On “Whataboutism”

“Shut up! How dare you point out my hypocritical double standard!”

I am abashed to admit that I read the term “whataboutism” many times without having a clue regarding what it meant. Properly used, the term could have been a useful one. I often wondered what to call it when, say, Newsbusters, would run one of the stories like this one (there have been far worse. but this was the most recent):

FLASHBACK: CNN Didn’t See GOP Winning Governor Races in 2009 As Referendum On Obama

What does CNN’s analysis eight years ago have to do with whether its analysis regarding 2017 election results are persuasive or not? Nothing. It’s a deflection without substance: “Oh yeah? Well, why should we pay attention to your claim that the GOP losing State House races is ominous for the party now when you didn’t say the same thing when Democrats lost elections under Obama?” It makes no sense, especially since those losses were a warning for Democrats, who got clobbered in the 2010 mid-terms.

That’s real “whataboutism”: an intellectually dishonest argument that changes the subject to avoid dealing with the issues. It flourished during the Obama years, especially in the comments on political blogs. Virtually any discussion about Obama’s myriad botches and failures were routinely countered by, “Oh yeah? Well, Bush lied and people died!”

This kind of “whataboutism” involves the use of Rationalization #2, Ethics Estoppel, or “They’re Just as Bad,” and #22 The Comparative Virtue Excuse: “There are worse things.”

The idea, again,  is to avoid honest consideration of fair criticism by pointing somewhere else.

But progressives and liberals are very good at stifling dissent and argument by constricting language and discourse, so now “whataboutism” is increasingly being used to shut down efforts to point out double standards….and double standards, which are reaching plague proportions, must be stopped, and the only way the stop them is to identify them. 

For example, in a recent post,  I facetiously asked readers to remind me who Bill Maher inexplicably omitted when he said,

“I have to say, I gotta defend my tribe here a little bit—liberals versus conservatives—because certainly sexual harassment is absolutely the one thing we see now is totally, truly bipartisan (maybe the last thing that is)..But no liberal defended Harvey Weinstein or Kevin Spacey, who might be going to jail. Anthony Weiner is in jail. Louis C.K., we hear this week, did horrific things. Compare that to Trump and Roy Moore. We arrest our alleged rapists—they elect them. I mean, there’s a pig in the White House.”

I wrote, “I’m just sure there is a prominent Democrat who was and is and is an alleged rapist. I can’t quite fetch his name. It’s right on the tip of my tongue. Who is that? Help me out here. And Bill forgot about him too, so I guess I shouldn’t feel too bad…”

Almost immediately, I received comments from Democrats accusing me of “whataboutism.”  Well, you don’t get your first comment posted here by pulling that kind of crap, so this post is my answer. I was obviously referring to Bill Clinton, (and not to defend Trump or Roy Moore, but “alleged rapists” aren’t arrested by Democrats or Republicans; alleged rapists who have timely accusations against them and credible evidence other than he said/she said claims are arrested by non-partisan law enforcement) and the purpose of referencing Clinton was to point out Maher’s astounding intellectual dishonesty and the brain-frying double standard he and other progressives regularly use with this issue.

That isn’t “whataboutism.” That’s “Stop-using-an-‘our-team-can-do-no-wrong’-double-standard-you-integrity-free-hack-ism.”

12 thoughts on “On “Whataboutism”

  1. It’s my understanding that “whataboutism” is purported to have been first popularized by the Soviets to counter American propaganda. Eg. U.S. assertion: “Stalin murdered ten or twenty million Ukrainians.” Soviet reply: “What about the slaughter of American Indians by the Imperialists who stole the Indians’ land?” If it was enough for Pravda, it’s good enough for your garden variety Lefty, as we very well know from a number of commenters here who deploy it all the time.

    Frankly, I think calling pointing out the difference between how CNN covered governors’ races during Obama and during Trump is pointing out hypocrisy, bias and partisanship and is not really whataboutism. Calling pointing out hypocrisy and inconsistency and bias whataboutism has itself become a popular deflection tactic, again, used very often by the Left.

  2. Hmmm, Weinstein and Spacey are just a couple of bad apples who in no means represent progressives and liberals in Hollywood and throughout the USA: The real problem is the pig in the White House who should be impeached ASAP for all the dirty deeds he did to women. Now I think I get the gist of thoughtful liberal thinking.

