Tag Archives: Whataboutery

Russia’s World Cup

Bob: Wow! What an amazing match that was! If you’re just joining us, you’ve missed history in the making. For the first time ever, the Russian national team has won the World Cup, and in their homeland, no less!

Jerry: Yes, Bob, I certainly feel sorry for those viewers who…Hold on a second. Maybe it’s just all the excitement that’s in the air right now, but did I just hear you say that Russia won the match?

Bob: Indeed you did, Jerry! They certainly outplayed their Brazilian opponents and delivered one of the biggest upsets in football history!

Jerry: Wait…Russia lost the match. Brazil devastated them. It was 7-1!

Bob: Jerry, my man, didn’t you hear about the special rule change? It was proposed by Putin and approved by FIFA just before the start of the championship. You’ve got to be pulling my leg.

Jerry: Errr…Of course. But maybe for the sake of the viewers who have just joined us, you could humor me a bit? How did Russia win when they scored only one goal, and Brazil scored seven?

Bob: Well Jerry, it’s really simple. See Brazil scored goals, true. But Russia also scored goals. So in reality both teams are winners. But Russia is the real winner.

Jerry: Uh..That doesn’t make sense. I mean even in the first half Brazil had scored what? Four goals?

Bob: Maybe that’s true, but Brazil has lost World Cup matches before. Why is it everyone talks about Russia’s losses when Brazil has lost plenty of times?

Jerry: I’m not sure that’s relevant, particularly since Brazil didn’t lose this match.

Bob: But both teams scored goals.

Jerry: Russia scored one goal! Brazil scored seven.

Bob: Exactly. They’re the same. They both scored goals. Who is Brazil to judge Russia as a loser? They both scored goals, they’ve both lost in the past. But Russia won this match.

Jerry: Let’s move on for a moment. As I wanted to say earlier, I think the main problem for the Russians is that they had so many penalties, and that quickly removed some of their best players from the match.

Bob: But Jerry, I think you forget that the other side had penalties too.

Jerry: Well yes, Brazil got two yellow cards within the first six minutes of the match, but I don’t think that’s relevant seeing as how…

Bob: Both sides got penalties.

Jerry: Yes, but Russia had more and actually lost some of their players because of it…

Bob: But you admit that they both had penalties.

Jerry: One side had several red cards and…

Bob: Brazil also got penalties.

Jerry: Yes…Brazil got penalties.

Bob: Then the refs had no right to judge Russia as being any worse than Brazil. But Russia is better and it won the match.

Jerry: Well I suppose so, under these wonderful new Putin rules.

Bob: Also the Brazilian team’s coach is a neo-Nazi.

Jerry: WHAT ON GOD’S GREEN EARTH ARE YOU ON ABOUT? 

Bob: He’s a neo-Nazi who tried to rig the match so Russia would lose, but luckily Russia didn’t lose so the match was completely fair.

Jerry: RUSSIA DID LOSE! BRAZIL SCORED MORE GOALS THAN RUSSIA! THAT MEANS BRAZIL WON! 

Bob: So you support the team whose coach is a known neo-Nazi Islamic fundamentalist?

Jerry: I don’t support any team- the Brazilians objectively scored more goals and…wait! Now he’s a Nazi and an Islamic fundamentalist? He is neither of those things!

Bob: Sure, if you listen to the mainstream media.

Jerry: What mainstream media? You just accused a well-known public figure of being a Nazi and an Islamic fundamentalist without any proof whatsoever.

Bob: The mainstream media is withholding the truth. Remind me later and I can send you this article from The Guardian that tells you how the mainstream media does that from time to time.

Jerry: Does what?

Bob: Covers up the truth.

Jerry: So you want to use an article from the mainstream media to prove that the mainstream media covers up certain facts?

Bob: Yes. You should trust this source because it’s from the mainstream media, not some conspiracy website.

Jerry: You still haven’t offered any proof that the coach is a Nazi terrorist!

Bob: Prove that he isn’t.

Jerry: GODDAMMIT, BOB! BRAZIL WON THIS MATCH! BRAZIL SCORED MORE GOALS! BRAZIL IS THE WORLD CHAMPION! 

