A Fan

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.

Reproduction military gear on sale at Biblio Gobus, a book store.

Reproduction military gear on sale at Biblio Gobus, a book store.

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.

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30 thoughts on “A Fan

  1. Paul Canning (@pauloCanning)

    And the guy has you and Mark Adomanis in his links column …. ?

    Just to add on Iraq. Yes, Blair isn’t ‘in the Haque’ but we had a TV show fictionalising it plus we had one assassinating Bush. Plus Blair and Iraq hangs like the dead weight of history over the Labour Party electing another leader. And Iraq was the reason the Democrats elected Obama.

    Typed from my “bubble of moral superiority”.

    Reply
    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      I think it’s good that he has links to many opposing views, including myself, in his links column. Oddly enough, The Daily Vertical still doesn’t have me in their links.

      As for those TV shows- they sound awesome. What were they called?

      On the topic of Iraq and the elections of the Democrats, I know this will be ignored by saying that the war continued on for several years, but I think that misses an important point. People rejected the Bush doctrine at the polls. Sure, the system went on, but that’s why it went on. That’s how you achieve REAL stability, unlike Putin’s stability which isn’t stable at all. This comes back to this thing where I’ve said: Okay, the US is this imperialist power aimed at hegemony, no dispute there. But WHY is it so effective, and why must we fight that by backing governments that actually act worse and which cannot hope to compete with the US? Any time or effort we devote to propping up that regime by trumpeting its propaganda is only wasted.

      Reply
    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      Yes that’s kind of odd because when the US criticized Russia’s actions in Ukraine, it’s not like it was still in Iraq. Whataboutery is a RESPONSE to some kind of criticism. If we were having a discussion that was actually about the Iraq War, and some Bush supporter(hard to find these days, really, as even mainstream conservatives pretend as though he never existed) says: “Oh yeah? What about the annexation of the Crimea?!” that would be plain old whataboutery. We’re talking about US policy, not Russia in that case.

      This is one of the main problems with whataboutery. It’s not about pointing out hypocrisy, it’s about distracting and going off topic, which is why sometimes the more trollish adherents will go off like a Maxim gun: What about Iraq/Afghanistan/Egypt/Libya/Tunisia/
      Syria/Vietnam/Palestine/Trail of Tears/Slavery etc.

      The ultimate test is this: If I voice a condemnation of the Iraq War or the campaign in Libya, how would it strike you if suddenly someone pops in and says: “Oh yeah? Why is it okay for Russia to wage war in Ukraine?” If that seems natural to you, that’s a bit weird, but at least it’s consistent. If it sounds really awkward, you have a double standard. If that person wants to argue the virtues of the Libyan campaign, let them argue about that issue.

      Otherwise what these people are saying is that any criticism NATO governments or the US need not be accompanied by criticism of countries like Russia or China, but the reverse is not true. Now you could argue that there’s a second logical fallacy- special pleading.

      Reply
      1. Chukuriuk

        It seems to me, and I might be wrong, that the one engaging in “whatabouttery” is not simply engaging in infantile, aggressive, mirroring behavior with the opponent (despite the name of the “tu quoque” fallacy), but is in what the psychoanalysts call a transferential relationship with a “supposed subject of knowledge.” See the rather technical link below, if you’re at all interested, but the crucial point (which is really very straightforward) is that transference is in no way a symmetrical relationship: I am “in transference” the moment that I acknowledge that you know something about me that I don’t know myself, or indeed that you enjoy anything secretly that I am not privy to.
        http://nosubject.com/index.php?title=Transference
        Those who identify as Russians (“we”) often suppose that those who identify as Americans (“пиндосы”) possess some kind of knowledge, enjoyment, etc. that is withheld from them: the fact that we think that the пиндосы are smiling, empty-headed idiots just proves the point (this is exactly the mark of their secret knowledge and enjoyment). Hence the belief in conspiracies, desire to take our land, whatabouttery, etc.
        Instances when the пиндосы suppose that we possess this knowledge or enjoyment that they lack are much less frequent. This despite the self-supposed complexity of the Russian soul: the пиндосы don’t suppose it can tell them about themselves, they just don’t care! Hence, little to no whatabouttery in that direction.
        And one more thing, don’t ever be surprised to find academics using primitive or even infantile arguments. Many have not ever been taught or taught themselves to think: instead they’re trained in specialized disciplines like languages, game theory, whatever. Take my word for it.

