Whataboutism: A Prequel

I was doing some casual research and found an interesting article on whataboutism…from 2008. Yeah, 2008. A funny thing about that era is that in those days, Russia sometimes had a leg to stand on when it came to certain issues. At that time, for example, the US was still 2 years away from pulling out of Iraq, one of the most embarrassing debacles in recent American history. Even on the domestic front, Russia was far less authoritarian. Truly, time has a big influence on the validity or invalidity of arguments. What was an apt analogy several years or several decades ago might be a whataboutist red herring today.

Of course that’s not the only reason I found the article interesting. Sadly I could find no byline for the author, a staff writer for The Economist, because I found the piece to be extremely nuanced, logical, and in general something that should have been dusted off in late 2013 when Putin’s regime decided to kick the propaganda into high gear.

The first notable difference between this and some other pieces on whataboutism is the way the author actually acknowledges that these criticisms can sometimes be valid. There are some folks, often advocates for governments if not government officials themselves, who think that any criticism of their side is invalid and can be dismissed out of hand. This of course is nonsense. I’ve been saying something like this for a long time. Whether something is a good argument or a whataboutist fallacy depends on who made the argument, why, when, etc. The bottom line I think can be reduced to two points:  First, is the situation really analogous? Second, the person raising the original criticism a supporter or representative of the country that is supposedly doing “the same thing” or which is being “hypocritical?”

The latter is crucial because those of you who read the comments know how many times it’s implied that my criticism of Russian government policy is rooted in the fact that I’m American. In Russia, and perhaps much of the world, the idea of having some kind of underlying set of principles or an ideology which can supersede national origin, religion, etc. is largely unheard of. The fact is that if the US had pulled the kind of stunt Russia did in the Crimea and Donbas, you’d better believe I’d be all over it. Hell, it would be a lot easier for a leftist. Perhaps, then, it is good that it didn’t work out that way, because what actually happened has led to a sort of trial by fire for the left, where we shall see once and for all whether principles and critical theory shall triumph over, or be defeated by, outdated dogma and cynical opportunism. Incidentally I fear the latter is winning that struggle, but that’s another article.

The second reason why this piece is so important is that the author actually suggested some very good advice on countering whataboutism, and oddly enough I haven’t seen the same tactics being pushed by those who insist the West needs to get into a propaganda war against the Kremlin.

One suggestion is using the quotes of Russian leaders or known pro-regime people, In this piece, the author uses an example of a quote from Medvedev. To be honest, even Medvedev isn’t the best source to use these days, as he too has become to some extent an “authorized” target, at whom citizens are allowed to vent their rage. This also extends to people seen as allies of Medvedev, such as Kudrin. But if one digs deep enough, you can find choice quotes from those you’re not allowed to oppose, such as Putin himself.

Lastly and perhaps best of all, the author actually encourages more criticism of Western policy. This is one of the best weapons out there, and it works particularly well on Western audiences. There’s no denying the fact that private media has biases and corporate media outlets have become increasingly dependent on official sources, often from their own country. But to claim that there’s some kind of hive-mind collective “Western media” is simply ludicrous, and criticism is rampant. On that note, it’s also worth pointing out that much of the bias in the so-called “Western media” can be traced to large corporate outlets, which are doing increasingly worse in terms of quality and relevance. In the West and other developed countries, far fewer people get their news from TV, turning instead to the internet.

I don’t have a pithy conclusion for the readers today, only that I highly recommend reading that article and pondering how relevant it is to today, in 2015. I’m going to be away for a bit handling some business, but on 30 August check out my debut on Cracked.com.

So until September…


8 thoughts on “Whataboutism: A Prequel

    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      Lucas definitely wrote some articles on the topic for The Economist, but for that reason I wonder why he wouldn’t have his name on this one. Then again, I can’t remember when he started writing there.

  1. Aleks

    Edward Lucas has lately been working for CEPA and writing articles that stir up “please join NATO or the Russians will crush you!” in the Nordics. He has switched tone a lot, I’d say.

    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      Again, that might not have been him who penned the article. Lucas was always kind of like that. I think it has to do with his time in Estonia. A lot of Westerners go to some country, fall in love with it, and then become advocates for it. Dances With Wolves or Avatar syndrome.

      1. Estragon

        I think Lucas had a brief period when he calmed down about Russia, around 2009-10. But otherwise he has been hysterical on the subject to the point of comedy. Check out, for instance, his “Lord of the Rings” fantasy about the brave little countries-that-could taking on Big Bad Russia.

      2. Jim Kovpak Post author

        That sounds cringeworthy. Lucas doesn’t seem to understand how this is nothing but grist for the Kremlin propaganda mills. They NEED this, they thrive on it.

        When you agree to fight the “information war,” you’ve basically compromise yourself. The best response is mockery.

      3. Estragon

        I imagine it must be hugely flattering for Putin et al. to be cast as badass Bond villains in the minds of the Western media. Who wouldn’t love that kind of attention?

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