I had a good look around to see if I could sniff out an actual definition of “whataboutism” and perhaps attribution of the term’s inventor, but I couldn’t find anything firm. I did find the suggestion, on a blog called “The Democrat’s Diary” (see the posting, “Gaza, Sri Lanka and ‘Whataboutism'”) that it is ” a propaganda tactic pioneered by the Soviet Union. You’d challenge a Kremlin official with the abuses carried out by the Red Army in Afghanistan, for example, and he’d pause for a moment, shuffle uncomfortably, and then say…”what about what the Americans are doing in Nicaragua?”
Still, since Russians are generally uncomfortable with compound words in English that are essentially invented – like “scandalicious” and “Californication” – I doubt if Russians made it up. More likely, it was developed by a western journalist or blogger to describe his or her impression of how Russian officials react to criticism. All I could find in the way of attribution was that The Economist, Ed Lucas and the Streetwise Professor absolutely adore the term, and seek to inject it into the debate wherever opportunity allows.
In any case, the accusation of “whataboutism” serves several purposes. For one, it’s supposed to restrict you very narrowly to the subject of discussion. Let’s assume you are engaged in disagreement with someone, on an issue you perceive to be unfair or Russophobic (or both). If you suggest the problem at the root of the discussion exists in equal or greater measure in the Russophobe’s country, you are likely to be accused of whataboutism. It doesn’t mean you’re wrong; it means you were supposed to simply argue the problem from the point of view of its existence in Russia – yes or no. If you divert from those parameters, the accusation of whataboutism is meant to suggest your purpose is to distract other parties from the issue being argued – even if you continue to discuss the same issue, but point out that it exists elsewhere.
Let’s look at an example. In this post, the Power Vertical was riffing off of a Moscow Times article which reported engineers at an assembly plant – belonging to aviation company Sukhoi – had obtained fake university diplomas in order to justify pay raises, or to secure their jobs, or something of that nature. The diplomas advertised them as having achieved qualifications they had not earned. The Power Vertical author Robert Coalson (who has since moved on to other efforts) was having a high old time pouring withering criticism on the country, because the company refused to fire the engineers in question when the paper exposed their guilt.
I pointed out that diploma forgery was not only common in the USA, but that cushy jobs acquired through lying about one’s level of education – substantiated with a fake diploma – extended all the way into the U.S. government, major defense contractors, even an auditor whose job it was to verify the credentials of independent colleges and schools. I also pointed out that the USA is far and away the leader in the business of generating fake diplomas, and that no laws prohibit the practice of selling fake diplomas in most states. Federal and state law-enforcement had offered their support for legislation that would make selling fake diplomas illegal – but the government declined to act.
My purpose in doing this was not to pretend the ethical abuses in Russia had never happened, or to deny that there is a problem in Russia with phony qualifications. It also was not an effort to distract Mr. Coalson and get him off the subject, as we remained involved in discussion of fake diplomas. I specifically chose the United States only because Robert Coalson is an American; it makes little sense to argue that Russia is burning if you’re speaking from the middle of a pillar of fire yourself. Surprisingly, Mr. Coalson responded personally – to tell me….you guessed it. That I was engaged in “a tour de force of whataboutism”. Furthermore, he informed me, it was not his intention to suggest the problem did not occur elsewhere, but that “the current government in Russia has systematically eliminated all mechanisms for holding itself accountable before the public”.
Which, I thought, was another way of saying the Russian government would not acknowledge that using fake diplomas to get a job or to obtain a raise in pay is illegal. As far as that goes, if you are caught doing it in the USA, you probably will be fired. However, the practice of selling fake diplomas is not illegal, and the traffic in them is conservatively estimated at 100,000 per year in the USA alone. You can’t tell me 100,000 people get fired in the U.S. every year for using fake educational qualifications. There were – at the time the article was written – 134 fake-diploma mills just in California. There are only 159 real universities and colleges in California, counting every such institution that fits the description, including Bible Colleges and specialized facilities such as Culinary Schools.
This, then, led me to the impression that Mr. Coalson was upset because reporters and advocates from the United States had told Russia what it should do, and Russia had not obeyed.
Since there appears to be no established definition for “whataboutism”, I therefore propose it be understood as ” a tactic used by one side of an argument in order to limit the options available to an opponent to conduct a rebuttal to the best of his/her ability”. All in favour, raise your right hand. Opposed? Carried.
In fact, what I was trying to express to Mr. Coalson – and anyone else reading the post – was my objection not to his characterization of the behavior as unethical, but to the hypocrisy evident in his castigation of it while his own country hosts an even worse problem of precisely the same nature.
