Episode 66: Whataboutism - The Media's Favorite Rhetorical Shield Against Criticism of US Policy
Since the beginning of what's generally called 'RussiaGate' three years ago, pundits, media outlets, even comedians…
Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.
Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.
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Nima: Since the beginning of what’s generally called ‘RussiaGate’ three years ago — and the subsequent martial posture of the liberal establishment — pundits, media outlets, even comedians have all now become insta-experts on supposed Russian propaganda techniques. Generally we are warned how to spot these tricks and know how to combat them. The most cunning, however, we are told, is that of “whataboutism” — a devious Soviet tactic of deflecting criticism by pointing out the accusers’ hypocrisy and inconsistencies. The tu quoque — or, for you non-Latin scholars, the “you, also” fallacy, but with a unique slavic flavor of nihilism, used by Trump and leftists alike in an effort to change the subject and focus on the faults of the United States rather than the crimes of our Official State Enemies.
Adam: But what if the term whataboutism isn’t describing a propaganda technique, but is in fact one itself. A zombie phrase that’s seeped into everyday liberal discourse that — while perhaps useful in the abstract — has manifestly turned any appeal to moral consistency into a cunning Russian psyop. From its origins in the cold war as a means of deflecting and apologizing for Jim Crow to its contemporary usage as a way of deflecting and not engaging any criticism of the United States and its supposed status of arbiter of human rights, the term whataboutism has become a term that, 100 percent of the time, is simply used to defend and legimtiaze American empire’s moral narratives.
Nima: On today’s show we’ll be joined by Jeremy Scahill, co-founder of The Intercept.
Jeremy Scahill: The United States has a PhD in overthrowing governments. In regime change, in coups, indirectly interfering in elections in other countries, including Russia. But don’t say that or else you’re a Putin agent and I’m going to write about you in my really cool Russia book where I, so cool to put the ‘R’ backwards.
Adam: And the last two years there’s been, like you mentioned in the intro, every single liberal has become an expert in Russian PSYOP techniques. There’s sort of this copy of a copy of a copy where people sort of hear something and they think, oh, I’m the first person to think of this. And you see this a lot with people who are, you know, they’re criticizing Trump, which whatever, that’s perfectly fine to do, but they can’t say Trump is doing this thing that is shitty. It has to be Trump doing something that’s part of a Russian propaganda thing. So Trump is not being subject to blackmail, he is subject of compromise. He’s not, he’s not lying, he’s doing this sort of Putinesque great big lie, like, gaslight fire hose. There’s all these sort of like we have to Russian-ize everything.
Nima: ‘Cause that’s what makes it important. And that’s what also absolves our own society of any wrongdoing or responsibility for what’s going on in the world.
Adam: Yeah. And so Lauren Duca, who’s this sort of blue checkmark liberal, she had an article called “Thigh High Politics,” which I don’t know what that means, in Teen Vogue, “Week 7 of Thigh-High Politics unpacks Trump’s use of the Soviet Union propaganda tactic known as ‘whataboutism.’”
Nima: And so the, uh, the actual headline of her article is, “Trump’s Treatment of the Susan Rice Story Is Classic ‘Whataboutism.’” And then the subhead is, “It’s a Soviet Union propaganda technique.”
Adam: And this was changed from the original headline, which was “Donald Trump is Using a Mind Game Straight from the Soviet Union.” And the subhead is, “Heard of ‘whataboutism?’” It’s like, so there’s this uniquely Slavic character and increasingly we see this with criticisms of the left. Should Trump sort of infamously was asked on the Bill O’Reilly show in February of 2017, his first major interview for the Superbowl, the Patriots beat the Falcons. He was like, ‘well, Putin’s a bad guy.’ And he’s like, ‘well, we’re bad guys too.’
Nima: Right. ‘We also kill people.’
Adam: Right. And instead of people saying, ‘Well, he’s just being a glib asshole who’s like sort of not even bothering running through the motions of human rights trolling,’ of course, what he said was correct, by the way, but for all the wrong reasons, they said ‘this is a Russian tactic called whataboutism.’
Adam: And there was about a million different in vogue iterations of this in the liberal press.
[Begin Clip Montage]
Man #1: Whataboutism is a Russian propaganda technique and was used frequently during the Cold War. Whenever criticism was leveled at the Soviet Union, they countered with a similar critique of the West.
Woman #1: That’s exactly the whataboutism argument Putin’s TV channels make.
Man #2: Um, whataboutism, you know, that my, my Russian counterpart practiced.
Man #3: And what is really bugging me tonight is this whataboutism.
Man #4: It’s the practice of changing the subject to someone else’s perceived wrongdoing.
Woman #2: When you’re immediate response is, well they were worse-
Woman #3: Yeah
Woman #2: And you don’t acknowledge it. This highlight to me-
Woman #3: Whataboutism they call it.
Woman #2: Yeah.
Man #5: Folks, comments like these are reminding some people have an old Soviet tactic known as whataboutism.
Woman #4: I’ve heard a lot of whataboutisms this week.
Man #6: And that’s not acceptable. And there’s no whataboutism on my watch, not here.
[End Clip Montage]
Adam: But increasingly this has become, it’s not only way to sort of take something that’s American like Trump and sort of Russian-ize, which of course is a very popular thing cause we don’t wanna act like he’s a product of America, he’s a product of some foreign power.
Nima: Right. That he’s Putin’s puppet, not just the inevitable American present.
Adam: But now all these Russia insta-experts are now using this term, weaponizing this term, which again, they all think that they have cracked some magical code, that they figured it out. And people do this. They link to the NPR article, like, ‘Have you heard about whataboutism?’ And then it’s like, ‘Whoa! Holy shit man!’
Nima: Created in a Soviet lab.
Adam: ‘Wow man, you just blew my fucking mind cause I was just making a pretty normal intuitive human reaction to blatant hypocrisy that you’ve somehow pathologized as Slavic,’ which we’ll talk about-
Nima: Because whataboutism is just one way of saying false moral equivalence or glass houses. It’s all the same. It’s the, ‘Well, you started it.’ This is a very common kind of human reaction to being pushed on something that you then either deflect or defend, but yet what we’re seeing in the press has everything to do with then claiming that this is some sort of Soviet gambit, which is now being adopted by Trump through Russian Putin influence.
Adam: Yeah, and we see this, again, we see this increasingly targeting the Left. So Evan O’Connell, who’s a, I guess a sort of British, neoliberal, he wrote, “Corbyn’s positions on Russia and Ukraine has bothered me for years, but this is more of that stop the war whataboutism. It’s actively supporting Putin.” This was in response to Corbyn asking for some sort of detente around Ukraine.
