I’ve gotten used to “whataboutism”–most vividly illuminated by Republicans who respond to every criticism of Trump with “But what about Hillary’s emails!” There are lots of other examples: think of the people who respond to incidents of racist violence with “But what about black on black crime?”

What is so infuriating about this particular deflection technique is how intellectually dishonest it is. Whatever one’s position with respect to Hillary’s emails or black on black crime, they are irrelevant to the issue being raised. 

Recently, Bret Stephens wrote a “whataboutism” column for the New York Times decrying liberal intolerance and excoriating left-wingers who “believe all the old patriarchal hierarchies must go (so that new “intersectional” hierarchies may arise), who are in a perpetual fervor to rewrite the past (all the better to control the future), and who demand cringing public apologies from those who have sinned against an ever-more radical ideological standard (while those apologies won’t save them from being fired).”

Stephens is a conservative, so coming across a conservative takedown of the column was particularly satisfying.

Tom Nichols is the author of The Death of Expertise (a book I recommend highly, by the way). Nichols is a conservative professor at the Naval War College, and like Stephens, a Never-Trumper. He took to Twitter to respond to Stephens’ column, and the thread was captured by AlterNet.I’m reproducing it in full, because it’s well worth reading in its entirety.

Yes, I read the Bret Stephens piece. Ho hum. Yes, the intolerant left is a threat. Stipulated. However, I have excoriated people on the left for most of my career. But only opposing Trump produced harassment, demands to fire me, and death threats. Cancel culture, indeed. /1
I mean, I have blistered everyone from Obama to Hillary Clinton, and across the seas to Putin and Assad. For years, I was an outspoken conservative. But I never encountered McCarthyist thuggery like the kind I’ve gotten from the Cult of Trump. So spare me the hand-wringing. /2
I am not blind to the totalitarian streak on the left. I wrote about it – and at The Federalist, back in the day, no less. Amazingly, no one on the left tried to get me fired for it or told me I’d be hung as a traitor or left endless f-bombs on my voicemail at work. Imagine. /3
Look, the Democrats always have short-pants Stalinists in their midst. The GOP has always had theocratic wanna-be ayatollahs in *their* midst. The difference is that the GOP is now in power and owned, completely, by its fringe – one that is frantic with fear and anger. /4
The people who want to pull down statues without reading the nameplates (or without reading a book) are idiots. Many are the children of privilege. Some are even stupid enough to think they’re leading a revolution. They’re not. Calm down. /5
Leftist revolution here is about as likely as the Civil War 2.0 porn that Trump’s kooks love so much (not least because those same young people would freak out if no-kidding socialism was ever implemented).
Meanwhile, right-wing attacks on the Constitution? Happening now. /6
“Oh noes, the college kids are gonna take over the country!” is one of those cyclical things that conservatives worry about – usually as an indication of how little faith conservatives have in their own ideas and how much they fear their own personal weaknesses./7
But what about the culture war, right? Here’s an open secret: most GOPers never really cared that much about the culture war. They say they do, and they wave the flag and decry the behavior of poor people and brown people and people in cities, but that’s mostly a show. /8
How can I say this? Because you don’t see much of that culture war reflected in the personal behavior of most self-identified conservatives, who are as decadent as anyone else. These are not Amish stoics. They just don’t like *other* people being decadent, too. /9
What are they, then? They’re white people, who liked the world (or imagine they did) the way it looked when they were kids, and use the culture war as a proxy for resentment and nostalgia. The behavior of political evangelicals since 2016, especially, finally outed all that. /10
You want me to worry about college Marxists? Yeah, I’ll get right on that as soon as we dislodge the febrile anti-constitutionalists of the GOP.
I have plenty of concerns about the left. But right now, I’d like to deal with the obvious and demonstrated threat from the right. /11
I’ve been hearing about leftists taking over the country since I was a kid. It was supposed to happen in the 60s, after the 80s, etc etc. And the culture war, such that is, was over decades ago. But I never thought I’d have to fight over the Constitution – with the *right*. /12
So take all your fears of rampaging drag queens and how Joe Biden is controlled by the College Spartacists, and put ’em in a sock, pally. I’ll be first in line to oppose extremist left-wing dumbassery – once we defeat far more dangerous people like Barr and McConnell. /12x

You go, Tom!


