I could have sworn I had written directly about “whataboutism” before, but it turns out I have not; I have merely mentioned it periodically. Given the frequency with which the term is being thrown around — and the seemingly multiplying opportunities to do so presented by the current carousel of sexual misconduct allegations involving Pres. Trump, Sen-wannabe Roy Moore, Sen. Al Franken, and Rep. John Conyers (to name a few) — I’m jotting these notes down now for future reference.
What is “whataboutism”?
The WaPo’s Dan Zak once called whataboutism “a durable old Soviet propaganda tactic” of “short-circuiting an argument by asserting moral equivalency between two things that aren’t necessarily comparable.” But Zak’s example was Pres. Trump “wonder[ing] whether the removal of a statue of Confederate leader Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville — where white supremacists clashed this weekend with counterprotesters — would lead to the teardown of others.”
One problem with labeling Trump’s comments as whataboutism is that folks on the left responded to Charlottesville — and Trump’s question — by proposing tearing down statutes of Washington and Jefferson. And the Jefferson Memorial specifically. And Mount Rushmore. I suppose one could sidestep this problem by arguing that these lefties merely took Trump’s whataboutism bait, but the reaction tends to suggest the comparison he made wasn’t nearly as sketchy as a Soviet propagandist responding to complaints about the gulag by raising lynchings in the Jim Crow era.
Mind you, I did not think much of Trump’s post-Charlotesville comments. But not every political dodge or re-framing — and Trump was trying to change the subject from the very worst aspects of his early comments on Charlottesville — should count as whataboutism in my book.
Instead, I would define whataboutism as a form of hypocrisy that results in defining deviancy down. For example, a common form of whataboutism on the right today is to respond to some media criticism of Trump by noting that the media didn’t care enough to criticize something Pres. Obama did similarly. Given the leanings of most journalists, I would not be surprised if they tended to dismiss things on an apples/bananas basis without seriously considering whether both examples were fruit.
But even assuming that the comparison being made was relatively fair, the whataboutism arises because (to take a most trivial example) someone who ostensibly used to care that Obama often golfed as president will now claim that we should not care that Trump often golfs because the media didn’t care when Obama did it. If presidential golfing habits are a problem (I tend to think not, but whatevs), then they are a problem regardless of party and the whataboutist is now hypocritically demanding a lower standard. This is arguably more insidious than a simple, obvious dodge.
I mention this because I’ve recently felt compelled to include asides in various posts explaining why bringing up certain comparisons was not whataboutism (as I see it). I also was inspired by the bizarre social media reaction to a segment I saw Monday on CNN.
Mary Katharine Ham, a Federalist colleague, appeared to discuss the way Trump was handling the allegations of sexual misconduct against Roy Moore. Unsurprisingly, she was largely critical of Trump’s approach and the morally incorrect position it reflects.
However, MKH was accused of whataboutism by progressives on Twitter because she also mentioned House Minority Ldr Nancy Pelosi’s cringeworthy evasions in seeming defense of John Conyers on last Sunday’s Meet the Press. What she said, however, was that morally, we are witnessing a race to the bottom of the barrel. She added that Trump was an opportunist who would likely use the accusations lodged against Conyers — and Pelosi’s evasions — as part of his rationalization to support Moore.
Ham was not engaging in whataboutism; she described it and criticized it. Unfortunately, because the segment was not expressly about whataboutism, she didn’t use the term to describe it. Accordingly, it seemed as though it would be useful to set forth they way I would define the term.
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