January 13, 2021

WILLIAM VOEGELI IN CITY JOURNAL: About “Whataboutism:” When turnabout is never fair play.

Many things are complicated—but not everything. If you condemned the Antifa/Black Lives Matter violence that took place around the country in 2020, as all conservatives did, then you must condemn the Trumpist riot at the U.S. Capitol in 2021. Period.

Suppose, however, you spent last summer applauding the riots, or dissembling about them, or dismissing them. In that case, to deplore last week’s violence credibly is not so simple. If you demand that your political adversaries adhere to a principle, but exempt people whose cause you endorse from having to comply, then that preference you enjoy boasting about is not really a principle. It is not a standard of conduct applicable to all, in other words, but just another rhetorical device used for political combat.

If you’re Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, for example, a question in July about mobs toppling statues in public spaces elicited not a denunciation but a koan: “People will do what they do.” Indeed, people will do what they do. Some people, for example, will break into the Capitol and occupy the Speaker’s office. But limiting oneself to the serene observation that this is what they do would constitute a grave failure to repudiate an offense against law, order, and democracy.

Nikole Hannah-Jones, who won a Pulitzer Prize for creating the New York Times’s “1619 Project,” also expressed equanimity and even pride regarding last year’s unrest. “It would be an honor,” she said, if the burning police stations and looted stores came to be described as the “1619 Riots.” In any case, “Destroying property, which can be replaced, is not violence.” Hannah-Jones went on to explain, “Any reasonable person would say we shouldn’t be destroying other people’s property, but these are not reasonable times.” Reasonable people also say that mobs should not overrun the seat of government or be gratified if someone calls that assault the “1776 Riots.” But if declaring “these are not reasonable times” changes everything, then the loophole devours the rule, or even the idea of having rules.

When protesters surrounded a Seattle police station, forcing officers to evacuate it, and declared the adjacent area an “autonomous zone,” mayor Jenny Durkan was reassuring: “Don’t be so afraid of democracy.” Civic and political leaders in Philadelphia were equally non-judgmental about the shattered glass and boarded stores on their streets. “I don’t think we need to be parsing whether there needs to be looting,” said one city council member. Rioting was “understandable but regrettable,” Jesse Jackson said in June, a quasi-criticism no one would think to apply to the Capitol Hill mob.

In the wake of last week’s riot, formulations like these have become deeply embarrassing. What is to be done? One option would be for the people who put them forward, and their many political allies, to admit the obvious: since riots are bad—utterly, always, and everywhere—justifying them, or praising them with faint damns, is also colossally irresponsible. The people who set last summer’s fires, looted stores, or assaulted motorists and pedestrians should be condemned, and the people who made excuses for their behavior should be ashamed. Reader, you are borne through life with a sunnier view of human nature than I if you are dismayed that no such apologies or retractions have yet been offered.

A different response to conservatives who have started 2021 by rudely calling attention to the riot apologists of 2020 is: Shut Up. A more sophisticated way to say Shut Up is to accuse conservatives whose memories go back more than three months of engaging in “whataboutism.” This is the position of University of Wisconsin political scientist Kenneth R. Mayer, who believes that any public official “who does not immediately and unequivocally condemn [the Capitol riot] without using the words ‘I understand,’ ‘but,’ or any variant suggesting that the rioters had a point but went too far, should forfeit their right to hold public office.” Furthermore, “any elected official who engages in ‘whataboutism,’ or complains that the other side does it too, should leave next.”

Similarly, “Whataboutism is the last refuge for someone who can’t admit they’re wrong,” says journalist Tod Perry, who demands that we “stop equating Trump’s Capitol insurrection to Black Lives Matter protests.”

“Whataboutism” is a deflection-term whose function is to distract from obvious leftist hypocrisy.

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