And again, an export from Russia has flooded the United States, designed to create division, diversion, and delusion. It’s the logical fallacy called whataboutism.
That was the standard propaganda response used by Soviet statesmen during the Cold War every time we accused Communist authorities of aggression, human rights abuses, or censorship. It’s a cartoonish reply to criticism, called by many their “National Ideology,” “… a sacred Russian Tradition,” and the “Soviet cliché.”
Starting in the late 1940s after Truman’s commerce secretary, Averell Harriman, accused the Soviets of imperialism, the former official newspaper of the Communist party, Pravda, pointed out the racial inequalities in the U.S., saying that although the Soviet people consider American laws on race to be “insulting to human dignity, we do not intend on that account to turn modern weapons against Mississippi or Georgia.”
Since then, no matter what the U.S. brought up against Russia, their response was the question: “and you lynch Negroes?” It became their catchphrase, a punchline so commonly used that it even has its own Wikipedia page. It’s the subject of several 1930s Soviet political cartoons, one illustrating a black American hanging from the torch of a brassy buxom Statue of Liberty, looked on by an amused and approving Yankee top-hatted tycoon.
The essence of whataboutism is that you never allow a criticism of yourself to pass without simultaneously slandering your critic, no matter how much of a discrepancy there may be in the sins being committed, or in the timeframe of commission of that sin. And the accusation in the whatabout is usually true; in the case of the Soviet cliché, we were, and are, guilty of racial violence and discrimination. Gitmo, Iraq and the WMDs, the attempted Castro assassination, Watergate—we have plenty of “pongs” for every “ping” we send out in our lectures on the sins of other cultures.
It’s convenient to blame the Russians whenever possible, but this is normal human behavior—public, private, political, and familial. Whataboutism is just a common defense mechanism; it’s the ego in search of equilibrium. It allows us to conveniently assume that I have to be perfect before I am qualified to find fault with you; its corollary suggests that until I reach perfection, I can continue to be just as imperfect as you are. Unfortunately, when you do that—drag everyone else down to the lowest common denominator—it is equal to lining up for the Indy 500 and driving the race in reverse, backwards, the wrong way. It would be a great feat, but you’d still come in last.
All Things Not Equal
Similar to the circular conversation that has no conclusion, we seem to be forever unable to find a way to meaningfully respond to the flung-back accusation. But that’s because the power of the offense, the whatabout, is much more dramatic than any defense to it. It’s the teasing taunt that has no equal, like jocks bursting into the classroom, mooning the dorky intellectuals in the debate club. No one will ever remember the topic, the rebuttal, or the winner, no matter how logical the argument was.
It has dragged us into a quagmire of trying to equalize all infractions, when they are not all equal. The objective, to improve the behavior of humans, has been compromised by the subjective inability to determine what is unforgivable, and what is simply the result of imperfection—a moot point since we already know that “nobody’s perfect,” as if we would recognize perfection if we ever saw it. But since hypocrisy is always the result of human imperfection and the cause of it, there can never be a valid discussion of who is bad, worse, or the worst. Even God is stumped on this one.
To say that Al Franken’s stupid photo-op badness is the equal of Harvey Weinstein’s badness, and deserves the same banishment is clearly not a solution, and probably helped tip the balance of the Senate to those who didn’t care to confront the issue of sexual assault in the first place. And the governor of Virginia, with his idiotic blackface, done while being smart enough to finish medical school—to say that it was as evil as the KKK hoods who have roamed his very own state, terrorizing citizens not in black face but in white faces covered with sheets, seems to be considered by black voters of his own state as merely a “meh.” Joe Biden’s squirmy public touching and un-progressive policy decisions decades ago—do they really need to be revisited as if he were a devil to be resurrected, reformed, and converted into the perfect candidate for today, or else?
Who Will Be Left?
In the meantime, there is a motherlode of preposterously disproportionate potential whataboutisms from alleged faux pas committed during the last administration: the screaming Fox uproar over a nerdy President Obama wearing a bike helmet while actually biking, or of his insult to the dignity of the presidency by putting his feet up on the Oval Office desk, and especially his “swagger” even while G.W. Bush walked with the same swagger. And the standard response to Trump’s documented lie denying the pre-election porn payoffs is, “whatabout Bill Clinton?”
Putin is seen to be “an especially skilled practitioner” of whataboutism, and evidently has an adept student in Trump, who routinely finishes his sentences with “whatabout Hillary’s emails?” Responding to the 2006 Russian law that legalized assassinations abroad, Trump said, “We got a lot of killers, too—you think our country is so innocent? Take a look at what we’ve done too.” The journalist Garry Kasparov commented to the Colombia Journalism Review on this infuriatingly blatant use of whataboutism: “For a U.S. president to employ it against his own country is tragic.” It’s possibly one of the few times Trump has ever told the truth, but it was likely done to please the Russian president, not to confess the events in American history that prove us to be fallible.
What makes the Russians happy is when we admit our wrongs; what makes Republicans happy is when Democrats admit their mistakes and then voluntarily atone for their sins. As a strategy, it’s seen as being weak to confess our errors, giving the “other side” ammunition in proving that our cause is no better than theirs. As the oft-quoted Bible teaches: “Judge not, lest you be judged.” Unfortunately, religion—while telling us not to judge—has given us standards of behavior with which to judge others. Our intelligence has given us the ability to discern the difference between good and bad. Our emotional weakness gives us the instinct of retribution. And technology now provides us the means to communicate it all instantaneously en masse. It leaves us with the challenge of how best to throw the well-aimed “first stone,” if there is even a stone left to be thrown.
We’re all bad, just not equally. Unfortunately, we can’t be trusted to be subjective about what is really awful, or just a little awful, because of our disastrous lack of judgment in the past—when some of us let the awful pass as legal and acceptable, and even fought a war over the right to stay awful.
Obviously, the only way we can make changes for the better is to continue to identify the hypocrisy, double standards, and contradictions in human behavior that create inequalities and unfairness. But if we go overboard shaming the minor offenses that hurt a few, a little, then who will be left to speak up to the gross injustices that hurt us all, a lot?