Published in the Shepherdstown Observer, September, 2019

Whataboutism

And again, an export from Russia has flooded the United States, designed to create division, diversion, and delusion.  It’s whataboutism, the logical fallacy known as their "sacred Russian Tradition," or the "Soviet cliché."  


Starting in the late 1940’s when Truman’s Commerce Secretary, Averell Harriman, accused the Soviets of Imperialism, Pravda pointed out the racial inequalities in the US, 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 offense the US confronted Russia with, their response was, “and you lynch Negroes?” It became their catchphrase, a punch-line so commonly used that it even has its own Wikipedia page. One 1930’s Soviet political cartoon has a Black American being hanged 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 to 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. It's effective, because the accusation in the whatabout is generally true; we couldn't deny our history of racial violence and discrimination.  And since then, with 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 countries. 


It’s convenient to blame the Russians, but this is a universal human behavior; public, private, political, and familial. Whataboutism is just a common defense mechanism.  It’s the ego in search of equilibrium. It allows you 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. 


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 unforgiveable, 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 as well as 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. 


Putin is known 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?” When asked about 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 Columbia Journalism Review on this infuriatingly blatant use of whataboutism :“For a US 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.


As a strategy, it’s seen as being weak to confess our errors, giving the “other side” ammunition in proving that we are no better they they are.  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 in 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 then even fought a civil war over the right to stay awful.


Obviously, the only way we can make changes in ourselves for the better is to continue to identify the hypocrisy, double standards, and contradictions in human behavior that create inequalities and unfairness.   But when 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?