Wikipedia – the most popular source of information for most people – boldly announces:
“Whataboutism, also known as whataboutery, is a variant of the tu quoque logical fallacy that attempts to discredit an opponent’s position by charging them with hypocrisy without directly refuting or disproving their argument. It is particularly associated with Soviet and Russian propaganda… Prominent usage: Soviet Union propaganda.”
Perusal of recent mainstream articles adds one more dimension to the story. Not only everything negative is habitually associated with Soviets and Russians, unless of course, it is Iranians or North Koreans, when the equation has frequently been reversed.
If something negative occurs: Cherchez La Russie.
Mass media bias against President Trump has been observed on numerous occasions, but what is particularly fascinating about this negativity is a persistent desire to paint Trump with the Russian brush.
So it is hardly surprising that Trump has been turned into a practitioner of Russian “Whataboutism,” allowing Washington Post to declare triumphantly: “Whataboutism: The Cold War tactic, thawed by Putin, is brandished by Donald Trump.”
The article elaborates:
What about the stock market? What about those 33,000 deleted emails? … What about Benghazi? ..What about what about what about. We’ve gotten very good at what-abouting. The president has led the way. His campaign may or may not have conspired with Moscow, but President Trump has routinely employed a durable old Soviet propaganda tactic.”
The WaPo article by Dan Zak goes even further and explains the reasons behind Trump’s embrace of Russian Whataboutism. It is moral relativism, you see. It is a ploy of tyrannical regimes, which intend to divert attention from their crimes:
That’s exactly the kind of argument that Russian propagandists have used for years to justify some of Putin’s most brutal policies,” wrote Michael McFaul, former ambassador to Russia during the Obama administration. ..“Moral relativism — ‘whataboutism’ — has always been a favorite weapon of illiberal regimes,” Russian chessmaster and activist Garry Kasparovtold the Columbia Journalism Review in March. “For a U.S. president to employ it against his own country is tragic.
Viewed from the historical perspective, all this is blatantly false.
It is the democratic systems that need propaganda, spinning, and other soft-power weapons. It is the democracies that rely on one party blaming another party for its own transgressions. It is the liberal economic structures that need to promote one brand of toothpaste by denigrating another brand.
“Whataboutism” is an integral fabric of Western society, as both its business and political models depend on comparing, contrasting, diverting attention and so on.
Soviets, who had difficulty obtaining even one kind of toilet paper, did not need the commercials that claim that the other brand leaks more. Soviet leadership that relied primarily on the power of the gun didn’t need to spend time and effort and hone its skills in the art of maligning another party.
In other words, Soviets, and consequently Russians, are plain amateurs when it comes to “whataboutism.” When their government felt the need to resort to it, they would do it rather sloppily and amateurishly, so that the people would just laugh it off, as the endless political jokes testify.
Soviets were forced to resort to it during the time of Cold War, however, when there was a real competition for the hearts and minds of several European countries such as France and Italy, where post-war sympathies for Communists were running strong.
Needless to say, the Soviets were beaten soundly. The arguments that American freedoms were worse than Soviets because of American racism did not really work for Europeans, who preferred their Louis Armstrong to Leonid Utesov and their Jackson Pollock to Alexander Gerasimov. In the battle between Georgy Alexandrov’s Marion Dixon of Circus(1936) and Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka (1939), Ninotchka won.
That’s why I find it extremely ironic and peculiar that these methods of “whataboutism,” these lines of reasoning that have pervaded the Western news coverage to the core, have been magically turned into a signature method of Soviet Propaganda.
Equally ironic is the fact that any attempt to question Western hypocrisy, spinning, and relentless brainwashing is deflected by a silly counter-attack: this criticism is nothing but “whataboutism,” the favorite activity of Russians and other moral relativists and denizens of illiberal regimes.
Additional irony, of course, lies in the fact that Russians are the most self-critical people that I know. That’s the one thing they truly excel at – criticizing themselves, their state, their people, their customs and their political system. It is another irony that the information the West habitually exploits in its own shameless “whataboutism” was provided to it free of charge by Russian dissidents from Herzen all the way to Solzhenitsyn and Masha Gessen.
There is rarely an article in the mass media which, while addressing some ills of modern society, doesn’t refer to the evils of Gulag, Stalin, lack of democracy and other “ills” of Soviet life. How many articles in the mass media do we read where references to the extermination of the native population, of workers burning in their factories, of thugs dispersing protests or demonstrations, of brutal exploitation, mass incarceration, deportation of the Japanese, witch hunts, or cruel cynical wars – occur without simultaneous references to Stalin’s Russia?
