What’s whataboutism?

中国日报网 2017-05-19 13:13



What’s whataboutism?Reader question:

Please explain this headline: Trump Embraces One Of Russia’s Favorite Propaganda Tactics — Whataboutism (NPR.org, March 17, 2017). What’s whataboutism exactly?

My comments:

You criticize someone for doing something wrong, and they say “What about you?”

In a nutshell, that’s whataboutism, a retorting tactic turned into an art form or, seriously, an ideology, an ism.

Without going into detail, we may infer that in our example, the article talks about all the times when US President Donald Trump is criticized for something, he talks back with, say, “What about Obama?”, or “What about Clinton?”, Hillary Clinton that is, Trump’s presidential opponent.

Or “What about Bill?” Bill Clinton, that is, Hillary’s husband and former president.

In short, Trump just talks tough – without admitting to anything he does wrong or poorly.

It’s called “Russia’s favourite propaganda tactic” because Russia, or the Soviet Union in fact, used to adopt this tactic quite a lot during the cold war?

The cold war? Google it, please. Or Bing it.

Not only Russia, I remember China did the same thing, too. During the 1980s and 1990s, for example, whenever the United States criticized China on human rights, China said more or less the same thing: “What about your record?” Look at your slums and overpopulated prisons, etc. and so forth. In other words, take a look in the mirror.

It worked. Later, China began compiling its own files on America’s human rights abuses annually and usually published them immediately after the American report was published. You know what, it worked. Nowadays, this topic is much less talked about in the news.

What we learn from whataboutism is, first, no one is perfect, which is, well, fair enough. Second, as a propaganda tactic, it is notorious, because it doesn’t address the problem in question. Politically, it is merely a propaganda tactic.

Or PR tactic. In America, they say public relations instead of propaganda, because the latter had long acquired a notorious reputation.

Now, let’s read a few media examples of “What about?” or whataboutism to drive the lessons home:

1. Two days ago Roger Cohen wrote the following in the New York Times:

The magnetism of Silicon Valley may suggest that the United States, a young nation still, is Rome at the height of its power. American soft power is alive and well. America’s capacity for reinvention, its looming self-sufficiency in energy, its good demographics and, not least, its hold on the world’s imagination, all suggest vigor.

Cohen goes on to fret about the waning of U.S. geopolitical power, but let’s stay on the soft power side of things. The events in Ferguson, Mo., have given rise to a new wave of “whataboutism,” a term coined by the Economist to describe Russia’s tendency to respond to criticisms of its policies with tu quoque replies of “what about Iraq?” or “what about race relations in America?”

Events in Ferguson have caused whataboutism to go global. As Robin Wright notes in the Wall Street Journal a whole bunch o’ authoritarian states have seized on Ferguson to criticize the United States:

The U.S. investment of billions of American dollars to promote democratic values around the world has been undermined by the racial unrest in Ferguson. “US can’t tell other countries to improve their records on policing and peaceful assembly if it won’t clear up its own human rights record,” Amnesty International tweeted this week.

Several countries that have faced severe criticism in the State Department’s annual Human Rights Report are now boldly engaging in a kind of diplomatic touché-to-you in their condemnation of the U.S. Some may be expected from autocratic regimes. But the crisis in Ferguson undermines the moral high-ground that the U.S. has long claimed.


There are some reasons for real concern. It was The New Republic’s indispensable Julia Ioffe who first observed the application of whataboutism to Ferguson — and she found it very sobering:

Watching the riots in Ferguson, Missouri, it’s hard not to wince… at our foolish idea of our country. Russian police arrested journalists at protests, not American cops. And, even if the chances are higher that heads will roll here for something like this than in Russia, it’s hard not to notice one thing: Even at the height of the race riots in Moscow, at the height of the crackdown on the opposition, even the Russian police did not use rubber bullets.

And, like it or not, this is what the world is seeing, the world to which we strive to be an example.

- Ferguson, whataboutism and American soft power, WashingtonPost.com, August 20, 2014.