Bob: But Russia scored goals too. They’re the same. But Russia is the winner.

Jerry: WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU, BOB?! 

Bob: I have the mental reasoning abilities of a small child, so this logic makes perfect sense to me.

Jerry: Well I…Wait. What?

Bob: You heard me. My reasoning skills are on par with those of a six-year-old, eight-year-old, tops. You’d have to be this way to think those new rules make any sense at all.

Jerry: Geez, Bob, that sounds terrible. I had no idea. Now this is all starting to make sense.

Bob: I’m glad you see it that way. I’m also glad that this is just a satirical piece, which in no way bears any resemblance to real life.

Jerry: None at all. I can’t imagine anyone thinking this way in real life.

Bob: Neither can I. That would be ridiculous. Only a moron would act like this in real life.

Jerry: A complete, total, window-licking moron. You said it, Bob!

 

Sounds just like bullshit!

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  Gazetaone 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 photographThose 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.

The price of success

All aboard the Bad Analogy Express!

I always understood that if this blog were to achieve significant notoriety it would necessarily earn a lot of flak. Even when I started it in 2013 I knew it would be seized upon by the RT fans, but I also expected a lot of foreign white ribbon wannabes. During Maidan I maintained a principled stand and in so doing, earned plenty of enemies on both sides. Too easy.  Lately thanks to Twitter, views have increased radically over the past few days, but of course this means the haters have appeared.

Note that I do not call them trolls. Trolls don’t debate; they come to get a rise out of somebody. To my haters’ credit, they have at least tried to make coherent arguments, though they are the same canned talking points I’ve heard dozens of times last year.  The thing is, I think I’m letting some of these people down.

When I read their attacks, I often feel they’re imagining some scenario as they’re crafting their arguments, and I’m not living up to that expectation. They post something like “What about the US invasion of Iraq? Ferguson! Libya!” Then, as near as I can tell it seems like they expect me to respond with something like the following:

“What? How dare you bring up those historical facts! There are absolutely no problems with America’s society, its government, or that government’s foreign policy! The Iraq War was totally justified because of OUR FREEDOMS! Everything America has ever done is righteous and just because AMERICA! America is the Greatest Country on the face of this earth and we alone won the Second World War! Bleeeargh!”  

Needless to say, I have thus far failed to live up to this high standard.

Let me make something clear for the next batch of dipshits who comes in here with another inaccurate comparison or who thinks that this is some kind of pro-US government blog. I’m not going to get into the details, but if I was such a fan of the US government, I wouldn’t have moved to Russia in 2006. I wouldn’t have hatched such a ridiculous plan to do such a thing six years prior to that. I was reading fuckin’ Chomsky in high school, and one of my final projects in senior year was entitled “American War Crimes,” which contained a great deal of material about the NATO campaign against Serbia. Chances are I was raging against the machine while you were still eating graham crackers and drinking juice out of boxes just before nap time.  I got this edgy anti-American shit down. You don’t even know.

There was just one problem though. First, I was an ignorant teenager. I had no frame of reference and not nearly the requisite amount of historical knowledge to have a realistic ideology. While American history classes teach you almost nothing about the wider world, they seem to be deliberately crafted to give you a largely incorrect understanding of your own country’s history. Second, when you actually care about what you believe and whether or not it fits material reality, you tend to develop this pesky thing called principle. Let me tell you, principle is a real pain in the ass. Here’s how it works.

See my problem with American imperialism wasn’t that it was American, but that it was imperialist. Imperialism forced the US to adopt hypocritical positions on the world stage. It  was arrogant. After all, the US boiled down the complex, multi-sided conflicts of the former Yugoslavia to: Serbs = Bad, Everyone else = Good. They dictated which side was right in a civil war in Kosovo. What if someone told the US it couldn’t put down an armed insurrection threatening to take a state out of the Union? That’s precisely what the US had to do in 1861!

