I Am Asking for a Coherent Set of Consistent Principles That Are Equally Applied to the United States and Russia
"whataboutism" is a self-indicting critique
What is NATO’s purpose? What is its function?
Any minimally-honest answer would acknowledge that NATO exists as an antagonist to Russia. That’s it. Once upon a time you would have said “the USSR” instead of Russia, but despite the fact that the Russian people achieved a bloodless revolution and removed the government that was the locus of so much anger NATO kept on opposing the interests of Russia and its people. This must be a remarkably weird state for Russians to occupy, having this huge international alliance that exists entirely to restrain and threaten your country, a proud country that (like the United States) believes itself to be a world power. Indeed, that kind of entrenched and systematic antagonism is exactly the kind of thing that empowers strongmen like Vladimir Putin, just as constant belligerance towards Iran plays directly into the hands of hardliners in the Iranian government. But I have been repeatedly informed lately that to speak of cause and effect in this way is, somehow, a betrayal of the people who suffer thanks to those governments.
If you engage in moral introspection, you could ask yourself how the United States might react to an ever-expanding Atlantic Anti-American Alliance, and specifically to Mexico or Canada joining it. Does any remotely honest adult think we would ever, ever, ever permit such a scenario? I certainly hope not. After all, we don’t even really need to imagine whether the United States would tolerate such a thing. We have this concept called the Monroe Doctrine, which refers to America’s assumption that it gets to act as a singular omnipotent hegemon in the western hemisphere, literally half the globe. Countries in the Americas simply are not permitted to enter into military alliances with American antagonists. That we reserve for ourselves the limitless right to dictate the affairs of other countries, in our own hemisphere or the other, is such a deeply-ingrained element of the American psyche that people who pride themselves on their independence and critical thinking never spend a moment in their lives really grappling with it.
Of all the immense hypocrisies that are being trafficked in these days, the constant repetition of the term “self-determination” is the most absurd. Self-determination is a moral and political principle; moral and political principles only have meaning when they are applied equally. Have we extended self-determination towards Cuba with 60+ years of crushing embargos and constant attempts to destabilize their government? Are we extending self-determination to Venezuela, where a popular government that’s perceived as antagonistic to American interests has been undermined in every conceivable way? (But let me guess: the base of support for the Maduro government on the Venezuelan street is not as important as a small number of wealthy expats who support neoliberal capitalism, and the person who gets to decide who should control Venezuela’s future is, oddly… you.)
Ah ah ah, but you see, that’s “whataboutism”! To point out America’s role as the greatest enemy of self-determination in the world, and the immensity of the attendant hypocrisy of America’s defenders, is merely an attempt at distraction, a way to dissemble. Well, I have not actually been trying to distract from Russia’s invasion through reference to American crimes, have not been in any sense justifying the invasion at all. I have been saying that there is such a thing as cause and effect in the world, and that while it’s certainly emotionally convenient to say that Putin is just a crazy dictator acting purely on whim, that idea simply doesn’t fit with the facts. That expanding NATO to Russia’s border would result in Russian aggression was eminently predictable and in fact repeatedly predicted. That has been my point: you don’t get to exempt the most powerful country in the world from its influence on a conflict that has been driven by the behavior of an alliance that is doiminated by said country. Cause and effect. Cause and effect.
But, yes - since people insist on bringing up the moral principles of self-determination and freedom of association, I insist that those principles be equally and fairly applied. That is a thing that human beings do, when it comes to questions of morality, to demand that they be universally invoked if they are to be invoked at all. I don’t know what kind of weird moral world people are living in where they think it’s some irrelevant dodge to maintain the essential notion of universalism. Those who use the term “whataboutism” are alleging that their targets are avoiding hard conversations and real engagement through distraction, but that is in fact precisely the function that the term uses in our discourse, to allow people to wriggle out of considering America’s terrible history of crimes abroad. And to the extent that this dynamic is identified at all, it’s never matched with an attendant focus on the stuff that was disallowed from the conversation. People don’t say “that’s whataboutism” at 2:00 and then say “OK let’s get serious about what America’s drug war has done to Mexico” at 2:30.