2. Russia is a country where admitting fault is not part of the political lexicon and President Putin has turned the tables, accusing Russia’s accusers of “politicizing” sports.

“We are seeing a dangerous recurrence of political interference in sport,” he said July 18. “Yes, forms of such intervention have changed, but the essence is still the same: to make sport an instrument of geopolitical pressure, the formation of a negative image of the countries and people.”

The state-controlled media have picked up that theme and most Russians CNN has spoken with appear to believe it.

An article on the website of one TV network blares the headline: “An order from the United States or Rodchenkov’s revenge: Who unleashed the doping war against Russia.”

Russian anti-doping experts are being quoted in the media, challenging details of the WADA report.

There’s another attitude toward doping allegations that many Russians seem to share, what used to be called in the Soviet Union “whataboutism,” in other words, “who are you to call the kettle black?”

Here’s how pole vaulter Yelena Isanbayeva put it to Russian TV:

“Doping existed 20 years ago, and ten years ago, and everyone knows it very well because athletes were disqualified, including from other countries, but everyone went out there and competed, and there was no problem. And now the international community all together, including WADA, has turned toward Russia, how can you not say it’s politicized?”

The Russian Olympic Committee, also is standing firm, challenging the IOC to make a “fair and unbiased decision” Sunday and allow “clean” Russian athletes to take part in the Rio Olympics.

Meanwhile, farewell celebrations for Russian athletes going to Rio are on hold.

- Olympic doping ban unleashes fury in Moscow, CNN.com, July 24, 2016.

3. The firing of James Comey is a perfect example how many conservatives avoided the issue of Trump’s action by focusing on the media reaction.

“The media is freaking out over something he’s got every right to do!” Nobody in the press outside of hyper-partisan commentators argued Trump lacked authority to fire Comey. The questions raised about Trump’s motives were valid.

On the campaign trail, Trump praised Comey for his actions, particularly the “Comey letter” as it related to the Clinton email investigation. He then claimed he was firing Comey because of his poor handling of that same inquiry. Two days after firing Comey, Trump reversed himself saying he was going to fire him regardless of the recommendation of the Deputy Attorney General.

The press reacted the way they did because Trump’s official reason for firing Comey (it was spelled out in his letter and by his aides to the press) turned out to be bunk. The press merely reacted to a complete 180-degree turn, and the reaction and criticism that followed were well-deserved.

Trump used his aides and Rod Rosenstein as cover and didn’t care one bit he left them to twist in the wind. If President Obama did something similar, conservatives would lose their minds and rightly so. Instead, so many conservatives jumped in to defend Trump with the straw man argument that he had every right to fire Comey and so who cares what reason he gave.

It is a similar phenomenon when comparing the behavior of both Presidents.

Trump is impetuous, prone to running his mouth at inopportune times, lies with ease, and can’t get out of his own way which is a good reason why his legislative agenda is sitting there like horse droppings on a Manhattan street during a hot day. The same people, however, never see fit to criticize Trump. They’re more concerned with saying, “Well, what about Barack Obama?

What about him? He is no longer the President of The United States.


If Trump screws up, he screws up. Comparing him to Barack Obama doesn’t make up for his failure. In fact, it spotlights Trump’s incompetence by arguing what he’s doing is no worse than Obama’s behavior.

Conservatives should beware of lowering their standards for a man who only a few years ago was writing checks to Hillary Clinton.

Donald Trump has no core beliefs. He is an opportunist. He doesn’t deserve loyalty from people involved in the conservative movement for decades. He certainly should not have his behavior excused by saying, “Well what about _________?”

- With Trump, Conservatives Cannot Give Into Whataboutism, RedState.com, February 16, 2017.


About the author:

Zhang Xin is Trainer at chinadaily.com.cn. He has been with China Daily since 1988, when he graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University. Write him at: zhangxin@chinadaily.com.cn, or raise a question for potential use in a future column.

(作者:张欣 编辑:丹妮)

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