Dear Reader (except for any of you who considered making NyQuil chicken),
Warning: This “news”letter contains dangerously high levels of whataboutium, the active ingredient in all instances of whataboutism. If you are allergic to whataboutism or have whatabout-intolerance, do not proceed. If you are unsure, consult a doctor before consuming this content. If you reject whataboutism but proceed anyway and your rejection lasts more than four hours, please seek medical attention.
One of the time-honored tricks in politics is to drug a hostile senator and then take his picture next to a dead hooker so he’ll grant your gambling licenses. But that’s not important right now.
Another trick with a long history of existence is to wrap a specific, narrow, and controversial demand in a giant gauzy bow of first principles or abstract ideals. As longtime readers know, Zorp worshippers called themselves “reasonablists” for similar reasons.
Marian Wright Edelmen named her outfit the Children’s Defense Fund in part because it made it easier to say opponents of her preferred policies were “anti-child.” Now, I think some of the things CDF lobbied for are entirely defensible and even valuable. But there’s something annoying about saying, “You don’t like children” to anyone who points out that Head Start’s record is pretty mixed.
The whole anti-racism racket depends on the same rhetorical sleight of hand. The term “anti-racism” exists in a kind of quantum state. In one context, it means exactly what it sounds like: “being against racism.” But in practical political terms it also refers to the specific policies pushed by activists who claim to be the arbiters of what counts as anti-racism. In other words, it’s not good enough to say you’re opposed to racism; it’s not even good enough to fight racism as you think best. You have to support the policies of the anti-racist activists.
Kramer’s debate with the ribbon bullies captures the dynamic well.
Kramer’s against AIDS and he’s literally willing to walk the walk in the effort to combat it. He just doesn’t want to wear the ribbon.
There’s virtually no ideal or abstract concept that hasn’t been yoked to a very specific, very controversial claim. Greta Thunberg is like the corporeal form of this rhetorical trick. Use a plastic straw and not only are you in favor of climate change, but a small child will scream, “How dare you!” at you for all eternity.
This tactic is by no means the sole provenance of the left. Every day for seven years now, at least one person (or bot) has told me that to be “conservative” one must support and defend every wilted lettuce leaf and bloated greasy raisin in Donald Trump’s word salads.
During the Iraq War, many conservatives used words and concepts like “patriotism” and “freedom” the same way. During the pandemic, if you believed in “liberty,” someone would insist you had to agree with whatever the anti-mask or anti-vax crowd said. Today, the various tribes of the “new right” employ this technique in a bonfire of question begging. We must use the state to advance the “Highest Good.” Okay, sounds plausible. But the actual program of the Highest Goodniks is a dog’s breakfast of debatable and dubious action items. I mean, is it really true that I’m against the Highest Good if I think it’s stupid to break up Facebook? I know the H and G are capitalized and all that, but capitalization is not a mic-drop argument unto itself.
Anyway, you get the point. In logic, this stuff mostly falls under the either/or fallacy or reductio ad absurdum. But there’s also ample guilt-by-association and ad hominem in the mix as well, and if you can’t see that you’re literally Hitler.
You can’t handle the truth.
So let’s move on to the example I actually want to whatabout the stuffing out of: truth.
For years now, there has been an enormous amount of table pounding about the truth. Now, for the record, I’m very pro-truth and truth-telling. One of the reasons I’m on the outs with so many folks on the right these days is that I think truth-telling is really important. I’ve only written a couple hundred thousand words on that point.
Moreover, I often agree with most of the finger-waggers about the lies they’re upset about. Trump’s “big lie” about the election being stolen is contemptible and dangerous in myriad ways. But even before Trump falsely claimed the election was rigged and stolen, journalists made a huge fuss about the sudden new need to use the word “lie.”
“This is the very unique situation that we find ourselves in as journalists and as a country,” Joshua Benton, the director of Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab, told the New York Times in 2017. “We have an administration that seems to be asserting a right to its own facts and doesn’t seem to be able to produce evidence to back those claims.”
