For as long as one cares to remember, people have worked hard at shaping history — everything that has happened before the present moment — by adding or removing contending perspectives, those that make them feel uncomfortable or that negate their own ideas and efforts. There really is nothing revelatory about that statement.
One of the main problems with this trend is a wilful stripping of histories, conditions or states of affairs from statements, claims and expressed positions, most all of which are, in the first place, based on closely held ideological beliefs.
Mr John Maynard Keynes reminded us that pragmatists, who would insist that they are simply being “practical”, and “who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences are usually the slaves of some defunct economist”. (The exact, full passage is somewhere in his General Theory).
In the contemporary era, the waning era of liberal internationalism triumphant, the battles are ideological, political and, well, all about power. When has it not been about power… we may place the discussion between two bookends; the liberal and Marxist idealists.
Liberals would have us believe that dominant voices and influence have the power to determine what is important and everything else is simply swept under the carpet. A more critical (Marxist) reading — critical with a capital “C” is most pithy.
“The ideas of the ruling class,” Karl Marx wrote, “are in every epoch the ruling ideas.” In other words, “the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.”
I would adjust this passage by Marx to make room for prevailing conditions where a band of intellectuals who were once part of the rule-making elite, continue battles to save and reproduce the beliefs and values they share with the West. They continue to build awareness among very loyal true believers and fellow travellers. They are not always of the ruling class, nor part of the state.
They do, nonetheless, share the practice of removing history (as did the Soviets in Poland during the 1940s) where education, literature or even public discussions were declared illegal, as it were, if it was not framed by dialectical materialism. It is useful to recall that during the Second World War, the invading Soviets (left wing) and the Nazis (right wing) shut down all universities and institutions of knowledge production — notably in science, most notably in Poland.
Whether you consider it a good or bad thing, there remains, in South Africa, a cadre of intellectuals who “rose to their profession”, and hold their current positions in the democratic era and reproduce the ideas, beliefs and values of that old order. They would dismiss any challenges to liberal orthodoxy and prevalence of “the West” as chimeric and simply a case of “whataboutism”…
In other words, particular stories are told, or presented and secured from criticism, scrutiny, examination and especially situatedness — all the things that define what history is — and these stories are given privilege. For the record, lawyers and prosecutors often, and quite traditionally, practice legal whataboutism by drawing on a range of knowledge bases.
American oppression in post-war Japan
A good example in current affairs (notably in the days after the BRICS Summit) has been the mushrooming of quite disparaging views about China (and of BRICS) which is decried repeatedly as undemocratic — the liberal sense.
Again, take that as you wish, but once you explain that “the West” has traditions of illiberalism, violence, intolerance or censorship that lie deep in its history, it’s all dismissed as “whataboutism”. This is farcical. Expedient. Ideological.
If we may speak of, say, Soviet and Nazi censorship and destroying knowledge production in Poland or Hungary during the Cold War, and except that as evidence of illiberalism, is it not best to place those claims, truths, beside, say, censorship by the United States (in Japan) after the Second World War?
With the film Hiroshima trending across cinemas in the world, consider the way that when the US occupied Japan after the slaughter of innocents in Hiroshima and Nagasaki (US violence on peasants in Vietnam, and civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, has been described as “unrestricted slaughter” by “saturation bombing”) the occupiers established elaborate systems of censorship and disinformation that specifically targeted writers (including journalists and even poets) and scientists across Japan. (See, for instance, the work of the Civil Censorship Detachment, and the way — not unlike today’s ideological clones — that thousands of Japanese were “embedded”.)
The US controlled, disciplined and punished by various means, through “soft power” (see the brochure, Nichibei Eikaiwa Techou — the promotion of American-English in the aftermath of the slaughter of innocents) including brute force.
In, Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II, John Dower (once of Harvard University and Amherst University) explained that “a system of secret censorship and thought control that operated under the name of ‘free expression’ … and yet drastically curbed any criticism of General MacArthur … the entire huge army of occupation, occupation policy in general, the United States and other victorious Allied powers, the prosecution’s case as well as the verdicts in the war-crimes tribunals, and the emperor’s personal war responsibility once the victors pragmatically decided that he had none.”
Instead of bringing liberation, the US (“the land of freedom”) provided Japan with “lessons about acquiescing to overweening power and conforming to a dictated consensus concerning permissible behaviour”.
