WHAT ABOUT WHATABOUTISM?

(First Published Strategic Culture Foundation Picked up by JRL,)

Vladimir Putin has made a national sport of what-abouting. In 2014, when a journalist challenged him on his annexation of Crimea, Putin brought up the U.S. annexation of Texas. The American invasion of Iraq is constantly what-abouted on state television, to excuse all kinds of Russian behavior.

– Dan Zak: “Whataboutism: The Cold War tactic, thawed by Putin, is brandished by Donald Trump“. Washington Post, 18 August 2017

“Trump Embraces One Of Russia’s Favorite Propaganda Tactics — Whataboutism”

Danielle Kurtzleben, NPR, 17 March 2017

Essentially, it’s an appeal to hypocrisy ― a logical fallacy also known as “tu quoque.” Instead of proving that your opponent’s claim is wrong on its face, whataboutism argues that it’s hypocritical of the opponent to make that claim at all.

And, the author helpfully goes on to explain: “Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering the Trump administration’s murky ties to Vladimir Putin and his associates, whataboutism is viewed by many as a Russian import.” Trumputin again! (Written, of course, before Mueller crashed.)

The author is half right: it’s hypocrisy, but it’s not an appeal to it, it’s a revelation of it.

As the quotations above show it’s a real meme: Google has thousands of hits on “trump putin whataboutism” – accusing someone of whataboutism, as apparently routinely practised by both, is supposed to be a final, complete and crushing response. Whataboutism is “a constant diversion away from actual relevant news items, facts, and arguments into constant accusations of hypocrisy” and a commonplace of Russian propaganda.

In a court of law someone who is accused of murder cannot defend himself by saying that his accuser has a dirty nose or, even, that he is himself a murderer. And neither is it accepted that the defence against an accusation of a dirty nose is saying that the accuser is a murderer. In a court of law the charge, whether dirty nose or murder, has to be proven to the satisfaction of the judge or jury; the personal behaviour of the accusing lawyer is not relevant.

But we’re not talking about a court of law here – we’re talking about an information war in which accusations are crafted to sway public opinion. In that “court” it is relevant to point out when the accusing dirty pot is calling the accused kettle black. Not to do so is a “diversion away from actual relevant facts” by changing the subject and pretending that the only subject is your crimes, not mine.

For example. Russia is routinely accused of violating the “Rules-Based International Order”. (What a great name: who wouldn’t want to live in a Rules-Based International Order and shun those who tried to overturn it?) A quick search turns up these accusations: “The Russian government wears its disdain for the rules-based international order as a badge of pride“; “What can the West do to keep Russia in check, when the country’s state policy is fundamentally at odds with the rules-based international order“; “It is Russia’s actions which threaten the international order on which we all depend“; “Today, I will set out how the Russian government under President Putin is taking steps that are weakening the rules-based order“; “Russia – a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council – has repeatedly attacked the global rulebook of normal behaviour.” Lots more examples can easily be found. Said Rules-Based International Order is praised as having kept world peace, as a “cornerstone” and other kinds of goodnesses. So, clearly, Putin & Co, by trying to overthrow it, are committing a crime.

But, actually, the accusation is only another propaganda shot at the contumacious Putin. Leaving aside the self-satisfied hype, we’re supposed to agree that this “order” is worldwide although few in, say, Africa or Asia would have happy feelings about it. But, most significantly we are required to not listen to what Putin actually says; over and over again, year after year: (this month): “Let me reiterate: truly mutually respectful, pragmatic and consequently solid relations can only built between independent and sovereign states“, or his essay in the NYT in 2013 when he said “The United Nations’ founders understood that decisions affecting war and peace should happen only by consensus”.

But enough of reality, back to whataboutism.

Many of these fulminations cite Crimea as the moment when Putin’s Russia irredeemably breached the Rules-Based International Order but the accusation was commonplace long before Putin appeared. Russia wanted “the right to do what it pleases in its own backyard” in 1994; was probably not going to be “an equal and fair player” and believed that “countries become strong only by making other countries weak” in 1996; was “subverting its neighbors’ independence” in 2006. In short “Russia is remarkably resistant to progress, material and moral“. In other words, fashions change but Russia is always the enemy: Russia wanted to dominate the energy reserves in the Caspian in 1997, but signed on to an equitable division in 2019. Never mind that accusation (and who remembers it now?) on to the next accusation! In 1997 we knew Russia wanted to trash the Rules-Based International Order, in 2019 we still know but fresh accusations replace the worn-out ones.