      2. Estragon

        Re: “Russians (“we”) often suppose that those who identify as Americans (“пиндосы”) possess some kind of knowledge, enjoyment, etc. that is withheld from them”

        The contradiction of Russian “patriotism” is believing that, on the one hand, пиндосы are all stupid, obese, lazy dumbasses, but at the same time they control the world, and are able to come up with devilish devices and schemes to victimize Mother Russia. My favorite example of this was the belief that Americans caused Russia’s 2010 heat wave with some kind of super-sophisticated “weather weapon.”

      3. Estragon

        I think it was someone in Komsomolskaya Pravda who first raised this idea. If it had been Zhirik, few would have paid attention, because he says stuff like that all the time.

  2. Jim Kovpak Post author

    One point on the name of his blog, it certainly is true that discussions, policy, and relations between Russia and the West often entail irrationality on both sides. It just so happens that in recent years Russia turned it up to 11, plus you don’t have any diversity of opinion in its government or its media.

    Reply
  3. Jim Kovpak Post author

    Nearly forgot. If you’re in Moscow and want a good deal on repro WWII Red Army gear, particularly those helmets, get your ass to Biblio Globus. If I were to get back into reenacting, I’d buy some of that stuff.

    Reply
  4. Russian Avos

    His criticism of you was essentially a straw man and I’d expect more form someone who has ascended the heights of the Ivory Tower. What’s wrong with whataboutism? It’s ineffectual for moral agents who haven’t chosen a tribe, but are rather guided by principles. In its most condensed form, what someone is saying is: you say we do shitty things, but ‘your side’ does shitty things too! Okay, so what is our logical conclusion? Make this analogous to a biblical aphorism and not judge anyone at all, keep our mouths shut, just allow everyone to continue doing wrong by each other and not make a fuss about it?

    This is someone stuck with a geopolitical mode of thinking that reduces everyone to agents of their nations, as opposed to it being a vastly complex web of people with vastly different agendas. I am not a diplomat, a formulator of US policy, or an agent of any government agenda. I would find it discursive and counterproductive to attempt to balance my writing by showing my displeasure with some analogous aspect (to whatever degree) of US policy every time I wrote something about Russia. Likewise, when discussing racism in the United States, police militarization, or any raft of problems which are topical at the moment, I cannot for the life of me think about saying: ‘but in country x they do y!’

    I criticize the United States because it falls short of my ideals for what the United States should be. That it is nominally better than any slew of countries in certain regards has nothing to do with my displeasure with the areas in which our imperfect union falls short. Russians should logically feel the same way. If you are against militarism, you should be opposed to militarism on principled grounds. I cannot see the point in saying, but another country engaged in even more brazen militarism that left another country even more war-ravaged! So what’s your point, just steer the course and say all is forgiven because you could be worse? Is that the apex of your desires as a moral agent, not to strive for something better, but to be certain on the scale of human shiftiness, you fall somewhere along the mean?

    I don’t think that’s a logical strategy for people, or for states. Nor is it a moral one. Whataboutism is the rallying call for the apathetic and the unprincipled. And if that’s your bag, fine, but don’t pretend it is anything other than what it is.

    Reply
    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      You hit on a very important point there when you talk about people not being agents of their nation. In Russia we don’t have citizens but subjects. You are expected to root for “nashi”(ours). This is why, for example, they’ll respond with stuff like “What about Iraq?”

