Wednesday, July 25, 2018

But What About the Whataboutism, Huh?

Here's my position at the moment.  (If you don't like it, I have others.)

I take it for granted that Russia (the whole country, every dang one of 'em!) meddled in the 2016 US elections.  Probably all states meddle in other states' affairs, and the US is no exception.  It's like spying: every country does it.  When they catch another country's spies, they expel or punish them, which is fair enough; it's the pretense of violated innocence that I find insufferable.

What effect, if any, Russian meddling had on the outcome of the election is another question, which most commentators, professional and amateur alike, seem not to recognize; they evidently assume that if not for Russian interference, Clinton would have beaten Trump. On that question I'm agnostic.  Given the myriad of factors that affect electoral results, I don't think it's possible to isolate just one -- if you're really interested in understanding why Clinton lost and Trump won, that is, or in preventing such interference in the future.  I don't believe that most of those who are presently obsessed with Russia and Putin are interested.  As Seth Ackerman wrote recently at Jacobin:
Despite ubiquitous demands to “take the threat seriously,” none of these voices has plausibly explained what the US ought to do about it. Democratic senator Chuck Schumer demanded that Trump “cancel his meeting with Vladimir Putin until Russia takes demonstrable and transparent steps to prove that they won’t interfere in future elections.” And how exactly would that work? ...

It seems clear that the current Beltway panic isn’t really a reflection of the magnitude of the perceived threat from Moscow. It reflects panic that someone like Trump could win an election in the United States. If Russia’s actions did, in fact, shape the outcome — and I doubt they did — it was by changing a tiny, marginal number of votes in what would have been a close election anyway. Russian meddling is not the reason Trump was a viable presidential candidate.
Ackerman also wrote:
Think of it as “the expressive function of the Russia freakout.” Just as there is what Cass Sunstein called “the expressive function of law” — “the function of law in ‘making statements’ as opposed to controlling behavior” — there’s a purpose served by the constant keening over Putin. It conveys liberals’ sense of bewilderment and disorientation at a country they no longer recognize — a feeling not so different from that which motivated the Right’s manifold freakouts in the Obama era.

On both sides there’s a sense of loss about a bygone America that no longer exists: for the Right, the white, middle-class utopia of the Eisenhower years. For liberals, the upright decency of the Jed Bartlet administration. The problem with these fantasies is neither of them ever existed.
So it's easy enough to see why the most popular riposte to criticism of the Russia Freakout is an accusation of "whataboutism."  I've been seeing it used more lately -- which does not mean that it's absolutely more common, of course, only that I am seeing it more.  It's bipartisan, too: my Never-Trump Right Wing Acquaintance uses it just as Democratic loyalists do.  Of course, he's engaged in whatboutism himself many times, just as they have; indeed, many accusations of whataboutism are accompanied by more whataboutism.  Whataboutism is only bad when the wrong people use it. 

The first time I remember encountering whataboutism online was in the late 1980s, when a College Republican, defending the Reagan/Bush support for death squads in Central America asked me Whatabout the Sandinistas' human rights violations in Nicaragua?  (Which were, though real, much less severe than those in El Salvador or Guatemala.)  I don't think I missed a beat; I replied that the US should cut off all military aid to the Sandinistas.  I was being snotty, of course, because the US wasn't giving military aid to the Sandinistas: we were waging a vicious proxy war against Nicaragua, killing and wounding thousands of civilians.  I don't recall that my interlocutor had an answer to that; the home office hadn't provided one.

Whataboutism is much older than that, for reasons I'll get to presently.  It was a common response to US propaganda against the Soviet Union, both by the USSR and by apologists in the West. But the US propaganda was itself whataboutist: sure, things aren't perfect in the US or in our client states, but whatabout the terrible conditions behind the Iron Curtain?  (It's related to the popular parental response to kids who won't eat their spinach: Whatabout the starving children in India who'd love to have that spinach?)

But once you start to pay attention, you'll find whataboutism everywhere.  When American racists threw tantrums because the Kenyan Usurper was putting his big dirty feet on the sacred Oval Office Desk (a gift to America from Queen Victoria!), the usual and entirely proper rebuttal was to point out that his predecessors had done the same thing, and more.  When I pointed this out in a whataboutism thread on Twitter, one person indignantly replied that those rebuttals were just stating facts, they weren't meant to insult and mock the people they were rebutting (as the case we were debating allegedly did).  It must take quite a bit of determined effort to miss the scorn and mockery in the article I'd linked, but a partisan will make that effort.