So, setting aside the fact that the Ukrainian constitution was nullified with the violent overthrow of the elected President, ignoring the fact that violence against Crimeans had already started, forgetting that the first action of the coup was to outlaw their language, ignorant that Crimea had the status of an autonomous republic, never mentioning there were already Russian troops legally there, pretending that the referendum was done at gunpoint, shedding crocodile tears over the suddenly discovered Crimean Tatars, carefully refusing to visit the place to see whether reality conforms to illusion and all the rest of it, let us do a little whataboutism.

If the return home of Crimea – that’s what the Crimeans call it – is to be considered a violation of the Rules-Based International Order, what was the smashing up of Yugoslavia? A popular expression of the self-determination of peoples or a foreign intervention for less shiny principles? What was the invasion of Afghanistan? Rules-Based or not? If the invasion of Afghanistan was “Rules-Based” on self-defence principles (still – 18 years later!) what was the “Rules-Base” for the invasion of Iraq? How about the destruction of Libya? By what principle of the Rules-Based International Order are US and allied troops in Syria? Especially “guarding” the oil fields? Where’s the “Rules-Base” that says Washington should care about what Maduro does in Venezuela, or is it a fundamental principle of the Rules-Based International Order that “It will make a big difference to the United States economically if we could have American oil companies really invest in and produce the oil capabilities in Venezuela“?

I reiterate that we are not in some courthouse in which, say the case of Crimea’s incorporation into the Russian Federation is being tried in Courtroom Number 1 and the NATO attack on Libya in Courtroom Number 2, the NATO presence in Syria in Courtroom Number 3 and so on. In that case the Russian defence team would not be justified in saying that the other guys are in court too; it would have to argue the case at hand (relying no doubt heavily on Article 1.2 of the UN Charter); in the other courtroom the defence would be relying on… good question.

We are in the “court of public opinion” and here it is relevant that NATO & Co accuse Russia of doing things without admitting that they do much worse. After all, in Russia’s so-called sins – Crimea, South Ossetia and Abkhazia – we can find solid majority support from the local population. NATO would have a harder time finding that support in its various post Cold War interventions. Or, to put it more plainly: Ossetia, Abkhazia and Crimea are pretty peaceful places; the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya etc etc are not. (To say nothing of the departure of US troops from Syria being hastened with jeers and stones.)

Occasionally Western news/propaganda outlets will confess to “the long history of the US interfering with elections elsewhere” but only to airily dismiss the issue because “the days of its worst behavior are long behind it”. (Ukraine, Venezuela, Russia and Hong Kong are not, we must assume, “interferences” and it would be “whataboutism” to suggest that they are somehow worse than the imaginary Russian intervention in the US election.)

In short, what is dismissed as “whataboutism”, and therefore unworthy of discussion, is reminder to the listener of reality; in a world of moralistic accusations that Russia has violated the sacred Rules-Based International Order it is a pointer to the West’s hypocrisy. If we are supposed to think that Russia did something bad and unlawful in Ossetia or Crimea violating the so-called Rules-Based International Order why is it wrong to point out that NATO this century has never paid a moment’s attention to the UN Charter or any other part of the, admittedly feeble, structure of international law?

The Bible advises us not to obsess about the tiny speck in the other person’s eye while ignoring the big hunk of wood in our own: “For with what judgement ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.

And if that’s not “whataboutism” what is?

 

PUTIN DERANGEMENT SYNDROME: CRAZIESTER AND MORE CRAZIESTER

Remember the Spinal Tap scene where the witless band member explains that because their numbers go to 11 they can always get that little bit extra? Putin Derangement Syndrome went past 11 a long time ago: we need a whole new set of superlatives, “craziest” just won’t do any more

After writing this compendium of nonsense about Putin from Western sources in 2015, I ran a short series on Putin Derangement Syndrome; I gave up when Putin Derangement Syndrome and Trump Derangement Syndrome merged into a crescendo of craziness, far past what I could have imagined.

(And Trump Derangement Syndrome is also past 11 – “Why Ivanka Trump’s new haircut should make us very afraid“.)