      Yeah, buddy. I was against Iraq too. I attended three protests and met Cindy freakin’ Sheehan. When did you last attend a march against your government’s policies?

      Reply
      1. Callum Carmichael

        I actually made a very similar point when arguing about Putin in general with an ex-pat. I responded to his accusation that I “supported the western line 100%” by saying that I had attended protests against Stephen Harper (when he temporarily closed parliament to avoid a non-confidence vote… it was a bit of a big deal a few years ago). Apparently this ex-pat had also attended an anti-Putin demonstration. He didn`t say when; I suspect he might have been a Bolotnaya protestor who `saw the dark` in 2012 or 2013, but I guess it’s worth being a bit understanding of peoples’ individual histories.

      2. Jim Kovpak Post author

        It could be that. I attended the first Bolotnaya and Prospekt Sakharova protests even though I was long burnt out on politics. It was really curiosity for me, just because the idea of Russians actually caring about politics enough to go to such a mass protest was rather shocking.

  5. Asehpe

    I suppose we all already know that the basic problems with whataboutery — that no Kremlinbot whataboutist has ever answered to my satisfaction — can be summarized with the following question:

    (a) if you’re saying that “it’s the same thing”, then you’re saying Russia is bad, too, right?

    If you have a moral, not a nationalistic, stance, then you should condemn Russia when she does the same as the US (as in invading Ukraine, occupying Crimea, etc.). But if all you can say is ‘the US can, so we can, too’, then your stance is not moral: you’re not against a crime, you’re just against the US doing it. In which case, you show yourself as childish (“Johnny has stolen a cookie, too, mum!” -> “I can steal cookies too if I want!”).

    I’m curioous about why they never answer. I think it’s because they really don’t want to say out loud that they don’t believe in morality, it’s really just the “us-vs.-them”, “наши вперёв! к победе!” mentality, more akin to a soccer match than to international relations. So the whole international world order is just make-believe, a fairy tale that hides the real “19th-centuryish” geopolitcal reality. They think: Obama “pretends” to care about gay rights, the EU “pretends” to care about carbon emissions, but they just wants to defeat us. That’s all.

    That’s projection big time. Funny, they always talk about how elusive the “Russian soul” is. I think, to the Russians (at least the Kremlinbots), it’s the Western soul that is elusive.They just cannot believe that the West doesn’t think just like them. It’s all about boxing matches, and “human rights” and “ideals” are just smokescreens… Yes, it’s the Russians who don’t understand the Western soul, not the other way round.

    The resulting propaganda warfare is so sad, I wonder if someday they won’t make a museum to it. When I saw that Russian video comapring that horrible catastrophe in Odessa to the holocaust… with similar music, candles like in Schindler’s list… They were belittling the holocaust just to win at a damn childish game. Someday there should be a museum exhibit about the mental and psychological atrocities that people are capable of, just in order to win their damn little wars.

    Reply
    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      “Yes, it’s the Russians who don’t understand the Western soul, not the other way round.”

      This is very intriguing. I might quote you on that.

      I kind of have a similar argument along these lines. E.g. If Kosovo(inaccurate comparison but still something I wasn’t happy about) justifies the Crimea, then they must be equal. Russia must recognize Kosovo’s independence. They might as well, seeing as how Serbia’s joining the EU and quite possibly NATO anyway. They’ve already got the EU association agreement that Russia went ape-shit about when it came to Ukraine.

      Sure, Serbia won’t be happy, but it’s not like this would be the first time Russia dicked over their “little brothers…” who happened to offer access to the Mediterranean back when that relationship was established.

      You can do this to no end though. What about the invasion of Iraq? Well if that justifies the invasion of the Donbas then the Iraq invasion must be fine!

      Reply
      1. Asehpe

        Yeah, that was the point I always tried to make with Russian trolls: are you saying the Iraq invasion justifies the Donbass invasion, or that the Donbass invasion justifies the Iraq invasion? I.e., is Russia right to invade the donbass BECAUSE the US was right to invade Iraq, or was the US right to invade Iraq BECAUSE Russia is right to invade the Donbass? (The same, mutatis mutandis, for Crimea vs. Kosovo).

