January 16, 2023

When ‘Whataboutism’ Is Appropriate

Stacey Abrams denied the legitimacy of the Georgia gubernatorial election that she lost in 2018, claiming again and again that the election had been “stolen” and she had really won.

“Whataboutism,” a term much in fashion in political circles these days, is a pejorative reference to a very old and familiar argument: A’s bad behavior can’t be condemned because B engaged in bad behavior too.

The term dates back to the Cold War. It was the label given to a tactic perfected by Soviet propagandists. If Western critics blasted Moscow’s crimes in Afghanistan, the persecution of dissidents, or the horrors of the Gulag, trained Soviet flacks would respond with knee-jerk “whataboutism”: What about racism in America? What about Watergate? What about riots in US cities?

Soviet-style whataboutism outlasted the Soviet Union.

“In 2001, my Murray Hill neighbor was the comedian ‘Professor’ Irwin Corey, then an 87-year-old unreconstructed Marxist,” recounted William Voegeli, the editor of the Claremont Review of Books. “On the afternoon of 9/11, after both towers of the World Trade Center had collapsed, I walked past Corey, outside his townhouse in mid-harangue: ‘Well, what about what our country did to the Indians?’”

Whataboutism goes by many labels. The classic Latin term is “tu quoque,” meaning “you also,” but English has more colorful ways of expressing the idea: “The pot calling the kettle black.” “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.” “So’s your old man.” In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus turned whataboutism into an ethical reproach: “First cast the beam out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to pluck the speck out of your brother’s eye.”

Those who engage in whataboutism in order to deflect legitimate criticism from themselves or their party deserve to be scorned. But so do those who cry “Whataboutism!” when their own double standard is being highlighted. Consider an example of each.

George Santos, a new Republican congressman from New York, was exposed last month as a thoroughgoing fraud whose campaign for office was built on an edifice of deceit. He lied to voters about his work experience, his high school and college education, his religion, his real estate holdings, and his supposed animal charity. He falsely claimed that his grandparents were Ukrainian Jews who fled the Holocaust, that four of his employees were killed in the Pulse nightclub shooting, and even that the 9/11 attacks claimed his mother’s life.

Not surprisingly, Santos has been widely excoriated as unfit to serve in Congress. On Wednesday, dozens of leading New York Republicans called for Santos to resign. Among them were four US House members and the chairmen of the Republican committees in Nassau County and Suffolk County. When Santos refused to quit, he was backed up by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who resorted to whataboutism. “When pressed on the fact that Santos had admitted to fabricating parts of his resume,” CBS reported, McCarthy said, “Yeah, so did a lot of people here, in the Senate and others.”

Several conservative commentators struck the same note, implicitly minimizing Santos’s flood of mendacity by listing some Democrats who got caught twisting the truth. Paul Gottfried, the editor of the right-wing journal Chronicles, cited Senator Elizabeth Warren’s “fake Native American ancestry” and the “bogus Vietnam veteran” status of Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut. Roger Kimball, a noted conservative intellectual, recited a litany of Joe Biden’s absurd exaggerations — among them, that he graduated in the top half of his law school class, that he “used to drive an 18-wheeler,” and that he was arrested in South Africa when he went to visit Nelson Mandela in prison.

This is whataboutism at its worst. Of course, many politicians have told brazen lies about themselves, but Santos fabricated virtually his entire biography in the course of a single congressional campaign. Practically everything he said to get himself elected was fraudulent. His comprehensive record of duplicity is in a class of its own.

Now consider a contrasting case.

When critics point out that election denial didn’t start with Donald Trump and his MAGA supporters, those who holler “whataboutism!” are not standing up for the truth but trying to evade it.

Trump’s lies about the 2020 election were appalling. They ultimately led to a violent mob storming the Capitol. But long before then, prominent Democrats were campaigning against the legitimacy of elections whose results they didn’t like. An array of leading voices on the left, including members of Congress, declared the election of George W. Bush in 2000 to be fraudulent, stolen, and a coup d'etat. Both the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee and former president Jimmy Carter repeatedly insisted that Al Gore won the election and the Republicans stole it. There was a fresh torrent of such claims after the 2004 and 2016 elections, when Democrats raised charges of faulty voting machines, dirty tricks, “deliberate voter suppression,” and “all kinds of irregularities” in how votes were counted.

The Democrats’ election denialism wasn’t limited to presidential elections. Stacey Abrams denied the legitimacy of the Georgia gubernatorial election that she lost in 2018 and claimed again and again that she had been robbed of victory. Far from being shunned by her party for undermining basic democratic norms, she was embraced as a hero. Like Trump after the 2020 election, Abrams pursued her claims in court. Like Trump, her claims were found to be wholly without merit.

It is hardly unfair whataboutism to call attention to this pre-Trump history of election denialism on the left. It clearly is not a false equivalency or an out-of-context comparison. If refusing to accept election results was intolerable when Trump did it, it was just as intolerable when Democrats did it. Trump compounded his offense by inciting the Jan. 6 riot. But well before that terrible episode, he was being condemned for spewing subversive antidemocratic lies by critics who never seemed to mind when the opposing party did the same thing.

Whataboutism is pernicious when it is intended to shut down discussion; it’s appropriate when its purpose is to uphold the truth and resist selective outrage. At times all of us are guilty of focusing on the speck in another’s eye while ignoring the beam in our own. But when A’s wrongdoing is equivalent to B’s, there is no reason not to ask: Well, what about it?

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