Nima: And then you have Charles Lane in The Washington Post using this whataboutism to discredit House Representative Ro Khanna in talking about the blatant hypocrisy of the US posture on Venezuela. So, Ro Khanna tweeted this quote, “The US is sanctioning Venezuela for their lack of democracy but not Saudi Arabia? Such hypocrisy.” End quote. And then Ilhan Omar, the new Representative from Minnesota wrote, “If Trump and [Mike] Pompeo are so worried about human rights and democracy in Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua why do they actively support horrible regimes in Brazil, Guatemala, and Honduras?” And so Charles Lane thought that, you know, well that’s total whataboutism. And so he actually writes, “This sort of left-wing whataboutism was probably inevitable, but, well, what about it? Does hypocrisy disqualify Trump’s policy? Or is there a principled basis for selective concern about Venezuela?”
Adam: It’s become this sort of brain dead thing where you say, okay, a normal human instinct is to kind of say, all right, well you’re saying that Russia is uniquely evil. Why don’t we interrogate that and think if that’s true? Russia medals in our elections. Well, okay, well we’ve, you know, we’ve meddled in the elections X, Y through Z, seven through twenty which we’ve talked about on the show many times and you say, oh, that’s whataboutism, we’re talking about Russia right now. Don’t change the subject. It’s like, well, why are we talking about Russia? Like I don’t, I can talk about what the fuck I want to talk about.
Nima: And also history and context does matter.
Adam: Yeah. And so this normal human instinct to want to have some kind of consistency has not only been pathologized as some sort of like trick, it’s now uniquely Slavic or uniquely Russian and it’s everyone’s the most clever person in the world because now they’ve thought of this. Now in the context of Trump and Putin, there’s a sense that it’s sort of this nihilistic way of deflecting criticism, which is sort of true, but you still have to address the criticism in and of itself, which is to say that like if we say ‘Putin is bad’ and Trump’s like ‘well we’re bad too,’ you can’t just say like, oh, that’s whataboutism. You say, well, yeah, like he’s right. So why don’t we not be bad?
Adam: And you see this time and time again. And so we’re going take a second and go through the history of the term and how its history has been misrepresented and distorted. And suffice to say that it’s origins are not even Russian. The origins of the term come from the conflict between the North Irish Unionists and the North Irish Republicans.
Nima: Right, The Troubles. And so in The Wall Street Journal, uh, Ben Zimmer has actually investigated the origin of this phrase and he has written this quote, “On Jan. 30, 1974, the Irish Times published a letter to the editor from Sean O’Conaill, a history teacher from the town of Coleraine in Northern Ireland. Mr. O’Conaill wrote of “the Whatabouts,” his name for “the people who answer every condemnation of the Provisional I.R.A. with an argument to prove the greater immorality of the ‘enemy.’” And three days later in the same newspaper, John Healy picked up the theme in his “Benchbacker” column citing Mr. O’Conaill’s letter. And Healy wrote this quote, “We have a bellyful of Whataboutery in these killing days, and the one clear fact to emerge is that people, Orange and Green, are dying as a result of it.” He wrote, “Commentators on the Troubles embraced the term “whataboutery” and frequently mentioned it in the ensuing years of strife.”
Adam: Throughout the ’70s the term whataboutery was used in the context of North Ireland specifically to target the IRA. We pointed out that the British, every time they were criticized for terrorism, they would say, well, the British do this all the time in Africa and in India —
Nima: Right, it’s called empire and colonialism.
Adam: Right. And so as a way of deflecting this criticism and as a way of preventing introspection, they said, ‘oh, this is whataboutery, this is uniquely North Irish Republican gambit,’ which really kind of reveals the origins of the term, which by definition to apologize for imperialism. It is because we don’t want to reconcile inconsistency so we’ll sort of reduce it to some sort of propaganda technique.
Nima: By the rebels.
Adam: Yeah. And so in our research for the show what we discovered was is that if you look at the origins of it, whether it’s Wikipedia or whether it’s Ben Zimmer’s column or whether it’s Marion Webster has a whole section about whataboutism because they’ve kind of turned into this really boring liberal RT bait institution, that they say the first reference to the Soviet Union was an Australian magazine called The Age in 1978, which is true as far as it goes, but there’s some context that’s missing to this, which is the article itself, which no one mentions is that it’s responding to a comment in The Guardian newspaper in London., it’s referencing the Soviet Union as whataboutery. What they’re doing is they’re borrowing a term from North Ireland and this guy sort of liked it for the Soviet Union, so he wrote an article about it. But the thing is if you go through newspapers.com, which is the largest database of all the newspapers, these, there’s 460 million pages of newspaper, there’s not a single mention in the entirety of the Soviet Union about whataboutism from 1924 to 1991, which was the existence of the Soviet Union as such. It was not really a term that was used. What they’re really sort of vaguely talking about is this cliche called “you lynch blacks and you lynch negroes,” which was a term the Soviet Union, uh, used to sort of show hypocrisy. Now the depths of which is not totally clear because we’re not, you know, it’s not totally clear to what extent this was a sort of technique or if it was a logical rejoinder to American sermonizing about hypocrisy. They’d say, ‘well, you lynch African Americans in your country.’
Nima: Right. This is during Jim Crow during, like, years and years of literal lynching terror.
Adam: Right. And so we looked over, over a hundred million published scholarly articles in Google Scholar from that same time period, not a single one of them mentioned whataboutism as a Soviet technique. There’s eight mentions of whataboutery, but all of them are referenced in Northern Ireland.
Nima: The first more recent usage however, in a major publication of this term, whataboutism was from right-wing colonist Edward Lucas, when he was a blogger for The Economist, he explained this term back in 2007 while promoting his nuanced and measured book called The New Cold War: Putin’s Russia and the Threat to the West. Now Lucas writes currently for Rupert Murdoch’s The Times of London churning out equally nuanced and measured takes such as this one, “Jeremy Corbyn’s sickening support of Soviet empire.” So you can see where Lucas is coming from. So as a term, however, whataboutism remained mostly dormant until about 2012 at which point pro west Russian watchers such as Miriam Elder in The Guardian really brought it back into vogue. After the Edward Snowden revelations however, Julia Ioffe at The New Republic and Olga Khazan at The Atlantic further revived the term when they referenced it in their own writing would then link it back to that 2007 Edward Lucas piece from The Economist. You can find that link hyperlinked all over the place, but it’s still kind of remained like inside baseball, like a kind of term that wasn’t being tweeted out every three seconds until really Russia’s incursion into Ukraine in February, 2014.
Adam: So it was at this point that the term really took off. So The New York Times never use the term at all in reference to Soviet propaganda or otherwise. It wasn’t until August 2014 when New York Times first mentions the term whataboutery and it’s specifically in reference to Julia Ioffe, who was then at TNR is now at The Atlantic, was a huge Russiagate, like Russia expert, Russia whisper. She’s a Russian American, totally tows the line, Putin’s evil so forth. And she mentioned whataboutism. She said it’s quote, “…started with civil rights, whenever the U.S. pointed to Soviet human rights violations, the Soviets had an easy riposte. [Where they would say quote] ‘Well, you,’ they said, ‘lynch Negros.’” Unquote. So this is again, what you see here is you had a very, like the term whataboutism in its modern iteration was more or less coined in 2007. The term was used only one time in one Australian paper in reference to a Guardian column. It’s not a coincidence that both The Economist and The Guardian are in the UK, this was a North Irish term.
