drop the ball. I sometimes wonder what these people want “the Western media,” which is of course a hive collective, to do. When Russia’s state owned First Channel aired a story showing a laughably fake “satellite” photo proving a Ukrainian fighter jet shot down MH17, should Western sources have taken this seriously and reported on it for balance?
Alright enough of bias, back to the main topic.
When, for instance, people respond to complaints about ‘Russian aggression’ by pointing at American and NATO aggression elsewhere, they are making a fair point. Western commentators often claim that Russia is a ‘revisionist’ power; that in Ukraine it is trying to tear up the existing international order. Whataboutism allows us to see what a ridiculous claim this is, since the people making it are citizens of states which have done more to undermine that order than anybody else, through actions such as the invasion of Iraq and the bombing campaign against Libya.
I guess I should say something about this existing international order issue. Long-time readers might notice I’ve never brought up this issue, particularly because I am not a fan of the existing international order myself. I would say that on that point, yes, to a certain extent Russian complaints could have some validity. It isn’t valid when it comes to the question of aggression, especially with all these airspace violations and constant screaming about their nuclear weapons. And while the world still suffers from the stain of the Iraq War today (though not Putin, as he benefited from higher oil prices), I’m not sure Libya can be completely laid at the feet of NATO, which got involved later. I opposed the campaign against Gaddafi, if only because it seemed ridiculously short-sighted and selective given other events in the region at the time. However, in some ways Gaddafi made his own bed. This is what happens when you rule a country that way for over 40 years. Because there’s no mechanism for the peaceful change of power, armed revolution becomes the only option. I just think NATO leaders could have greatly helped the situation by stepping in first as mediators and peacemakers; they were already working with Gaddafi in increasing capacity since the early 2000’s.
None of this gives Russia the right to interfere in Ukraine’s sovereignty or annex part of its territory. That it wants to do so shows that it actually has no problem with aggression or violating sovereignty. That’s the main problem with whataboutery. You’re not condemning the action itself, you’re only condemning another country doing it. Now that might work against governments, but there are millions, in fact tens of millions of people worldwide which do not agree with such policies. We’re talking about people who didn’t bomb Libya or invade Iraq.
In a recent episode of RT’s Crosstalk show (yes, I know, RT, lackey of the Kremlin, propaganda, lies, blah, blah, blah), Dmitry Babich commented that the real problem in international politics was not whataboutism but ‘let’s move on-ism’. I like this. Take the example of the torture carried out by Americans during the War in Terror. Nobody apart from whistleblowers has been jailed. Why? According to President Obama, because ‘we need to look forward, not back’. Likewise, consider the invasion of Iraq. ‘I know a large part of the public wants to move on’, said former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, ‘I share that point of view.’ And so on. Nobody is ever held to account.
Okay this might seem like a minor nitpick, but Peter Lavelle, host of Crosstalk, is paid extremely well by the Russian government, and at least on the air, he faithfully touts their line. That being the case, is it really unfair to call him a lackey of the Kremlin or a propagandist? Never mind that, I’m looking at Babich. I don’t think I’ve read anything from him since that op-ed piece in the now-defunct Moscow News where he condemned marijuana legalization in the US because drug use is a “sin” and this would lead to the legalization of more “sins.”
Babich doesn’t like what he calls “let’s move on-ism.” But the fact is that the US has moved on, specifically from the policies of the Bush era. How would the Bush administration responded to things like the Libyan and Syrian civil wars? Would we have this Iran deal the US just signed? Would a true neocon-dominated government normalize relations with Cuba? Would the US be closing all those foreign bases, downsizing the Marines and Army, while the president declared the era of large-scale military operations to be over?
The fact is that the US and many Western countries have moved on. One of the reasons why the Iraq War faced so much opposition, and why it and the ideology that spawned it have earned so much just derision, is because it represented a giant leap backwards to an era Americans thought had passed. It was not even Vietnam, it was a straight up conventional invasion and conquest of another country. And what about that supposed “coup” that was Maidan? Well even if we accepted the seriously problematic idea that this was a coup and the protesters had no free will, just compare Maidan to what happened to Allende in Chile, Arbenz in Guatemala, or Mossadegh in Iran, to name a few. One way to spot a real coup is that they didn’t have popular support; they were typically carried out by representatives of the privileged few, which is why they tended to involve military officers.