The people who say “whataboutism” don’t want to talk about carpet bombing in Cambodia. They don’t want to talk about death squads in El Salvador. They don’t want to talk about reinstalling the Shah in Iran. They don’t want to talk about the murder of Patrice Lumumba in the Congo. They don’t want to talk about giving a hit list to rampaging anti-Communists in Indonesia. They don’t want to talk about the US’s role in installing a far-right government in Honduras. They don’t want to talk about US support for apartheid in South Africa. They don’t want to talk about unexploded ordnance that still kills and maims in Laos. They don’t want to talk about supporting the hideously corrupt drug lord post-Taliban regime in Afghanistan. They don’t want to talk about aiding literal Nazis and Italian fascists in taking over the government in Albania. They don’t want to talk about giving support to the far-right government’s “dirty war” in Argentina. They don’t want to talk about the US-instigated far-right coup in Ghana. They don’t want to talk about our illegal bombing of Yugoslavia. They don’t want to talk about centuries of mistreatment of Haiti, such as sponsoring the coup against Aristide. They don’t want to talk about sparking 36 years of ruinous civil war, and attendant slaughters of indigenous people, in Guatemala. They don’t want to talk about our drone war in Pakistan. They don’t want to talk about how much longer this list could go on. So when do we talk about that stuff, exactly?
I have spent my entire career as a writer living under a central principle: when people say “papers, please, where are your papers?,” I don’t give them. When people demand denunciation, the purpose is always to exert power, never to invoke principle. There has been such a post-9/11 feel to the prior couple of weeks, the same sense that we all have to declare ourselves, that “you’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists.” Well, OK, fine: I denounce Putin. I denounce his invasion. I support neither and have never suggested I did. Now will you, dear reader, denounce the oceans of blood the United States has spilled in pursuit of its own selfish interests, in the past century? Or do you have some jury-rigged excuse for every American crime I listed above and all the ones I didn’t have space to fit?
If you want the world to operate under the principle of self-determination of countries, you need to start with the country that is the indisputably most powerful and influential country on earth. And if you’re American your first priority and greatest influence lies in America’s government. I will repeat myself in saying that, if you don’t want to acknowledge our role in the world, it’s so much better simply to say, “I’m an American, I think America comes first, I don’t care about the wrong we do, love it or leave it.” That’s not a very enlightened attitude, but it has the benefit of a certain grim integrity, of plainfaced honesty. To insist that you care about self-determination and the principles of non-interference, and to maintain that the United States has the moral authority to opine about them, and to ignore our bloody history… for me, personally, it’s a bridge too far.
Update: I'm turning off comments on this one and will be going through a process of de-Baathification this weekend by refunding some subscriptions. There's disagreement and criticism of me, which has happened throughout the one-year history of this newsletter and which I've never had a single issue with, and then there's the bizarre pedantic, overbearing, condescending, sneering tone employed here lately, which to me is always a product of people feeling frightened and wanting to project strength. More importantly, I will not tolerate people referencing my mental illness as a way to get one over on me. That's a lifetime ban the first time it happens, and it's incredible to me that several of you think you are entitled to act that way.
I think this stuff touches people in a way that undermines their sense of being a cosmopolitan sophisticate, and I think it forces them to consider what their country actually is in a profoundly uncomfortable way. It's resulted in some of the most witless, rage-fueled comments we've had here. So I'm shutting comments down for now. Again, don't bother to tell me you're unsubscribing in email, I don't care. I will gladly take revenues down to $0 to keep my project truly mine.
I asked some really basic questions in this post - do you really think the United States operates under the principle of self-determination for other nations? Do Cuba or any other disfavored countries enjoy self-determination from the influence of the United States? Why are we allowed to dictate who neighbors ally with, where Russia is not? Are you all really so blind to your country's history? And not one comment, among hundreds, has credibly provided a coherent answer to the basic moral questions at hand. I encourage you to take some time and really, genuinely engage in introspection about why.