Nima: Sorry to be so obvious, but whataboutery is not a Russian word and there’s no spooky antecedent, right? There’s no other word that then whataboutery is just the English translation of, like, no, the term is whataboutism, which means like it wasn’t crafted in some Soviet lab and if they’re talking about, you know, a similar way of pushing back on your enemies propaganda or that you push your own propaganda, like, that’s not a purely Soviet thing.
Adam: Which is the point, right? They keep saying it’s this Soviet thing, but what they’re sort of vaguely rafting onto it as this general rejoinder that’s broadly understood as ‘and you lynch blacks too.’ Which was true. A lot of Soviet information, propaganda, whatever you wanna call it was predicated on the idea that the Americans were full of shit and racist, all of which of course is true and that they needed a sort of clever ism for it because they didn’t want to say lynching black because that draws up an image of racist terror regime in the United States. So they kind of rebooted it as whataboutism, a term that, again, I stress in 460 million pages of newspaper and 100 million scholarly articles for 80 years was never really mentioned in the context of the Soviet Union. It was mentioned in the context of North Ireland, so they kind of-
Adam: Rarely. In the seventies especially, it was sort of a term, so they kind of grafted it onto this new concept of it being uniquely Russian. It’s so uniquely Russian that The New York Times didn’t mention it until 2014 and The Washington Post didn’t mention it until 2014 when it became vogue to do so. And the Wikipedia page for the term came online in May of 2012 around the same time, in fact, I think it was exact same month that The Atlantic first used it in 2012 and then there again, all of these were referencing, and the Wikipedia article for a good year, the only reference point was the Edward Lucas article because Edward Lucas is the contemporary godfather of this term as something uniquely Soviet.
Nima: Right, and so now you’ll see it kind of spread everywhere from The Atlantic in 2013 this is one of the original Olga Khazan pieces saying “Like many other Soviet traditions, whataboutism has resurfaced in the Putin era.” You’ll see in 2014 in The New Republic, this is from Julia Ioffe, “In the 1950s and 60s, the White House was painfully conscious that the civil rights movement was going to either be a boon or a thorn for their foreign policy when it came to grappling with the Soviet Union. The U.S.S.R, after all, was about equality, at least on paper. The now sacred Russian tactic of ‘whataboutism’ started with civil rights.” And so you see this again and again. It’s called “the old Soviet propaganda tool of ‘whataboutism,’” said the Times. There was a headline in The Washington Post in 2017, “Whataboutism: The Cold War tactic, thawed by Putin, is brandished by Donald Trump.”
Adam: But it’s like, it’s not, it’s true that the Soviets pointed out American hypocrisy, but so did the Japanese during World War II. This was, if anyone read Douglas Blackmon’s book Slavery By Another Name, like the primary reason that FDR expedited the end of debt peonage and neoslavery in the South was because the Japanese were using it for propaganda. They were publishing leaflets and dropping them on black soldiers saying like, this is not a Russian thing. This is what, you know, Vietnamese did this. Che Guevara did this. Fidel Castro did this.
Nima: But also, the United States does this.
Nima: And also Israel does this, because whenever you bring up Israel as a colonial apartheid state, a very common rejoinder to that is, ‘Oh, well what about the United States? That’s also colonial?’ And it’s like, the answer is ‘Yes, you’re right, let’s investigate these imperial, colonial, you know, racist, discriminatory societies.’ Rather than saying, ‘oh well,’ you know, ‘hand wave it away because that’s just, whataboutism,’ right? That’s just this thing where you’re trying to deflect, you’re trying to change the subject rather than actually embracing human history as the context for what we are all talking about.
Adam: And to me, it’s so perfect that it’s origins are not in Russia, but in North Ireland for amongst the union apologists who were the Protestant pro-British empire apologists, because it shows that it’s a term that is by its very nature meant to deflect. I mean the United States is the most hypocritical empire right now, but the British empire gets the gold star. I mean we’re talking about civilization missions, we’re talking about protecting women. I mean you name it, it’s and they’re completely full of shit. And the IRA knew this and they called them full of shit. And instead of addressing that, they did the thing where they pathologized it. So, and the reason why it’s so popular and the reason why liberals love it aside from the fact that it’s vaguely Russian and we’re in the middle of this fucking totally brain dead Russiagate panic, is that it’s a way of, it’s the easier route, right? So if I come to you and I say I’m the arbiter of human rights, and you say, ‘well, okay, you know, great, but you do X, Y, Z,’ instead of addressing that, right? Instead of coming up with a way of lessening the cognitive dissidence of being a total fucking hypocrite, instead of figuring out a way of, I dunno, not killing a million Iraqis or not supporting apartheid regimes or not slaughtering Yemeni schoolchildren, the easier route, instead of addressing those issues, is to simply say, ‘wait, you pointing it out is somehow sinister.’ Because it’s easy.
Adam: So that it’s sort of cheap.
Nima: And that that itself is the propaganda tool, not the actual deflection.
Adam: Or at the very least, it’s a much greater propaganda tool. Like, I’m willing to concede that like, sure, Trump or Putin and leaders of name a country, China, Venezuela, whatever, evil bad guy. Ah, yeah. I’m sure we’re willing to say, you know, Iran does this, they’ll say, ‘well, you’re full of shit.’ You know, ‘you do this, this and this.’ Like do I think they care about those causes?
Nima: Do you think they really care? Or are they using it as a, as a? Right.
Adam: Probably not, but like it doesn’t matter because the people who are deflecting it are ten times, a hundred times worse because not only are they hand waving away something they can actually do something about, they have some control over, right? Some sort of authority over, they are turning a very normal human instinct, which is to sort of try to be a little bit consistent, not a hundred percent, but just a little bit, and they’re saying, ‘oh, by doing this, you’re somehow playing into the hands of Putin registered trademark. You’re playing in the hands of Putin.’ It’s like Ro Khanna is playing into the hands of Putin because he says we shouldn’t kill Yemeni school children while we’re hand wringing about fucking people in Venezuela.
Nima: Right. Meanwhile, he’s a sitting Congressman who actually can help change that.
Adam: Change things, can actually change the conversation.
Nima: Right. And so you see this nexus of discriminatory, powerful, very violent states coming together to sort of push this idea. I mean as you said Adam, the term really originating with the unionists in Northern Ireland and in Northern Ireland the unionists saw themselves in a grand tradition alongside Zionists in Israel, the apartheid regime in South Africa. There used to be murals all over Belfast, kind of associated, linking all of those things together in a positive way. Meanwhile, the Catholic neighborhoods would have murals linking arms with Palestinians and blacks in the US South while unionists’ murals would also have confederate flags on them. I mean, and so you see this working together. There’s that infamous Christian Science Monitor article about apartheid, which we have referenced on the show before, actually very early in the first season headlined, “South Africa Shouldn’t be Singled Out.” It came out in October of 1989 and it begins with this line, “While the violation of human rights is the norm rather than the exception in most of Africa’s 42 black-ruled states, the spotlight remains on South Africa.” And so whataboutery is used all the time. It’s used in normal human discourse.
