Dan Zak writes in the Washington Post:
“What about antifa? What about free speech? What about the guy who shot Steve Scalise? What about the mosque in Minnesota that got bombed? What about North Korea? What about murders in Chicago? What about Ivanka at the G-20? What about Vince Foster? If white pride is bad, then what about gay pride? What about the stock market? What about those 33,000 deleted emails? What about Hitler? What about the Crusades? What about the asteroid that may one day kill us all? What about Benghazi?
What about what about what about.
We’ve gotten very good at what-abouting.
The president has led the way.
His campaign may or may not have conspired with Moscow, but President Trump has routinely employed a durable old Soviet propaganda tactic. Tuesday’s bonkers news conference in New York was Trump’s latest act of “whataboutism,” the practice of short-circuiting an argument by asserting moral equivalency between two things that aren’t necessarily comparable. In this case, the president wondered 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.
Robert E. Lee? What about George Washington?
“George Washington was a slave owner,” Trump said to journalists in the lobby of his corporate headquarters. “Are we going to take down statues to George Washington? How about Thomas Jefferson?”
Using the literal “what about” construction, Trump then went on to blame “both sides” for the violence in Charlottesville.
“What about the ‘alt-left’ that came charging at the, as you say, the ‘alt-right’?” the president said. “Do they have any semblance of guilt?”
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.
“Not only does it help to deflect your original argument but it also throws you off balance,” says Alexey Kovalev, an independent Russian journalist, on the phone from Moscow. “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.”
Vladimir Putin has made a national sport of what-abouting. In 2014, when a journalist challenged him on his annexation of Crimea, Putin brought up the U.S. annexation of Texas. The American invasion of Iraq is constantly what-abouted on state television, to excuse all kinds of Russian behavior.
In Edward Snowden, “Russia has found the ultimate whataboutism mascot,” the Atlantic’s Olga Khazan wrote in 2013. “By granting him asylum, Russia casts itself, even if momentarily, as a defender of human rights, and the U.S. as the oppressor.”
The term was first coined as “whataboutery” and “the whatabouts,” in stories about the Irish Republican Army in the 1970s, according to linguist Ben Zimmer. But the practice goes back to the chilly depths of the Cold War.
“An old joke 50 years ago was that if you went to a Stalinist and criticized the Soviet slave-labor camps, the Stalinist would say, ‘Well what about the lynchings in the American South?’” philosopher Noam Chomsky once said.”
Read the entire article at the link.
Trump is an expert on this; most of us “bite” at least some of the time. He’s also a master practitioner of the “big lie” — a technique used by Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler, among others.