Another classic example of whataboutism I've been citing comes from Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1967 "Beyond Vietnam" speech (emphasis added):
As I have walked among the desperate, rejected and angry young men I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through non-violent action. But they asked, and rightly so, what about Vietnam? They asked if our own nation wasn't using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today, my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.
When someone accuses me (usually accurately) of whataboutism, I reply demurely that if whataboutism was good enough for Dr. King, it's good enough for me.

As this example indicates, whataboutism is really a basic component of critical thinking.  That emerges in Walter Kaufmann's formula for his canon, quoted here:
Confronted with a proposition, view, belief, hypothesis, conviction -- one's own or another person's -- those with high standards of honesty apply the canon, which commands us to ask seven questions: (1) What does this mean? (2) What speaks for it and (3) against it?  (4) What alternatives are available?  (5) What speaks for and (6) against each?  And (7) what alternatives are most plausible in the light of these considerations?

Now it may be objected that doing all this is rather difficult.  But has it ever been a condition of virtue that it required no great exertion?  On the contrary.
Patricia Miller-Roberts' discussion of demagoguery and debate is also helpful, if only to show that Kaufmann's formulation of critical thinking isn't unique to him.

Another entertaining example of whataboutism went viral recently when a young Anglo-Asian journalist yelled "I'm a communist, you idiot!" at Piers Morgan on a British talk show.  Morgan had been hectoring her about the protests greeting Donald Trump's visit to the UK, asking why there hadn't been any protests when Barack Obama came to call.  Now, in fact, there were protests during Obama's visits to the UK; it's hard to tell under the cross-yelling, but I think Ash Sarkar tried to say so.  Morgan finally referred to Obama as Sarkar's "hero," which prompted her now-famous reply.

Morgan did have a point, one that Obama's critics on the left made repeatedly during his time in office: people who objected to George W. Bush's policies and actions suddenly tolerated or celebrated them when they became Obama's policies.  Antiwar activism diminished during Obama's presidency, for example.  But not all activism disappeared: protests against Obama's immigration policies were big and troublesome enough to push him to try to disarm or appease his critics.  It doesn't matter what Morgan's intentions were, he raised a valid question, and Sarkar tried to answer it.

Whataboutism criers claim that whataboutism is intended to stop debate.  It can be, but so is the accusation of whataboutism.  (More whataboutism -- whatever shall we do, wherever shall we go?)  One reply to this objection would be that whataboutism can also be intended to start debate.  The trouble seems to be, as I've noticed before, that most people have no idea how debate works, what to do once their opponent make a first rebuttal.  They know their talking point, which they got from a meme on Facebook, but it stops there.  They've seen that this or that liberal hero/ine EVISCERATED or DESTROYED the Rethugs with a single well-chosen word, and they think they can do it too.  But those Rethug targets, far from being destroyed or eviscerated, are still in good health and at large.

The proper use of whataboutism is to find out how consistent someone's position is.  If they are outraged by Obama's feet on his desk, did they object to (or even notice) Bush's feet on the desk?  If Bush's surveillance of American citizens was outrageous, did it stop being outrageous when Obama did it?  Remember, though: a responsible critical thinker will ask him or herself such questions before an opponent raises them: not to win debating points, but to test whether he or she has a sound position.  As Nietzsche said, "A very popular error: having the courage of one's convictions; rather it is a matter of having the courage for an attack on one's convictions!!!"

When I point out the US' record of interfering in other countries' elections, I'm not trying to stop debate: I want to start it.  I have some relevant and important questions for the Russiagaters.  For example, should other countries respond to US interference as they want the US to respond to Russian interference?  One difficulty is that it's not at all clear, as Seth Ackerman and Lyle Jeremy Rubin pointed out, how they want the US to respond.  As with liberals' vaunted concern over Syrian atrocities, they are upset and want everybody to know they're upset, but they don't know and don't much care what should be done.  Concrete suggestions, on the rare occasions when they were offered, consisted mainly of a US war against Syria.  As Ackerman pointed out, there's similar vagueness about what we should do about Russia.  There's a lot of posturing and xenophobic grandstanding, but little substance. Some measures for better cybersecurity have been enacted, but they are mostly not being implemented; Ackerman linked to a Politico story which reported that although millions of dollars had been appropriated to help states improve voting security, little of that money has been used.  But, I suppose, it's whataboutism to bring that up.