Adam: And we talked about this in the episode where he’s like, well that’s what, you know, our guest, a Steven Salaita, who I love, he’s like, that’s whataboutery. And I was like, well, I’m a little hesitant because I think that like critics of Israel should be consistent. They should explain why Zionism is deserving of boycott and other, like, that’s a good conversation to have. Like you should have that conversation.
Nima: Right. It works in context with the other things that we should be addressing.
Adam: Exactly. Which again, I think is a totally normal human thing to want to do. But in lieu of that, we’ve altered our fucking brains off and we’re echoing this total zombie phrase. Whataboutism. And it does all the thinking for us. It doesn’t require any thought. It’s just, ‘oh, that’s whataboutism.’ Okay, end of conversation.
Nima: Period. End of, it’s the ultimate conversation killer.
Adam: And the thing about the term before we go on to Jeremy, the last thing I’ll say is that the brilliance of it is that anytime there’s a term that only goes in one direction, that only is used to indemnify and protect American imperialism, it’s literally never used in any other context in mainstream media, ever, ever. That’s gotta raise some red flags. It’s like fake news. No one else does fake news, but the evil Russians and the Venezuelans and the Iranians like, or maybe some slimy right-wingers they’ll throw in for good measure, but American, you know, The Washington Post, by definition, we talked about this, they will tell you, its defenders will tell you, right? That The Washington Post, New York Times by definition cannot do fake news. That’s got to raise some alarm bells because it’s a term that is only used to smear official enemies and is only used to protect and to absolve and to sort of and to pat on the back American imperialist narratives.
Nima: To discuss this further we’re going to be joined by Jeremy Scahill, co-founder of The Intercept. Stay with us.
Nima: We are joined now by Jeremy Scahill. So great to talk to you today, Jeremy.
Jeremy Scahill: Thanks for having me on.
Adam: So when we were compiling our episode on whataboutism, we noticed there wasn’t a lot of real like meaningful criticisms of it from the left except for yours in terms of like actual, you know, mainstream dissemination and um, one of the things that we find so frustrating is because I feel like I’ve seen this evolve over the last two years. It sorta preexists but it’s gotten worse now where it’s this, it’s kind of like fake news where it’s just this thingamajig. It’s this thing that people say and everyone who says ‘this is whataboutism’ and when they link to an NPR link and you see this quite often, specifically in recent context was Ro Khanna was, it was pointing out Trump’s hypocrisy over Venezuela and saying that like, you know, ‘if we wanna talk about human rights, why don’t we stop killing kids in Yemen,’ which is sort of very sensible thing. And about like 800 blue check mark liberals came out of the woodwork and were like, ‘this is whataboutism’ and it just, it’s become this like this thing that does the thinking for you in a way that’s gotten so ubiquitous now that I feel like I’m kind of going mad. And then I obviously you have your criticisms of it. Can we start off with what you view is its origins from something that’s sort of vaguely may have been true to this kind of totally textbook thought terminating cliche?
Jeremy Scahill: When I think about this, I often remember that it was the, the sort of famed arch conservative William Buckley who is often quoted about whataboutism and he said the following, “To say that the CIA and the KGB engage in similar practices is the equivalent of saying that the man who pushes an old lady into the path of a hurtling bus is not to be distinguished from the man who pushes an old lady out of the path of a hurtling bus on the grounds that, after all, in both cases someone is pushing old ladies around.” This really captures the kind of heart of how the phrase or the allegation of whataboutism is being weaponized today. I mean, first of all, in the much bigger context here, you have this army of bots that are, a lot of them were rooted in the kind of Hillary Clinton campaign that believe that the deep state is keeping us safe from Trump, the CIA, the NSA, the FBI, that quietly these people are making sure that Trump doesn’t ruin our nice, neat little peaceful republic. The reality is that the worst actors in the deep state are perfectly fine with Trump as long as he is conducting the imperial agenda. So Venezuela, even the appointment of Elliott Abrams, won praise from some Democrats. The fact that Trump and his administration are openly saying this is about the oil and they’re exempting Chevron and Halliburton from the sanctions, that’s okay because Trump is playing the adult version of empire politics. But when Trump says something like, uh, when he’s asked about Vladimir Putin’s record in human rights abuses, extrajudicial killings, his response is, ‘we kill a lot of people, there’s a lot of killers out there.’ Now of course, you know, Trump may be engaged in some deflection if you go down the rabbit hole of is Trump in the pocket of Vladimir Putin. But it was true! And the fact is that the United States is one of the premiere mass killers in the world. But if you point that out, whether it’s to someone like Barack Obama or it’s someone like Marco Rubio, they’re gonna say, ‘well, what is, what’s in our heart? You know, in our heart we are not criminals, therefore we accidentally kill civilians. We don’t mean to bring suffering to the ordinary people with these sanctions, but that’s the price we have to pay for these policies.’ So I mean the basic conceit, the idea that William Buckley was floating out there is that the motive of the violent actor is what we really should be talking about. And the United States says all the time, ‘we’re about peace, freedom, and democracy.’ It really is relying on an utterly stupid construct that places a premium on semantics of American exceptionalism and acts as though that means it’s true when in reality, American exceptionalism, which is the secular religion of the Democrats and Republicans, states that anyone we kill must have died for a reason. And the reason is because we’re bringing peace, freedom and democracy to the world.
Nima: Yeah, it’s kind of like the Bruno Kirby character in Good Morning, Vietnam was like, “In my heart, I know I’m funny.” Like there’s-
Jeremy Scahill: Well, it’s like Chuck Todd is on, Sherrod Brown is on Meet the Press with Chuck Todd and Sherrod Brown rightly says that Donald Trump is a racist. And then Chuck Todd says, ‘well, do you really think that that’s in his heart?’ And Sherrod Brown is like, ‘What are we talking about? What’s in his heart? What does that even mean?’ That’s the right answer to that question, but that, you know, Chuckles Todd really embodies everything that’s wrong with US media and US media relationship to American history because he has the blinders on of American exceptionalism that everyone walking the halls of Congress, with a few notable exceptions, you mentioned Ro Khanna and on some issues, let’s say Rand Paul, he actually, you know, will speak the truth about American wars from time to time, but with only a handful of exceptions, all of Congress, all of the political elites, all of the think tank crew believe in, profit off of and promote the big lie of American exceptionalism. That’s really what a lot of this boils down to. And so Chuck Todd asking Sherrod Brown about what’s really in Donald Trump’s heart when we have the facts of Trump’s past, his record on race, the way he’s governed as president, the way he’s handled neo Nazis and white nationalist fascists, we know who Trump is by his record, who gives a flying fuck what’s in that guy’s heart? But that is what is important to people like Chuck Todd and the Washington crowd. And so when you raise issues about the United States interfering systematically in election after election after election for basically the entirety of its modern history around the world, and you’re bringing that up in the context of what Russia may or may not have done in the US elections, it’s immediately dismissed as a Soviet propaganda technique, you must be on the Putin payroll, when in reality, the failure to actually analyze the complexities of why Russia or Israel or the Saudis or the Qataris or the Emiratis or the Americans are intervening around the world and how that might be part of nation state warcraft, which is really what it is, when you don’t take that into effect, you’re not actually talking about facts cause you’ve erased the historical context for why an actor like Russia may be feeling that they’re on an okay playing field, attempting to interfere with electoral voting systems in the United States through cyber intrusion. The United States has a PhD in overthrowing governments, in regime change, in coups, in directly interfering in elections in other countries, including Russia. But don’t say that or else you’re a Putin agent and I’m going to write about you in my really cool Russia book where I so cool to put the “R” backwards.