You complain about the lack of political choices during elections? What, you want Commies to run you life? You complain about economic inequality? What, you want drab socialism instead? In other words, instead of a traditionally defined “whataboutism,” Western propaganda utilizes a slightly more subtle version revealing something bad about itself, but then rapidly switching to demonizing and criticizing its rivals.
The classic example of this approach was described by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky in their 1988 study Manufacturing Consent.
In the chapter entitled “Worthy and Unworthy Victims,” the authors draw the comparison between the coverage of Polish priest, murdered by in Poland in 1984 and the media coverage of Catholic Priests assassinated in Latin America. Jerzy Popieluszko had 78 articles devoted to him, with ten articles on the front page. In the meantime, seventy-two religious victims in Latin America during the period of 1964-78 were subject of only eight articles devoted to all of them combined, with only one article making the front page (Chomsky & Herman, Manufacturing Consent, Pantheon Books, 2002, p. 40).
Presumably, Soviets become a subject of jokes when, instead of addressing the question of Stalin’s victims, they embark on discussing the lynching of black Americans. What is worth pondering is why the United States hasn’t become the subject of similar jokes when they write hundreds of articles on one death within the Soviet zone of influence while practically ignoring persistent right-wing violence in their own sphere.
“Whataboutism” is not just a rhetorical device invented to deflect criticism; the accusation in “whataboutism” leveled at anyone who defends himself from arbitrary or illogical charges is the accusation that reveals a particular set of power relations.
These accusations of “whataboutism” imply a certain inequality, when the accuser bullies the accused into admitting his guilt.
The accuser puts the accused on the defensive, clearly implying his moral superiority. This moral superiority, of course, is rather fictional, especially if we keep in mind that the Hebrew word “satan” means an accuser. Accusing and blaming others has a satanic ring to that, something that anyone engaged in accusations should remember.
– You belched yesterday during dinner. You violated the laws of good table manners.
– But everybody belches!
– It is irrelevant, please answer the charge and don’t try to avoid it by resorting to ‘whataboutism.” Did you belch or not?
“Putin’s a killer,” Bill O’Reilly said to Trump in a February interview. “There are a lot of killers,” Trump whatabouted. “We’ve got a lot of killers. What do you think — our country’s so innocent?”
Here, the media dismisses as “whataboutism” Trump’s perfectly logical and correct answer – the one that Trump highlighted himself last week when he ordered the killing of the Iranian general Soleimaini.
Trump’s answer, however, was interpreted as somehow outrageous. How dare he compare? As if only a Russian stooge engaged in “whataboutism” can suggest that Western murders and violence are not different from Russian ones.
Dan Zak, who invents a verb “to whatabout” in reference to Trump’s exchange with O’Reilly, reveals another highly significant dimension of the term. Due to the abuse of the concept during the Cold War era, and due to the relentless propaganda of the likes of Edward Lucas or the former Ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, the charge of “whataboutism” began to be leveled at anyone who says anything critical about the United States.
You talk about US racism – you are carrying water for Soviet “whataboutists;” you talk about militarism, police brutality, wars and regime changes, or complain about the destruction of nature – you are a Russian stooge.
And God forbid you criticize failed policies of the Democrats, the Clintons in particular. You are worse than a stooge. You are a Soviet troll spitting “whataboutism,” while interfering in the US electoral process.
Trump might have more faults than any of the recent American political leader. Yet, it is the charge of Russian connection and its merging with the charge of “Whataboutism” that began to highlight some sort of sick synergy: if Trump uses this trope of Russian propaganda, he has to be working with Putin. That’s the tenor of all recent applications of the term in the mass media.
…opines Claire Fallon in her essay on the subject, while the title says it all: “Whataboutism, A Russian Propaganda Technique, Popular With Trump, His Supporters.”
The list of publications with very similar titles can obviously go on and on.
And herein lies the most pernicious legacy of the term.
It subconsciously invokes the spirit of Joe McCarthy. And as such it is still very effective in stifling discourse, in dismissing criticism, while character-assassinating dissenting voices.
Never mind that the press, as in the good old days of Father Popieluszko, is still filled to the brim with endless stories of Russian discrimination of the gay community, of Chinese abuse of the Uighurs, or the absence of new and old freedoms in the countries that Pentagon classifies as adversary.
To complain about the lack of balance and the biased focus would be engaging in “Soviet Style of Whataboutism,” wouldn’t it be?
Vladimir Golstein, former associate professor at Yale University, is currently Chair of the Department of Slavic Studies at Brown University.
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