  1. Tom Nichols, wow!
    I immediately reposted this to Facebook, my Facebook page. And sent it off in a tweet. Needless to say, my cousins said, “well, what about,” Lol. Aggrieved isn’t a powerful enough word, nor is self-delusion, nor is paranoia, nor is stupidity for that matter! The self-righteous indignant prostrating in front of the throne of their GOP er D to save them from the hordes of others and all of those dirty deeds that are done dirt cheap, LOL. They then can be left alone for their own dirty deeds! Ahhh, hypocrisy, a dish best served with a steaming pile side of BS!

  2. First admitting I am an old high school dropout with a GED and that even though I worked in Indianapolis Republican City Government (as an Independent voter) from 1972 (under Mayor Lugar) through the 16 Mayor Hudnut years and only lasted 2 years 3 months and 11 days under Goldsmith’s administration; I didn’t really begin paying close attention to politics and politicians in depth until 2008.

    There is an ancient Druid belief, “Nothing is unknowable, it’s all out there. You just have to know how to ask.”

    Reading through the blog twice, some sections more often seeking a line of thought to be followed to an answer or a hint to a question to put forth for clarification to the full meaning of Nichols’ summation of Stephens’ “Whataboutism”. The only conclusion I could reach was that Nichols’ response is pure eclectisism.

    Regarding “Whataboutism”; “What is so infuriating about this particular deflection technique is how intellectually dishonest it is. Whatever one’s position with respect to Hillary’s emails or black on black crime, they are irrelevant to the issue being raised.”

    Exactly what issue was relevant, other than his own views of the errors in the Democratic party being as numerous and useless as the Republican’s, in Nichols’ diatribe? I find the first sentence in his last paragraph to be particularly offensive and unnecessary. But…that is just the opinion of this old high school dropout with a GED.

    Here we are at another Friday, the end of another tumultuous week of Trump’s leaderless administration, unless you consider McConnell the true head of the GOP and he is on another 2 week recess, with the Covid-19 Pandemic case count rising and the death county maintaining a high percentage if we are to believe the numbers we are being given. The only possible positives to end this week are the two SCOTUS decisions which may be only distractions coming this late in this election year. What about the weekend ahead with Trump in Florida testing his immunity to the coronavirus by holding rallies, public and private, as he appears to ignore the past week to make more money for his reelection?

  3. Since when did Republicans and “conservatives” have any constructive ideas that benefitted the nation and working people? Since when did “conservatives” and Republicans have any ideas besides cutting taxes for the rich and deregulating banks and corporations so the rich could get richer and the environment could be destroyed for the quarterly business report?

    Whataboutism from Republicans has always been there as a way to shield the somnolent electorate from knowing that they’re being screwed.

  4. I am going to make my 26 year old sons read this Shelia! Every day they are screaming at me about the dangers of the extreme left and how my support of the Democrats is more dangerous than Trump! It has been exhausting to try to explain to them that if we don’t take out a Trump and the Republican Party NOW there will literally be no world left to save from the extreme left! My kids are no fans of Trump and the Republicans. Oh no. But they operate under the illusion of let’s Let the current idiots metaphorical “destroy” the current world in order to start over. I never thought I would have a more radical, boarding on irrational fear that if we let these amoral subhumans remain in power there literally will be no earth for humans to start over. We – meaning every living species occupying the planet, except the cockroach, will be DEAD! Please! Let me have a chance to fight the radical liberal fringe in the future. Please!!

  5. Why wouldn’t the right wing love what-aboutism? It won the election for them in 2016. Of course they were abetted by a media that took the bait every single time. What we need is more discernment in all of us and especially in the media. It’s not balance if everything one side says is a lie and you don’t call them on it.

  6. “But I never thought I’d have to fight over the Constitution – with the ‘right’.”

    This made me laugh, as it just indicates he wasn’t paying attention to what the professional GOP has been for years: a criminal organization that cares nothing for the rule of law, and is dedicated only to power.

  7. As on most days, the column and comments are intellectually/philosophically interesting and, often, humorous. However, the “real deal” for the future of our democracy is who votes this November. That is the simple, ground combat ahead.