        But they always avoid answering that point directly. Because, of course, their point is not whether he US invasion of Iraq or the Russian invasion of the Donbass were right or wrong, but who was behind them. It’s the lack of solidarity thing that you mentioned: if you criticize the US, they will applaud you, because it’s against the US. If you criticize Russia for the very same reason, they will boo you, because it’s against Russia.

        Which in the end makes the Russian mentality (‘soul’) pretty easy to understand: наши, да, они, нет! My gang yay, your gang boo. What is ‘unscrutable’ about that?… It’s indeed the Western soul, with ideals worth fighting for beyond national interest, that the Russians just don’t get. They have to assume the Westerners are either liars or dreamers, because “nobody could seriously believe that!…” (Which means, by the way, that if you criticize your country they will agree with you, but they will categorize you as a ‘traitor’, a useful one, a laudable one, but a traitor nonetheless; because, after all, what other reason could you have to criticize your own country? Wrongdoing doesn’t cut it, since all countries are full of it…) I’m glad you find the idea intriguing — feel free to use it and elaborate on it yourself, even without necessarily mentioning me — ideas should be free…

        What makes me feel bad about the whole thing is that there are many Russian individuals who are indeed moral agents quite capable of stepping out of their ‘Russianness’, seeing the world as a whole, and taking principled, non-nationalistic moral stances. (My wife is a specialist in Silver Age’s Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovëv, who quite clearly was such a person.) But Russian society is now dominated by people who are the exact opposite in the moral development scale, and who do their best to slow down or stop the cognitive/moral development of Russian society. If that isn’t a moral crime, I don’t know what is…

      2. Jim Kovpak Post author

        You might want to refresh the blog to see the latest entry, because it’s an in depth examination into this question that builds off of this entry.

        Indeed the best Russians are experiencing the darkness now as the regime caters to the worst elements and attitudes. This is the kind of strategy that gets worthless, short term gains at the expense of the nation and its long-term future, if not its very survival.

        I think you’re going to see more of Russia’s best and brightest continue to leave, as the trend increases Meanwhile, for the sake of the preservation of Russia after the inevitable collapse of a regime at war with reality, Western and industrialized nations really ought to do all they can to welcome Russia’s emigres and help them form a community. It would spread Russian culture, eliminate stereotypes, and it would create a class of savvy, community-minded people who can swoop in after the collapse and make sure that the mistakes of the 90’s aren’t repeated.

  6. Pingback: Lowering the bar | Russia Without BS

  7. A.I.Schmelzer

    Concerning whataboutism:

    There is one thing you just seem to be completely incapable of understanding.

    If a habitual criminal (known as Russia in this case, can also be any current or former great power) relapses into criminal behaviour, it is nothing new. I would class all former and current Great Powers as such habitual criminals, Russia fits that bill and it has clearly been engaged in criminal acts concerning Ukraine. This is mostly a worry for whoever is a habitual victim of said habitual criminal.

    However, if the “Judge, Lawmaker, Policmen and Executioner in Personal Union” (also known as the USA), engages in massive criminal behaviour, and if the coercive and violent potentials/capacities of that greatly outclass those of the habitual criminal, only a habitual victim of said habitual criminal can be excused for caring about the deeds of the habitual criminal more then they carry about the deeds of the criminal “Judge, Lawmaker, Policmen and Executioner in Personal Union”, especially if the recent body count of the latter in recent years by far outdoes the first.

    One would expect that the lofty “Judge, Lawmaker, Policmen and Executioner in Personal Union” holds itself to a higher standard, but objectively, its standard regarding foreign relations is worse than that of any of the habitual criminals.
    If these Habitual criminals refer to this, they actually have quite a point.