So, unless you hold a long view (or the longue durée, which I almost always consider), you consider history as unimportant and religiously accept the world “as it is,” you may dismiss the Nazis and Soviets (in places like Poland and Hungary), and the Americans in Japan as “whataboutism”. Or you may pick a side and justify the conduct of your ideological soulmates. At worst, you would believe that “that was then and this is now”…
The misuse of whataboutism/objectivity as ideology
This trend, of dismissing uncomfortable truths as “whataboutism” has worked at the state level, and in civil society, notably at that point where individuals involved in knowledge production (which cannot be separated from the political economic), “build awareness” around beliefs of the world “as it is” — which is scientism’s forced (fatally flawed) objectivity. This objectivity has, itself, come to represent an ideology. You can read it in the popular press.
Much of our tradition in journalism is based on European ideas and practices. For most of the past 70 years, since the end of the Second World War, we drew almost exclusively on journalistic practices and ethics of the US — where ideology, we are told, is in conflict with objectivity.
Somewhat ironically, objectivity has become an ideology, in the sense that it is a system that legitimises as much as it obfuscates relations of power, discipline, punishment and domination in general. Objectivity is, then, forced upon the reader who is expected to accept the world “as it is” rather than as an engaged and active citizen that (at least) aspires to change society. The world “as is” is almost always constructed for us, and we cannot accept that the world “as it is” is in its final stage of completion.
This does not take anything away from the habit of changing the subject at hand by focussing on someone else’s behaviour — and thereby implying or saying outright, “yeah but no one is blameless”.
That is the type of whataboutism that is expedient, because it will not accept responsibility for the violence and oppression, and the vices of past actors.
How often have we not heard, seen or read about crime and violence in South Africa, today, as if crime, violence, social breakdown, systemic collapse and all the things that are wrong in the country started, in human consciousness and conduct, on 27 April 1994, and that none of these wrongs previously existed anywhere in human history?
And anyway, where or when it is acknowledged, it is dismissed as the unfortunate or unavoidable accidents of good people trying to do good things.
The Italian thinker, Benedetto Croce (by no means a leftist, so it should go down well…) once wrote that “hegemony was the outcome of a theory that presented it as a right and a duty to be the leader of all peoples, an originator of civilisation [and] of human perfection.”
So, the USA and the West are good because they aspired to always be diligent, trustworthy and pacific leaders of all peoples, and originators of civilisation and human perfection. Such intellectual perfidiousness…
And so…. if you believe your eyes, for what we read, the “bad people” in the world are Iran, China and Turkey (among others) and the good people are “the West” — if we follow the wisdom and insights and logic of the scribes of our time.
It would, of course, be marvellous if it were that easy. What I argue, here, is that the habit of changing the subject at hand by focusing on someone else’s behaviour — and thereby implying or saying “yeah but no one is blameless” — is a bad case of whataboutism. However, it really does lean on a very crude empiricism and relies on everyone accepting the world “as it is” — a world in which history and ideology have died.
On the point of history; there really is much more to history than that which emerged from the European Enlightenment, riddled, as it is with Hegelian self-importance. Whether ideology has died is moot; actually, most oppositional thinking on China starts with ideological opposition to communism.
That is so 20th Century… what has happened to the liberalism that was (reportedly) so triumphant at the end of the Cold War has been a transformation to what John Gray explained as “a hyper-liberal ideology” that aims to purge society of any trace of other views of the world.
With particular reference to institutions of knowledge production and to the extent that regimes of censorship prevail (in universities, and in news media, for that matter) it is because they have become vehicles for this project. Here we see distinct echoes with US censorship in Japan and the soft power that was part of this censorship, and contemporary efforts to force through a single narrative on China (by no means without blame) with the US remaining the eternally innocent player in world affairs — and awareness is built around that belief…
Incidentally, it was rather disingenuous (pointedly ahistorical and self-righteous) of the US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, who said Washington would not compromise or negotiate with China on its national security when the US maintains military bases around the world, including Camp Humphreys, the largest US military base in the world a mere 540km from the Chinese mainland.
The US considers Camp Humphreys to be “the largest power projection platform in the Pacific”… like Nato’s expansion eastward, which may not be discussed and which is regularly deflected, US military expansion on the Chinese borders are rarely questioned. It’s dismissed as whataboutism because, you know, China.
Perhaps it is time to think historically and honestly and acknowledge our captivity (by tiresome ideas, beliefs and values). And on this note, I should leave the last word to Keynes: “The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones.” DM