I know that some people are reading that and thinking, “Yeah! Exactly!” That’s all well and good, but what some of you fail to do is detach those deeds from a flag, a symbol. Arrogance and hypocrisy are wrong no matter who’s engaging in the behavior. There was a time when in my naivety, I fell for Putin’s posturing as a defender of national sovereignty against intervention and aggression by powerful countries and their blocs. I believed that he was helping Russia, making it stronger. The Western media said as much. I believed that a rising Russia could be this other pole that would have a positive effect in the world. Then I moved to Russia, and I saw that I had been wrong. So I stopped believing in things that were obviously the opposite of reality. Sorry.

Also, my inkling that Putin had no qualms against military intervention were vindicated long before the events in Ukraine last year. I knew it back when they announced that Russia would be buying those Mistral-class helicopter carriers. Fleets are the tools of empires- British, Japanese, German, American. In fact, I probably realized that even earlier, just from talking to “anti-imperialists” who were really “anti-American imperialists.” It became painfully clear that if Russia could project its force in the way the US did under Bush, the government would. In a way, they have done something like that, though on a much smaller scale.

Another inconvenient aspect of this pesky thing called “principle,” is that you don’t hold your tongue about the evils of one government just because the other government you don’t like criticizes them. The enemy of your enemy isn’t your friend. Moreover, what right have I ever had to say that I, as an American, may criticize my government to my heart’s content, and then condemn Russians for doing the same?  Why can I sever myself from my state, but the Russians and Russian identity should be linked with Putin and his ruling party? My politics changed radically over the years due to a wealth of experience, but I can say one thing has been consistent since I moved here. I oppose policies which abuse, exploit, or otherwise negatively affect the majority of people in any nation. Pro-American? Pro-Russian? Pro-Ukrainian? I am all three at the same time, and I strongly suspect that those who pick only one of those do not truly love their people at all. They love symbols, flags, and abstract concepts, not the concrete nation, the people.

I fully admit that given the transformation this society has undergone in the past, I have reacted with much hostility. Part of my unwillingness to credit these “what about” fallacies is the fact that the United States to me has as much bearing on my life as it does for the rest of the people living in this country, which is to say very little. If you read my words and conclude that I hate Russia then you could not possibly be more mistaken. I question whether you even know what it means to love Russia, even if you are Russian yourself. Nobody who loves their country makes excuses for corrupt leadership. They do not deny the problems that exist in their society; rather they talk about them louder than anyone else. They do not attack others who point those problems out. They certainly do not make idiotic excuses about how those problems exist in some other countries so it’s all the same and nobody should bring it up. Anyone who is too cowardly to speak out against the ills speaking their nation is free to maintain their silence about the things they see right in front of their eyes. They do not, however, have the right to call themselves patriots and condemn as traitors those who show more courage.

So please, come on and accuse me of working for the US government. Some people say I work for the Kremlin because there happened to be a different article on the homepage when they clicked the link to this blog. One might think they can’t all be right, but this is Russia and it is the internet, so why not? Just a word of caution though. If all you can bring is “what about…” you’re not going to like the results. And if you’re entertaining enough, you may just get an article of your own.

Moral Equivalency: The Magic Words!

Recently I wrote my thoughts on Interpreter magazine’s report The Menace of Unreality. Interpreter magazine is a decent source of information on Russia, but reading that report and other material on their site does occasionally set off think tank alarm bells. One particular culprit is the repeated use of the term “moral equivalency.”

In the traditional sense, moral equivalency is a sort of quasi-fallacy where one posits that there is no moral difference between two actions.  For example, suggesting that the Allies were somehow no better than the Axis powers simply because they bombed civilians and invaded neutral countries would be making a moral equivalency. Even if we did assume some kind of moral equivalency for the sake of argument, nothing can change the fact that the Nazis enthusiastically started a war and continued to prosecute that war in spite of the British invitation to the negotiating table. Moreover, if one invokes the bombing of Hamburg or Dresden, they should remember the words of British Air Marshal Sir Arthur Harris:

“The Nazis entered this war under the rather childish delusion that they were going to bomb everyone else, and nobody was going to bomb them. At Rotterdam, London, Warsaw and half a hundred other places, they put their rather naive theory into operation. They sowed the wind, and now they are going to reap the whirlwind.”