Now the argument is that nobody has been held accountable for any of this. Good point, but it fails for two reasons. The first is because while it would have been nice to see some punishments handed down, what is far more important is that the behavior stopped. This is a reality of life that is hard for many of us to accept, no matter the topic. We want to see criminals punished, but we have to remember why we are punishing them in the first place. Society is more important than getting satisfaction against individuals. The US not invading and occupying countries and not torturing is more important than punishing the people responsible. Poor winners and their vindictiveness have caused many problems throughout history, one of those being this spat called the Second World War.
The other problem with this concept is clear if you ask- “What if they did?” Suppose the next time a Russian diplomat screams “What about Iraq,” Obama suddenly gets this quizzical look on his face and doesn’t respond. The next day you pick up the paper and the front page story is that Dick Cheney, George W. Bush, Condoleeza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, and several other architects of the war have been arrested and indicted for war crimes. What then? What will Russia do? Would it pull out of the Crimea, end support for its pseudo-states in the Donbas, and halt its provocative military drills? Of course they wouldn’t. As always, they’d crow triumphantly about the impending trials and say it was proof that they were right.
This is something that is hard to explain to people who don’t live in Russia, and it actually took me a few years to pick up on it myself. When you’re criticizing all these actions of your own country, they nod their heads and applaud you, but they don’t have any kind of solidarity with you. It’s not like an anti-war Brit talking to an anti-war American, where they both have some kind of ethical or ideological opposition to their government’s policy. Any time the US gets involved somewhere military, it’s just taken as a given that there will be opposition, and vocal at that. The fact that it’s “our” country doesn’t matter- right is right. This point of view is sadly lacking in Russia, and it was never established before the annexation of the Crimea.
One difference in the way Russians seem to perceive war seems linguistic. Their forces are usually referred to as “nashi,” which simply means “ours.” The term is actually used in the military as well as by civilians. By contrast, in the US military the term is typically “friendly forces,” and in the media they are typically referred to objectively as US forces, soldiers, marines, etc. When people talk about “our troops” we know there are political connotations to that. We expect propaganda. The Russian use of the term “nashi,” at least to a non-native speaker of Russian, makes war sound like a football match. And indeed, the way war in general is portrayed here, especially to children, is disturbing at times.
To sum up this point, this is a sort of trap that we Westerners who oppose our governments’ policies often fall into. We see some kind of hypocrisy, and then we see Russian commentators seeming to echo what we’re thinking. But the commonality is totally superficial. Go to Russia and start criticizing the same policies being carried out by the Russian government, and see how welcome you are on RT. Suddenly you become “the warmongering neocon” just for opposing their aggression.
Babich and those like him seem upset at this idea of moving on, because the Kremlin doesn’t want to move on. It wants to go back to a time when governments weren’t so vocal about domestic human rights issues, so that it can continue to steal from the people of Russia with impunity. The “geopolitical experts” don’t want to move on. They want to return to a 19th century world where great powers rule over their own spheres of influence. They call it a “multipolar world,” but the fact is the world isn’t interested in their “poles,” (which Russia simply can’t be anyway). Those of us who follow a materialist analysis of class understand why the dream of a borderless world without neocolonialism, exploitation, and wars is impossible under the current mode of production, and this is why we cannot pretend that the US has totally “gone straight” as its called in criminal parlance. That being said, if we pretend the US of today is comparable to that of the Cold War or the 19th century, we’d simply be dishonest. The industrialized world simply doesn’t do things the same way, and Russia needs to learn this if it wants to join this century.
All in all I think this was a decent polemic; it’s not every day you get a direct response from a professor. Though to be fair I feel Paul should have read that article a little more carefully and I really think the argument would have been better directed at someone like Anne Applebaum than myself. Indeed, as the term whataboutery has come back in fashion, there are those who want to use the word as a debate-ending term, much in the same way they use terms like moral equivalency. That being said, actual whataboutery is a logically fallacious argument, it doesn’t actually promote better values as those who use it merely want to stifle criticism rather than rectify the behavior they’re criticizing, and it’s also pretty much the best tactic the Kremlin’s supporters can come up with these days.