Another timeworn cliché suggests that when confronted by a westerner on the issue of lawlessness in Russia, Russians and Russophiles alike reply, “but you lynch negroes”. This is just another trope, a tired jape trotted out in the hope that you, the reader, will fall for it and abandon your argument. If you were talking about banking irregularities and your opponent suggested it was an endemic problem in Russia, using “but you lynch negroes” would be a stupid argument, wouldn’t it? Lynching of negroes has nothing to do with banking. If you, however, were able to substantiate that banking irregularities were as or more prevalent in your opponent’s country, while receiving the same studied disregard on the part of the law, that is most certainly a valid argument.
Yes, America once did lynch negroes. Presumably that would be a valid argument if the subject were human rights violations that took place from the late 18th century to the early 1960’s, but that would be as far as it goes. You couldn’t use, “but you lynch negroes” as a defense if you were discussing mail fraud. And as far as I can see, nobody does – but still the treasured defense reflexes of “whataboutism” and “but you lynch negroes” persist. Russophobes are content to let you go down in flames if you are losing the argument, but if you appear to be holding your own, expect the accusation of whataboutism to come out. It is, therefore, a tactic used to prevent you from successfully defending your viewpoint.
Let’s look at another example of a valid human-rights argument that need not involve a defense of negro-lynching. In 2006, U.S. Senator Bill Frist said in a news conference following a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that the United States would have reservations about recommending Russia for membership in the WTO owing to Russia’s “disregard for the rule of law, human rights violations and anti-democratic tendencies”.
Let’s take a look at each of those. Rule of law? In 2006, the U.S. government began tracking computer users’ web browsing by implanting bugs on their web browsers that would track their online visits to any and all sites, without their knowledge. Against the law? You bet. When called on it, the Pentagon claimed to be unaware its systems were tracking users across the web. Before you accept that explanation, pretend it happened in Russia and the Kremlin’s position was, “Gee; we didn’t know”. Rule of law? Check.
Let’s look at the human rights accusation. I’m not sure what Mr. Frist was referring to, because he didn’t elaborate, but I’d guess it was either the murder of journalists or issues in the Caucasus. Anyway, this one was my favourite, because only two months before Mr. Frist’s accusation, the second wave of photos and records chronicling horrific abuse of Iraqi detainees (most of whom had done nothing wrong, since they were subsequently released) at Abu Ghraib, some of it by CIA agents, was published. The Pentagon’s response to the disclosure was to accuse Salon magazine of damaging national security. Again, imagine this is the Kremlin, suggesting the Moscow Times should have covered up evidence of torture conducted by FSB personnel in the interests of national security. You can imagine how that would fly in the western press. Uh huh. Human rights? Check.
That brings us to “anti-democratic tendencies”. Well, how about this? In 2006, Congress fast-tracked legislation that would grant President Bush the authority to declare any citizen an “enemy combatant”, even if he or she had never left the United States. If the subject had contributed to a Midddle Eastern charity, he or she could be detained in a military prision indefinitely, and face a military tribunal without the constitutional protections afforded in a criminal trial. I imagine Mr. Putin could have designated any Russian an enemy combatant, too, if he really wanted to – but I have a hard time believing you could find a Republican senator who would describe it as democratic. Or this; U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson, who had discretion over awarding of federal contracts, withdrew one that had already been awarded because the contractor said he didn’t like President Bush. No, I’m not kidding. Imagine if his counterpart in Russia did the same thing, based on a criticism of Putin. Anti-democratic tendencies? Check.
See, that wasn’t hard! Stay in context and, if you can, stay in the same timeframe. You know how much you hate it when opponents say, “Stalin butchered millions, ” and “Stalin did this” and “Stalin did that” – quite apart from the fact that Stalin wasn’t even a Russian, he has been dead a long, long time, and his activities then have little relevance to the way Russia is governed today. That’s a “but you lynch negroes” argument, and you should avoid citing activities in the target government or country that happened years and years ago, unless the disagreement is historical in nature.
I’d love to do another one, but I don’t have time right now. How about if you do it yourself, as a practical exercise, just for fun? Let’s assume your Russophobic opponent is arguing that such-and-such event in Russia was “stage-managed” by the Kremlin; that it was deliberately faked in order to create a specific impression for the public, and the actual circumstances were nothing like what it portrayed. Let’s further assume this event took place in Russia in 2003.
A good place for you to start would be to google “Jessica Lynch”. Have fun.