Adam: Yeah. That’s the key.
Nima: (Laughs.) Yeah. Putin “R” Us.
Adam: Otherwise, how do we know it’s not about Russia.
Jeremy Scahill: But it’s, it’s, it really is the sort of, you know, modern iteration of, you know, ‘go back to Russia.’ You know what people were told in the fifties, sixties, seventies what have you, if you complain about the United States. But social media and the Internet have made stupidity easily accessible to all of us, all the time, every day, particularly on Twitter and this sort of bot army of people that, you know, just figured out that Vladimir Putin was a KGB agent and they’re, you know, they’re doing their deep dive research into the connections between Trump and Putin. None of them are actually interested in a serious historically based discussion about the current allegations against Russia regarding election interference any more than they’re interested in actually talking about how economic sanctions are a weapon of mass destruction that is used as a cudgel against people to just flog them into submission to the US agenda.
Nima: Yeah, I mean, so often the same people who scream about Trump, you know, ‘facts matter, reality matters, he’s crafting his own reality, he never tells the truth,’ are the exact same people who when you actually bring up the historical record, are refusing to acknowledge any sort of inconvenient facts that may butt up against the agenda that they’re trying to push. It has everything to do with, let’s not look at the record and let’s not reckon with our actual history. This is all about obfuscating history, which our politics and our press relies on, which is why the myth of exceptionalism, of goodness, of promoting democracy and freedom around the world can keep perpetuating.
Jeremy Scahill: Well, and, and you know, Barack Obama was one of the highest level operators of selling this American exceptionalism propaganda because he was as articulate as he is because he was a constitutional law scholar because he campaigned and was embraced as this transformative figure. He regularly, when he would talk about the deaths of civilians, would sort of draw a distinction between the United States and all of these other powerful countries in the world by saying, ‘we don’t go out intending to kill civilians and others do.’ Well, that’s a flagrant lie. And it’s not just a lie from the Vietnam War. It’s not just a lie that stretches back to World War II. It’s a lie that has permeated every war of American history. You know, you have Obama really playing the role of cleaning up the American reputation in the world and trying to put a kind of positive spin on American hegemony. And it was really effective, particularly with his base when he convinced them that drone strikes were somehow this grand humanitarian alternative to boots on the ground. And the fact is that the United States does intentionally kill civilians, does intentionally attack hospitals, has intentionally murdered journalists. All of the things that Putin is accused of, you can find examples of America doing it. That doesn’t mean that therefore Putin is justified. It means that we should be having a much more serious discussion about nation states and the monopoly on the use of mass scale organized violence. You can’t just debate one part of this, Russia for instance, and somehow say, ‘well, when the US does it, our intent is actually different because American exceptionalism and therefore it’s irrelevant to this discussion about Russian interference in the US election.’
Adam: Yeah, and it’s, I mean you see this a lot with the bot army debate. There’s always these new scary headlines about Twitter reveals new Russian and Iranian and Venezuelan and I ask a very sort of simple philosophical question, which I think a child would ask, which is like what are the odds that the only people that do this are the batty countries? Because we have no way of really knowing or detecting and Twitter has no incentive to find these. And it seems like if you want to have a real conversation about online propaganda, then let’s get a sense of what the scope of the problem is. And uh, not one single expert in these bots, whether it’s, you know, Michael Weiss or BuzzFeed or any of these sorts of people who panic over fake news, not a single one of them, and I’ve looked up and down, not a single one of them has ever asked any American official if the US does this. Not once, not in any interviews, not any softball discussions. Not once has anyone ever asked it, which seems like a pretty elementary question. It would seem very convenient and very odd if everyone did it but the United States, especially since we know that from a 2011 Guardian report, there was a, there was $100 million program that was involved in this. So where did that money go? But, so my bigger question is, I find this whole thing funny because people always think this is some sort of like dorm room Chomsky, like ‘America sucks too’ like, like sort of knee jerk thing. But I think what we’re trying to do, and I think what we do, and I think it’s fair to say that both your show and I think our show, we are whatabouter-mongers in a way and that because we’re trying to give some historical context to these outrages, because, you know, I think countries should be like people, you should be introspective first before you start scolding others. Which seems like a pretty standard, I think pretty obvious thing, especially when you’re the biggest, most powerful country or to extend the metaphor, the biggest, most powerful person in the playground, you should sort of think, what am I doing that this is not just some intellectual gotcha. This is like Putin hacked the DNC because in 2011 he largely saw the US State Department behind the protest there. He felt deceived by the bombing of Libya after we promised we wouldn’t do regime change and ended up doing it. So like addressing these issues of deceit and soft power to me is not necessarily, if you want to put it in purely pragmatic grounds, is about preventing future Putin attacks on the DNC. Right? Cause if you have historical grounding, you can sort of correct the behavior holistically as opposed to just acting as if one country is this sort of the uniquely sinister and evil entity in the world.
Jeremy Scahill: And also the charge of whataboutism assumes that what you’re saying is already known to the masses, particularly when you’re talking about the role of the United States in countries around the world. And that’s just not the case. At several points in my work as a journalist, I’ve had either the CIA or in some cases the State Department or the Pentagon, when I call them for comment on a story, they then leak a more favorable spin on what we’re going to report to a journalist that they consider one of their friends and then they try to preempt the story. At The Intercept this happened on the eve or actually it was like hours from when we were going to publish the government’s rule book for watch listing people, which was a classified document that we published. Obama’s national counterterrorism center director called up a reporter from the Associated Press, said we were going to be publishing these documents and got her to quickly put together a piece that was meant to cover the same territory, but to preempt the impact of our report by putting pro-government spin on it. I had a run in with this also with Barbara Starr, the CNN Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr at one point, this was back under Obama, I had been in Somalia and I was about to publish an expose in The Nation magazine revealing that the Obama administration was using a sort of backdoor to continue the practice of renditions and how the Obama administration was working with Kenya’s counter terrorism police to snatch people that the United States wanted snatched and then bring them to Somalia from Kenya and interrogate them as CIA personnel listened in on the interrogations. I had been going back and forth with the CIA. The CIA was furious at any suggestion that I might say that this is a kind of version of a black site under Obama as they existed under Bush and Cheney. The day we’re going to then publish the story, I’d been working on it for months, Barbara Starr, in the morning, does a story saying that a senior US official has told CNN about a new program in Somalia where American advisors are assisting the Somalis in the interrogation of terrorists from the Al-Shabaab terror group. The point of doing this and of calling Barbara Starr was to try to preempt it so that when our story got posted it was like, ‘oh look at what these crazy left-wingers are doing trying to say that Obama is running a black site.’ Barbara Starr willingly allowed herself to be used to try to undermine an investigation done by a non friend of the elite media outlet. At the time it was The Nation magazine and to essentially serve her Pentagon masters who constantly are feeding her with the pseudo scoops to make it look like she’s totally in the know when actually most of the time these guys are just sitting in their cubicles waiting for some official to drop something on their desk and then they’re on with Wolf Blitzer the next minute.