Or in other words, "Don't start nuttin', won't BE nuttin'!"

Or in other words, “Don’t start nothin’, won’t BE nothin’!”

Unfortunately, recognizing moral equivalence as a logical fallacy can also open up a can of worms when it is wielded by the wrong people. While making a true moral equivalence entails insisting two morally different agents are in fact morally equal, one can also insist on a moral inequality based on arbitrary, even inaccurate grounds.  In simpler terms, one can insist that a particular country or regime is somehow morally superior when in fact it is not; the insistence on a different standard of measurement without good justification is known as “special pleading.”  Accusing an opponent of making a moral equivalency implies that there is a moral difference. Sometimes, however, there simply isn’t.

In my experience, many die-hard supporters of neo-liberal capitalism and the liberal status quo in general have latched onto this term “moral equivalence” as a debate ending term. These individuals trumpet a black and white narrative of history where the United States and its allies are perpetually righteous and moral. At worst, these countries have made “mistakes,” and sometimes failed to live up to their high-minded principles, but you can never say something like, “The US killed more than 2 million people in Southeast Asia.”  That was just a “mistake”; you tend to make mistakes when you’re fighting Communism, the greatest evil on earth!  Of course the Vietnam War and its equally destructive predecessor on the Korean peninsula were not “mistakes,” but rather the logical result of deliberate policies to suppress the self-determination of post-colonial peoples.

The excuse that these states would have gone Communist were it not for this subversion doesn’t hold water. Even if we were to uncritically accept all claims about the atrocities of Stalin and Mao, there was no mass genocide in 1948 Korea or in Vietnam. Isolated atrocities? Sure- these occurred on both sides during those conflicts. But again, these conflicts were largely spurred on by American and French intervention. On the flip side, many newly created republics with capitalist systems came into being without instituting slavery, genocide, or child labor as the US and other capitalist powers once had. In reality, most self-proclaimed socialist nations grew up in the midst of bloody struggle often funded from beyond their borders, yet in spite of this the majority of such nations did not suffer massive death tolls like those which are attributed to the Soviet Union or the People’s Republic of China.  Anyone who argues otherwise, or who argues that the regimes were authoritarian, should be directed to look at the behavior and excess mortality of various capitalist client states throughout the Cold War.  Indeed, the freedoms afforded to most post-WWII American citizens far outstripped those of the USSR or East Germany, but they were also far greater than those of South Korea, Zaire, Cambodia, Guatemala, Iran, etc. all Western-backed regimes.

At this point any of the main offenders I’m alluding to should be jumping up and down screaming, “MORAL EQUIVALENCE! MORAL EQUIVALENCE!” They never explain why the United States was morally superior in these cases. They just imply that it was and they expect you to leave it at that. One argument they could make is that even in spite of all its flaws, the American system provided its citizens with greater freedoms and better respected their human rights. That’s a fine argument, except that Americans’ freedoms do not justify denying the same to others by supporting coups and dictatorships. One could also argue that a great deal of America’s high standards of living can be attributed to the exploitation of other nations, and sponsoring dictatorships in those nations helped maintain that exploitation.  One could also argue that however horrible the results might have been, the motives of Communist and leftists regimes were in fact just. Equality and social justice are supposedly democratic values. It simply isn’t logical to assume that had socialism not faced such bloody violence since long before the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the results would have been the same. The young United States never faced such threats, yet that didn’t stop it from wiping out or ethnically cleansing native populations and maintaining the institution of slavery until the 1860’s.

Those who like to dismiss such arguments with the phrase “moral equivalency” forget that the onus is on them to explain why there is no moral equivalence. If there is justification this shouldn’t be hard to do. For example, if Russia compares its annexation of the Crimea to Kosovo’s unilateral referendum for independence, the fallacious logic is obvious. Whatever we might say about the manner in which Kosovo was separated from Serbia, their decision took place nine years after the cessation of hostilities in the area, leaving plenty of time to discuss and debate the matter. Kosovo did not make its declaration under the occupation of armed troops from Albania; no Albanian troops ever crossed into the area. The international forces in Kosovo had no authority to intervene in the local government. Lastly, the people voted for independence as opposed to joining the country of Albania. In fact, I wouldn’t even say that the problem with this comparison is one of a fallacious moral equivalency. The basic facts just don’t compare.  Morality doesn’t really come into play.