In the past, American hysteria campaigns against the enemy-of-the-moment ended when their target did. Noriega went to jail, Milosevic died in jail, Hussein and Qadaffi were killed, bin Laden was killed, Aidid – but who remembers him? The frenzy built up and up and stopped at the end before it got to 11. But Putin is still there and growing stronger by the moment. And the frenzy therefore has to go past 10, past 11 and ever upwards. One of the craziest (to say nothing of disgusting) things was this absurd cartoon from the (formerly) staid NYT. But that was a whole year ago.

No longer bare chests, Aspergers, big fish, gunslinger walks – in 2015 they were laughing; today Putin has super powers. Two events sent it past 11. Somebody leaked e-mails from the DNC showing that it was rigging the nomination for Clinton and she lost a 99% certain election. Immediately, her campaign settled on blaming Russia for both.

That strategy had been set within twenty-four hours of her concession speech. [9 November 2016] Mook and Podesta assembled her communications team at the Brooklyn headquarters to engineer the case that the election wasn’t entirely on the up-and-up. For a couple of hours, with Shake Shack containers littering the room, they went over the script they would pitch to the press and the public. Already, Russian hacking was the centerpiece of the argument. (From Shattered, quoted here.)

The bogus – bogus because most of the people on his team were part of the conspiracy and knew there was no collusion – Mueller investigation dragged on until – despite the endless “bombshells” – it finally stopped. But the crazies insist… not guilty but… not exonerated! And Trumputin’s principal conspiracist rants on.

Wikipedia tells us that “A conspiracy theory is an explanation of an event or situation that invokes a conspiracy by sinister and powerful actors, often political in motivation, when other explanations are more probable.” The CIA, referring to the Kennedy assassination, is said to have coined the expression in 1967. The “trusted source” media (an description it likes to award itself) is dead set against “conspiracy theories” and quick to denounce them as crazy, prejudiced and criminal. For example, Trump’s statement that Mueller was a hitman, is a “conspiracy theory” as are Trump’s ideas about the Bidens and Ukraine.

Everything I mention below comes from “trusted sources”. Therefore we must assume that all of them – Putin wants Trump to buy Greenland, Russians want to get Americans arguing about pizza, Russians have no moral sense and all the rest – are not “conspiracy theories” but honestly “more probable”.

Mere evidence – for example that the DOJ Admits FBI Never Saw Crowdstrike Report on DNC Russian Hacking Claim… or No Evidence – Blame Russia: Top 5 Cases Moscow Was Unreasonably Accused of Election Meddling or U.S. States: We Weren’t Hacked by Russians in 2016 or The Myth of Russian Media Influence by Larry C Johnson.. or Biden admitting to doing what USA Today insists is nothing but a conspiracy theory invented by Trump – makes no difference. The dial is turned up one more and we are solemnly and (incoherently – Paul Robinson again) warned that Russia might/could meddle in Canada’s forthcoming election.

Anti-Russia prejudice can have unhappy consequences. We have just learned that Putin phoned Bush a couple of days before 911 to warn him that something long-prepared and big was coming out of Afghanistan. Other Russian warnings had been dismissed by Condoleezza Rice – supposedly a Russia “expert” – as “Russian bitterness toward Pakistan for supporting the Afghan mujahideen”. One is reminded of Chamberlain’s dismissal of Stalin’s attempts to form an anti-Hitler alliance because of his “most profound distrust of Russia” (see Habakkuk comment). In some alternate universe they listened to Moscow in the 1930s and in the 2000s, but, in the one we live in, they didn’t. And they don’t.

Or maybe (foolish optimism!) this is starting too end: after all, it’s been a complete failure. I especially enjoyed the NYT, that bastion of the Russian-conspiracy/Putin-superpowers/Trump-treason meme, solemnly opining: “That means President Trump is correct to try to establish a sounder relationship with Russia and peel it away from China. But his approach has been ham-handed and at times even counter to American interests and values.” Ham-handed! – here’s the NYT’s view of the Trump-Putin “love affair” again if you missed it the first time. And now it’s Trump’s fault that relations with Russia aren’t better! French President Macron has recently said that “I believe we should rebuild and revise the architecture of trust between Russia and the European Union.” And Trump rather brutally delivered the message to Ukraine’s new president that he ought to talk to Putin.

Well, we’ll see. Russophobia runs deep and the Russians have probably got the message. As long as we’re stuck in a mindset of “Nine Things Russia Must Do Before Being Allowed to Rejoin the G7” it’s not going to change. An arrogant invitation is not an invitation.