Nima: There’s this fascinating kind of aspect of the whatabout- concept, which are the articles that come out kind of nodding to real problems in the United States, but then hand waving them away as like the real problem is because it just undermines our nobility and kind of gives fodder to Russia. Like for example, there was a 2014 New Republic piece headlined, “Ferguson Will Make It Harder for America to Set a Good Example Abroad.”
Jeremy Scahill: Oh yeah. I mean it’s always sort of passive voice bullshit. It’s sort of like how the British write about the powerful or the royal family, you know, it’s, it’s all of this passive voice stuff, but this is why like I’m even sitting here like about to pull my hair out. It’s like if you don’t understand that the American exceptionalism story is the grand lie that fuels the elites, the Congress, the politicians, the political parties in this country, if you don’t understand that that is a big lie, everything that you say, your whole analysis is going to be based on fraud. It’s going to be based on accepting a grand lie. And so it’s very hard for you to even the score with that lie and then your attempt to defend that lie. And many of these people know damn well that it’s a lie. Particularly the people that are in the Trump administration because they openly say it, John Bolton, will say ‘this is good for oil,’ or he’ll say, ‘maybe we should stick Nicolás Maduro in Guantanamo.’ You think that fucking psychopath is joking about that? I guarantee you that they are weighing that as a possible option. So when the Boltons of the world are speaking clearer than the Rachel Maddow’s of the world about the nature of the American empire, it’s a sad day for any kind of free thought in our society.
Adam: It’s sorta like Kissinger, right? Kissinger was actually not neoconservative in the sense that he never really made a pretense about human rights. He was very sort of overt about that. So it’s a little bit, on that point, one thing I find very interesting about this concept is that it’s very subtly, I don’t want to say racist, because I don’t really think anti-Russian racism is the right term, I think it’s stereotypical and sort of a essentialist that these, this is somehow unique to the DNA-
Nima: Yeah. Cultural supremacy.
Adam: And you see this again, well, The New Yorker, it’s sorta the David Brooks form of racism. It’s like ‘black culture is bad’ and it’s like, ‘okay, you’re getting there.’ Um, there was an article in The New Yorker a few weeks ago that you used the term Russian DNA. This is used all the time. That somehow like whataboutism is something uniquely Russian and our research, earlier in the episode we showed that the term itself is actually a term that was used by the Northern Ireland Unionists against the IRA. So really what they were referencing was this idea that the Soviet Union would point out America’s racist lynching and terror regime: African American second class citizens. But this sort of is unsavory so we switched it to like whataboutism which sort of sounds better.
Jeremy Scahill: You’re making what I think is an absolutely crucial point. Remember all of the kind of insanity around Russia was promoting content on Facebook meant to highlight racial divisions in the United States. The scandal, first of all, come on, I mean that’s utter bullshit that any of that would have any impact on any even reasonably normal adult. And when you look at the scale, I mean we’re talking about peanuts compared to propaganda that we see on TV all the time, but it masks something deeper. The pathology of people who say, ‘oh, that’s whataboutism.’ The scandal is that we still live in a white supremacist country where it is open season on people of color.
Adam: Right. But you don’t want to deal with that. And it’s much easier just to sort of hand wave it away by saying it’s a Russian propaganda technique than to point that out.
Jeremy Scahill: Right and right now with Venezuela, just briefly, I want to make this point because I’ve been having this argument with people online who say, you know, when I’m talking about US sanctions on Venezuela. ‘Why are you defending Maduro?’ This isn’t about defending Maduro. We’re talking about sanctions that The Economist, The New York Times and other elitist publications have said are going to essentially be aimed at starving the people of Venezuela into submission to the US wishes. That is not running defense for Maduro. That is saying facts, first of all, but it’s also pointing out how Maduro is not going to be the victim hurt by these sanctions. It will be ordinary people. But no, that is not an acceptable fact to raise because Maduro is a dictator. You are not allowed to even say facts.
Nima: Literally. Literally the same thing happened with Iran.
Adam: Yeah. But it’s like people always try to make this distinction between the government and the people. And of course the sanctions will in the aggregate, just as they did in Iraq or any other country, they do harm the government. They do kind of soften them up for regime change. They do cut off their infrastructure.
Jeremy Scahill: No, I agree with you on government. I’m saying that like it’s not Nicolás Maduro, the human being, it is yes, the Venezuelan government, but more so it’s, we’re talking about wiping out 95 percent of the money that Venezuela used to purchase goods on the open market and Venezuela has to import massive amounts of food because of the way that the economy is structured. So this is knowingly being targeted at civilians.
Adam: Yeah. And the in the “you lynch blacks” fallacy, which is whataboutism as simply a rebranding of, I find really interesting because I don’t think anyone in the year of our lord 2019 really thinks that the Russian government gives two shits about the wellbeing of African Americans. They have no ideological interests. They’re a capitalist neoliberal country. But you know, what’s weird is it like, you know, the Soviet Union, like there was a degree of cynicism to it, but there was an logical investment in that. You know, the Communist parties in, in Alabama, were funded by, largely funded by or supported by the the USSR. They had an ideological interest in movements in the Global South. Of course there’s always a degree of cynicism to everything. But like there was at least some ideological overlap. It wasn’t purely just a way of like getting at the Americans.
Jeremy Scahill: Well if we were to apply the standard that the United States wants applied all over the world or that the kind of sky is falling, Russiagate, you know, insanity imposes on people who raise questions about facts or want to put forward a different way of looking at an issue or the history. Let’s say that the Soviet Union was somehow funneling money to black communities around the country or to communist entities around the country to try to organize in, in black communities. And then say, ‘aha! These black people are in cahoots with Stalin.’ Explain to me why it is that we are trying to overthrow the regime of Maduro, but embracing Mohammed bin Salman? How many votes did he get for King of Saudi Arabia or Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia? He got none. But, oh, we need to have a stable Saudi partner. So it’s okay to not have democracy there. It’s okay that these people aren’t democratically elected because it fits our agenda. Well, what if the fucking communists in the United States during that period or poor suffering black people, don’t give a flying fuck where the money came from and, but they say, here’s money, we’re gonna use it to organize in our communities. ‘No, no, no, no, no. You’re in the pay of Russia. Russia must be controlling you.’ It’s this is, whataboutism in a nutshell. It’s like if the point is to defend American hegemony or the lie of American exceptionalism, anything is acceptable. But if you’re running counter to that, any slipup, any error, any taking of money from a questionable source, it’s like a felony that you’ve committed. And that’s the grand double standard.
