It’ll come up, friends. You know it will.
You’ll be having a conversation. Perhaps the topic will be Russia. Or our godawful President. Or American influence abroad. Eventually, you’ll give into animal spirits and say something like “Obama droned bystanders” or “The CIA love assassinating people” or “America backs dictators.” Y’know, facts.
Discuss the mistakes of your side, and eventually you’ll be hit with this word: “Whatboutism.”
What does it mean? Wikipedia defines whataboutism as:
a variant of the tu quoque logical fallacy that attempts to discredit an opponent’s position by charging them with hypocrisy without directly refuting or disproving their argument.
The term became famous during the postwar years, especially in American-Russian relations. Here’s what would happen:
The Soviet Union would commit one of its regular crimes. The United States would call them on it. The Soviet Union would then point out that the U.S. was also committing heinous acts. These accusations would contain the phrase “What about …” and would point out America’s Jim Crow laws, our bombing sprees, or some other embarrassing fact of Western political life. The U.S. and the West started responding to the Russian critique by labeling it “Whataboutism.” Later, American intellectuals used a different term, “moral equivalence.”
I quote from the sacred Internet encyclopedia again:
The Merriam-Webster dictionary dates the term back to the Cold War. It references journalist Michael Bernard from The Age, who in 1978 wrote “the weaknesses of whataboutism—which dictates that no one must get away with an attack on the Kremlin’s abuses without tossing a few bricks at South Africa, no one must indict the Cuban police State without castigating President Park, no one must mention Irak, Libya or the PLO without having a bash at Israel.”
Bernard’s examples have not aged well. The Kremlin’s crimes are well known – but apartheid, Park, and Israel’s are also widely condemned. For some strange reason, it never occurred to mainstream thinkers to point out that all states are amoral actors, and capable of great wickedness.
Call it what you will: whataboutism, moral equivalence, two-wrongs. There are a thousand names for it, but one idea: my side is not subject to the same moral laws as the other guy. There are excusing factors. The gigantic scale of the other guy’s mistakes make mine irrelevant.
But this is nonsense. “Whataboutism” is a propaganda term. There’s not one law for the goose and one for the gander. Moral rules apply across the board. That’s what makes them rules. Crime is crime. Hypocrisy is hypocrisy, wherever it applies.
Rational people understand this, at least on the domestic front. If it’s wrong when Trump does it, it’s wrong when Obama does it. If Trump’s sexual predations are wrong, then Bill Clinton’s predations are wrong. If it’s wrong when Sheldon Adelson uses money to buy an election, then it is wrong when George Soros buys an election.
On its face, this kind of talk sounds spineless, centrist. Friedersdorfian, even. But it’s actually as far from ambivalence as you can get. Moral clarity is a highly disruptive technology, to use the language of Silicon Valley. Moral clarity condemns consensus, “civility” and “the discourse” for the high-grade cowardly bullshit it is.
Here’s an example. If there’s one thing that both sides of the Washington consensus agree on, it’s the virtue and beauty of American force projection. Both parties, and both of our recent presidents, agree that the most ethical, centrist thing you can do is the bomb the absolute shit out of poor people in distant lands. The pundits love it. The foreign policy establishment loves it. The Times and the Post love it.
But this is sheer depravity. If bombing Americans is wrong, then bombing the people of Yemen is wrong. If it is wrong to drone Christian weddings, it is wrong to drone Muslim weddings. Hypocrisy is not a mysterious equation.
If there are binding ethical standards, and if they apply regardless of context…then it doesn’t matter what gets hashed out in bipartisan meetings. If billionaires are an indefensible class, then your billionaire is as bad as my billionaire.
Liberals attacked Trump for throwing children in cages. They were correct to do so. Trump’s position is evil. The far right replied by accusing liberals of hypocrisy: Why didn’t you object when Obama used ICE against families? Unfortunately, they had a point. Obama’s position was wrong. On immigration, Trump and Obama met in the center, and the center was vile.
Don’t miss my point. Political actions are surrounded by facts, and these facts are always relevant. We can, and should, quibble about the act itself. There is a difference between Obama’s cruel, high-handed indifference and Trump’s nauseating racism. Lincoln suspending habeas corpus in 1863 is not the same thing as the British Parliament suspending habeas corpus in 1817. The racism of the American North is different from the racism of the American South. Such discussions, and such distinctions, are necessary.
What we cannot do, what we should not do, is junk the search for moral truth as “moral equivalence.” The accusation of “whataboutism” is different than context-hunting: it dismisses out of hand the possibility of moral critique. It rejects the idea that moral comparison is possible. But when we speak of power, moral comparison must always be possible.
So far, so good. Most sensible people, if pressed, would agree that moral laws apply between parties within a country.
But why are we so quick to dismiss comparison when it is between nations? Ordinary people suffer when governments feud. And yet, we are so quick to dismiss the suffering of others as necessary.
Everyone with half a brain understands there is a difference between the corrupt American state, and the decrepit petro-autocracy of Putin’s Russia. We are a powerful, failing Republic with global reach; Russia is a pillaged autocracy that can barely project strength outside of its neighborhood.
This variation does not mean one ethical law obtains for Washington, and one obtains for Moscow. That’s not how the moral arc of the universe bends. If we are going to accuse the Kremlin of hacking our democracy, then moral seriousness means addressing our past interference in their elections. If it is wrong for their security services to assassinate people, then it’s wrong for our intelligence services to do the same. If it is wrong for Iran to oppress women, then it is wrong for Saudi Arabia to oppress women. If China is barbaric for using capital punishment at all, then so are we.
Morality does not pick sides. It does not care about borders. It does not care about Administrations. There is a cold, mechanical indifference to the turning of its gears. There’s good and there’s bad. People who do bad things have to be called out on it.
When these people work for us – when they are employed by us – when they are in our sphere of influence – when they act on our behalf – then we have a moral duty to call them out.
This will be true when we are done with Russia, and move onto the next Significant Enemy. It will be true when the Democrats are in power again, and when Donald Trump is retired – or, hopefully, in prison. It will be true when the next far-right jackass takes the White House, and makes Trump look dignified in comparison. It will be true when America is no longer powerful, and some other country has its hands on the wheel. That’s the nice part about ethical truth: it doesn’t go away when it stops being convenient for you and yours. Now, what about that?