  3. The counter, however, to accusations of whataboutism, is that “people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.” If there’s stuff that the other side can attack you on, don’t be surprised to get attacked if you attack the other side. No one likes to be reminded that they aren’t perfect or aren’t completely right, and the surest way to get out of that feeling is to attack the other guy, to paint him as dumb or a hypocrite. It’s also easier to change the subject and put the other guy on the defensive than to engage him on his own terms. Of course if you try to move the conversation back on topic YOU’LL be the one accused of not being able to defend your positions.

    Your last point is exactly right, but your title for it is a little clumsy. I would call it “the pro wrestler’s argument.” I dunno if you watched any of the pro wrestling in the 1980s and 90s, but frequently the performers and managers would give overblown interviews in which they accused the other side of all kinds of nefarious doings while minimizing or excusing their own actions (‘oh no, I didn’t really jab him in the throat with a foreign object, he’s just making excuses” when everyone saw him do just that). These usually sounded particularly preposterous coming from the “heels” (designated bad guys), and were just done to make them look like even bigger jerks than they already were supposed to be. Now that mentality has found its way into politics and to both sides their own guys are the “faces” (designated good guys) who can do no wrong, even if they break the rules, and the other side are the heels, who can do no right. That’s why both parties close ranks around their members accused of this or that and go after accused from the other side HARD.

  4. It seems to me that there are degrees of borish and awful behavior. Stalin for example murdered and starved an estimated 20 million people. It’s true that many members of Indian tribes were slaughtered and starved on reservations. However, most tribe members perished from diseases brought from Europe to America. Why won’t the Left acknowledge the difference between liquidating an entire an entire ethic group (as Hitler and Stalin attempted to do) vs. government policies which resulted in war against various tribes: The answer is of course that it would be inconvenient to give up a strategy that works.

  5. I don’t know, Jack. Ever since Trump got elected, you’ve been behaving in a way that is…let me say this carefully…having the effect of supporting Trump. And you’ve been doing it in a way that seems an awful lot to me like whataboutism, full of instances “They’re Just as Bad,” and “There are worse things,” in reference to the left.

    I’ve been tempted to call you out on it for a while, but you’ve always been careful to frame your whataboutist tendencies as media criticism. And that’s certainly fair. It’s important to point out double standards by people in authority, including informal social authorities such as media figures. But when you hammer away at the media over and over, in post after post, month after month, while ignoring a lot of Trump’s disturbing behavior on the Julie principle (and even calling out people who attack him for that behavior)…it begins to look a lot like a whataboutist defense of Trump.

    To put it another way, if the media’s willingness to ignore Obama’s problems while relentlessly attacking Trump is worthy of criticism, then at some point doesn’t your willingness to ignore Trump’s problems while relentlessly attacking the media also raise a few questions about you and your priorities?

    Besides, they way I see it, if the media gave the last president a pass on a lot of things, but they are relentlessly attacking this president, then the media is improving. Good for them.

    • I think I’ve been clear, but apparently not clear enough. Trump’s inadequacies and character flaws are a given. This is one nation, and the objective is to make every President as successful as he can be. It doesn’t matter who he is, or what his policies are. Obama was made a worse leader by the news media’s reluctance and refusal to give him legitimate criticism, and to challenge him to shape up. He was, like Trump, a narcissist,and we ended up with an arrogant self-indulgent President who did terrible damage because he took his sycophants word for it that he was a great leader. If he had been even a so-so leader, there would be no Donald Trump.

      Criticizing everything is just as damaging as criticizing nothing. Moreover, and I will keep writing this until the stars grow cold, a news media determined to overthrow and undermine an elected President is an existential catastrophe. Our system was constructed to withstand a poor President (though not an endless chain of them), it cannot survive the absence of an honest and objective, trustworthy news media. Trump is not the worst thing. That doesn’t make him better than he is, but he can’t change (Obama could have because he’s smarter, and is teachable). When someone can’t change and is going to be in charge for four years, you help him. There’s no alternative. This is the Caine Mutiny analogy, and it is correct. You attack a guy like that over feeding fish, and he gets worse. Trump can definitely get worse. I am half convinced that the Democrats and the news media are trying to make him worse. That’s insane. That’s unethical. That’s un-American. Non-stop, unwavering negativity toward the President of the United States is self-destructive. The office has to receive basic respect and good will, or it does not work.

