What's that about whataboutism?

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Image: possan/Flickr

My favourite demented moment from the Trump Crazy Europe tour, was the press conference with Theresa May when he flashed the true meaning of his version of "nationalism" by smearing immigration.

"I think it's been bad for Europe," U.S. President Donald Trump said. "We've seen some terror attacks." (He thinks the "some" makes him sound precise though it really shows he has no specifics in mind.) "I just think it's changing the culture and is very negative for Europe … Look at what's happening to different countries that never had problems."

Never had problems? Europe went to all-out war twice in 25 years when it had relatively little immigration and largely homogeneous nation states. The EU was a desperate, late attempt to stop the cycle. Anti-Semitism became so prominent in that era, in part, because there were very few "others" to pick on internally.

Culture here is clearly code for non-white, non-Christian and its use indicates it's still a rather dicey ploy, though increasingly less so. Holland's foreign minister explained last week that "somewhere deep in our genes" we "want to have a well-organized group to hunt with."

Right, I feel that constantly. I want my cohunters "well-organized" by colour. We can't "connect with people unknown to us," he added. He omitted that it's often even harder to connect with people we know (because we know them) at, say, family dinners. He said he "didn't know" a "multi-ethnic or multicultural society" with "peaceful cohabitation." Someone nominated Suriname. He said it's a "failed state." By those standards so's the U.S., and Europe is a failed continent.

There's a flaky intellectual tradition justifying this kind of exclusionary thinking under the head, clash of civilizations, (Samuel Huntington) or Bernard Lewis's dismayed howls about Islam. But what Trump seems to mean by culture and nation, to the extent he means anything, is more like a gang than even a tribe, much less a civ. It's defined by turf, its members have each other's back, and it has economic implications. ("The street-corner is always hiring.")

It's also more like 1950s street gangs than current transnational gangs. Back then sociologists who studied gangs often felt sympathy for the sense of belonging they gave, which pop culture reflected. Such folks aren't most of Trump's voters but they're a key piece.

I've often fretted that my turtle is lonely and I should add a companion to his tank. But the pet store guy wisely said it depended on his personality. Would you, he asked, like to have just anyone move into your room so you won't be lonely?

I know, by the way, that mentioning failed states in Europe or the U.S. rings of whataboutism, which is in bad odour. Trump himself has been charged with it for saying, "Are we so pure?" (a rare case of whataboutusism) and Putin does it regularly, saying he'll deal with charges of interfering in the U.S. if the U.S. will do the same regarding barging into Russian and many other nations' politics.

My problem with WABism is I don't really see what's wrong with it. David Remnick and others in the New Yorker described it as a "strategy of false moral equivalences" but where it works, it's a strategy of valid moral equivalences. They even conceded it, in Russa's case, by citing an Obama security adviser: "Putin is not entirely wrong … There is just enough rope for him to hang us."

It's also a useful "strategy" practically since it encourages solutions by giving you something to bargain with. If you're pure and blameless as the U.S. claims about Russian election meddling, then you can only insist the villains give in and admit their depravity, which is unlikely. Bargaining goes better if both sides have something to give: You fix your falling-down porch and I'll fix mine.

Whataboutism can even serve as a useful nudge to self-awareness and introspection about the motes in your own foreign policy. Trump himself seems to have, bizarrely, done some of this rethinking, though for what contorted reasons and motives, no one (except, probably, Putin) knows.

This article was originally published in the Toronto Star

Image: possan/Flickr

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