Again, I think Trump is among the most egregious and unapologetic liars ever to make a mark on our political and cultural life. And I don’t think that’s disputable.
But one of things you may have noticed is that many people will attempt to refute the claim that Trump is a liar by pointing out the lies of other politicians. What about Obama saying you can keep your doctor? What about Bill Clinton claiming he didn’t diddle Monica Lewinsky? What about Dan Rather?
Now, all of these people lied. But one of the problems with whataboutism is that it doesn’t actually refute anything. If you pay attention, you’ll realize that it actually concedes the point. “Everybody does it” isn’t remotely synonymous with “I didn’t do it.” I’ve actually heard pundits respond to something Trump did by beginning a sentence with, “What about the New York Times … !?” as if the Gray Lady was once president of the United States. How in Odin’s name the bad behavior of a newspaper justifies the bad behavior of a president is a mystery to me.
The Soviets invented—or at least perfected—whataboutism as a way of deflecting criticism of their atrocities. “А у вас негров линчуют,” which Kevin Williamson dubbed a “bitter Soviet era punchline,” roughly translates to “and in your country they lynch negroes.”
And that—finally—gets me to my point: While whataboutism utterly fails as logical refutation, it is wildly successful at illuminating the selective outrage of political combatants. It was true that in America negroes were being lynched. It wasn’t exactly U.S. government policy the way the gulag was Soviet policy, but being outraged over lynching is entirely justified, even morally obligatory. Bill Clinton did lie, and lots of the people outraged by Trump’s lies worked themselves into the kinds of human knots that make autofellation possible by denying it. At least Obama’s lie about keeping your doctor was dubbed the “lie of the year” by PolitiFact.
The problem with anointing yourself a champion of the truth is that you can’t be selective about it. Calling out Trumpist lies is good and entirely justified. But you can’t retreat back to the comfort of complacency about other lies.
Well, truth be told, you literally can do exactly that, given that people do it every single day. What I mean is that if you do that—if you get all huffy about dishonesty or infidelity to the Constitution or democracy in one context but don’t care in another—you’ll undermine your credibility and invite people to think—with some justification—that your problem isn’t with lies but with Trump or Republicans or whatever. And once people think that, they’ll understandably assume you’re not some paladin of truth-telling but a partisan who picks and chooses which dishonesty to get mad about.
Consider The Atlantic, where my colleague David French is a contributor and where my colleague Kevin Williamson worked for about 72 hours. They’ve published an essay arguing that, in effect, biological differences between men and women are a social construct and therefore, as the headline proclaims, “Separating Sports by Sex Doesn’t Make Sense.” The author, Maggie Mertens, writes:
Decades of research have shown that sex is far more complex than we may think. And though sex differences in sports show advantages for men, researchers today still don’t know how much of this to attribute to biological difference versus the lack of support provided to women athletes to reach their highest potential.
The essay has anecdotes—a whopping two of them, I think—and some partial truths that make the whole thing sound superficially plausible. But if you step back the partial truths add up to a whole lie. In 2017, two Duke academics compiled performances in track and field. Among their findings:
Just in the single year 2017, Olympic, World, and U.S. Champion Tori Bowie’s 100 meters lifetime best of 10.78 was beaten 15,000 times by men and boys. (Yes, that’s the right number of zeros.)
The same is true of Olympic, World, and U.S. Champion Allyson Felix’s 400 meters lifetime best of 49.26. Just in the single year 2017, men and boys around the world outperformed her more than 15,000 times.
Broadly speaking, female Olympic athletes do not want for resources or time when it comes to their training. Do we really think that with a few more encouraging “attagirls” the delta between them and their male counterparts will just evaporate?
I can go on and I am sorely tempted to. But let’s stay on track. This argument is nonsense. I very much doubt that anyone at The Atlantic really disagrees. But maybe not. My point is that this isn’t a scientific argument aimed at illuminating the truth, it’s a political argument intended to obscure it. And that matters. The Atlantic did terrific work debunking anti-vax hoohaw in the name of truth and science. But this essay has more in common with phrenology than science.