    Reply
    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      But there are several points that cause this comparison to fail. First, the US is not a judge or lawmaker. Russia’s aggression would be immoral military aggression regardless of whether or not the US government said or did anything about it. It’s not as if everybody was cool with this invasion thing until the US said something about it.

      Moreover, a lot of other countries other than the US have expressed their similar judgment about it. I don’t believe Canada, for example, can be called a habitual criminal of any sort.

      What is more, while the US behaves as we expect an imperial power to behave, it would be foolish to pretend like the country’s tactics and behavior haven’t changed over the years. There’s actually a good reason for this- dissent, free press, etc.

      As for the US’ potential for mischief, this is irrelevant. We can easily see how, were it given the chance, Putin’s Russia would act just as aggressive as the US in the past if not moreso. We can see how this would work out with the almost entirely-controlled media and the minuscule anti-war movement in Russia(compared to that of Western nations).

      So what we have here is a poor analogy with twisted logic that still boils down to the same thing the Kremlin is always saying: “We’re all bad. Let’s just shut up about it. Oh yeah, we’re sending our kids to study in your elite universities and buying property in your cities as well, if that’s cool with you, you decadent Western pigs.”

      As I’ve said before, this is an attitude that makes the world worse.

      Reply
      1. Shalcker

        Voices that “regardless of Crimea we should keep cooperation going” (or even “well, we broken international law too quite recently, not a great reason to stop cooperation”) certainly existed, and public was quite divided about it; and US pushed for other approach. Their significance with sanctions winning in the end should not be underestimated.

        The problem with “Russians are even more so” whataboutism is that Russia would have to take decades to get same global outreach as US (or even to extend similar influence beyond former CIS); and US has it right now, and as such much more relevant.

        And how exactly is that attitude making things worse? “We respect your education and industry, we do not respect your values” is common approach; not everyone looks at West and sees need for “whole package”.

      2. A.I.Schmelzer

        I would have a pretty hard time seeing Russia causing stinks in either Ukraine or Georgia without previous US meddling, and the US was capable of meddling there precisely because it is much more powerfull then Russia.

        As for the USA, they have in some situations acted worse then a “bizarro Putin with the same amount of power” would have. The decadelong sanctions on Iraq killed about 5000 children per month. And well, most of these children happened to be Shiites (since the iraqi south was where the US used a bunch of depleted Uranium which caused a cancer epidemic) and were thus an “enemy of an enemy”. Say what you will about Putin, but he doesnt murder children (especially not children which would be enemies of enemies) without reasons.

        Free press? Dissent? Didnt matter one bit. The “Western Free press” still didnt get the fact the Srebrenica didnt exactly happened as advertized (20 years later), to find out that the Gold of Tonkin “incident” never happened took half a century, and in 50 years, there will perhaps be some mainstream voices saying “ah yes, we didnt exactly report objectively on Ukraine, but lets move on!”.

        Concerning Canada, well, they have a same head of state as the habitual criminal Great Britain, and given their quite limited military potentials, they actually racked up a quite significant bodycount/amount of really bad karma.

        All big states are complete dicks. Putins Russia was, given Russian historical standarts, remarkably non-dickish. They are hardly a model citizen, but postive trends in behavior (Russian response to Georgia was actually capable of meeting Just War criteria) should be reinforced, not exploited.

        Concerning the US being the judge and the lawmaker of international law, it clearly is both.
        International law is the accumulated precedent of the recent actions of great powers. In the last 2 decades, the US was the sole Great power. When it invaded Iraq for the lulz, it not so much broke as rewrote international law. In addition, the US is the only Power that is claiming to have the right to attack others over breaches of international law. As such attacks are the penalty that actually matters, and as the US decision to attack is made by the US, and only the US, it very much happens to be the “judge”.

        What some teethless UN tribunals may say only matters if the USA has the same opinion, which occassionally happens because the US mostly ran the UN prior to the Bush years.