Adam: If I had a nickel for everyone on Twitter who now works for either Center for American Progress and works for any of these kind of like democratic media, people who had their start in alphabet soup organizations in like the caucuses or in Russia, you know, those are all funded by the US government. Those are all funded by the NED. Those are funded by satellite NGOs. Like the amount of people who-
Nima: But their agendas are never investigated.
Adam: And I’m like, there’s only one of us has ever worked for government and it’s not me buddy. Like I mean-
Jeremy Scahill: Yeah, but Adam, what is in Neera Tanden’s heart?
Adam: What is it-
Jeremy Scahill: I get all that, yeah, yeah, yeah they’ve taken, they’ve taken dirty money, they give money to Heritage Foundation or American Enterprise Institute-
Nima: But listen to her heart.
Jeremy Scahill: But what’s in Neera Tanden’s heart?
Nima: Listen to her heart.
Jeremy Scahill: I mean, that’s really what we should be asking.
Adam: That’s what so much of this boils down to is that it’s like the sort of, oh, you know, Ken Burns in the Vietnam doc saying that the Vietnam War was started with, with good intentions-
Nima: The best of intentions.
Adam: The best of intentions. But like that’s true of every war. What does that even mean? That’s not falsifiable. It’s not, it’s not quantified.
Jeremy Scahill: Do you know what was in Hillary Clinton’s heart when she said superpredators, Adam? Were you there? Were you at her heart? Then I don’t ever want to hear you mention it again.
Nima: Do you know what was in McNamara’s heart?
Adam: Well I know for sure he’s got no heart.
Adam: (Laughs.) That’s one exception that I can be pretty confident.
Nima: So, you know, what we’ve found with current state is always the only thing that matters and like no history ever matters, but it even goes deeper than just ignoring history, because a lot of the more recent whataboutism articles claims is, a lot of them are rooted not only in obviously throwing out words like Soviet and Stalin and USSR, like, you know, that’s where this, you know, propaganda technique was honed and perfected and only they did it-
Adam: In some lab.
Nima: (Laughs.) But also a lot of those articles then say, but at the time maybe they kind of had a point, because of Jim Crow, but then it says history ended.
Nima: And now, well that clearly makes no sense because clearly we have perfect equity in the United States and only the best of intentions. And so even when there is, on those rarest of occasions, the looking backward of, you know, well yeah, maybe it was sort of true then, but obviously Buckley didn’t agree at the time. But like now there is no semblance of giving a shit about what the United States not only has done, but literally continues to do every single day.
Jeremy Scahill: Well, I mean, it’s best embodied on a foreign policy level by looking at the multi-decade destruction of Iraq that the United States played the absolutely central role in. You know, you can go back to the ’60s in Iraq and talk about the overthrow of Abdul Karim Qasim. All of us talk about the ’53 coup in Iran and the overthrow of Mossadegh, the CIA, it took them longer, but they joined with Britain and other countries in overthrowing a nationalist government in Iraq in the ’60s that brought Saddam Hussein and the murderous Ba’ath Party to power, including the CIA giving lists of people who were suspected reds-
Adam: Oh yeah no they gave them a list of communists and killed them all.
Jeremy Scahill: Right. Exactly. And they, there was a mass killing operation. The point that I always make, and I’ve spent extensive time on the ground in Iraq, from the ’60s to the present, US policy has been consistent. It’s been consistently anti ordinary Iraqi, anti Iraqi civilian, and Saddam Hussein was at the height of his brutality when Donald Rumsfeld was going to shake his hands in 1983 and 1984. The Clinton administration conducted mass murder operations in the form of economic sanctions that Madeleine Albright said were, you know, it was worth the price of, of American policy. And then you have the invasion that created a reality that was unthinkable when Saddam Hussein was in power and that is that you would have international Islamist jihadist groups actually solidifying their hold on power around the country. At every turn the United States, whether it was with Saddam or against Saddam, has been consistent in its policy. It’s been consistently anti ordinary people in Iraq with the aim of control, not just of oil but oil pricing and also influence within OPEC. But more than anything, Iraq was meant to be a crucifix on the world. If you don’t bow down and do what we want, your nation, including it’s women, it’s children and elderly and sick, are going to be nailed to the cross so that anyone coming near the empire will see the fate of those who dare stand against the empire’s agenda.
Adam: The most elegant solution to lessen the purchase of the charge of quote unquote “whataboutism” would be to not give them ammunition, right? Russia’s not going, I mean, they’re not perfect countries by any means, but Russia is not going around whatabouting Denmark. Um, it’s not going about whatabouting Sweden? Like, like we, we, we loaded the pistol, handed it to them and they shot us with it and we’re like, ‘oh, how, you know, how did you get, where’d you get that gun?’ It’s like we are giving them everything. Like the most elegant solution would be to take the bullets out of their gun to examine oneself, but that’s just not an option. So we pathologize-
Adam: The shooting of the gun to extend, to torture the metaphor even further, we pathologize it as some evil, Slavic trait. And I’m just so fascinated by that because it’s so fucking cheap and it’s so easy and what it does, I think above all, is it does the thinking for us.
Jeremy Scahill: And also when you’re talking about the US moral positioning in the world, you know the sort of claim that we are actually the leading moral force across the globe, when you not only are doing the opposite of that by engaging in wars and sanctions and coups and interference, when you’re sanctimonious about it and the entire world knows that it’s bullshit, then when something, it’s like it’s an epic case of the boy who cried wolf. It’s like the United States is running all over the world now talking about, ‘look at Putin here, look at Putin there’ and it’s like most of the world is very well aware that the United States has no moral leg to stand on. And what it does is it actually undermines the ability of reasonable people, people of good faith in the United States, to actually effectively condemn what Putin does around the world. Because our hands are bloody as fuck, but we pretend they aren’t. Putin doesn’t pretend that he’s not a thug or a gangster. He likes the fact that that’s his reputation around the world. You know what you’re getting with that guy. He is a mass killer.
Nima: That’s what bothers people about Trump.
Jeremy Scahill: Yeah. That’s why he likes Duterte and Sisi and Putin, these are guys who know how to kill.
