Who’s surprised about the Paul Manafort indictment? Probably not many. It sure seemed to be a no-brainer, especially considering that early morning raid on his condo over the summer. Far more interesting was the news that former foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign George Papadopoulos had already pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and is cooperating with the investigation.
Now who’s surprised by all the “whataboutism” arguments that have proliferated, especially since the Monday indictments were teased last week? No one should be, and if you are, I invite you to join the rest of us in reality. It’s not as comforting, but you don’t have to believe in ridiculous things to participate.
You know, like that this is over now. (Sorry, followers of the Mango Mussolini.) The average length of such investigations dating back to Watergate, the Washington Post found, is 911 days (excluding the 10-year Henry Cisneros perjury investigation and sealed investigations) from appointment to final report. Whitewater lasted about four years. So settle in; history tells us this could take a while.
And again: Can someone take away a certain someone’s phone? He keeps digging holes with it, especially with the constant “but so-and-so did worse” drumbeat. As some wags on Twitter have noted since the beginning of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation in May, whataboutism just isn’t a valid legal defense. Plus, the third-graders who had been using it would like that certain someone to stop ruining it for them.
Whataboutism is a specialized version of the tu quoque fallacy (which says an argument is wrong if the source has been hypocritical in regard to it). Basically, it’s an attempt to distract and turn an accusation back on an opponent. (Hey, that flu outbreak happened before me and I cover my mouth when I sneeze, but Lefty over there—he douple-dips his chips! Why isn’t anyone talking about that?)
The Merriam-Webster blog says: “Whataboutism gives a clue to its meaning in its name. It is not merely the changing of a subject (‘What about the economy?’) to deflect away from an earlier subject as a political strategy; it’s essentially a reversal of accusation, arguing that an opponent is guilty of an offense just as egregious or worse than what the original party was accused of doing, however unconnected the offenses may be.”
In June, linguist Ben Zimmer wrote in the Wall Street Journal of the roots of the term, and noted that although the ploy has often been associated with the Kremlin’s “useful idiots” and Soviet and post-Soviet propaganda, he’d traced the actual word back to a letter to the editor in 1974 in the Irish Times, during the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland, wherein Sean O’Conaill wrote about the “Whatabouts,” which is what he called “the people who answer every condemnation of the Provisional IRA with an argument to prove the greater immorality of the ‘enemy’.”
Nah … doesn’t sound familiar at all. Maybe if Obama or Clinton were the enemy …
Zimmer wrote that O’Conaill told him in an email that he was surprised at how the idea had spread since he gave it a name decades ago. On the whataboutism of Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, he was firm: “I claim no responsibility whatever for their shenanigans.”
Russia and the former Soviet Union seem to be masters of the tactic, and employ it often, which has a lot to do with why we associate them with it. During the Cold War, accusations of human-rights abuses or other failures in the Soviet Union were often met with references to lynchings in the American South and other atrocities around the world.
Though the Soviet Union is no more, Putin, a member of the KGB and its successor FSB, uses Soviet-style propaganda such as whataboutism. In a recent interview with Megyn Kelly, when asked about possible Russian hacking in U.S. elections, he whatabouted: “Put your finger anywhere on a map of the world, and everywhere you will hear complaints that American officials are interfering in internal election processes.”
Because, of course, two wrongs make a right. Wait … that’s not right, is it?
Whataboutism has become the go-to, it seems, for members of the current U.S. administration, often used to absurd lengths, though quite often with the same players (because it’s always someone else at fault … but Sarah, whoever did your makeup for the Tuesday press briefing/daily denial was definitely at fault for making you look like Elvira). Just a few minutes on the president’s Twitter page is enough to see his deep, abiding obsession with all things Obama and Clinton.
Dan Zak wrote in the Washington Post of the whataboutism used in the odd press conference the Tuesday after the death of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville: “For a nanosecond, especially to an uncritical listener, this stab at logic might seem interesting, even thought-provoking, and that’s why it’s a useful political tool. Whataboutism appears to broaden context, to offer a counterpoint, when really it’s diverting blame, muddying the waters and confusing the hell out of rational listeners.”
Alexey Kovalev, an independent Russian journalist, told Zak: “Not only does it help to deflect your original argument but it also throws you off balance. You’re expecting to be in a civilized argument that doesn’t use cheap tricks like that. You are playing chess and your opponent—while making a lousy move—he just punches you on the nose.”
Like those people in 1974 who finally had a name for this rather annoying ploy, I finally have a description of how it feels. I knew my nose was hurting for some reason.
I think I’ll need some ice before the next indictment is announced. And I’ll be protecting myself against swirlies, wedgies and pantsings while I’m at it. I wouldn’t put anything past these guys.