I don’t want to claim that this one article calls into question everything else The Atlantic has done any more than I want to claim that David French’s Aquaman boosterism calls into question everything we do at The Dispatch. But you know what? Lots of people do want to make that argument. The hypocrisy police are everywhere and they’re ravenous.
I mean, members of the same crowd that devotes enormous amount of time and energy to attacking the notion of racial differences either support or stay silent about the campaign to deny sex differences. Take all morality and political allegiances out of the equation—it is simply a scientifically established fact that males can’t get pregnant. But the self-declared champions of truth and science who will leap into the breach to combat “race science” either yawn or applaud this new “gender science.” You can explain to me all you want that these are two very different things. You might even score some good points. But the fact remains that for the casual culture war combatant you’ve opened yourself up to a whirlwind of whataboutism. Last month, the New York Times ran an essay titled “Maternal Instinct Is a Myth That Men Created.” Apparently, mammalian biologists (and a gazillion mothers) were unavailable for comment.
If you want to use the phrase “settled science” to protect your preferred climate change policies, you should show a little deference to the settled science on matters of biology. But my gripe isn’t just with the effort to deny settled biological science in an attempt, I assume, to gain social acceptance for a tiny number of transgender people. This sort of thing is everywhere.
Every day, we’re told that anyone who argued that Congress should have given the election to Trump is a traitor and a personality cultist. Now, I have a sterling record condemning the Republicans who tried to do that. But there are at least three Democratic members on the January 6 committee who did much the same thing in previous elections. There are important distinctions to be made, the most important of which is that the Democrats knew it wouldn’t matter and were making a symbolic vote. Fine. But what they did still undermines the sincerity of their fervor. Harvard’s Lawrence Lessig argued for John Eastmanesque maneuvers to declare Hillary Clinton president. Stacey Abrams is still tying herself in knots to explain why her refusal to concede an election is so very, very different from what Trump did.
I could go on and on. The New York Times peddled the idea that the real founding of America was in 1619. It was a highly literary—by which I mean deeply bogus—argument to be sure. But they would never support a similar project that took such liberties with the facts for a cause they disagreed with.
I think part of the problem is that it has been very popular on the intellectual and campus left to play all sorts of games with the concept of the truth. All sorts of inconvenient customs, facts, and ideas are simply “socially constructed,” the various postmodernists, cultural Marxists, and critical theorists argued for decades. And whole generations of people were incubated in this intellectual amniotic fluid. Some of you are old enough to remember the Social Text controversy, where Alan Sokal published an intentionally fake paper, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” in which he argued that quantum gravity was nothing more than a social and linguistic fiction. The New York Times published an essay by Stanley Fish that attacked Sokal’s hoax and defended the editors of Social Text for running the article. I always loved the idea that if you could convince everybody that gravity was a “myth,” planes would suddenly drop from the sky or everyone would start floating upward.
Words aren’t magic. They can change some of our perceptions of reality, to be sure. But if you think a mackerel isn’t a fish because everyone calls it a duck, you’re not a champion of the capital-T truth.
The moral of the story is, if you want to dedicate yourself to some abstract principle, be consistent about it or the whataboutists will not only come for you, they’ll come for your principle too.
Various & Sundry
Canine update: I’d really like to keep going but I’m in Sioux Falls and I’ve to make a plane (please no one tell the pilots about the hermeneutics of quantum gravity before I get home). The Fair Jessica reports that the girls are fine. They all got their treats. Pippa is really committing to her “No walks until the sun comes up and you rub mah belly” policy. (Also, thanks to all the folks who volunteered to treat Pippa the way she thinks she deserves to be treated.) They were very happy when we came home from the Dispatch retreat. Also, for the Gracie Is the Best Cat Ever file, we got a robot litter box that looks like it should be Darth Vader’s helmet polisher. Within an hour, Gracie was like, “I got this.”
And now, the weird stuff