Suggested reading: In defense of whataboutism

by Robert Wright

Twice over the past two decades I’ve felt outraged by a massive invasion that violated international law. One time was last week, when Russia invaded Ukraine. The other time was in 2003, when the US invaded Iraq.

You’re not supposed to talk like that! To bring up America’s past wrongdoing as if it’s comparable to some other country’s wrongdoing is called “whataboutism”—as in “Yeah, they did something bad, but what about the time America did something that was bad in kind of the same way?” Most American foreign policy elites hate whataboutism, and they especially hate it at times like this, when a war is going on and you’re expected to focus all your rhetorical firepower on the enemy.

Consider Michael McFaul, the highly hawkish former ambassador to Russia who has been a fixture on MSNBC lately. Last week, on the day Russia invaded Ukraine, he tweeted to no one in particular, “Keep your BS whataboutism off my @twitter feed tonight.” That got him more than 600 retweets and 6,000 likes. … (continue at Substack)

Published by Massimo

Massimo is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. He blogs at and He is the author of How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life.

5 thoughts on “Suggested reading: In defense of whataboutism

  1. Too bad this whataboutism essay is for paid subscribers. I got as far as: “The rest of this piece will be devoted to arguing that McFaul is not just wrong but dangerously wrong; that at this critical juncture in world history, we need more whataboutism, not less; that you owe it to your species to defy the Michael McFauls of the world and, even in times of war, whatabout like there’s no tomorrow—because, without lots of whataboutism, there may not be.”

    Best case of a philosophical cliff-hanger I have seen in a long while. Substack needs a micropayment feature!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I will top Wright and “whataboutism” with Idries Shah and no-twosiderism on Russia-Ukraine, I can condemn the invasion, while also using a phrase of Papa Francisco, also condemn NATO “barking” at Russia before the invasion, and thus, support the “Goldilocks Three Bears” of Kissinger, the NYT editorial board, and Chomsky in calling for a negotiated solution, with whatever that means Ukraine must do. (That said, outside of something like math, Shah is right, beyond Russia-Ukraine, that most endeavors have more than two sides. The only thing that’s wrong is his claim that seeing all sides will lead to a complete solution; most things in life don’t have complete solutions.)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Regarding the Russian invasion of Ukraine, I recently came across an example of whataboutism and moral equivalence that feels downright weird. The Green Party in Massachusetts (Green-Rainbow party) put out a statement on the invasion that implies that the US is to blame.
    Some of the statements from the Green Party seem to lend more credence to Russian propaganda than the regular media.
    I have a funny feeling that the Green Party is associated with Peace Action people who are knee-jerk anti-Imperialists and cast every international incident in those terms. So we’ve got a case where whataboutism leads into a moral equivalence based on a deeply emotional cognitive bias. I just don’t see any way to reason around this.
    It’s too bad, since the Greens are of the few functioning third parties in the country, and one that is focused on environmental causes, to boot. But it just goes to show that most of politics seems to be faith-based, not based on a reality testing that tries to discover what actually works, principles be damned,

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I find this sort that of “reasoning” disturbing. I do think whataboutism is problematic, and yet it does make sense also to remind ourselves of the hypocrisy of American rhetorics…


    2. I wouldn’t even call that whataboutism. The 2014 Maidan was a US-backed coup, removing a legitimately elected leader, involving the far right within Ukraine among others, and supported by the US. (I do not wish to imply that that is a whole story, or even that the uprising was necessarily unjustified.)

      However, Jill Stein, Green Party candidate in 2012 and 2016, proposed shutting down all nuclear power plants on the grounds that “Nuclear power plants = weapons of mass destruction waiting to be detonated” and that that the United States should shift to 100% renewable energy by 2030 (if only!), and had dinner in 2015 in Moscow with Michael Flynn and Vladimir Putin.

      (Yes, I know that this is whataboutism, but perhaps that is not out of place in this thread)

      Liked by 2 people

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