Unfortunately, many pro-status quo intellectuals prefer to use the term moral equivalency when they don’t want to debate, when they want to deflect criticism, shirk responsibility, or when they want to exclude historical context for no good reason. In other words, they are engaging in special pleading. One good example of this is how folks like Ed Lucas, Anne Applebaum, Michael Weiss, Peter Pomarantsev etc. agonize over the growing influence of Russian money in Europe. Until recently, Russia’s corrupt elite had its fingers in pies all over Europe, and their real estate in London even inspired one book entitled Londongrad. One major avenue for Russian influence in Europe is via the far right. This explains the curious fact that in spite of an open, obvious, and virulently anti-Communist right-wing presence in the Ukrainian Euromaidan movement, most European right-wingers from countries like Greece, Hungary, Germany, and Bulgaria have elected to support Russia in this conflict. They know that Russia’s occasional use of Soviet symbols, references to the Great Patriotic War, and hypocritical hysterics about fighting fascism are nothing but a big sham. Opponents of Russia in the West are quit happy to point out how Russia is worming its way into their systems and how it is financing the far right, but for some reason they want to put all the blame for this on Russia. As for their own governments, they were just being naive or lazy.

In reality, Russia in the mid-2000’s was simply taking advantage of a neo-liberal capitalist system which many of these moral warriors shill for.  Some of these intellectuals have whitewashed the history of Axis collaborators, glorified Eastern European nationalists, or even in the best cases portrayed Communism and anything remotely socialist to the worst plague any nation could possibly suffer. After years of supporting this system some of them now seem to be upset that the Russian elite learned how to play the game. Moreover, they seem shocked that the far right prefers Russia. In a sense, one could liken Russia of the 2000’s to a Western-backed dictatorship, and I have several times. Putin’s regime is like that of Mobutu in Zaire, who robbed his country blind while enjoying the favor of the Americans, French, and Belgians. All three parties realized that he was cheating them too, but the reply to any complaint was always the same- “If not Mobutu, then who?”  Replace “Mobutu” with “Putin” and you have one of the latter’s campaign slogans from 2012. Indeed, many of Putin’s apologists in the West sing the same refrain.  Obviously Mobutu and his elite were directly responsible for the suffering of Zaire and later the Democratic Republic of Congo, but the regimes who backed him cannot escape responsibility. So it is with Russia as well.  The West took no serious concern over the welfare of most Russian citizens in the 90’s. It made no attempt to actually educate people as to what it meant by “democracy.” It grew fat off of the stolen money Putin and his elite delivered by the boatload. To let America and Europe off the hook for this is moral cowardice.

I would posit that many of those who scream “moral equivalency” at the drop of a hat, particularly on the topic of Russia, have not a leg to stand on. Many of these people support the neo-liberal status quo, which says that the market should be left to its own devices as much as possible. Now they cry foul because the market was happy to accept Russian money. They helped promote right-wing historical narratives, and now they are upset that these right wingers admire a right-wing dictatorship. Who could have possibly seen that coming? I on the other hand, do have a leg to stand on, because I’m a critic of that same system that they support. In fact, I see Russia’s rise to power and all the problems associated with it as nothing but the natural result of capitalist policies, from the money laundered abroad to the legions of RT fans. In their report, Pomerantsev and Weiss continually warn that Russian propaganda is reaching disenfranchised and dissatisfied segments of Western populations without suggesting why this might be or what should be done about it. By contrast, I suggested actually listening to those disenfranchised people and addressing their needs.  Who has the moral high ground from which to criticize Russia then?