      3. Jim Kovpak Post author

        “I would have a pretty hard time seeing Russia causing stinks in either Ukraine or Georgia without previous US meddling,”

        You always assume it’s “meddling” because you cannot comprehend that perhaps nations that have territorial issues with Russia might willingly gravitate towards powers that can potentially help them.

        “Say what you will about Putin, but he doesnt murder children (especially not children which would be enemies of enemies) without reasons.”

        Well you know, except Chechen children, Ukrainian children, his own people’s children with his shitty underfunded medical care system. But definitely no Iraqi children, that’s for sure.

        “”Free press? Dissent? Didnt matter one bit.”

        Utter nonsense. I suggest you read up on the history of the Vietnam War a bit and see how and why it ended. Every conflict since then is always compared to Vietnam at some point, as it has become synonymous with an unwinnable quagmire.

        “20 years later), to find out that the Gold of Tonkin “incident” never happened took half a century,”

        The Gulf of Tonkin incident was first called out in 1967 and also exposed again in 1981. Now that everything has been declassified, it has long been known that the Maddox was in fact engaged on 2 August, but not 4 August which was the event that led to the revolution.

        “in 50 years, there will perhaps be some mainstream voices saying “ah yes, we didnt exactly report objectively on Ukraine, but lets move on!”.”

        WHO exactly didn’t report objectively on Ukraine? I’m asking because people like you tend to assume all media that doesn’t report what you like, how you like it, is some kind of hive mind deliberately chanting one mantra. Clearly we do not follow the same journalists because I have easily found objective reporting on Ukraine and it’s FAR more objective than the Russian media which brooks no dissent and literally fabricates stories.

        “Concerning Canada, well, they have a same head of state as the habitual criminal Great Britain, and given their quite limited military potentials, they actually racked up a quite significant ”

        This is a ridiculous technicality. The fact that they share a ceremonial head of state doesn’t make them responsible for Britain’s actions. The latter was instrumental in the invasion of Iraq- Canada refused.

        “Concerning the US being the judge and the lawmaker of international law, it clearly is both.”

        No, it isn’t. I’m sorry but we’re not going to redefine international law to fit your worldview.

        We as people have every right to judge the US’ actions or those of Russia. As it turns out, Russia has recently embarked upon a path of military aggression and revanchism, and is stupidly challenging the world order in spite of being an essentially failed state(in the sense that it is not run according to laws and in fact cannot be in its present state), and having an economy comparable to that of the state of California- a recipe for disaster.

  8. A.I.Schmelzer

    It would appear that you know fuck all about Georgian politics.

    Let me give you a brief overview:
    1990-1993 or so:
    Soviet Union Breaks up, tribalism increases because of more stress, and guess what, Georgia reject concilliation with ethnic minorities and favors Zviad Gamasakhurdia who states that “All ethnic minorities are ungratefull eaters” and is in favor of “expulging the non Georgians with a Red hot Iron!”. When he forces through a law that effectively forbids parties that are not present in all of Georgia (meaning that Abkhaz, Ossetin or Adjarian parties would be meaningless), the afromentioned minorities resort to arms, and a civil war happens.

    Eventually the “evil meddling Russians” negotiate an end to it and arrive as peacekeepers. When Abkhazia breaks the ceasefire in 1994, the Black Sea fleet declares a naval blockade of Abkhazia which eventually brings them back to the negotiating table. In 1998, the Russian peacekeepers oversee and protect (quite occassionally with their lives) the ressetlement of Georgian refugees in Kodori Gorge. People badmouthing the evil Russians “Pseudopeacekeepers” in Georgia can come back at me when KFOR enables the ressettlement of Serbian refugees.

    Eventually Georgian attitudes mellow a small bit, early 2000s they claim that “Everyone who sees themselfs as Georgian can live in Georgia”, so now the minorities would only have to assimilate themselfs. This is actually enough for the Adjarians (who are ethnic Georgians who happen to be Muslims), Abkhaz and Ossetins wait for a better offer.