  8. Right you are, Lester! You start from where you are. As to whataboutism, I recall that Trump when asked about his sexual escapades answered: “Well, what about Bill ?” – which, I presume, is the male equivalent of “but the emails!” in response to a query in re prospects for nuclear war. Aristotle would not be pleased.

  9. Lester, and everyone else,
    How many are willing to step into the breach? How many have stepped into the breach? I know Larry has! I definitely know Marv has! JoAnn’s been in the trenches, and Jack.

    Risk! What do you believe? are you willing to step into the breach for it? Fighting sounds good, bloodletting can be a rallying cry, but it rarely accomplishes anything.

    My great uncle’s fought in the second world war, my father in Korea, cousins in Vietnam, cousins and Iraq and Afghanistan, for what? What has changed? What has it accomplished? Go back over the millennia of man’s existence, the same thing!

    Man has not changed, because man’s history is just the same vinyl being replayed constantly. And that vinyl will never change.

    Only a very few actually attempted to change the tune. And every single one met an unceremoniously tragic end. So, the breach has to be self sacrifice. Martin Luther King and John Lewis recognized that, Bobby Kennedy was another one, history shows us who.

    Stepping into the breach to prevent bloodletting, stepping into the breach in an attempt to shine light on a different way. That’s the hard part, and that’s where a person’s faith reveals itself. Self-sacrifice isn’t just dying for your beliefs, self-sacrifice is actually living your beliefs.

    Do we?

  10. There are two kinds of people at this time. Critical thinkers know that the foundation of their skill is learning. One doesn’t just decide to be a critical thinker. One accepts that ignorance is an individual human condition getting worse every day because of the talent we have for expanding collective human knowledge. We all know much less of what is known by humans collectively every minute of every day no matter what we do. The best we can do is to specialize, to develop expertise in some tiny slice of what is known and peddle like crazy to keep up in that field at the expense of all of the other fields.

    Outside of any expertise we personally grow and maintain the only way to beat back ignorance is to become a critical thinker which is to apply the tool that humans invented centuries ago when the problem was to figure out the complexity of everything that the Universe contains. We love labels so we labeled that “the scientific method” and it revolutionized our ability to dive into chaos and come back with nuggets of what we can know for sure to build on.

    Let’s face it our windows into the world that we live in are only two, what we experience and what is reported over entertainment media. Critical thinking is applying the scientific method to what comes over entertainment media in order to separate what is true and important from what it is propaganda.

    The method starts with a hypothesis, a wonder. I wonder if: __________. Then design of an experiment. If ________ is true here’s what the facts would look like. Do they? The only way to know is to gather evidence and question everything maintaining a healthy skepticism staying firmly attached to the reality that you don’t know until all of the evidence has been gathered.

    Most of us aren’t willing to work that hard at it so we live in an imaginary world that confirms what we wish was true. We are a byproduct of advertising, not reality. By the way is the other type of person beside critical thinkers.

  11. By the way (this) is the other type of person beside critical thinkers. I hope you already figured out that omission. Sorry.

  12. I didn’t know of Tom Nichols previously. He seems like someone who does critical thinking for a living. He did a great job of assembling a coherent list of the areas of the Trump cult that we all have noticed but not organized as well as Tom did.

  13. John Sorg- Good question, however, I know I cannot control what other people think or do, only what I can do and think on a VERY limited basis. I am reminded of the truth in a Buddhist coan, “My future is the crumbling dust of my bones.” Pray on that for 30 minutes.

    Yes, I think everyone is doing the best he or she can given their limited experiences and understanding. Hell, even Gandhi was antisemitic!!! It has been rumored that both Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy worshiped beautiful women in a carnal kinda way. Yes, limited we are.

    Like JoAnn Green, I was an anti-Vietnam hippie with a GED, too, back in the day. I ended up getting my Masters in Divinity and serving in the military (5th generation back to THE Revolution) thinking, child like indeed, that I could make a real difference. Have I? I don’t know. Odds are, not as much as I think! Having a healthy perspective is a good goal. How many reach it? I am betting very few of us carbon based bipedal types….

