A frequent complaint about ‘Russian propaganda’ is that it engages in ‘whataboutism’: the response to complaints about the behaviour of the Russian government or about some social, economic, or political ill in Russia is ‘what about the bad behaviour of the West?’
The anger which whataboutism provokes in some Western commentators suggests that it hits a raw nerve, possibly because it bursts their bubble of moral superiority. This week, in his blog Russia Without BS, Jim Kovpak describes the finger pointing involved in whataboutism as ‘one of the most irritating memes, for lack of a better word, that one encounters in discourse on Russia.’ This retaliatory finger pointing, Kovpak writes, is an example of ‘“fractal wrongness”, i.e. wrong on every conceivable level’. Furthermore, he says, ‘The culprit is almost always someone wholly ignorant about Russia and commenting on some news story, or it is a pro-Russian expat who attributes their privileged lifestyle to Putin.’ ‘If you have a problem with a claim in some article,’ he concludes, ‘put up or shut up. Make a damned argument and while you’re at it, bring some evidence.’
Kovpak’s view, and I suspect this is an opinion held by many others, is that only one side may legitimately ask ‘what about?’ The West can point fingers at Russia, because it is objectively better, but Russia has no right to point fingers at the West, because Russia is objectively worse than the West. The comparisons Russian whataboutists make are therefore invalid.
However, even if Kovpak is right that the West is objectively better than Russia, it still seems to me to be completely valid to point out hypocrisy where hypocrisy exists. For instance, when people like Michael Weiss of The Interpreter Magazine denounce the Russian media for their bias, it is surely entirely fair to comment, as I have, that Weiss and The Interpreter are hardly bastions of balanced reporting themselves.
In addition, Russia isn’t always and in every way worse than the West. Don’t get me wrong here. Quite obviously, Russia is not a properly functioning liberal democracy. It has a serious problem with corruption, and its foreign policy does not always respect international law. Often, when Russians point fingers at Western countries, and argue that things are as bad if not worse over there, they are wrong. But sometimes they are right.
When, for instance, people respond to complaints about ‘Russian aggression’ by pointing at American and NATO aggression elsewhere, they are making a fair point. Western commentators often claim that Russia is a ‘revisionist’ power; that in Ukraine it is trying to tear up the existing international order. Whataboutism allows us to see what a ridiculous claim this is, since the people making it are citizens of states which have done more to undermine that order than anybody else, through actions such as the invasion of Iraq and the bombing campaign against Libya.
In a recent episode of RT’s Crosstalk show (yes, I know, RT, lackey of the Kremlin, propaganda, lies, blah, blah, blah), Dmitry Babich commented that the real problem in international politics was not whataboutism but ‘let’s move on-ism’. I like this. Take the example of the torture carried out by Americans during the War in Terror. Nobody apart from whistleblowers has been jailed. Why? According to President Obama, because ‘we need to look forward, not back’. Likewise, consider the invasion of Iraq. ‘I know a large part of the public wants to move on’, said former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, ‘I share that point of view.’ And so on. Nobody is ever held to account.
In these circumstances, it is a good thing that somebody somewhere is willing to do a bit of finger pointing. Instead of rejecting criticism, we in the West should start taking it a little more seriously.