      There’s no “whataboutism” in that assessment. The news media is pretty much beyond even a double standards critique: it was irresponsible to give Obama an 8 year pass, and that hurt both Obama (yes-men enable bad management) and the country. It is equally irresponsible to decide that a President of the United States will be attacked relentlessly, on style, on substance, on nothing at all. If I have to provide some minimal ballast—I am under no illusions that I have any impact or influence— to that unethical conduct by standing up for the office of the President—“support,” if you will—then I believe it is ethical to do that. I begin with the presumption of our elected leader’s good intentions and good will. I’m not apologizing fr that, and I will continue to do it. It’s impossible to be fair otherwise.

    • Windypundit wrote, “Ever since Trump got elected, you’ve been behaving in a way that is…let me say this carefully…having the effect of supporting Trump.”

      Bull shit Windypundit. That’s an unethical but very typical tactic used by leftist political hacks and a new breed of illogical social justice warriors.

      If you were to say that an antifa member is wrong for murdering an actual fascist that wouldn’t mean that you support the attitudes of the fascist, it means you do not support murder.

      Let’s see if you have the integrity to apply that concept.

  6. “This is one nation, and the objective is to make every President as successful as he can be.”

    My first reaction is that this is one of the most blatantly authoritarian things you’ve ever written. So I’ve got to ask, what do you mean by “success”? For example, I oppose Trump’s trade agenda. I think it will be a disaster for the American economy. So am I just supposed to stand by, or worse, help him succeed, while he tries to destroy American international trade? Because that sounds like helping Trump succeed will make the country fail.

    If your definition of helping hem succeed means that we have an obligation to help the President achieve his goals for the country, even if we disagree with them, then you have turned the whole purpose of democratic government upside down.

    “I begin with the presumption of our elected leader’s good intentions and good will.”

    I don’t see any reason to believe that, nor do I see any reason to deceive others by pretending I do.

    • Windypundit wrote, ” ‘I begin with the presumption of our elected leader’s good intentions and good will.’ I don’t see any reason to believe that…”

      That sir is the root of your anti-Trump partisan bigotry based hate, yes it’s bigotry, and it’s the root of the insanity that has the resistance left so damned obsessed and this kind of obsession is not healthy.

      • My earliest memory of hearing about Trump was when he tried to use eminent domain to force an elderly widow out of her home so he could expand one of his casinos. Donald Trump attacked Khizr Kahn’s speech without acknowledge the loss Kahn had suffered, and when confronted about it, he compared Kahn’s loss of his son with the sacrifices Trump made for his business. When two American aid workers were infected with Ebola while fighting the epidemic in Africa, Trump opposed letting them return here for treatment, saying things like “People that go to far away places to help out are great — but must suffer the consequences!” Trump mocked Senator John McCain for getting captured in Vietnam. During his official announcement that he was running for president, Trump made a point of trashing Mexican immigrants. Trump cut off health insurance for his very sick nephew (I think) because the parents challenged his father’s will.

        I don’t question Trump’s intentions and good will because I’m a biased partisan bigot. I do it because I’ve payed attention.

        • More recently–as in two days ago–President Trump once again threw the intelligence community under the bus to say that he “believes” Putin when he says that he did not meddle in our election.

          A president with his nation’s best interests at heart would not repeatedly side against his own nation’s intelligence agencies and with a hostile nation. A president with his own interests at heart might do that, if he believes that the hostile nation isn’t hostile to him, and in fact helped him win the election.

          At this point, that is literally the best case scenario: that Donald Trump did not actually engage in any collusion with Putin, but still refuses to criticize Putin because he honestly believes that Putin helped him win. Donald Trump is good to people who are good to him. That isn’t bigotry, that’s basic observational skills.

          The worst case scenario is that Trump did engage in collusion.

          Either way, he is clearly putting his own interests above the nation’s. To pretend he didn’t on the basis that he “needs our support” is no longer a convincing argument. The mutiny analogy doesn’t work because the captain is sabotaging his own ship. A president with no faith in his intelligence agencies but absolute faith in our enemy is undeserving of our support. We have a duty to refuse to support him.

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