    I think the BEST we slithering and fearful primates can do is OBSERVE and QUESTION. Introspection is nearly a dead art given what we observe these days. Simple questions like, How did I get here? Why do I think/feel this way? Where did I get this or that idea or feeling? Why is he or she doing, saying, acting “that” way??? What makes this virus so deadly? Simple questions based upon simple observation. For me, humanity has had its best days when those questions lead to a better, healthier planet.

    As to the article, well, not too impressed. I am betting neither of the individuals have danced among the “evil” far left heathens! Better to just to keep on circulating the obvious labels and soundbites. (smh)

  14. Words like “whataboutism” and its cousins are etymologically interesting because they are descendants of Mao Ze Dong’s “whateverism”. Whateverism basically meant that whatever Mao thought or said, one should go along with. Hua Guo Feng (Mao’s chosen successor) and a devout Maoist promoted whateverism ( but he later ended the Cultural Revolution and arrested the Gang of Four). Deng Xiao Ping succeeded Hua and crusaded against it. Whatever.


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    We are an all-volunteer community which works to connect candidates to those in their district who don’t always vote – minorities and young people. We operate on the power of the brain cells of our members. Glad to tell you more – Sheila can share my email address.

  16. The entertainment oriented haystack that we are forced to sort through most every minute of every day looking for needles of real factual meaningful news exhausts us and after awhile we try to make our lives easier by a version of profiling applied to chatter rather than people. We resort to paying attention to what makes us comfortable which is bias confirmation. Doesn’t it feel good?

    There is only one solution that I can think of and that is to accept the burden we put on ourselves in search of convenient comfort and treat news like many have learned to treat advertising – we fast forward mentally through it and pay it no mind.

    I personally choose to grant credibility to only networks that have a B as a middle initial, ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, BBC. That doesn’t take much time and I get enough of the truth as long as I question if it’s whole and only.

    Of course I have my own bias and that’s best outlined in the US Constitution.

  17. I have bad feet. I didn’t let them keep me out of the infantry, but I do have trouble finding comfortable shoes. Thus, I’m often uncomfortable in my own shoes; therefore, I try on other people’s shoes. Often. Doing that doesn’t solve my problem, but it does give me a bit of appreciation for other people’s problems.

    For instance, I’m standing here in a pair of shoes belonging to a major Whataboutist. The shoes squeak. I listen. The squeaks are trying to relay to me the painful thinking of their Whataboutist owner. Like I say, I listen.

    Whataboutist: When you attack one of the tenets of my belief, I am not beholden by any rule of the sport to merely play defense and restrict my reaction to a mere parry of your blow, so why be outraged that I choose to counterattack?

    Me: But my attack on you is specific, comes from a specific place and is directed at a specific weakness that you exhibit.

    Whataboutist: So what; an attack is an attack, and you have the gall to be appalled at my resort to counterattack?

    Me: I’m not sure I even consider my attack to be an attack. I kind of think of it as a kind of thought-exercise. It is more like I’m putting on the game table between us this flawed rhetorical contraption that you made and I’m pointing out its…

    Whataboutist: Ah, what you think of as a rhetorical contraption I see as a missile, a bomb, an attack, which it is, right? You have it rigged to blow up in my face. And you think I am obliged to attack only the blow you struck? Attack only the contraption. What part of You strike at me and I strike at you do you not understand? You see a weakness in me and strike at it, but you deny I have the right to strike at your weakness.

    Me: Uh…

    Whataboutist: Right. I put on the table a rhetorical contraption that you invented and point out its flaws, put it right next to the one you led with, and you have a hissy-fit. No wonder my friends think of all you liberals as hysterical nitwits.

    Me: What’s hysterical about examining a rhetorical contraption for flaws?

    Whataboutist: I’ll tell you what’s hysterical. Coming to a gun fight with a rhetorical contraption is what’s hysterical. We almost die laughing.

  18. My shortest comment – Great post – thanks Sheila, I really enjoyed reading that.

  19. Two things confound me on whataboutism. First of all, it is lazy. Secondly, whataboutism is really just a confession that my guy and your guy are equal opportunity sinners.

    I have attempted to use the “thanks, you just admitted your guy is no better than my guy” as a defense and deflection of whatabouts with some success.

    Unfortunately, it is the easiest tool for today’s discourse — which is not intended to win the disagreement but to make your opponent feel degraded.

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