Adam: Well, to me, I mean, to me this is the rub, right? Like, you know, Putin will make a claim that he’s defending Russian interests. He’ll make a claim that he’s even defending Russian minorities in let’s say the Ukraine. He’ll make some sort of thin moral claim in those contexts. He’ll say that he’s protecting the national sovereignty of Syria, but he doesn’t traffic and neither does China and neither does any major power, they don’t traffic in this kind of elaborate epistemology of like Ken Roth finger wagging. That is, I think we would all sort of agree it’s more or less bullshit. In theory it’s perfectly good, but it’s really just to sort of, it’s marketing. It’s marketing for American empire because American empire is so huge it sort of needs an extra oomph of rationalization of why we’re in every goddamn corner. Right? You know, Putin can rationalize being in Ukraine because it’s a border country, you know, United States, you know, why the fuck are we in 50 of the 54 countries in Africa? There’s no, there’s no, you have to have a sort of broader moral framework. And I think that most people view it as being pretty goddamn phony in a, to me it seems like the way to approach that would be to say, well, why don’t we try to live up to those standards as bullshit as they are, rather than sort of saying, ‘well, that’s not gonna happen, but we still sort of need to maintain the pretense so whataboutism.’ I dunno.
Jeremy Scahill: Right. And let’s be honest here, the only way that the United States could ever restore any faith on questions like that would be to entirely abolish the US government as it exists. If you have huge corporations that effectively are purchasing almost every single member of Congress, not all of them, but almost every single member of Congress, nothing is going to fundamentally change in this country until we get those huge corporations out of politics. So I mean, we could talk until we’re blue in the face about how we’re going to have the next transformative Democrat or even Bernie Sanders. Bernie Sanders is not going to fundamentally change the nature of the American empire. On a domestic level Sanders’ presidency would probably bring some real change, and I think that Sanders would approach world affairs in a different way, but he is still, even though he says he’s a socialist, even though he is technically an independent, Bernie Sanders still engages in the politics of the American empire. Now he’s on the fringes of it in terms of the mainstream, but he’s still is an empire politician. He would not say ‘let’s abolish the CIA,’ is not going to say, ‘let’s withdraw the military from the world.’ He’s not going to do any of the things that would actually show some good faith to the rest of the world that, hey, we’re not going to be the hypocritical mass murderer on the block anymore. It’s not going to happen from anyone that this system produces.
Adam: You heard it here first. Jeremy Scahill is a, um, a Maoist third worldist who wants to destroy America.
Jeremy Scahill: In case people on Twitter don’t say this, I just want to say that this whole show, it’s whataboutism.
Nima: That’s really what it comes down to.
Adam: Really we’re just like, what about Intercepted? You should go watch that show instead.
Jeremy Scahill: Shirazi. What kind of name is that? That sounds, you know, and YO-ons-son.
Adam: Yeah. My name could not get any WASPier if I tried.
Nima: So, so Jeremy, we hear that you have a podcast of your own. We would like to give you some time to talk about the work that you’re doing in case our listeners have never heard of you.
Jeremy Scahill: No, I’m going to punish myself because I misstated when Adam was on my show-
Adam: That’s true.
Jeremy Scahill: I did misstate the name of the podcast. Now remind me here, this is the Citation podcast I’m on?
Adam: I was so devastated.
Nima: Dial tone.
Jeremy Scahill: The show that we do is called Intercepted and it’s a weekly show comes out, uh, on Wednesday mornings it’s posted at 6:00 am eastern time. And you know, to put it in a nutshell, I think what we try to do is take events that are happening right now and add historical context or whataboutism, uh, to understanding events as they’re unfolding. And we try to take a step back from the tick tock of the horse race bullshit on cable news and actually dig deep into the historical context of issues that are being debated often by people who actually have no clue of the history that preceded the events that they’re quote unquote “experts” brought on television to discuss.
Adam: Well, uh, I know we enjoy the show, so I thank you so much for coming on. This was excellent.
Jeremy Scahill: Likewise. I’ll come on the Citation YouTube cast anytime.
Nima: (Laughs.) Well, Jeremy Scahill, co-founder of The Intercept, host of Intercepted, author, filmmaker. Thank you so much for joining us today on Citationsss Needed. It’s been great to talk to you.
Jeremy Scahill: Okay, I’m going to go back to writing Glenn Greenwald’s next blog post. I’ll see you guys later.
Nima: (Chuckles.) Bye.
Adam: That was great. Um, I think we were a little bit defensive because we’re, we’re, whataboutism.
Nima: That’s what we do on the show.
Adam: Whataboutists. It’s our cult we’re starting, there’s a newsletter kind of forthcoming.
Nima: It’s true.
Adam: But it’s like, yeah, it’s just, you see it. It’s, it’s like, it’s just this sort of string. You pull the string and you go whataboutism and every person who does it thinks they like just discovered this devious Russian technique.
Nima: That’s right. They’re whataboutniks.
Adam: They’re whataboutniks and they’re like, ‘guys, have you heard of this thing called whataboutism?’
Nima: When you bring something up that’s relevant to the conversation but doesn’t comport with exactly the point that the other person is making.
Adam: It’s funny with all these Russian techniques that they do-
Nima: That’s Brezhnev.
Adam: That they’ll do. That they’ll be like, oh, this isn’t lying it’s this. Or it’s not blackmail it’s compromised. It’s like, they know that to say that it’s, you know, Trump’s just lying or he’s just a shithead or he’s just being blackmailed or he’s, you know, he’s just sort of changing the subject by moving onto something else. They can’t just say that. So they have to invent a Russian term or Russian concept for it because they know that if they don’t do that, it’s not significant.
Adam: When people are like, ‘oh, this is whataboutism’ and I’m like, oh yeah. It’s like what a, it’s like pointing out some inconsistency and maybe done in bad faith, which, you know what I mean?
Nima: And they’re like, ‘Exactly! Putin!’
Adam: And it’s like, ‘whataboutism!’ And I’m like, this isn’t Russian. You just need it to be Russian because if it’s not Russian, you don’t have a job. Like your job is to make things look sinister and Russian because you’re like the Russia expert and it’s like a cottage industry of people, they don’t have PhDs, but like their job is to like be Russia watchers and Russia tea leaf readers. And sometimes there’s varying degrees of liberal and hawkish, but basically their job is to make things look distinctly Russian. If it’s not significant than it’s just banal and if it’s banal it’s just not interesting.
Nima: And it also needs to be super sinister, which is what-
Adam: Sure. It has to be uniquely nihilistic.
Nima: Claiming Russia influence or a Russia technique, you know has this kind of The Americans or pick your Cold War trope, right? If it’s Soviet and now Russian cause those are seen as somehow the exact same thing, you know, that it is now in line with what quote “these people” do and so therefore Americans are absolved of doing that thing too because it comes straight out of Moscow. So with that we will end this episode on whataboutery or whataboutism or whataboutitude. Thank you everyone for listening to Citations Needed. You can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed and please do support the show if you do not already and you like what we do, you can do that through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast. That’s Citations — with an “S” — Needed Podcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. And an extra special shout out goes to our Critic-level supporters through Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Production consultant is Josh Kross. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks everyone for listening. We’ll catch you next time.
This episode of Citations Needed was released on Wednesday, February 20, 2019.
Transcription by Morgan McAslan.