Since debates over Russia traditionally consist of 90% whataboutery, the inappropriate application of moral equivalence is a legitimate concern.  I have said plenty of times that whataboutery is a lot like hearsay. There is a standard definition but there are exceptions. It’s not enough to simply accuse somebody of whataboutery or moral equivocation without showing good reason as to why the two cases are indeed morally different.  Sadly, many Western intellectuals and politicians live in a world where their arbitrary declarations make things true, failing to realize that their oblivious behavior so enrages masses of people who will then listen to anyone who appears to be opposing them. Indeed, Putin’s apologists in Russia, Europe, and America will continue to make inaccurate moral equivalencies and engage in ruthless whataboutism. One fallacy cannot be rectified by another, however. Special pleading is not the answer to moral equivalency.

But there is X in America too!

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Hello dear reader! Welcome to the Russia Without Bullshit Handy Guide to “But there is X in America too”, which is designed to teach you when it is and isn’t appropriate to make this popular Russophile argument.  If you’ve ever seen a negative news story about Russia, say about corruption, you should be well familiar with this argument.  Since the topic of this particular hypothetical news story is corruption, the argument would go, “But there is corruption in America too!”  Typically this is a bad argument, but believe it or not there are times when it actually is appropriate. Knowing when to use this argument can mean the difference between looking like a critical thinker or an ignorant Russia fan-boy.

Q. Why is the “But there is X in America too” argument usually a bad one?

A. There are a number of reasons. Sometimes it is a matter of scale and thus the comparison is incorrect. For example, corruption does indeed exist in the United States, but not on the scale that it does in Russia.  The average person may experience or witness acts of corruption(typically involving police) on a weekly or even daily basis in Russia.  The subject is an integral part of the popular discourse and pop culture.  An even better example can be cited when it comes to wealth inequality.  In America we are now familiar with the fact that the top one percent controls something between 40-43% of the wealth in the US, a staggering gap in wealth distribution for an industrialized nation.  On the other hand, in Russia it was recently reported by Credit Suisse Bank that 35% of Russia’s wealth is controlled by 110 people, as in individuals. Neither scenario is good, quite the opposite, but if we were discussing the issue of Russia’s wealth inequality it would not make sense to compare it to the United States because in Russia the issue is objectively worse.

The argument also tends to fail because it is so often irrelevant.  If we pretended that corruption is the same in the US and Russia, that fact would be of no value to either Russians or Americans suffering from corruption.  In fact, any self-styled “patriot” seeking to cover up this fact about their nation would basically be playing a role in perpetuating this state of affairs. When we look at history we often see that the greatest leaders and reformers were those who looked at their country, saw far too many problems for their liking, and then did something about it.  Now imagine Ataturk, just to use one example, if he thought like the average Team Russia fan-boy? When confronted with the backwardness of the fallen Ottoman Empire, Team Turkey Ataturk vehemently argues that Serbia, Albania, and Greece are quite backward too!  If that analogy doesn’t work for you, I’ll let you read Arthur Schopenauer’s words on the matter.

“The cheapest sort of pride is national pride; for if a man is proud of his own nation, it argues that he has no qualities of his own of which he can be proud; otherwise he would not have recourse to those which he shares with so many millions of his fellowmen. The man who is endowed with important personal qualities will be only too ready to see clearly in what respects his own nation falls short, since their failings will be constantly before his eyes. But every miserable fool who has nothing at all of which he can be proud adopts, as a last resource, pride in the nation to which he belongs; he is ready and glad to defend all its faults and follies tooth and nail, thus reimbursing himself for his own inferiority.”

Keep in mind that he was referring to national pride, whereas many people guilty of using the “But in America there is X too” argument aren’t even Russian.  National pride is at least somewhat understandable. Having national pride in a nation which is not yours and to which you have the slightest connection(if any) is simply insanity.  Stop using this argument.