    Instead they got Sakhazvili, who first bribes the Adjarians into getting themselfs annexed (Russia did not interfere there, since it had absolutly no standing to do so), then engaged into a series of purges, since this increasingly fucks up his domestic position, he positions himself as the faithfull and fierce Anti Russian crusader, calls everyone in the opposition Russian fith columnist, creates wedge issues on Ossetia and Abkhazia (guess from what kind of advisors he got the wedge issue idea), receives considerable degrees of US assistances and increases the military budget by a factor of 10 or so.

    Since his situation now sucks even more, he decides that having a “short victorious war” over South Ossetia would be totally cool, and since he performed repeated purges of the military, noone there dares to remind him that short victorious wars do not happen if Russia is very likely to get involved on the other side.

    Consider the case that a Serbian “Sakhazvilovic” engages on the same path as Sakhazvili, only with Russian and Chinese backing, and that this culminates in him killing US uniformed personell in camp bondsteel via pre-mediated artillery barrage, sacking Pristina and having a Serbian General state that “constitutional order has been restored in Kosovo”.

    Tldr: The west is serially backing up regimes that are basically ethnic-nationalist Putinist (only with even less competence, and with more emphasis on issues of “blood”. Putin does not give a fuck about your ethnicity as long as your are loyal) in nature, happily encourages these regimes to conduct acts which Russia has to react too, and then cries crocidle tears while enjoying the fireworks.

    Reply
    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      Actually I tend to look at the Georgian situation as different from that of Ukraine, and the Ossetians and Abkhazians certainly have their case. In a way, their choice of going with Russia is also as natural as Georgia looking to the United States. Small countries look for these patrons. That still doesn’t really change anything I said.

      It also doesn’t change the fact that dissent and free press have greatly changed the way Western nations wage war- or don’t.

      Reply
      1. A.I.Schmelzer

        In some ways we may have interesting similiarities.

        I did protest both the Balkan interventions (on the basis that the blame for mass killings was not attributed with anything even remotely close to fairness, and that the intervention was very blatantly taking sides) and against the Iraq war (worse then a crime, it was a blunder, also I am more German then Russian and our goverment did a pretty good job protesting), but it was the Georgian war which pushed me over the edge so to speak. Never in my life would I have expected vastly more bullshit from the western media then from the Russians. Cue a conversion that may be quite similiar to what happened to you.
        Apperantly, someone in RT decided that they lost the Georgian Propaganda war to qualitatively and/or quantiatively superior Western/Georgian bullshit (they did lose it in the short term, mid to long term I am not nearly as certain), and decided that they will never again lose a bullshit arms race. The results we see in Ukraine.
        I would like to argue that they are losing the Ukrainian propaganda war because of that, and that their propaganda stance greatly lessens their political and diplomatic flexibility (something Putin traditionally cherished in his decisionmaking), and that they thus took the wrong lessons from the Georgian Propaganda war which decreases their capabilities concerning Ukraine.
        Russias propaganda approach also strengthens and legitimizes those actors in Ukraine whose destruction/nullification/marginalisation would be within Russias legitimate interests, and works against Russias legitimate interests.

        Secondly, while I initially believed that RTs/Sputniks issues with professionality or not being ridiculous were “WAD” as in, to prevent Russian authorities from accidentaly believing their own PR, I am increasingly worried that those “safeguards” were not sufficient. Come to think of it, I kind of doubt that Russian decision makers watch much if any RT/Sputnik anyway.

        It could well be that one reason you have converted back to “Russia is worse” is that you live in Russia, and are thus far more directly exposed and affected by Russian bullshit then you are by western bullshit. The bullshit going on in Russia is certainly intense (I doubt we have reached peak bullshit yet, it will get worse on both sides before it gets better), while I can speak and read Russian, I need to mentally focus on it do so which makes it really easy to ignore it.

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