 Q. Okay, then when is it alright to use this argument?

A. There actually are appropriate occasions to use this argument, but in order to understand when we must consider why the argument most likely arose.  In recent decades, the Western for-profit press has become increasingly dependent on official sources.  If the president’s spokesperson says something, that’s what gets reported as truth.  Remember the run up to the war in Iraq?  Remember how Iraq’s denial of possessing WMDs was practically mocked by the American press?  Who could believe the foreign minister of a third-rate dictatorship when the President of the United States and all his cabinet were insisting that the weapons must exist?  The excellent documentary Iraq: Uncovered brilliantly immortalizes the media’s praise for Colin Powell’s speech on Iraqi WMDs at the United Nations, which turned out to be nothing but bullshit.

Now you think they would learn but one needs to remember that journalists don’t get to pick stories or decide how to report them. Editors have control over that.  Moreover, if a journalist reports a story in such a way that offends a particular official, there is a risk of losing access to that official in the future and thus losing legitimacy in the eyes of the public as a media source with access.  The end result is that official government statements are rarely questioned.

As if that weren’t bad enough, you’ve also got the pundits, the insta-experts on every possible issue.  Most mainstream pundits in the American press subscribe in one form or another to the ideology known as American exceptionalism.  On one side you’ll have liberals or “progressives” who admit that America has made “mistakes” but that it generally champions human rights, and on the other hand there is a conservative side which refuses to apologize for anything in America history. In fact the very mention of some wrong-doing by the United States, at any period in history, provokes vicious counter-attacks from this quarter. Any comparison of any other atrocity, real or imagined, is condemned as “moral equivalency”, that is to say that for some unknown or arbitrary reason, America’s atrocities should never be compared with those of any other nation for any purpose.

Once you take these two factors into account, shitty reporting and shitty punditry, it’s easy to understand why you’ll often see streams of articles which attack Russia for things that the US does regularly, or sometimes even more so.  Russia gets condemned for “invading” Georgia while America’s invasion and conquest of Iraq is, at worst, portrayed as a mistake, and that only after the war dragged on for several years and the media realized that public opinion had turned against it. Russia gets slapped with the Magnitsky Act which is supposed to punish the officials of regimes who violate human rights, yet we all know that no CIA torturer, no Saudi prince, and no Israeli military officer would ever have reason to lose sleep over the possibility of having their American assets frozen.  Russia increasing military spending is portrayed as an ominous sign, while the insanely high American “defense” budget is rarely questioned in the American media.  If you should get the opportunity to actually talk to one of these news-makers, their reactions can be quite infuriating, for they respond to accusations of bias with either furious counter-attacks or they act as though they are totally oblivious to your words.

So in short, if you see stories about Russia with similar attacks like that, then a comparison to the US(or other nations) is relevant. Obviously everything depends on the specific story and your argument, of course.

Q. Can you provide me with some hypothetical examples, so that I can avoid looking like a moron online?

A. Sure! Read below.

INAPPROPRIATE USAGE:   There is a story about child abuse in Russian orphanages, a serious social problem.  You make the argument that child abuse happens to foster kids in America too. You are wrong because the situation in Russian orphanages is far worse and in the US there are at least thousands of dedicated, well-trained workers who do what they can with the paltry budgets they usually have to protect kids from abuse.  You are not some kind of “Russian patriot” for distracting attention away from this social issue.  If anything you’re actually part of the problem, because you’re claiming that something which should be addressed and fought against doesn’t exist or is at most unimportant because another country has some problems.  You’re basically like a guy who looks at a wound that’s gushing blood and declaring that there is no wound and everything is fine.  And if you’ve never actually researched the subject or even worse, never actually even set foot in Russia, you’re a fucking idiot, end of story.

APPROPRIATE USAGE:  There is a story about how Putin is a bad man because he supports dictators like Assad of Syria.  Here it would be apt to point out that the United States and other Western countries have clearly had no objection to backing dictators, including those who were far more brutal than Assad.  We need not look into the distant past to find examples of such support.  In 2009 the US gave tacit support and recognition to the coup d’etat in the Honduras.  While the US condemned Libya and Syria’s reaction to “Arab Spring” revolts, military intervention was never even considered in Bahrain, Egypt, or Tunisia.  In fact Bahrain was barely mentioned at all.

Hopefully these helpful tips will increase your critical thinking skills and help you look like less of an idiot for taking up the banner of a foreign country without any concrete reason!